Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports

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What I’m Watching at the Emirates Cup

Now back from a memorable five day trip to Scotland, I’m getting fully pumped up for the Arsenal season to start. Tomorrow will be the first of three straight weekends I’ll see the Gunners play before I head back to the states. While the Emirates Cup may only be a preseason match, that hasn’t tempered my excitement for my second ever trip to the Emirates. Getting to see Wolfsburg take on Villareal beforehand is a welcomed bonus for what should be a fun day. (Can we also note how weird the marketing for the event is this year? Those robot eyes are downright creepy.)

There’s been relatively little in the last few days about the squad for the tournament, so anything about who the team will be is merely guesswork at this point. The starting XI I’d like to see would be Cech, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Wilshere, Ramsey, Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott, but I suspect it’ll be a mixture of presumed starters and squad players. But given that this isn’t my only chance to see the team this summer, I’ll be happy with whoever is out there.

The depth across the board right now is truly ridiculous, as Arsene Wenger could field two legitimate XIs without having to dip into the academy. We could just as easily see Ospina, Debuchy, Gabriel, Chambers, Gibbs, Arteta, Flamini, Welbeck, Cazorla, Rosicky and Giroud. And that’s before factoring in the likes of Serge Gnabry, Gedion Zelalem and Chuba Akpom, who probably will feature in some role this weekend. I haven’t even mentioned Alexis Sanchez, who will be returning from his post-Copa America holiday at the start of August. That depth is a large reason why I’m so optimistic about the season right now.

While Manchester United and Liverpool have been throwing around the cash, Arsenal has quietly built a very strong squad around their marquee signings of the last few years. Liverpool and United both still have obvious holes in defense, but the Gunners squad has none. Even at forward and in the defensive midfield role, Arsenal have two or three legitimate options. I’m not saying Wenger couldn’t add an even better player in the coming month, but any other business in the transfer window would augment an already strong squad. Even Chelsea is looking a little thin in midfield right now.

As far as this weekend, it’ll be a vital last bit of a rushed preseason before the FA Community Shield next weekend, which while many call it a glorified friendly, I doubt Wenger will want to lose to Jose Mourinho again. He will have his team ready. So this weekend then offers the final chances to many to impress. The name being thrown around the media this week as needing a strong Emirates Cup is Chuba Akpom. While I agree, I don’t think he will start a game given how close we are to meaningful games. If he isn’t loaned out, he will be required consistently to make immediate impact off the bench if he wants to contribute. So perhaps bringing him on late would be better preparation. I just don’t see a scenario in which he is starting Premier League games this campaign.

For me, the player with the most to prove is Mathieu Debuchy. With Debuchy being Wally Pipp’d last year by Hector Bellerin, he never got a chance to show his worth. Everybody seems to want Bellerin back in the side straightaway given how much promise he showed, but I wouldn’t bet against the French international Debuchy. If he shows he’s the same player he was at Newcastle in the early going, the right-back spot might be his to lose. I think we’ll see a lot of rotation between the two of them this season, but it will ultimately come down to form. Making a good impression in the final preseason games wouldn’t hurt.

I’m also quite interested in how Wenger sets up the midfield. Will he push Jack Wilshere wide again? Will he pair him with Aaron Ramsey in the middle? Where will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott start? These are all crucial questions in the buildup to the season. Remember that last year Wenger deployed Tomas Rosicky as a false-9 in the first preseason games, so I’m not convinced he’ll stick with Wilshere out wide. However, one of he or Ramsey needs to play wide if they hope to start, because I don’t see Santi Cazorla being dropped next to Francis Coquelin. And up front, I’d stick with the Ox out wide and give Walcott another few chances through the middle. Altogether, we’ll learn a lot about Wenger’s thinking this weekend.

