North London Calling: Why Tottenham are Favorites in EPL- If They Keep Gareth Bale

The most popular soccer league in America (and the world for that matter), the English Premier League, is set to kick off in just over two weeks’ time. In the United Stats, most of the news focuses on a few select teams: Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal. But over the last few weeks, Arsenal’s neighbors in North London have not only dominated American soccer headlines, but the soccer press around the world. Tottenham Hotspur, always viewed as Arsenal’s little brother to the public at large, have been the focus of the soccer world, all because of their star commodity, Gareth Bale.

Bale, 24, a Welshman, is an unbelieably talented individual. A supreme athlete, Bale would be a star wide receiver or center fielder if he had grown up in the States. Instead, he has turned into one of the most talented players in soccer, a player defenders are terrfied to face. Bale scored 21 goals in the English league last year, carrying Tottenham to a 5th placed finish. Unfortunately for Spurs, however, Bale’s excellent form, which won him the Player of the Year award, has turned the head of one of soccer’s global powers: Real Madrid.

Real Madrid’s insane president, Florentino Perez, turns this story from a rational one into a story from a totally irrational world. You see, various European media outlets have reported that Perez is willing to break the world record fee of $131 million he shelled out to Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo. Now, Bale is a fantastic player, one whose best years are ahead of him. But to consider him better than Ronaldo is preposterous, and this is coming from a Spurs fan. However, the influence of Madrid is colossal. They can offer Bale Champions League soccer this season, and the Champions League is the ultimate prize for all soccer players, while paying Bale far more than he could make with Spurs.

Now Tottenham’s famously stubborn chairman, Daniel Levy, has a fascinating question on his hands: take the money by selling the best player in the EPL, or hold on to a player who has apparently demanded a transfer? I’m hoping, as a Spurs fan, that Levy holds on to his man. Because with Bale in hand, Spurs can not only move into the immensely valuable and prestigious Champions League places by the end of the season (4th place and higher), they can actually challenge for the title.

The biggest thing that the Bale media circus has concealed is that Spurs have an extremely strong squad even without their wizardly Welshman. Jan Vertonghen, a Belgian entering his second season in North London, was probably the best defender in England last season, and was justly named to the EPL’s Team of the Season. They have a promising English right back, Kyle Walker, and decent center back depth alongside Super Jan. Spurs boast an excellent midfield, one of the best in the league. All three of the projected starting midfielders (another Belgian, Moussa Dembele, and two Brazilians, Sandro and the newly signed Paulinho) are phenomenal athletes who will provide steel and class in the middle of the park. Paulinho, a signing from Corinthians in Brazil, even was named the third best player in the Confederations Cup, an international tune-up for the World Cup which Paulinho’s Brazil won. And this is without counting Hugo Lloris, Spurs’ masterful French netminder who is one of the two best goalies in the league.

One position, however, where Spurs aren’t as strong is at forward. This was evidenced last year when Bale, who is a natural left midfielder, played much of the season as a center forward. However, chairman Levy is currently making an astute signing, bringing in Roberto Soldado from Valencia. The Spaniard was prodigious during his time with his old club, scoring 81 goals in 141 appearances. While this signing isn’t official yet, Spurs and Valencia settled their final issue of agent payment today, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see an official announcement as early as tomorrow. So, when Soldado is signed, this gives Spurs huge talents across the pitch, and one world class player as the key man.

And that is why it is essential that Bale remains at White Hart Lane for at least one more season: Spurs need him. Without him, Tottenham becomes a very good side, one with a ton of good players, but without a proven star. If Bale does leave, Spurs will go through a season much like their arch-rival Arsenal went through last year: they sold their star man, Robin van Persie, to Manchester United, then watched as RVP scored 26 goals in the league as United won the title. With RVP last year, Arsenal could have certainly won, instead of finishing fourth. So there is evidence that, with Gareth Bale, Tottenham really has no limits next season.

 

 

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What in the World are the Detroit Pistons Doing?

Today, yahoo.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski (yes I spelled it right. Go me) reported that the Detroit Pistons acquired point guard Brandon Jennings from the Milwaukee Bucks. Detroit earlier in the summer signed the mercurial Josh Smith from Atlanta to a 4 year, $54 million contract. Jennings even took a lot less money than market value (his deal is 3 years and $24 million) to get out of Milwaukee’s Mediocrity Hell and join a stacked front court in Detroit.

