Rapid Reaction: Super Bowl LII

It was an offensive explosion, back and forth for the entirety of the game, but in the end, it was the backup forced into the action by an injury to a star that prevailed, as the Philadelphia Eagles prevailed in a dramatic 41–33 contest against the New England Patriots.

Both teams started off fairly well, as both the Pats and the Eagles turned in first quarter drives that went 67 yards, each of which resulted in field goals.  Just like last year, though, things really took off in the second.  After Philly scored a touchdown (and missed an extra point) late in the first, Tom Brady led his team right back down the field, only to see the resulting field goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski bounce off the left upright.  Nick Foles and company continued their dominance of the New England defense, grabbing a 15-3 lead on a drive culminating with former Patriot LeGarrette Blount pounding through some of his old teammates.  That seemed to wake New England up, as they scored on their next two possessions, sandwiched around an Eagles interception, to get them back within a score.  The Eagles, though, came back to grab the momentum going into the half, scoring on a fourth down trick play that saw Foles catch a touchdown pass from backup tight end Trey Burton.

The third quarter continued the theme of non-existent defenses, as every possession resulted in some sort of points.  Rob Gronkowski, who only caught one pass in the first half, became much more active in the second, catching his first touchdown to bring his team back within a score.  Foles, who won MVP and was brilliant in relief of the injured Carson Wentz, came right back with a perfect through to backup running back Corey Clement to restore the 10 point lead for the Eagles.  Brady, though, was not to be denied; he followed up the Eagles’ touchdown with a great throw of his own, to Chris Hogan, and following another Philly field goal, he tossed one up for Gronk to allow the Patriots to take their first lead of the game.

Foles stepped up to the plate to get his team back in it, finding star tight end Zach Ertz for a touchdown with just over two minutes remaining.  That left a lot of time for Brady, though, and the star veteran had a chance to step up and lead his team to victory.  However, the Eagles defensive line, which was fantastic throughout the season but had been held largely in check for the game, finally got to Brady; captain Brandon Graham got into the backfield and forced the legendary quarterback to fumble the ball back to the Eagles.  After yet another Philly field goal, the Pats were able to get the ball back with one last shot to tie the game, but another valiant effort from the Eagles’ defensive linemen prevented Brady from securing another comeback and sealed a victory for the underdog Eagles.

The USMNT’s World Cup Failure

Back in 2013, up-and-coming striker Aron Johannsson had a decision to make.  He had the opportunity to be a part of two senior national teams—the United States, where he was born, and Iceland, where his parents were from.  He spent his younger years in the Icelandic developmental set-up, giving them a perceived advantage in his recruitment.  That being said, it didn’t surprise many when he chose to represent the US.  Iceland was a tiny country with a population roughly the size of Corpus Christi, Texas, and it played in the toughest regional confederation in the world, while the US was an up-and-coming power with seemingly unlimited potential.

Earlier today, that tiny country played its first friendly since qualifying for next summer’s World Cup; in a few hours, the US prepares to play its first friendly since contriving to miss the tournament for the first time since 1986.  During the last qualification cycle, Mexico, the US’s primary regional rival, churned through three managers as they attempted to play through their struggles, eventually making the Cup via a play-off victory over New Zealand.  It was a huge disappointment that that team had even found themselves in that spot to begin with.  Of course, the question must then be asked: what would missing the greatest tournament on the planet be considered?  To be short: disaster of epic proportions.  There are many factors that played into this failure; this post will address what I believe to be the greatest downfall of the squad.

Much of the blame for the US getting knocked out will rightfully fall on the two managers that helmed the team through qualifying, Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena.  Klinsmann was the big-name hire the USSF had sought after for years—he had success playing for and managing his native Germany before coming to settle in California.  Arena was the steady hand, a man who had previously managed the team for two World Cups and knows more about the ins and outs of US Soccer than virtually anyone.  Both men had their successes—Klinsmann revolutionized the talent pool from whence team selections were made, while Arena stabilized a chaotic environment after Klinsmann’s departure.  Both of them were also felled by a similar issue—their team selection.

Klinsmann had a tendency to over-rotate his squad—he could never settle on a set formation, much less a starting XI.  This made things difficult for two reasons—it was tough for players to understand their role in the system of a manager that kept changing, and perhaps more difficult for those players to develop any sense of camaraderie with their teammates, something that is already a challenge considering the nature of national teams.  A prime example of this is the plight of Michael Bradley—as Klinsmann’s tenure wore on, the captain was often shunted into a role akin to an attacking midfielder.  While putting him there made sense based on the players the manager preferred, it definitely didn’t benefit the team performance-wise, and it certainly didn’t do Bradley any favors.  He was far from comfortable in the role, and possession often stagnated at his feet because of major indecision.  Putting him in his preferred spot would result in one of three things, though—moving Jermaine Jones, Bradley’s “normal” partner, if one could call him that, into the captain’s role, dropping Jones, or drastically altering the formation.  Klinsmann tried all three options—the first in a Gold Cup play-off loss against Mexico, the second in a 2-0 loss against Guatemala, and the third in a qualifier against Mexico in a 2-1 loss.  These three games were notable for many reasons—for our purposes here, though, two main ones.  The first is that, in every case, Klinsmann stuck a different person—Kyle Beckerman in the first case, Mix Diskerud in the second case, and Christian Pulisic in the third—near to Bradley in the center of the park, which, considering the importance of the matches, was a poor choice that limited his effectiveness.  The other was that these were games that were considered extraordinarily winnable, and their failure to do that could largely be attributed to Bradley’s poor performance.

