Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports

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Rusney Castillo, My U.S. Open Prediction and Some EPL Thoughts

With classes beginning tomorrow morning, I thought I’d get a post up tonight before I’m swamped with back to school meetings and work. This post will be a collection of some sports related thoughts from the last few days.

I’ll start with the Red Sox’s signing of Cuban defector Rusney Castillo over the weekend to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal. Having never seen him play, my gut reaction to the deal is that it seems like an awful lot of money for a player who has yet to prove himself at this level. I know most of the recent Cuban arrivals have worked out, but there is no guarantee that Castillo will do the same. This signing also doesn’t fit the mold of a team that has declared itself a frugal spender on the free agent market. Should he struggle, I expect to hear a lot of  people asking why this money couldn’t have been added on to an extension for Jon Lester earlier this summer.

The new center fielder is described as having a plus bat, but with middling levels of power. He’s a slightly above average defender but he certainly won’t be Jackie Bradley Jr. out there. (For the record, watching Bradley play center field has probably been my favorite part of this season.) And Castillo’s not a speed demon either. All in all, he sounds like a good player, but not a superstar. Yet comparisons are made to Yasiel Puig, and Yoenis Cespedes himself said Castillo is a better player than he. Based on the scouting reports I’ve read, something has to give.

But don’t get me wrong. I do like the deal, as I think it puts the Red Sox in a position of power this offseason, with an abundance of talented players they can use as trade bait in potential deals for the Giancarlo Stanton or Cole Hamels types. The outfield now includes Castillo, Cespedes and Allen Craig, three talented hitters, plus Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts. All of these players carry value. My guess at this point is that Craig, Nava and Bradley Jr. won’t be around next year, but it could easily be Cespedes and Victorino making way.

This signing is yet another statement from the Red Sox management that they will make all the effort they can to put a World Series contending team on the field next year. Worst to first to worst to first might be within reach. Adding frontline pitching remains a must, but the offense looks like it will be much improved. It’s not often a team struggling as badly as the Red Sox can have such reason for optimism. I hope we get our first taste of Castillo in Boston soon.

Switching to tennis, the U.S. Open starts tomorrow. I say this about a lot of things, but the event is truly one of my favorites. It will be tough for me to watch a lot of the action in the early going, but I will tune in when I can. Night tennis in Arthur Ashe Stadium is spectacular. And the music on the ESPN U.S. Open commercials gets me every time. It must be love.

I’ll have more to say in the next two weeks about the tennis itself, potentially picking the results of the later matches, but today I’m just going to offer my prediction for the winners. On the women’s side, I like Simona Halep to win it all. She has been climbing the ladder to stardom recently, and I think she will find it in New York.

On the men’s side, I think Roger Federer will finally get another Grand Slam title. Playing in front of the sport’s biggest crowds that will be on his side at all times, Federer will ride the wave of support all the way to title. He will look young again. As long as I’ve followed tennis, it feels like veteran, big name players have performed better in the U.S. Open than in any other major. There might be early upsets, but the stars are always there in the end. Federer has been playing well recently, and he won’t have to play Novak Djokovic until the final in this tournament. Without Rafael Nadal in his way this time, I think we’ll see Roger lifting the trophy in a fortnight.

And now to the EPL. This morning, I tuned in to the Sunderland-Manchester United match to check up on the relegation battle. To me, there was no question that Sunderland looked the better side today. United were sloppy and had no spark to their play. Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney were largely invisible up front, and defensively, the storied side were a joke. I don’t understand why the supposed tactical genius that is van Gaal is forcing the 3-5-2 on his team. They are simply not built for it, as they neither possess any true wing backs at the moment nor any talent at center back. If the defense is so bad they need a back five against Sunderland, how many will they need back against the likes of Chelsea?

Watching United drop points has become as regular as my trips to the grocery store. It’s getting increasingly funny. The seemingly imminent arrival of Angel di Maria adds a fantastic player to their squad, but it doesn’t address any of their problems right now. Van Gaal’s system also will see di Maria moved away from areas of the pitch in which he is most comfortable – assuming van Persie and Rooney remain up top with Juan Mata in the hole behind them. United will have spent an astounding amount of money this summer without addressing any of their biggest needs.