But a lot of people are wondering exactly what the Pistons are trying to do. While they have a fearsome front court, with Smith at small forward, Greg Monroe at power forward, and Andre Drummond at center. And until the Jennings trade, they had very little skill or depth at either guard position, starting Brandon Knight at point guard and Rodney Stuckey at shooting guard. Acquiring Jennings does give them a very good if not great point guard, and their collective athleticism is off the charts.

However, Jennings can’t do one thing which is of dire need for the Pistons: shoot. He shot only 39% from the field last season, according to nba.com, and he is a particularly shaky jump shooter. Considering that their other big three players can’t shoot, Detroit will often struggle for floor spacing. The Pistons also now possess two of the least efficient, highest volume shooters in the league in Jennings and Smith. Expect a lot of bricks in Motown next season.

However, this was a necessary move for the Pistons. They desperately needed scoring and ball handling, and they identified someone who could fill both of those needs at a price way below market value. And if the grand experiment in Detroit doesn’t work, they can always move Jennings’ attractive deal to a contender or to a team with a ton of cap space to acquire a draft pick or young talent. All in all, a decent deal for the Pistons.

Nerlens Noel dances “Gangnam Style” with children (VINE)

Is this what Sixers’ fans want to see their centers with knee problems doing? Just saying, I had the same surgery as him about the same time, and I could definitely Gangnam Style comfortably by now, if not very well.

ProBasketballTalk

So, apparently Nerlens Noel’s knee is at least this healthy.

Sixers fans just LOVE to see their injured centers dancing. This could become a meme. That said, this isn’t nearly as offensive as the last one, this one really isn’t at all.

Not much else to say here, other than thanks to Dan Devine at BDL for tipping us off to this.

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Steve Nash discusses his soccer tryout with Inter Milan (VIDEO)

I’m all for the greatest white basketball player I’ve ever seen play some international futbol.

ProBasketballTalk

[nbcsports_video src=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsportsembed/embed/select/m3eOpZKn8avd service=rsn_iframe width=590 height=332]

We told you about Steve Nash getting a shot to try out with Inter Milan, and while it was more like a day at soccer fantasy camp than an actual tryout, he seemed to enjoy the experience as much as expected.

Nash joined The Crossover to discuss his adventure, the courting of Dwight Howard, and even his dancing skills. It’s worth waiting to the end to hear what songs Nash will truly get down to — you won’t be disappointed.

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The Blueprint: How the Sixers Will Become Contenders in the NBA

With the current sorry state of Philadelphia sports, the team that I am most excited for in the future is the Sixers. General manager/Godfather/Albert Einstein’s protege/Jesus’ brother Sam Hinkie has turned the Sixers from the most mediocre team in basketball (actually second behind Milwaukee. Like they are MEDIOCRE) into the worst team in basketball. As Borat Sagdiyev would say, “Great success!”

“Wait, what?” you are telling yourself. “You are an idiot, Peter Taylor. It’s not good that the Sixers got worse this season by trading Jrue Holiday, an all-star, for someone who only has one knee and can’t play offense (Nerlens Noel) and a draft pick.”

But, friend, this is where I tell you that you are wrong. See, in the NBA, the Land of Mediocrity is the closest thing to hell that you can find. Teams like Milwaukee, Toronto, Portland, and the Sixers pre-Noel trade have no potential to be contenders. While they may make the playoffs as an 8 seed every couple years, there is no real chance that these teams will be real factors in the playoffs.

But sucking, like the Sixers, Orlando, Utah, and many other teams are doing this year, allows teams to acquire blue-chip prospects in the draft. By pick 15, where a team like Milwaukee will usually select, all the players with All-Star potential or even sometimes starting potential are all gone.

And next year’s draft is an especially good one. Some very smart NBA people, like ESPN’s draft expert Chad Ford, expect the 2014 draft to have around 6-8 players who would have been surefire 1st selections in the 2013 draft. One prospect in particular, Andrew Wiggins, has been hailed as the best player since Lebron.

So, Sam Hinkie being the smart man he is, decided to blow up the team. By trading Holiday, he not only acquired Noel, the consensus top talent in the draft who would have been taken first if not for a knee injury, he picked up a 1st round pick for the 2014 draft. While hurting his team this season, Hinkie has put himself in a position to have a Sixers team in 2014 featuring 4 players who were top 14 picks in a draft (Noel, super athletic point guard Michael Carter-Williams, and their two picks next year). Add that to the estimated $35 million plus in cap space for 2014, and the Sixers could be one of the best teams in the league, as early as 2015.