Arena, meanwhile, had quite the opposite problem—he was far too predictable in establishing his team, and he eschewed more talented, and more productive, players for those that he considered his “favorites.”  These issues can be best represented in the squad and line-up selections for the last two games of the most recent Hex.  Arena decided to leave out Fabian Johnson, who is arguably the country’s best two-way player, and called in Gyasi Zardes, who played under Arena for the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Johnson had, of course, struggled with injuries, and looked off the pace in the team’s previous qualifiers, but leaving him out and bringing in Zardes, who eventually had to withdraw from the team on account of his own injury problems and had greater struggles than Johnson when he was healthy, is inexcusable.  Just as baffling were Arena’s decisions on who to start in the biggest qualifying matches of the year.  He rolled out what he believed to be the best line-up in the first game against Honduras, choosing not to rest anyone for the match that would be held in the more difficult, and more hostile, locale of Trinidad and Tobago.  He also refused to rotate in the second game, which resulted in a sluggish start from which the team was unable to recover.  That line-up also did not feature Geoff Cameron, Johnson’s closest competitor for the country’s best two-way player, but did feature Omar Gonzalez, another of Arena’s former Galaxy men.  Gonzalez looked very out of place, especially in the second match, hitting in an own goal that prevented the US from snagging a point, thereby costing them a chance of at least making the World Cup via a play-off.

It is clear, then, that the US needs to find a manger that can find a balance between the two extremes of Klinsmann and Arena—over-rotation and a lack of it, little unity and no fresh blood.  They will also need to place a heavy focus on incorporating youth players into the senior team—players like Jones, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard, mainstays for the last two Cup cycles, will either be retired or past their prime the next time around, and the youth set-up, while immensely flawed, is more talented than ever, with players like Tim Weah and Josh Sargent primed to be stars.  It is for this reason that I think that the job should go, at least on a temporary basis, to Tab Ramos, the current technical director and U-20 manager.  I recognize that Dave Sarachan is in charge now, and I have a fondness for him due to his time in Chicago with the Fire, but I simply don’t think he’s the right fit here.  Ramos’s knowledge of the youth system will be imperative, especially for a team that will come to rely on that system more than it has in recent years.  If he is not viewed as a long-term option, then I would try to go after Alexander Nouri to run the show.  He showed some strong tactical flexibility in helping his old club, Werder Bremen, beat the drop last season in Germany, and also has a familiarity with America, having played in Seattle on loan back in the late 1990’s.  Furthermore, his previous experience in a league where many players, such as Johnson and John Brooks, to name two, play their club football would make it easier to know what to expect from a good chunk of his core, and they the same from him.  Nouri also has some knowledge of the talent pipeline for the US, as it was under his watch that Bremen signed the aforementioned Sargent to his first ever professional contract.  If he isn’t available, being patient in identifying the right candidate will be imperative—the last two choices were the wrong ones, and we’ve seen where that’s gotten us.

10 Predictions for the 2017-18 NHL Season

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 24: A general view of the NHL logo prior to the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Skills Competition at the Nationwide Arena on January 24, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The 2017-18 NHL season will commence tomorrow, with the Maple Leafs taking on the Jets in Winnipeg with four games on the slate.  Last season, I tried to be a little bit more… bold in the selections that I was making for this award and that division winner.  I ended up getting, I think, one thing right out of anything on my list.  My classmate and fellow hockey fan, Daniel Foltz, found that…  amusing.  On top of that, for the first time in a while, his Ducks had also done better than my Blackhawks.  I was humiliated.  So I resolved to do some more research for this year, and to be accurate instead of bold with my predictions in order to avoid being made fun of by one of the few people that actually read my hockey post.  So Daniel, these are for you:

  1. Neither the Penguins nor the Predators will make the Stanley Cup Final

I made this basic prediction last year, as well, and of course the Penguins decided to prove me wrong and become the first repeat champion since the 90’s.  Maybe that was because the only teams that truly made big steps forward were either bad teams (Maple Leafs, Oilers) or the Predators themselves, who, of course, were no match for Sid the Kid and his crew.  There were no moves by last year’s contenders that really moved the needle, but I do feel that both of last year’s Final participants will take a step back this year.  For Pittsburgh, they lost Nick Bonino and Trevor Daley, among others, to free agency, and Marc-Andre Fleury to the expansion draft, leaving them dangerously thin in many areas.  The Preds, meanwhile, lost their captain and 2nd line center Mike Fischer to retirement, and their bottom two lines don’t instill much confidence.  These losses will contribute to other teams catching the defending conference champs and prevent them from getting back into the Cup Final.