Tomorrow’s Liverpool-Manchester City match should be a fascinating one. Neither team was particularly impressive in their wins last weekend, and each will be looking to lay their claim as the league’s best side. With Mario Balotelli joining up with Liverpool, Daniel Sturridge has a point to prove. He and Balotelli would make an odd pairing up front, one I don’t expect to succeed long term. Sturridge has been on fire in the last year and should have the starting spot locked down going forward should Liverpool elect to play with a lone striker. But he’ll need to do a lot today to quiet all of the Balotelli fans out there. My prediction for this match is a 2-2 draw.

And lastly, the more I thought about the Arsenal game yesterday, the more satisfied I became with the result. We are incredibly lucky to be at four points after these first two Premier League matches. Things could easily be a lot worse. It was always going to be a tough stretch with players coming back late due to the World Cup. But as long as they get through Wednesday’s vital Champions League match, the team should come out of it fine. Arsene Wenger could be breathing a large sigh of relief soon.



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A Look at the Other Top EPL Clubs’ Summers

With the new look Red Sox on an off day, I tuned in to watch the Manchester United-Liverpool game in the International Champions Cup Final last night. It gave me a nice opportunity to catch up on those two teams’ progress this summer. So I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss the summers of Arsenal’s Premier League rivals, analyzing the impact of the arrivals and departures at the other major clubs.

But before I get to that, I want to say something about the International Champions Cup. The name would suggest something other than a meaningless preseason tournament, but that’s what the highly publicized competition is. In general, I think it’s better for clubs to play against other European teams rather than MLS teams in the middle of their season. And I understand wanting to bring the game to the U.S. if the matches will attract large crowds and much media attention. So the idea is a good one. But I think it’s silly that Fox, ESPN and NBC have spent so much energy billing this tournament as a big deal. It’s not. Preseason is about finding form and building fitness, and nothing more. There should be no fireworks before the match, no great buildup and last night’s match certainly should not be referred to as a “Final.”

On that note, Fox’s soccer coverage continues to be horrendous. With the network taking over from ESPN in the next World Cup cycle, it’s worrying that the studio hosts continue to mispronounce names like Steven Gerrard. There is no such thing as Americanizing names. If refusing to learn simple pronunciations is their way of trying to get Americans interested, I want no part of it. If Fox doesn’t get their act together before 2018, a lot of people like me might be switching to brushing up on Spanish before the next World Cup.

I’ll start my analysis with the champions, Manchester City. It’s been a relatively quiet summer for Manuel Pellegrini’s side, as they have focused on adding a bit of depth to the squad rather than adding star power. Whether it was the impact of Financial Fair Play or not, City have been a lot more careful with their spending, taking advantage of free transfers (Bacary Sagna came free) and loans (Frank Lampard joins before his time with New York City FC). However, despite the lack of excessive spending, City will be pleased with their summer because of who stayed. Keeping Yaya Toure in town was vital. Fernando looks to be a decent signing in the midfield, but for the most part, expect a similar City side to last year. And they will be equally devastating even without any high profile additions.

Next comes Liverpool, whose summer has seen a lot of quality signings but far more significantly, the departure of Luis Suarez. John Henry’s club has improved their depth tremendously with new summer arrivals, but while all of their signings have talent, none will come close to matching the production of Suarez. Adam Lallana is the best signing of the bunch, but he can’t win matches on his own like the Uruguayan could. I think the money spent on Rickie Lambert was a waste, as I feel he’ll struggle to make an impact at Anfield alongside Daniel Sturridge. And while I like Dejan Lovren at center back, he is not a huge improvement on what was there previously. It’s notable that none of the signings came from major clubs. And as a result, I think the signings were ones who will make Liverpool compete for the top-four rather than for the title itself. They’ll need Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson to take massive strides forward should they make another run at the title.

Chelsea on the other hand have made a number of signings that can sway the title race. Cesc Fabregas, Felipe Luis and Diego Costa are all world class players who instantly make Jose Mourinho’s squad better. Costa and Luis in particular will help Chelsea become a more complete side, relying less on the midfield than they did last season. The one area I think they’ll need to strengthen in the last month of the window is at center back, where they are a little thin having let David Luiz go. The money from his sale though helped finance everything else, so I think it was a smart bit of business. In general, Chelsea have addressed their needs appropriately this summer, bringing in superstars to complement an already strong team. They are my title favorite at this point.

