Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports

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And Now We Can Go Back To Appreciating LeBron the Basketball Player

An otherwise dull sports day will now be remembered forever after the news that a superstar is coming home. No, I’m not talking about Luis Suarez’s transfer from Liverpool to Barcelona, the home of his wife’s family. Frankly, I can’t be bothered to care too much about the carnivorous forward during his four month suspension. I’m talking about LeBron James, the best basketball player on the face of the earth, and his decision to return to Cleveland.

In a nicely written article posted on Sports Illustrated earlier today, LeBron James announced that he was returning home to his roots, signing a max deal with the Cavaliers. In one instant, the outlook of an entire city changed completely. Cleveland suddenly forgot about their history of sporting letdowns, and were able to celebrate the homecoming of the century. If only ashes could be turned back into jerseys.

What made this day great was that LeBron did not have another “Decision.” He didn’t even title his article in Sports Illustrated “The Return.” He learned from his mistake this go around, and tried to make this news as much about the city of Cleveland as it was about himself. The tone of his article was also a lot less self-centered. Instead of talking about what was best for him, he talked about what was best for all the kids in Cleveland that would be growing up in the coming years. This was a much more mature way to announce the huge news, even if a big event to announce this would have made many Cavaliers fans happy in the end.

Basketball wise, LeBron has a lot of work to do to make the Cavaliers a contender again. Even if a trade is made for Kevin Love, there isn’t much in the way of depth on the team – they weren’t particularly close to the postseason last season, after all. They are hugely inexperienced in the playoffs, including their new coach David Blatt, and while Kyrie Irving may be a superstar in a year or two, he’s not quite there now. It isn’t like LeBron is joining another dream team. However, LeBron’s arrival does bring that championship or bust mentality to the team. The expectations will be huge, but if anyone is equipped to deal with that now, it’s Mr. James.

As a fan of basketball, this could not be better news. Having a star choose his small-market hometown team over the allure of Los Angeles and Miami will be good for the game, restoring parity to a league that was losing much of the equality it was establishing. It’ll also be much nice to see real sports fans get to appreciate LeBron rather than those in Miami. And won’t it be much more bearable to watch LeBron lead his Cavaliers to a title than it would have been had he won 4 or 5 with the Heat? In addition to Cleveland residents, all NBA fans are winners today.

I’m not ready to forgive LeBron entirely for “The Decision” as a basketball fan and human being. However, while I’ll never forget that hour of television, I can put those feelings aside now, focusing on the basketball player we are all so lucky to watch. He did everything right this time, and for that, he deserves our respect. LeBron’s decision to be the better man and accept whatever apology Dan Gilbert offered for his letter says a lot about his increased maturity level.

LeBron shouldn’t suddenly become revered for his character on account of today’s news, but hopefully the image of him as a villain will disappear. Being able to watch LeBron without vehemently rooting against him will be nice for a change. I applaud him for his decision today, and now we wait for all of the other NBA dominoes to fall. This should be an exciting year in the NBA.


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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.


A Showcase of Everything That Is Wrong With Soccer

If you can’t tell, I love the game of soccer. But had today’s Italy-Uruguay match been the first game I’d ever watched, I’d never watch the sport again. For the match showcased everything wrong with soccer. There were lunatic assistant coaches fighting on the sidelines. There  were first half tactics from Uruguay that included little other than riling up Mario Balotelli in hope that he’d do something stupid, and on the other side the tactics were hardly more sophisticated than simple time-wasting. There were a billion fouls. There were an equal number of flops. And best of all, the game’s superstar had a relapse into his cannibalistic past.

I somehow managed to avoid hearing the score of this game until I got home late this afternoon. I’d been eagerly awaiting watching this particular match for almost a week now. But frankly, I wish I hadn’t watched it. Two weeks ago, I would have told you I was a fan of Italy and Uruguay – that I loved Cesare Prandelli as a coach and that I respected Luis Suarez as a player if not as a person. Now, none of that is true.

That Italy came out with such negative tactics should not have been a surprise given the country’s footballing tradition, but I expected Cesare Prandelli to dare to be different, showing everyone that his Italy side was separate from past ones. I was wrong unfortunately, and we all had to watch Italian players commit foul after foul, only to writhe in pain on the ground when the slightest touch went against them. Their game-plan was clear. If the ball was in the referee’s hand and not on the ground, Uruguay couldn’t score. They were Italy circa 2006 – the team I grew up hating.