2. The Tampa Bay Lightning will win the Stanley Cup

The Lightning are a popular pick to win it all this year—heck, NHL 18 has them topping the Oilers in their simulation of the season.  They struggled to get it going last year, especially after captain Steven Stamkos was lost to injury, but the return of the Canadian sniper should give Tampa one of the most dangerous, and deep, offensive potential in the league.  I do have some concerns about their back end—this will be Andrei Vasilevskiy’s first year as the team’s undisputed starting goaltender, and their defense will could either be a boom or a bust.  That being said, the preseason performance of Vasilevskiy and young defenseman Mikhail Sergachev have me confident that the Lightning defense will be more than adequate enough to allow Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Tyler Johnson to do their thing.

 

  1. Jaime Benn will win the MVP

Dallas was a bit of a mess last season—injuries swept through their forward lines, diminishing the potential of one of the most potent offenses in the league, while the defense and goaltending were… not great.  The additions of Marc Methot and Ben Bishop will definitely bolster the Stars’ back line, boosting them into contention for post-season spot.  The signings of Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal, meanwhile, will take some of the scoring, and defensive, pressure off of Benn and Tyler Seguin, making the team’s forwards even more dangerous than they were before.  With Radulov around, the two stars’ goal totals might be hurt a little bit, which is why I’m taking Benn for MVP over Seguin—the captain has more of a well-rounded game than his teammate.

 

  1. Mike Babcock will win Coach of the Year

The Maple Leafs were supposed to be a rebuilding for at least another year or two; instead, they surprised almost everyone by making the play-offs last season, keeping both the Lightning and the Islanders on the outside looking in.  This year, with the addition of veterans Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey, they might even challenge for a division title this season.  While I think that it’s still slightly beyond them to pull that off, the fact that they could even be in that position at all is a testament to the work that Babcock has done with this roster.  He was already thought of as a fantastic coach for the job that he did coaching the Red Wings, but he might be doing even better in Toronto, and deserves to be rewarded for his work.

 

  1. Nico Hischier will win Rookie of the Year

Unlike last season, when Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine were clear pre-season frontrunners for this award, there is no consensus as to who the best rookie will be this season.  Hischier is one of perhaps ten that are currently in the conversation; out of all of them though, I think he has a couple advantages.  The first is that Hischier will be one of very few rookies to have the opportunity to get top-6 minutes right out of the gate—the Devils are still in a bit of a rebuild mode, so they’ll have the minutes to allow the #1 overall pick of this past summer’s draft to develop.  The other advantage is size—while only 18, Hischier is 6’1” and a healthy 176 pounds.  He’s a good skater, and as he adds on a little bit more weight, he has the potential to be one of the few forwards that can beat players with both speed and strength.  He might not reach all of that potential this year, but we’ll see enough of it to see him earn the Rookie of the Year award.

 

  1. The New York Rangers will not make the playoffs

The Rangers made the post-season relatively comfortably last year, snagging 102 points and extending their streak of reaching the play-offs to 7 seasons.  That being said, some cracks started to show a little bit towards the end of last season—Henrik Lundqvist had games that made him look remotely human, and there were games where the young guns couldn’t help step up and make up for some slowing veterans like Rick Nash.  Going into the off-season, they needed to address issues at the center, defenseman, and backup goaltender spots.  They did a good job of getting Kevin Shattenkirk for a relative discount, but losing Antti Raanta and Derek Stepan are big worries.  It leaves the team needing big seasons from Nash, Lundqvist, and Mika Zibanejad to have great seasons to keep the burden of carrying the team from falling on some that aren’t quite ready for it yet.  At this point in all of those players’ careers, I simply don’t think they can do it.

 

  1. The Arizona Coyotes will make the playoffs

This is, perhaps, one of the two truly bold picks that I will make in this post.  The Ducks and Oilers are virtual locks for the post-season, and the strength of the Central division probably means that the third play-off spot in the Pacific will be the final one.  The ‘Yotes will be up against the Sharks and Kings, who have been among the top performers in the league over the past decade.  However, I feel that they’re both on a decline—John Stevens reinvigorated the Kings after last year’s poor start but still didn’t see any additions to bolster their lagging offense (24th in goals last year), and the Sharks’ aging core has a lot of wear and tear on their legs and don’t have many people in line to replace them.  Arizona, meanwhile, added veterans Derek Stepan and Niklas Hjalmarsson to a tantalizing young core of Jakob Chychrun, Max Domi, Clayton Keller, Dylan Strome, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.  Gaining experience and maintaining consistency will be crucial for the team, and in the long run, I think they’ll find enough to make the post-season.

