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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Stop Hating, America – Novak Djokovic Is Not Classless

The Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Final this morning was a beauty. It has been incredible how these same four guys have dominated tennis for a full nine years now. Rarely does a match between any of them fail to live up to expectations. Think about all the amazing five-set matches we’ve seen between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Djokovic and Federer and Andy Murray and Federer. Any given rivalry that you choose will go down in history as one of the best ever. Some would say having the same four guys win everything gets boring after a while, but I say we’re lucky every single time we get to see these guys play. Today’s final, in which Djokovic ground out a five-set victory over Federer, was just about as entertaining as ever.

I went into the match not necessarily rooting for one player or the other. As I said this morning, I have always been a Djokovic fan – since long before he rose to superstardom. But I didn’t think I’d be able to root against Federer at this stage in his career. However, once Djokovic took the two sets to one lead, I shifted over to rooting completely for the Serbian. He has gone through so many disappointments in the last two years on the big stage, and not all of them have been deserved. Such a great champion, somebody who works as tirelessly as anyone else, shouldn’t keep being let down. He needed this championship a lot more than Federer did.

Roger looked like he has a lot more to give going forward, even as he approaches age 33, so my worry that I would never see him play another big final quickly dissolved. But Djokovic could have seen his career take a nosedive had he lost another close match in a major final. So watching Djokovic dig deep to pull out the break to win the match in the fifth was really nice to see. I hated having to see Federer lose, but when I watched him post-match, I was reminded of why he is the best. Win or lose, he takes it in stride, with the utmost class, and then he moves on to the next one. Federer has earned the right to know that he’ll always have another match, even when it seems his window might be closing. He is the perfect athlete in nearly every sense.

But Djokovic handled the post-match ceremonies as well as Federer did today. Holding tears back the entire time, a visibly emotional Djokovic said all the right things about Federer. He hardly talked about the match today, unable to stop speaking about his impending family and the meaning of Wimbledon itself. This is clearly a man who has his priorities right when he steps off the court. He has been gracious in defeat over the past two years, and today, he was gracious in victory. He will never be as objectively classy as Federer, but Djokovic deserves some credit there as well.

After the match, when I was on Twitter and Facebook, I noticed, like always when Djokovic wins, that many people call him classless. They say he’s arrogant, obnoxious and unlikable. To them, I say open your eyes. The Djokovic of old, the one who nearly fought with Andy Roddick one night at the U.S. Open in 2008, angering many fans New York City, has grown tremendously as an individual in recent years. He may be fiercely competitive, but he will be the first player on tour to engage with his fans, always taking time to take pictures and answer questions. He smiles in public, happy to be alive. And after that night in New York in 2008, he has learned from his mistake and has reached out to other players, forming real friendships. Now, he is the first one to congratulate his opponent. He compliments his opponents, and he genuinely means it.

Don’t hate the Djokovic of now because of what young Novak did in the past. He has changed, and you need to examine your opinion of him as a result. I realize that everybody loves Federer, and I do too. I just think that Djokovic deserves a little more respect from American tennis fans as an individual. You don’t have to like him, but don’t call him classless.

 


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The Best Morning of the Year

Today is my favorite sports morning of the year. It’s the Wimbledon Men’s Final. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. It doesn’t get much better than this. I’ll admit, I’ve hardly watched any tennis at all in the last two weeks due to work and the World Cup, but I wouldn’t miss this match for anything. I’ve been a big fan of Djokovic for a very long time, and in 2011, at the U.S. Open Semifinal between these two that I was lucky enough to attend, I was part of an extreme minority at Arthur Ashe Stadium that day who were cheering for the Serbian against Federer.

But it will be hard to root against Roger today. The greatest tennis player ever deserves another title, and getting it at Wimbledon would be the crowning achievement for his incredible career. He is the epitome of class. And it’s impossible to root against the classiest individual in all of sports.

It’s amazing that these two have only met once at a Grand Slam Final – back in 2007 no less. Their rivalry has been a great one in recent years though, with the match that I saw at the U.S. Open in 2011 being a particularly testy affair. If you recall, Djokovic was down two sets in that match and clawed his way back, before going down two match points in the fifth. He swung as hard as he could on a return on one of Federer’s two match points – essentially giving up. However, the shot miraculously went in, and Djokovic pulled out the victory. That swing in the match turnaround is one of my favorite sports moments I have witnessed.

So I’m really not sure whom I’ll be rooting for this morning. I’ll just sit back and enjoy watching two of the best tennis players I’ll ever see in what could be their final Grand Slam Final against one another. The Federer era is rapidly coming to an end, so we all better appreciate every last second of it while we can. Whatever the outcome, I’ll be happy.

Going back to soccer – I wasn’t able to share any of my thoughts on the Costa Rica-Netherlands game yesterday, but overall, I thought the Dutch got a deserved victory. They dominated from the start and had a stellar display in penalty kicks, The Ticos were clearly worn out from their 120 minute match against Greece, and they weren’t able to create much going forward. Joel Campbell in particular looked exhausted, and that is a bit worrying. In an era where Arsenal play twice a week for much of the year, Campbell’s fitness will need to improve if he hopes to earn a spot in the starting lineup. At this point, I don’t see him being much more than a Capital One Cup participant this year, but he should be given the chance to prove he belongs nonetheless.

On another note, Tim Krul sure made Louis van Gaal look smart. That has to be the first tactical goalkeeping substitution I’ve seen. And Krul made two fantastic saves in penalties to justify it. However, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t enjoy penalty kicks. It was heartbreaking to see Costa Rica lose in that fashion after battling so hard for three weeks. The Ticos represented CONCACAF admirably, and they have proven themselves a top-class international side. The 2014 World Cup won’t soon be forgotten in Costa Rica.

I’ll have more on the semifinals in the coming days, but they should be fascinating. It goes to show that ultimately, talent wins out in the end at the World Cup. Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Netherlands are four of the best footballing nations, and it is fitting that they should be in the semis. We’re in for a treat in the final week, even without Neymar.

Lastly, I want to thank How I Met Your Mother creator Craig Thomas for telling me on Twitter yesterday that he enjoyed my HIMYM post and thought my interpretation was good. He didn’t need to say anything in response to my tweet, but he did anyway. I’ll never forget that act of kindness. It means the world to me that he said that, and I guess that now signals that I have found closure with the show. It’ll forever be my favorite.