Lastly, Manchester United have had an interesting summer on the transfer market. While I’m sure they’ll have a series of departures that could finance more arrivals in the coming weeks once Louis van Gaal wields his axe, they have spent a lot of money on relatively little in my opinion. Ander Herrera is not a world class midfielder right now, and he isn’t much of an improvement from United’s other options in the middle. And while Luke Shaw will be great in a few years, I feel he’s overrated at the moment. United has the talent to compete, but it will be up to van Gaal to bring out the best in players that David Moyes overlooked. Their signings this summer will be the players misused a year ago. I think they’ll be much improved, but unless they add another star this month, I don’t see them challenging for the title.

If I had to rank the summers of all of these clubs plus Arsenal, I’d say the order from best to worst is Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and then Liverpool. A lot can still happen in the next month, but with preseason coming to a close, the big clubs like these will be looking to switch their focus away from the market towards the play on the field. I’ll have more coverage on the EPL as a whole in the buildup to the new season, so check back for that. Thanks for reading.

Who do you think has had the best summer in the EPL? Please comment below.

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Life After Death for the United States und Deutschland

When the draw came out in December, I don’t think many of us expected to be here at this moment, still standing after the Group of Death had run its course. It was hardly pretty, and not entirely convincing, but the U.S. deserves to be moving on. Who would have thought that the last few minutes of today’s game would have been so comfortable? Once Ronaldo scored to put Portugal in the lead over Ghana, you could almost feel a few million Americans release six months’ worth of built of stress. We did it. We made it out of the Group of Death.

I ended up watching pretty much the whole game at camp today save for the opening couple minutes. While watching with a bunch of fifth graders who knew little about soccer was hardly my preferred scene, at least I was able to watch. Maybe it was because I didn’t have much time to worry about this match, but I was a lot less nervous than I was before the last two. Germany was going to beat us, I knew. And there was nothing we could do beyond hoping that the Portuguese took care of business in their game. But as scared as I was about Ghana yesterday, the recently-announced suspensions of Kevin Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari made me confident this morning.

There wasn’t a whole lot to the game itself. Germany dominated, but they had little reason to push forward for more goals. They look about the most settled side in Brazil right now, completely confident in their own ability. Even their weakness – the four center backs and their lack of pace and width in the back – is a strength on set pieces. With Thomas Müller in such fine goalscoring form, and the rest of the attackers finding their footing, the Germans are my favorite for the title at this point.

Despite the obvious strength of the Germans, the U.S. didn’t look out of place on the same field. A lot of Americans had strong performances today, including standout ones from Tim Howard, Kyle Beckerman and Matt Besler. Along with Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson, Besler has been the Americans’ standout performer so far in my eyes. I would really like to see him get a chance to play in Europe soon. Beside him in defense, Omar Gonzalez was solid, as Jürgen Klinsmann played all the right cards once again. His coaching decisions have been terrific I must say.

There are three major worries for this team going forward for me. The obvious one is Michael Bradley. Once again, he looked lost in the final third, acting like a shadow of the player he was in the warm-up games and prior to that. It feels like I’m beating a dead horse, but Bradley needs to be at his best if the U.S. hopes to advance another round. Nobody else on the team is capable of playing the vital number 10 role as well as he can, and his teammates need him to play up to his own high standards. His lack of a first touch was astounding.

The other major worry has to be the team’s fitness. For much of this game today, the Americans looked worn out, beaten by the harsh travel schedule and weather. Getting everybody’s legs back under them before the game against Belgium will be a big task for Klinsmann. And there’s no guarantee Jozy Altidore will be back anytime soon.

The final worry of mine is Graham Zusi’s set pieces. What was supposed to be a strength has turned into a bit of a problem, as aside from his ball to John Brooks in the Ghana games, his corners have been terrible, not being anywhere close to where they need to be. If the U.S. isn’t creating many chances from open play, set pieces must be taken advantage of if we are going to score. Zusi’s balls were certainly not going to produce any goals today.

But we are through to the knockout round and that is all that matters for now. We can focus on Belgium tomorrow. There is life after the Group of Death after all. Thank you, Portugal. Thank you, Kevin Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari. But more importantly, thank you Jürgen Klinsmann. He is the true American hero from the group stage.

On another note, I think the Luis Suarez suspension is spot on. Four months away from soccer will hopefully teach that man a lesson. It a serious punishment, but also a reasonable one. A lifetime ban would have been incredibly harsh, so at least Liverpool fans can be happy he didn’t get that. But he should have no further place in this World Cup after giving the game of soccer such a bad name. And while Liverpool might feel harshly treated, a lengthy club suspension was also necessary. Let’s all agree that biting people is not okay.

What were your thoughts on all the soccer stories today? Please comment below.