 

  1. Patrik Laine will lead the league in points

Part of this comes down to pre-season performance—Laine has been absolutely electric in his brief time on the ice, which not many others can say.  The right winger put up 36 goals as a rookie last season, and if his performance thus far is any indication, he’s primed for more—of course, it doesn’t hurt that the youngster has one of the best passing centers in the game, Mark Scheifele playing to his left.  The strengthening of Winnipeg’s defensive corps will be beneficial to Laine, too, especially the return to health of possession-driver Tyler Myers—it’ll grant him a little bit more freedom to get out of the defensive zone early and utilize his speed to create opportunities.  The Jets will be a play-off team this year, and Laine will be a big reason why.

 

  1. Matt Duchene will be traded to the Nashville Predators

Duchene is the best player on what is perhaps the league’s worst team, the Colorado Avalanche.  Joe Sakic and Jared Bednar definitely realize that Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are the only two tradeable pieces preventing the club from going into full retooling mode, which explains why both of them have been circulated in trade rumors for much of the past year or so.  As a prolific two-way player, Duchene is in more popular demand, with Ottawa, Nashville, and Columbus being among the center’s suitors.  I think it will come down to a battle between the neighboring Blue Jackets and Predators—Ottawa has other, perhaps larger roster holes to fill before addressing its number 2 center spot—and in the end, I think that the Preds will be the one to snag him.  They signed Nick Bonino to replace Mike Fischer, but Bonino’s stats were not good in high-leverage roles for Pittsburgh last year, and the Penguins proved how critical it can be to have multiple star centers on the roster.  I think they’ll give up a high draft pick and a player from their large stable of defenseman to land him, which should be enough to satiate Colorado’s wishes.

 

  1. John Tavares will re-sign with the Islanders

This is probably the only other truly bold prediction that I’m making here.  The Islanders management situation is a real mess—the arena that they share with the Brooklyn Nets is out of the way for the core of their fan base and has been blasted for having some of the worst ice in the league, while the players that they signed to try and up the level of performance around their star center largely flopped.  Rumors have been flying about Tavares, whose contract expires at the end of this season, for some time now, with many destinations being floated about being his new home.  Tavares’s camp and the Islanders’ front office have maintained that this deal isn’t about money, which makes sense with how inconsistent they’ve been in the last eight seasons.  Despite the temptations of big payouts and big success elsewhere, however, I ultimately think the Canadian stays in New York long-term.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic

Lightning (#2)

Maple Leafs (#5)

Canadiens (#6)

Senators (WC #2)

Sabres

Bruins

Panthers

Red Wings

Metropolitan

Penguins (#1)

Capitals (#3)

Hurricanes (#4)

Blue Jackets (WC #1)

Islanders

Rangers

Devils

Flyers

Western Conference

Central

Wild (#1)

Predators (#4)

Stars (#5)

Blackhawks (WC #1)

Jets (WC #2)

Blues

Avalanche

Pacific

Ducks (#2)

Oilers (#3)

Coyotes (#6)

Sharks

Kings

Flames

Golden Knights

Canucks

PLAYOFFS

Eastern Conference

First Round

Penguins def. Senators

Hurricanes def. Capitals

Lightning def. Blue Jackets

Maple Leafs def. Canadiens

Conference Semifinal

Hurricanes def. Penguins

Lightning def. Maple Leafs

Conference Final

Lightning def. Hurricanes

Western Conference

First Round

Wild def. Jets

Predators def. Stars

Blackhawks def. Ducks

Oilers def. Coyotes

Conference Semifinals

Wild def. Predators

Oilers def. Blackhawks

Conference Finals

Wild def. Oilers

Stanley Cup

Lightning def. Wild

2017 English Premier League Preview- Part 2

While the fight for survival has been more interesting than the fight for the championship last few seasons, the competition at the top of the deepest league in the world has never been greater.  So who will manage to pull out on top this season?  Will it be Antonio Conte’s defending champions Chelsea, or will one of their London rivals snatch the trophy away?  Could a squad from Manchester, or from Liverpool, manage to top the table?  Here is the second part of my prediction for the upcoming season:

 

  1. West Ham United

The Hammers had a very disappointing season last year, with the drawn-out departure of Dimitri Payet seeming to throw a big hitch in how manager Slaven Bilic planned to construct his team.  The team also never seemed to get comfortable in the old Olympic Stadium, finishing with a -12 goal differential at home.  However, the team did finish strong by losing only one of its final seven games, and their four major transfer acquisitions—striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, winger Morgan Arnautovic, right back Pablo Zabaleta, and goalkeeper Joe Hart—shore up both sides of the field.  In addition, none of those newbies are “me-first” players like Payet, so Bilic should be able to construct a more balanced team.  As such, I see them bouncing back and competing for a spot in Europe this season.