And, even better for the Sixers, their two current star prospects could fit well together. Carter-Williams, while incredibly athletic, is literally the worst jump shooter in the league. But, with his speed and size (he is 6’7″, huge for a PG), he could dominate teams in the pick and roll. And he has just the big man to play it with: Noel. Noel does not have much of a low post game, but the freakishly athletic big could wreck defenses in the pick and roll as well. And their upside defensively is enormous: Noel is one of the best defensive players to be drafted in some time, and MCW’s length could make him a shutdown perimeter defender. Granted, MCW needs some kind of jump shot to be a success in the NBA, and Noel has to first recover from ACL surgery and then develop a little low post game. But if that happens, the Sixers will have two quality starters with a lot of upside.

And then, considering how bad the team this year, they are a lock for a top 5 pick, and more likely a top 3 pick. And those top three picks will be All-Star potential players like Wiggins, power forward Julius Randle, small forward Jabari Parker, or point guard Marcus Smart. Add that pick to their 1st round pick they acquired from New Orleans in the Holiday/Noel trade, which will likely fall from 10-15, and there’s two top level talents from the best draft in a decade. Add them to Noel, MCW, and a possible star free agent from a loaded class in 2014 like Kevin Love, Lebron, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and others, and the Sixers are a contender.

Until then, the Sixers will suck. But it will be a fun suck. Sam Hinkie, the ball is in your court. Let’s make it happen.

#WinlessForWiggins

Why Ruben Amaro Receives Too Much Blame For the Phillies’ Current State

The Golden Age of Philadelphia baseball is over. Injuries, advancing age. and all-time terrible innings of baseball have combined to turn the Phils from the best team in the league to a very mediocre one. Much of the blame has been shoved on general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.’s shoulders for making a series of poor decisions. However, looking past his poor track record from the past two seasons, Amaro actually did an excellent job positioning his team to win another World Series from 2009-2011.

In 2009, with their offense surging and many of their position players (Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins) still in their prime, the Phillies needed to aquire another pitcher to make a run at a consecutive World Series title. Amaro went out and brought in the best pitcher on the market, Cliff Lee, and none of the prospects he gave up in return have featured in the big leagues. And while the Phillies lost to the superior New York Yankees in that season’s Fall Classic, Amaro had done everything he possibly could to assemble a championship-winning team.

 

Wanting to go one step further next season, Amaro then took a huge risk in the hopes of winning it all in 2010: he traded for Roy Halladay, the best pitcher in baseball, but also traded Cliff Lee for prospects to rehaul a suddenly thin minor league system. At the time, there was very little criticism for the deals. Praise was universal about Amaro’s acquisition of Halladay, and while fans hated to see the universally popular Lee depart, they understood that the organization was in desperate need of prospects. At the time, however, there was concern that Amaro had given up Lee to Seattle for not enough talent. These concerns, knowing what we know now, were well founded: J.C Ramirez and Phillippe Aumont have both struggled in limited major league action, and Tyson Gillies is still toiling down in the minor leagues. However, the Phillies team Amaro assembled was still good enough to win 97 games, the most in baseball. He even acquired Roy Oswalt at the trade deadline in order to bolster an already strong rotation. But this trip to the postseason would not end with a trip to the World Series; in fact, the Phils would be defeated by an inferior Giants club in the first round of the playoffs. Yet again, Amaro did his job: he assambled a team that won the most games in baseball and were certainly capable of winning the World Series. The players were the ones at fault, not Amaro.

 

 

Amaro again did a good job building the 2011 Phillies. Realizing how good Cliff Lee was, he pulled off the biggest surprise that offseason when he signed the stud lefthander to a free agent deal. In doing so Amaro put together one of the most talented pitching staffs in the history of the MLB: Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, the homegrown Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton.

 

Unfortunately, in order to sign Lee, Amaro had to let rightfielder Jayson Werth walk, but Lee was and is the more talented player. And even though the Phillies would cruise in route to winning 102 games, Amaro made another deal at the deadline, sending some quality prospects for the solid outfielder Hunter Pence to bolster a thin outfield corps. Instead of having Werth, Amaro acquired someone 4 years younger, someone who would make $3.5 million less in 2011 and $2.5 million less in 2012, and while producing more at the plate: Pence hit .317 hit adding 22 homeruns and 97 RBIs in 2011, while Werth hit a paltry .232 with 20 homers and 58 RBIs (all those numbers from Baseball Reference).