On another note, I’m thinking about getting a new jersey tomorrow to mark seeing Arsenal play a few times in person. I’m not especially in love with either the home or away though, so I’m going to wait to see them in person to make that choice. The next choice of which player to get though is even tougher. With Walcott’s contract status up in the air and Alexis likely sitting the three games I’m attending, I am now picking between Coquelin, Ramsey, Bellerin, and the Ox. I was given an Özil shirt from last year, so he’s out of the equation for this one. I’d go with Coquelin, but I’m afraid he won’t stick with the number 34 for long. I used to say Ramsey was my favorite player but I’m not so sure anymore. He’d be the safe choice. However, I might still be leaning Coquelin’s way. I might have to flip a coin between those two. If you have any advice, put it in the comments.

Anyway, this is a great time to be in England. Away from the miserable Red Sox and still able to follow all the NBA drama, I’m in the heart of soccer country as the season gets going. And by the time I get back it’ll be nearly football season. I get more excited about Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks every day. It’s always this time every year where I start watching Youtube videos of great Razorback games and listening to the networks’ college football theme songs. For the record, I think putting the offensive line on the media guide is extremely cool.

I can’t believe the news about the three Arkansas basketball arrested for forgery. Beyond being stunned by the impact to the program, I’m astounded by the stupidity of their actions. The evidence sounds pretty convincing to me, so I suspect they won’t play for the Hogs again and will spend the next few years in prison. What a shame.

Lastly, to end on a happier note, I want to congratulate former Davidson basketball star Tyler Kalinoski on signing with Elan Chalon in France. I can’t say I know much about that team, but they’ve got themselves a real winner and a heck of a basketball player.

I hope to write again this weekend about my day at the Emirates Cup tomorrow. Thanks for reading.


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The State of My Stateside Teams

I want to do today’s post a little differently. Instead of choosing one topic, I’m going to give each of my teams in the United States a paragraph. S0 here goes.

The Red Sox are a mess right now. It feels like I’m re-watching 2014, because like last year, every single time there’s the smallest bit of momentum, they drop the next two and three of the next four. I still think it’s worth holding course and seeing if David Ortiz and Pablo Sandoval can break their season-long slumps, but I’m getting less optimistic with every successive setback. However, it is encouraging to see a few of the players turn things around, notably Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly. If a couple more players can figure it out, maybe there is a run in this team. But no matter how bad it gets, as long as we have Eduardo Rodriguez going every five days, there will be something to look forward to. He is the real deal.

The Celtics are about to enter a really interesting part of the offseason. With large amounts of cap space for the first time in years, this summer will be a test of whether big free agents will be attracted to playing for Brad Stevens. My gut tells me no, but wouldn’t it be nice if LaMarcus Aldridge came for a visit? Regardless, a priority has to be re-signing Jae Crowder. I also want Danny Ainge to work as hard as he can to move up a few spots in the draft to get Willie Cauley-Stein. He could make a serious impact on the team defense, and is miles better than somebody like Kevin Looney, who is being looked at for #16. I’m opposed to giving up the Nets picks, but I think Cauley-Stein’s value above who we’d draft at #16 is worth surrendering an extra first round pick.

The Patriots continue to make news in all the wrong ways. Whether it’s appeal talk, Brandon Spikes’s hit and run or Malcolm Butler getting benched, it’s so negative that following the team this offseason has become unappealing. I think this could be an ugly year on the field too. It can’t be overstated that where all three AFC East teams improved, the Pats lost almost everything at running back and in the secondary. I’m legitimately worried about making the playoffs. This could be an bad year. It’s a really good thing the pressure is relatively off for a year after the Super Bowl win.

Arkansas baseball has been an inspiration. Zach Jackson’s three and two thirds inning save to close out the Super Regional was one of the most gutsy performances I’ve seen on a baseball field. These guys fight and these guys win. Getting to Omaha is the highest achievement this team could have imagined. Any success in the College World Series will just be icing on the cake. With the dire lack of arms in the bullpen due to James Teague and Dominic Taccolini’s injuries, making a run there will be extraordinarily difficult. But this is a truly special group – I wouldn’t bet against them. Nothing made me happier than the Red Sox drafting Andrew Benintendi in the first round and then Tyler Spoon in the 30th. I can’t wait to see Benintendi roaming the Fenway grass. But in the meantime, it’s time for the #OmaHogs to beat Virginia. Woo Pig Sooie.