  1. Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp has had a pretty frustrating transfer season—his top two targets, Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk, never came close to joining the Reds, and the team’s best player, Phillipe Coutinho, seems to have a foot out the door.  Klopp did bring in two other studs to fill gaps in the team—fleet winger Mohamed Salah to fill the gap caused by Raheem Sterling’s departure to Manchester City and Andrew Robertson so that James Milner doesn’t have to play out of position.  However, Coutinho’s partnership with countryman Roberto Firmino and winger Sadio Mane is what made the team’s attack so explosive last season, and I anticipate that his departure, without Klopp strengthening the center of the park with more defensive players, will put the team into a bit of disarray…

Want to see the full second part of my preview of the upcoming Premier League season?  Click here to visit my soccer-focused site, gunnerupdates.com!

 

 

2017 English Premier League Preview- Part 1

It’s hard to believe that the 2017 Premier League season will be soon be upon us.  While this summer didn’t have any major international tournaments, it sure featured its share of excitement, with an incredible Championship play-off to determine the third team promoted to the Prem and many big-name players coming and going.  The teams that will feature here, though, won’t be battling it out for the best of the best, but rather for comfort in the top flight, or possibly even survival from demotion. Here is Part 1 of my projection for the upcoming season, starting at the bottom of the table:

 

  1.  Brighton Hove & Albion

It’s abundantly clear that Seagulls manager Chris Hughton knows that his team needs a deeper, more talented squad to have a fighting chance in the Prem, as evidenced by his signing a group of 8 players headlined by underrated Australian goalkeeper Matthew Ryan.  The issue is that their squad is set up in a way similar to how Middlesbrough was last year—more on the defensive side—yet their attack, spearheaded by the talismanic Anthony Knockaert, might not even be able to match the demoted side’s paltry efforts.  As such, I only envision Brighton lasting one season in the top division before dropping back down.

  1. Huddersfield Town

The Terriers have made what I believe to be the best signing of any promoted squad so far, re-signing Aaron Mooy from Manchester City after a successful loan spell this past year.  David Wagner also seems to be approaching the upcoming campaign by looking to take a more attack-minded approach and will hope that the small-town team might be able to catch enough established clubs by surprise to remain in the top flight another year.  While they may do that early on, I don’t think it’ll take long for other clubs to catch on to the team’s style, and their fairy tale ascension will be put on hold after they are demoted back down to the Championship.

  1. Burnley

Burnley has not ceased to surprise over the course of the last three years—first in securing promotion, then putting up a great fight in a Premier League season in which they were drastically overmatched, then immediately regaining a top flight spot and hanging onto it last season.  Manager Sean Dyche rightfully gets a lot of credit for keeping the Clarets up, but having a defense marshalled by Michael Keane was a significant help.  Now that Keane is an Everton player, does the club have enough at the back to make up for the center back’s departure, or enough ammunition in attack to compensate for the defense’s probable drop-off?  Unfortunately, I don’t think so—replacing Keane is virtually impossible for a club of Burnley’s size, and as good as Sam Vokes was last season, losing his striking partner, Andre Gray, will hurt his productivity.  Dyche’s crew will put up a great fight, but they’ll drop back down to the Championship after this season.

  1. Swansea City

That Swansea managed to stay up while churned through three managers in a tumultuous season is a real testament to the resilience of the players of the Welsh club, and it is that work ethic that I believe allows the team.  That being said, this transfer season has been sadly lacking for the Swans—they lost the heart of their engine room in Jack Cork, their attack is still a mess beyond Fernando Llorente, and they’ve only brought in one player, Roque Mesa, that figures to feature frequently in the starting XI.  There is still time to improve the squad, but if they don’t, the team will almost surely find themselves in another dogfight for survival this year.

  1. West Bromwich Albion

During the middle of last season, there was many a pundit that thought there was a possibility that the Baggies could spend the whole year challenging for a spot in Europe.  Of course, that wasn’t meant to be, as Tony Pulis’s team only managed two paltry points in their final 9 matches.  On top of that, the team lost club captain Darren Fletcher on a free to Stoke, stripping the team of a crucial veteran presence in the center of the park.  Solomon Rondon’s strong play up top should keep West Brom from dropping down a level, but their mess in the middle will prevent them from coming anywhere close to the heights they hit last year.

  1. Stoke City

After 3 straight seasons of finishing 9th, Mark Hughes’s squad suffered from a dearth of goals in dropping to 13th last season.  Bringing in Darren Fletcher on a free and Kurt Zouma on loan are both exceptional move that will help shore up the center of the park for the Potters, but to this point no major attacking talent has been brought in, which is not a good thing considering that the aging Peter Crouch was their leading scorer last year.  On top of that, star winger Morgan Arnautovic left for West Ham, citing that the Hammers are a “bigger club” despite finishing below Stoke last year.  Last year that may not have been true, but the lack of new signings to bolster the front line will make that a reality, and I predict that Stoke will continue its fall to lower in the table.