 

All in all, the 2011 Phillies were one of the most talented baseball teams I have ever seen. Most of that is thanks to Amaro. Yet the Phillies failed yet again in the postseason, as they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round. Granted, injuries played a key part in their campaign: Utley would be hampered yet again by knee injuries and Oswalt would suffer a back injury which would lead to inconsistent form. But the Phillies still had a stellar rotation, still had two former MVPs in their lineup (Rollins and Howard), still had Pence as an above-average 5-hole hitter, still played flawless defense. There are no excuses that the Phils lost in 2011. Amaro is not to blame.

 

Since then, unfortunately, Amaro hasn’t made as productive decisions. He has been unable to put together a productive bullpen since 2011, although, yet again, performance is a large reason for the decline: Antonio Bastardo’s ERA rose from 2.64 to 4.33 in 2012, Chad Qualls was just plain awful, and Michael Stutes couldn’t remain healthy. However, one sigining that could come back to haunt Amaro was his signing of Jonathon Papelbon. In general, the position of closer is by far the most overvalued in baseball, and probably in professional sports. It makes no sense to sign closers to colossal free agent deals when the players who play the position are so volatile in performance year to year. The position of closer is an interesting one, and I will cover it at greater depth in some point, but paying over $10 million a year for a player who pitches at the max 70 innings a year, which is the most Papelbon ever pitched in a season (last year via Baseball Reference), is just foolish.

 

Also, the trade of Pence to the Giants was a disappointing one, strictly because they gave up so much in order to acquire him just a year before. After dealing their top pitching prospect, Jared Cosart (who pitched brilliantly in his major league debut a few weeks ago), and their top position prospect, 1B Jonathon Singleton, to get Pence from the Astros, they only got one player with a real chance of playing in the big leagues, catcher Tommy Joseph. Joseph has even struggled this season in the lower minor leagues.

But overall, Amaro has done an admirable job. He was willing to take massive risks in order to achieve greatness with this franchise. He should not be slammed by revisionist history because those risks didn’t pan out. The fact of the matter is that if the Phillies had added one more World Series title to their resume from ’09 through ’11, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Two Fall Classics in such a short period would have made all those involved with the successes, including Amaro, legends. Just because the players didn’t accomplish what they were more than capable of doesn’t mean that we should heap all of the blame on Ruben Amaro Jr.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stu Holden’s Latest Setback, And What It May Mean For the US Soccer Team

Today, during the Gold Cup final which the US won, 1-0, over a resilient Panama team (a recap will be coming your way later), talented center midfielder Stu Holden went down to injury. Again. Holden reportedly suffered a sprain to his right knee. The biggest shame of recent times for the USMNT has been Holden’s persistent injury problems. Holden has not played significant minutes for his club side, Bolton Wanderers in England, since the spring of 2011, as he has battled major knee injures, from an ACL tear (which I am actually recovering from right now, so I know how painful it is and how grueling the 9-month rehab period is) to microfracture surgery to repair torn cartilage.

The US missed Holden dearly during his time on the sidelines. Holden is the rare American player who is completely comfortable in possession, and he is capable of impacting the game both offensively and defensively. He demonstrated when he returned from his injury nightmare that he can still be the same player.

Luckily for the US, central midfield is one of their deepest positions. Michael Bradley, the engine room for a quality Roma side, and Jermaine Jones, a bruiser from German club Shalke, man the two starting positions in Jurgen Klinsmann’s team. And Landon Donovan has shown that he is more than capable of playing alongside Clint Dempsey as a more attacking midfielder. However, Holden could have proved a vital addition to the squad during the World Cup next summer. Playing him instead of Jones would allow Bradley to become more defensive while still using his ball retention skills to great effect. The US side would become much more attractive with those two sitting behind Donovan in midfield, and Holden could replace most of Jones’ defense physicality while adding his own passing signature. Now, after Klinsmann said after the game that “It’s not looking good for Stu”, it is safe to assume that Holden’s injury to his knee is more serious than the sprain that was originally reported. For such a class act (he even won the 2008 Humanitarian of the Year Award in MLS) this latest setback can only be classified as a shame.