After a successful year on the hardcourt, Arkansas basketball is looking at a rebuilding year. When Anthlon Bell is the leading returning scorer, that’s not a good sign. But for the next month, the focus of Hog basketball is on watching Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls in the NBA Draft. Portis is getting rave reviews across the league as one of the most NBA-ready players. And Qualls has managed to disappear from draft boards despite posting the lowest body fat percentage of anyone. I really wish Qualls had come back for his senior year, but alas, he made the same mistake B.J. Young did and gambled despite not being assured of being drafted. However, I think Qualls could be a success in the NBA, even if he isn’t drafted. I certainly want the Celtics to take a flier on him in the second round. He’s such a talented athlete that I think he has serious potential defensively with a year of good coaching. I think Portis will be solid, and could have himself a nice career, but his ceiling is low. With so many power forwards on the Celtics, he’d have a hard time getting going in Boston, and thus hope he gets drafted somewhere else.

Arkansas football is riding a ridiculous high right now. Suddenly Arkansas is mentioned as a national title threat. And despite a murderous schedule once again, I don’t disagree. For the Arkansas offense has the potential to be incredible. Two 1,000 yard rushers are returning behind the best offensive line in the country, which in Denver Kirland, John Skipper and Sebastian Tretola boasts three potential all-americans. Sure there are questions at receiver, but I liked what I saw from Keon Hatcher last year and as much flak as I give Brandon Allen, he now has two full years of experience. Plus, the new offensive coordinator Dan Enos is a coach who has had success with QB’s. The defense took three big losses through the middle, but largely remains the same group that held LSU, Ole Miss and Texas to a combined seven points. I realize I need to temper my expectations before the season starts, but the excitement is too real. September 5th can’t come soon enough.

The Davidson basketball non-conference schedule is slowly coming out and I’m liking what I’m seeing. Games at UNC and at Madison Square Garden vs. Pitt give Davidson big-time exposure and a real chance to earn RPI-boosting wins. But more importantly, it seems like the schedule will be a little stronger on the back-end too, which was almost an issue last year. It’s good to pile up wins, but the strength of schedule numbers needed to be higher. I’ve seen early predictors say this team won’t be the same without Tyler Kalinoski, but he’s just one player, albeit a really good one. Between Jack Gibbs, Brian Sullivan and Jordan Barham, there are many hands capable of filling his production. And with Jake Belford returning from injury and some size coming in with the recruiting class, I’m not convinced there will be even the slightest bit of drop-off from last year.

The last team I want to mention is the U.S. Men’s National team in soccer, who beat both Netherlands and the world champion Germans this week on European soil. I’ve heard many people say the wins don’t matter because they are friendlies without many of the sides’ top players, but that should not take anything away from the achievement. Taking many players without experience, the U.S. topped two of the best teams in the world. That’s a fact. And it can be a springboard for Jürgen Klinsmann and the program. You can’t tell me players like Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes aren’t better off in the career having this burst of confidence. This was a week to treasure for U.S. soccer fans.




The Red Sox Could Do With Watching Some College Baseball

I was supposed to be going to tonight’s Red Sox-Twins game but it’s been rained out and rescheduled for Wednesday, which is just as well for the scuffling Sox who surely can use an extra day to figure things out after yesterday’s walkoff loss to the Rangers. Especially with the way the Twins are playing, this is a dangerous four game series. Should the Red Sox get swept, somebody might lose their job.

Blaming personnel is the easy way out. I want to blame Rusney Castillo for grounding into a double-play every time up. I want to throw the phone at Pablo Sandoval after every error. Yet this is a problem that’s well beyond the individual. And it’s all a bit perplexing at this point. When you could blame everyone, what can be done?

Across the board, the Red Sox have just been playing bad baseball. This  team is really making everybody appreciate what must go into a win. There must be decent pitching, decent, and especially timely, hitting, and solid defense. Add in that the manager must make the correct decisions and suddenly it feels like a lot that must go right. And that’s the issue for this team. They’ve somehow made the basics of baseball seem complicated.