  1. Watford

Watford’s management has been in a state of constant upheaval recently, as they are now on their third manager in as many seasons, and all of them have very different styles.  Fortunately, the man at the helm now, Marco Silva, may be the best of the trio, and he’s made some solid signings this transfer window that have targeted every area of the team.  He’s brought in two central players, Will Hughes and Nathaniel Chalobah, with great potential, and signed Tom Cleverley to a permanent deal.  He signed Andre Gray as a complement to club captain Troy Deeney while adding Richarlison as the team’s striker of the future.  Silva also snagged right wing back Kiko Femenia on a free to shore up the back line.  There’s still no true difference maker in attack, so the Hornets will still be lower than they might hope to be, but such a solid window for a team that struggled last year should set the club on a good path for the future.

  1. Crystal Palace

The Eagles had a season last year that very nearly resembled the one that Swansea had—they went through two managers with a squad whose drastic underperformance led the team into a relegation battle for a good chunk of the year.  However, with a new year approaching, new manager Frank de Boer inherits a squad that has not only been hardened by the unexpected experiences of last season, but one that seems tailor-made for his style of play, with strength at the back and front, speed on the flanks, and creativity in the center.  The players might still be plagued with some inconsistency, and it will almost certainly take a while for de Boer and his style to adjust to the Premier League, but I feel that Palace will see some slight improvements from their performance last season.

  1. Southampton

New manager Mauricio Pellegrino has retained almost all of the players that led the club to an 8th place finish last year, and the savvy signing of Gabon international Mario Lemina to bolster the midfield certainly can’t hurt.  However, the only reason that the team even finished that high was because of its defensive record—they only scored 41 goals last season, tied for 14th in the league with 17th place Watford—and club captain Virgil van Dijk’s push for a move out of Saint Mary’s makes it a virtual certainty that they’ll see a drop-off on that end this year.  That, combined with the lack of new transfers brought in to bolster the lackluster attack, I expect the Saints to slip a little bit this year.

  1. Leicester City

The chaos has been rampant at Leicester since lifting the Premier League trophy after the 2015-16 season—last year started with the sale of lynchpin N’Golo Kante and an extreme lack of fitness from captain Wes Morgan and ended with the firing of Claudio Ranieri after claims he had lost the locker room.  Now, his former assistant Craig Shakespeare has to make due with a roster that seems heavy on strikers, light on midfielders that fit his system, and whose best player, winger Riyad Mahrez, wants out.  There’s a lot of good individual players on the Foxes, and Shakespeare showed at the end of last year that he can find some balance, but I think the tumultuousness will be too much to keep them from getting into the top half of the table.

  1. Newcastle United

Newcastle has seemed to exist in a constant state of confusion over the past few years, but the steady hand of veteran manager Rafael Benitez guided the Magpies back into the Prem immediately after being demoted, and the Spainard and his squad will be looking to make a splash this season.  They’ve got the pieces to do it, too—they have a strong backline headlined by captain Jamaal Lascalles, a creative midfield centered around the creative duo of Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie, while the forward trio of Dwight Gayle, Ayoze Perez, and Aleksandar Mitrovic have a great combination of speed and strength.  Benitez doesn’t have any players on the level of 2012-era Papiss Cisse or Fabricio Coloccini, so the team shouldn’t push for a spot in the Europa League, but they should definitely have enough to survive this season comfortably.

  1. Bournemouth

Eddie Howe’s team surprised a lot of pundits last year by not only surviving, but thriving well enough to make it into the top half of the table.  Their squad from last year remains mostly intact, with only Jack Wilshere’s return to his parent club counting as the only loss of a consistently fielded first-teamer.  The few additions that Howe made were bright ones, too, grabbing veteran Jermain Defoe to improve his striking options and grabbing Nathan Ake (who is returning to the club after spending part of his season with the Cherries on loan) and Asmir Begovic from Chelsea to improve the defense.  The clubs that I see finishing above them had more money to spend, so they were able to improve their squads enough to keep Bournemouth from finishing above their place from last season, but two straight 9th place finishes from the small south shore club is no easy feat and will prove that they’ll be making some real noise in the race for a European place.

 

You can check out Part 2 of this preview on my soccer website, gunnerupdates.com, starting tomorrow at 5.