Uruguay seemed fine with that type of fight in the first half, knowing they could get under Balotelli’s skin and potentially cause him to lash out. A red card from Italy would allow them a way into the game. While Balotelli managed to leave the first half with only a yellow card, Uruguay’s tactics worked when Super Mario was taken off the field at half. Gone was Italy’s lone goalscoring threat today, as Ciro Immobile looked out of his element. And just when you thought Uruguay was done baiting the Italians into aggressive fouls, Claudio Marchisio went straight over the ball – a clear straight red. Uruguay in the end got what they wanted.

But Italy held strong even with ten men and kept doing their thing. Foul after foul, embellishment after embellishment. It was rather unpleasant to watch, especially every time Giorgio Chiellini writhed on the ground. And then Luis Suarez did his thing in retribution for Chiellini’s acting. No, he didn’t score. He bit him. Yes, Suarez bit someone. Again. How can this ever happen three times? I will never respect that man again. This is Suarez’s third strike.  He can forever be a villain now. For he is certainly no hero any longer.

While Diego Godin’s winning header was an exciting moment for the defender and for his country, I hardly cared who won the game at that point. Both sides had made me hate them with the way they went about this crucial game. I feel for Gigi Buffon, who deserved a better exit than this, but his Italy did themselves no favors with the way they played today. If you play the style they did, you deserve to lose in my opinion.

Lastly, a quick point about Balotelli. He obviously is immensely talented and his goalscoring ability would be a welcome addition at Arsenal. But games like this one  – where he must be taken off for fear of him doing something stupid – show how much he still needs to mature. I’d want him at Arsenal for sure, but much like Roberto Mancini in Balotelli’s Manchester City days, I don’t know if I’d trust Mario in certain matches. He is inherently flammable on the pitch, and his self-destruct button could spell an ugly time for any team that invests too much faith in his supposed new-found tranquility.

Unfortunately, as I choose to watch this game when I got home, I missed the Ivory Coast-Greece match, which shocked me when I saw the score. I can’t believe the Ivorians had such a big let down. For all of our sakes, let’s forget about Suarez and Italy for a while and get back to enjoying this wonderful tournament that surprises us at every turn.


It Had To Be Him

There was always going to be one hero in Uruguay-England game and it wasn’t going to be Wayne Rooney. That Rooney had gotten his goose egg out of the way with the equalizer won’t be remembered unless there’s an English miracle in the next game. The hero was always going to be Luis Suarez.

As soon as Suarez and Uruguay were drawn alongside England, you knew Suarez would be chomping at the bit to stick one to the British media by breaking English hearts. The only question was whether he’d be fit enough to take part. But as I predicted, Suarez showed up in a big way for this one.

His first goal was too easy. England should not have allowed Edinson Cavani the space to curl in the ball for Suarez, and like last time out, a mistake from a center-back gave Suarez the tiny bit of space he needed. From there, he was never going to miss the free header. His second goal though was both a beauty and terribly defended. Goals that come straight from the goalie should never happen, as Muslera’s punt was simply headed on by Cavani to release Suarez. Someone should have been marking Suarez, for he was the only player who was going to beat England. But once the ball reached Suarez, his class won out, as his first touch and subsequent screamer were near perfect.

This was another instance of England not properly paying attention to the opposing star in critical moments. In their European Championship exit two years ago, it was a lack of attention to Andrea Pirlo that cost them. This time around, it was Luis Suarez. They had to know he was the threat, and needed to properly mark him at the crucial moment. Suarez was limited most of the match by the English defense, but those two lapses gave him just enough space to leave his mark on the game.

To England’s credit, they looked the better side for much of the game. And this World Cup, they’ve looked a talented squad. But ultimately, it’s individuals stepping up to carry a team that count and England lacked that today. While Rooney got his goal eventually, England’s best player, and yes, I mean that, missed two gilt-edged chances that could have swung the game. I truly believe England could make a serious run for major trophies in the next few years, but they will need individuals to rise above their talent level for that to happen.

Love him or hate him, The World Cup will be better for having Luis Suarez fit and firing. His performance against Italy will be vital if the Uruguayans hope to earn a place in the knockout stage. If only 40,000,001 were enough to have brought him to Arsenal last summer.

On another note, I found the usually loveable Ian Darke and Steve McManaman pairing verging on unbearable at times today. I love these commentators. But today, they seemed to let their bias towards England affect the commentary in a negative way. ESPN has done a good job of assembling on-air talent from all the major soccer nations, but having two Englishmen in the booth for such an important match was too much. They kept beating the audience over the head with their criticism of Uruguay’s stalling tactics. Lots of teams do that, but Darke kept harping on it. It even got to the point when he called out Alvaro Pereira for faking an injury when he was nearly unconscious. While Darke apologized for that, he needed to look at a replay before saying what he did. This duo is great. But if I wanted an English bias this strong, I would have found a BBC feed. I’d take this duo any day of the week, but they were too much today.