I’m all for closed-door meetings to try and make players play harder and more aggressively. I agree that it would be nice if Hanley Ramirez appeared to run after a ball from time to time. But none of that matters if the infielders are botching ground balls. None of that matters if nobody can get the runner from second to third with a ground-ball to the right side.

I heard a radio host complaining about the Red Sox playing selfish baseball about two weeks ago. That everybody is trying too hard to hit the three-run home run instead of doing the little things to help move runners along. While I think saying it’s ‘selfish’ is overly dramatic and prefer the term ‘hero ball,’ I think it’s an appropriate observation.

Recent Red Sox wins have been rare. But they’ve had a theme. Generally, somebody’s had an individually great game; Eduardo Rodriguez’s gem the other night is an example, or some of the Mike Napoli-led wins against the Angels. Somebody’s been the hero. And that’s a good thing. But sometimes that’s not enough. Dustin Pedroia can have a two home run game and it doesn’t matter because nobody else does their job. Far too often, somebody is described as trying to single-handedly bring this team back. Those players are admirable. But that should not be necessary. Gone are the wins when many players chip in. Gone are the team wins.

I’ve watched a lot of college baseball in the last week, particularly my Razorbacks. They’re firing on nearly all fronts and cruised through a difficult Regional on their way to a Super Regional with Missouri State later this week. But the Hogs are not an especially talented team. They were under .500 well into March. What they do however is refreshingly unlike the 2015 Red Sox. They manage to manufacture runs with smart baseball, hustle plays and timely hits. And they pick each other up when somebody makes a mistake. Even when superstar Andrew Benintendi – a potential Red Sox selection at #7 in next week’s draft – doesn’t hit for a game or two, his teammates find ways to score with collections of singles, steals and sacrifices.

College baseball is definitely a team sport. The superstar can certainly help a team win games, but the rest of the roster decides the vast majority of games, either in a good way or bad way, especially in the postseason when bullpens are thinned. They must be a team to win. And you can see that even in ways that the players celebrate a run, with everybody out of the dugout to greet teammates. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the Red Sox congregate at the front of the dugout when one of their players moves a runner over?

The Red Sox could do with tuning their TV to some good college baseball tonight. They need to forget their averages, forget the low home run totals and high earned run averages and play the game like the college kids many of them once were. I’m not saying they need to press – they’ve done a lot of late lately – but they need to see what the way the college kids play the game. They need to start playing more like a team and less like a band of individuals. If they don’t start doing that, some individuals might find themselves somewhere else sooner than later.



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Covering My Bases

It has been far too long since I last wrote about sports. School has been getting increasingly busy and extracurricular activities are piling up such that I rarely have the hours necessary to sit down and watch a game – much less write about it. But I wanted to take this brief window I have before Halloween festivities to touch on a bunch of sports topics.

I’ll start with the Red Sox. I definitely wanted the Sox to bring Koji Uehara back as opposed to gambling on a young pitcher or an Edward Mujica-type, but when I saw the 2-year/$18 million contract he signed, my immediate reaction was that is a lot to invest on a forty-year-old pitcher who broke down at the end of this year. Based on market value, and the pitching talent teams would get for that sort of deal, it would seem to be a good contract for the Red Sox. But I’m just not sure how effective he’s going to be in 2016. The two year deal will force John Farrell to look long-term next year with Uehara, and I would not be at all surprised if he tries to limit how often Uehara goes two days in a row. This deal was made with an eye towards immediate contention though, which I’m happy about.

Everybody wants Andrew Miller and Jon Lester back, myself included. But the prices for those two pitchers will be absurd. If the Red Sox splurge on the two of them, there won’t be a ton left to spend. And if they are back, then you are left with a 2015 Red Sox team that looks very similar to the 2014 team. I don’t think the brass will want that. So realistically, I don’t see either coming back. My guess is there will be one minor free agent signing in the rotation and the rest of the changes will come through trades.