On Journalism: Part I

Even though I happen to attend business school, English has been a passion of mine for as long as I can possibly remember.  My family’s photo collection provides some basis for this—I’ve seen tens of photos of myself engrossed in a book when I was younger, before I even started formal schooling.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten an even greater appreciation for English, as both a language and an obsession, to the point that it was close to being a borderline obsession.  I text with proper grammar and criticize those that don’t.  I won English Student of the Quarter in high school and was more excited than I had been to score a big win over a rival in soccer.  I often ask, somewhat jokingly, somewhat not, if I can help my mom grade her English student’s papers (yes, I know I’m weird).  This post about a more refined craft that I love equally as much as the more general subject—journalism.

I was first introduced to the world of journalism in my sophomore year of high school.  I was interested in joining our school’s newsmagazine, the Devils’ Advocate, but had missed the “try-out” process the previous year.  However, I was fortunate enough to have a friend on staff, and she referred me to the faculty advisor of the magazine.  I ended up joining the online staff, where I learned the finer points of the craft, before eventually joining the more prominent print magazine as a staff writer, a position I was lucky enough to hold for two years.  That first year, I was surrounded by some incredibly dedicated, and incredibly talented, writers and researchers, passionate and detail-oriented editors, and creative design staff, and this phenomenal combination led us to receive the prestigious Pacemaker award for our work.  Since then, though, the Advocate, and many other journalistic sources throughout the country, have been stricken with issues that could leave their futures in jeopardy.

Before delving into those problems, though, it’s worth doing a brief overview of how things came to be as they are today.  Formal journalism as we know it has been in practice since before the United States even existed.  The longest running newspaper in the country, The New Hampshire Gazette, has been in operation since 1756 (!!), and the longest running daily paper, The Hartford Courant, has been in circulation since 1764.  There were even papers that dated back to the early 18th century.  Up until that time, people in the US found out their news through word of mouth, letters, or almanacs, which were sometimes not factually based and not published on a very regular basis.  The introduction of newspapers changed all of that, and people began to rely on daily papers to catch up on their local news, and also to gain insight from noted opinions columnists.  Their ascension to fixtures of public domain was rapid, as they became immensely influential in the development of the American Revolution; one of the most famous of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, used the paper that he owned and published, the Pennsylvania Gazette, to further the initiatives of the revolutionaries, and many other papers supported those rebelling against the English.  As the influence of papers grew, so did their numbers; when George Washington took office in 1789, there were 92 daily papers in operation in the United States.  20 years later, that number had almost quadrupled, to 376, and that number quadrupled, to roughly 1200, by 1835.  The specialization of papers increased, as well; newspapers on a variety of subjects, such as business, foreign affairs, and even farming, materialized, as did papers from specialty groups, such as William Lloyd Garrison’s famous Liberator.

Newspapers remained the main source of journalism for people throughout the 19th century, and for the first 20 years of the 20th century; in fact, it was not uncommon for any one person to purchase, and read, three, four, or five newspapers every single day.  Around 1920, though, journalism as we know it was altered forever through the use of the radio as a broadcasting medium.  People could get up-to-the-minute news from the comfort of their own homes, and once they had a radio, the news was, essentially, free.  Newspapers continued to be the most popular medium for traditional journalism, but radio was slowly eating away at their slice of the pie, vocalizing the news that publishers had to work incredibly hard to get out on paper.  FM radio was established in the US around 1935, becoming more and more popular as the technology improved, and that same year, CBS hired Edward Murrow as its “director of talks,” headlining a series of news bits over CBS’s national airwaves while informing, and inspiring, hundreds of thousands of people.  As the medium spread more and more across the country, broadcast journalism, as it came to be known, became far more spontaneous than print mediums ever could.  It was much harder to hold back one’s opinions when constantly broadcasting, so it was in this time that journalism started to become more blatantly partisan.

Just as radio started to take off, though, a new medium for journalism emerged—the television.  In 1940, the famous radio broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, anchored the first ever live telecast of a political event, the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, an event that thrust the popularity of the television into the public spotlight.  Thomas was also the man that was the host of the first ever regularly scheduled television-news broadcasts 10 years later, in 1950.  Within the next few years, the major radio communications providers of the time, NBC and CBS, worked hard to establish daily news broadcasts in locales throughout the country.  The fact that these broadcast journalists could not only be heard, as they could be on radio, but also seen live, rocketed some of the more well-known broadcasters, such as the legendary Walter Cronkite, into superstardom.  ABC and WGN entered the television industry shortly after their rivals, racing to establish news agencies in every major city.  As more and more networks were created, the partisanship of journalism continued to increase; the visibility of broadcast journalists allowed people to put words to a face, and those journalists often used that to their advantage, using their positions of prominence to give their views on current events.  This partisanship was what led to the creation of more targeted news stations, such as Fox News and CNN.