To the Celtics. I was able to watch most of Wednesday’s opener and I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that game very well might be the best the Celtics will play all year. Beyond Rajon Rondo being back to his assist-happy ways, and an improved Kelly Olynyk, my favorite part about this team is the bench. Too often, recent Celtics teams have lacked second-units that look to score. Marcus Thornton and Evan Turner sure take care of that problem. Add in Marcus Smart’s defense and that second-unit may start to dominate the second quarter. I still think this team will be bad. But they will be able to win games against teams that aren’t 100% focused that night. Teams won’t like playing in Boston this year.

More than anything though, I’m just happy basketball season is upon us. Davidson basketball starts up too in a couple weeks, which I’m pumped for. It’ll be an interesting year for the ‘Cats. There is more talent on our squad than pundits and coaches are giving us credit for – I know the A-10 is good, but there is no way a Bob McKillop coached team finishes 12th out of 14 in the conference. We’re going to have a fantastic backcourt, with Brian Sullivan, Jack Gibbs and Tyler Kalinoski returning to form one of the best guard trios in the conference. And Jake Belford’s 3-point ability will stretch defenses enough to open the drive up. However, the lack of experience and size at the 4 is frankly alarming. I’ve been hearing good things about the freshmen, but they can’t be expected to come in and find their footing right away.

Regardless of how successful we’ll be, I am really excited for the move to the A-10. It’s a necessary step up for a program that had found sustained success in the SoCon. From a fan’s perspective, I’m looking forward to having quality team come to Belk Arena and hopefully the students section can get fired up for some games this year. And as we’re going to rely heavily on the 3-ball, there might be a few upsets over the course of the year. I’ll be posting anything I write about the team on here, so there will be some Davidson basketball coverage on here for sure.

Now to Arkansas. I’m feeling a lot more confident about the Mississippi State game tomorrow than I should be. The pressure is off Arkansas this weekend. The monkey that’s been on our backs all year will feel lighter on the road against the nation’s top team. The Hogs know they can play with anyone, and with all the pressure on State, I’m hopeful Arkansas comes out firing tomorrow. It’s very much a trap game for the Bulldogs and Arkansas should be able to take advantage of that. With Brooks Ellis coming back, I think the defense is up to the challenge of stopping Dak Prescott. Give Jonathan Williams the ball and let the offensive line do the rest. At this point in the season, the Hogs have nothing to lose in this game. It’s time for some Razorback magic.

Lastly, to Arsenal. In theory, tomorrow’s game against Burnley at The Emirates should be a walk in the park. This is the type of fixture that Arsene Wenger should be able to win even with significant squad rotation. He should rest his injury-depleted squad for the midweek Champions League tie. And Arsenal should still be able to win 3-0. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that Wenger will not rotate the squad at all, Arsenal will labor for much of the match against the parked bus that is Burnley, and the match will be decided by a single goal.

I would like to see Joel Campbell get a start ahead of Santi Cazorla. Cazorla hasn’t looked right recently, and Campbell deserves a real chance. He has looked lively in short bursts so it’s time to see if he can provide the energy needed to break down Burnley. I also think Danny Welbeck could use a break, so maybe Campbell could even be given a chance up top. I wouldn’t be opposed to Yaya Sanogo either. But most importantly, Nacho Monreal should not be playing center back, whether Kieran Gibbs is fit or not. Slide Calum Chambers into the middle and let Hector Bellerin loose, especially in a game like this.

Hopefully, Arsenal will be far enough ahead that Theo Walcott will be able to make a substitute cameo in the second half. His return is vital to Arsenal’s success in the next two months. Before reinforcements are brought in during the January transfer window and before Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud get healthy, Arsenal need to find their form. The Premier League can’t be won in the first half of the year – yes, Chelsea is still beatable – but it can be lost. The way the Gunners are playing, I don’t think they’ll make it to January within 15 points of Chelsea unless Walcott gets going quickly.

My predictions for tomorrow are a 3-1 win for the Gunners and a 27-26 loss for Arkansas.

What are you excited for this weekend? Basketball? Football? Soccer? Please comment below.

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Almost There Is Not Good Enough

I am a firm believer in what Bret Bielema is doing at Arkansas. There is no denying that today’s 14-13 loss to Alabama marks a dramatic improvement from the 52-0 thrashings Alabama has doled out each of the last two years. But despite the improvement, Arkansas is still a long way away from an SEC win. The conference schedule the rest of the way includes both Mississippi teams – we all know how good they are – a Georgia team that won 34-0 on the road today,  the always tough LSU and a trip to Missouri. All of those will be similarly challenging.

There were certainly a lot of positives against Alabama today, mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Arkansas held Alabama to only 66 rushing yards, only 2.1 per carry. To this point, Arkansas’s defense has been shaky at best. But today, they shut down one of the very best receivers in the country – Amari Cooper was held to 2 catches for 22 yards and a carry for -6 yards – and made a vaunted Alabama offense look incredibly pedestrian. Trey Flowers and Darius Philon dominated up front and caused Blake Sims to appear lost and disoriented all game. Any defense that can make Alabama look well below average has done a spectacular job.

Aside from not catching two sure-interceptions, the secondary also had an outstanding game. I don’t think I’ve said that about an Arkansas secondary in years. They shut down Cooper, and didn’t allow anything over the top. Not one corner got burned one-on-one today. And they also played the run as well as I’ve seen them play. As soon as an Alabama running back got to the edge, there were always four or five Arkansas players swarming to the ball.

The other positive for me was the play of A.J. Derby. His transformation into a legitimate SEC tight end has thoroughly amazed me. Just a year ago, he was one of the worst backup quarterbacks I’ve seen. When he took over against Rutgers, he looked slow, unathletic and he lacked poise under center. But as he’s done all year, he proved today with a long touchdown catch that he is among the best athletes on the Razorback team. The stiff-arm and burst up the sideline was almost McFadden-esque. Who would have thought the player with the best hands on the team would have been Derby?

But despite those positives, this was an extremely disheartening loss. I got a few texts saying I should be proud of how close we’ve played all the good teams. But news flash. In the SEC West, everyone is good. You need to win games – not be close. And for the second game in a row, Arkansas found ways to lose the game when they on the whole outplayed their high-profile opponent. Against A&M it was penalties, today it was turnovers and the inability to capitalize on turnover opportunities on the other side of the ball.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Brandon Allen will not win a football game for you. He’s a much better quarterback than he was a year ago, and he’s an absolute fighter – I point to the 14 yard scramble he had on 3rd and 15. But he’s not somebody that can lead you 86 yards downfield when everybody knows he has to pass the ball. He needs to learn when to get rid of the ball so he doesn’t take so many hits. And he needs to be more accurate with his passes – too many passes today were thrown either a foot high or a foot low. His game-sealing interception came from a throw everyone knows never to make.

So with that in mind, I question the decision of the Arkansas coaching staff to abandon the run in the fourth quarter. I know they hadn’t been successful, but when you pound the ball all game, you should have an easier time running against tired defenders in the fourth quarter. Yet for the second straight game, Arkansas has abandoned the run game late. Why? Allen has consistently proved he can’t lead the team to a win in the fourth quarter.

Also, I would like to personally challenge Alex Collins to be better. He is one of the best backs in the league. But he hardly was involved today because of a fumble and general ineffectiveness. If he considers himself to be a Heisman-quality running back, he needs to step up in big games. Not hide. At Arkansas, it doesn’t matter if you can run for hundreds of yards against Texas Tech. It matters that you can pick up yards against the Alabamas and LSUs of the world. Collins must prove he can do that.

So here we are again. Arkansas is now looking at a 4-12 season if they can’t close games. Frankly, I don’t know how Arkansas will respond against a Georgia team riding a high next week. Hopefully, an appearance in Little Rock can inspire the Hogs, but I’m not sure. Today’s crowd was pretty awesome. Nothing is going to come easy this year. To win with this schedule, Arkansas needs to play an almost perfect game. But they can do that. I will not accept the notion that they can’t succeed. Being in the SEC West is not an excuse. Watch this team play and it’s clear they are among the best teams in the country. But they will not succeed unless they start treating the fourth quarter like the first. They have to believe.