While there is, of course, much, much more detail to go into, the evolution of the mediums discussed above are enough to connect the state of journalism today.  The field is extraordinarily large, with journalists opting to work for a satellite television station, on digital radio, or podcast, platforms, or even glorified blogs, instead of the traditional, yet still fully functioning, mediums.  However, with the contentiousness surrounding our country’s recent election cycle, and the man that it elected, Donald Trump, journalism, as an industry, has been under fire more than it has been in recent memory, and perhaps ever.  The number of people with newspaper subscriptions has decreased, and the trust levels that people have in those papers is shockingly low for publications that pride themselves on integrity.  Immense partisanship, immense bias, is not only to be expected, but is also readily obviously slanted, to be either conservative or liberal, especially over radio, where pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken reign supreme.  Claims of “fake news” are running rampant.  The President himself has lambasted the media for its coverage of him, while CNN president Jeff Zucker has admitted that the way that they handled Trump and his campaign may have contributed to him being viewed more favorably across the country.  This isn’t a post where I’m interested in delving into politics, about who is “right” and “wrong”—but I am interested in making clear that there is a real problem with the direction that the journalism industry is headed.

Come back on Tuesday to read Part II!

10 Bold Predictions for the 2016-17 NHL Season

The 2016-17 NHL season gets underway later tonight, with four games on the slate.  This season promises to be an exciting one, with tons of players on new teams and lots of young talent flooding the league.  For that reason, I felt I’d do my first ever NHL post.  I feel like I need to preface this before I start: I am not a super duper hardcore hockey fan.  When my dad, a former college hockey player, screams at the TV screen at players, one third of the time I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.  But I know enough about hockey to know what a good team looks like and what a bad team looks like, which players are on the verge of superstardom and which players are over the hill.  So, without further adieu, here are my 10 bold predictions for the upcoming season:

 

  1. Neither the Penguins nor the Sharks will make this year’s finals

Of course, part of the reason that I can’t see this happening is because of how incredibly difficult it is to repeat great success the year after a Stanley Cup appearance.  There are other reasons, though, why last year’s two best teams won’t be duking it out come June 2017.  The Penguins got phenomenal goaltending from Matt Murray last post-season, and while I think he’s the real deal, his clutch play, along with that of Trevor Daley and Bryan Rust, are things I don’t think will carry over to this year.  As for San Jose, their aging core put together a phenomenal year, but with all the extra miles on their legs, from both their postseason run and the World Cup of Hockey, I see them fading out a little earlier this season.

 

  1. The Nashville Predators will win the Stanley Cup

This isn’t exactly all that bold, but considering that this is a team that has never won a division championship, and has never made a conference final, it kind of is.  Pekka Rinne is no longer elite, but he is still pretty good, and the strong defense in front of him got even better by replacing outgoing captain Shea Weber with PK Subban.  Ryan Johansen is a young, impressive number one center, with wily vets Mike Fischer and Mike Ribiero manning the lower lines.  James Neal is in his prime, and Filip Forsberg is about to enter his.  They have a coach in Peter Laviolette that has taken a team on the verge of greatness to a Stanley Cup final.  In short, I think the Preds are ready to finally break their play-off jinx and win their first Cup in franchise history.

 

  1. Max Pacioretty will win NHL MVP

This is where things really start to get… well, bold.  The Canadiens missed the play-offs last season, with Carey Price out injured for much of the season and controversy surrounding PK Subban’s place in the locker room.  With Price healthy and Shea Weber in for Price, things should be (relatively) back to normal, and Montreal will want to prove that last year was just a fluke.  Both Price and Weber will have something to do with that, of course, but it’ll start with the team’s captain, Pacioretty, to set the tone for the rest of the team.  The shifty left winger played in all 82 games last year for the first time in his career, and with improvements around him on multiple fronts, I expect Pacioretty to have a career year and help lead his club back where they belong.

 

  1. Todd McClellan will win Coach of the Year

The Oilers were the second-worst team in all of hockey last season.  They finished only one point above the lowly Maple Leafs, and that’s saying something.  However, it also doesn’t tell the full story- they were a young, rebuilding team missing its best player for most of the season.  Now, while they aren’t exactly going to be elite this year, they do seem to have a nice, balanced roster.  They have a couple solid defenders in Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom, some great veteran wingers in Milan Lucic and Jordan Eberle, some young up-and-comers headlined by Jesse Puljujarvi, and perhaps the best 1-2 center punch in the league in Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  It will be up to McClellan to put it all together, and considering his savvy at handling all the chaos in San Jose, I expect him to be up to the task.

 

  1. Dylan Strome wins Rookie of the Year

Patrick Laine and Auston Matthews are going to be the popular picks for this award- and why not?  They’re both going to be battling McDavid for the mantle of the best young player in the game over the next few years.  But picking them wouldn’t exactly be bold.  So I’m going to go with Strome, who will be getting some great advice from veterans Martin Hanzal and Shane Doan on how to make it in the NHL.  I realize that he didn’t exactly have the best pre-season in the world, but with the Coyotes not expected to do a whole lot, the young center will have time to develop his game and perhaps make the ‘Yotes slightly more dangerous than what they currently appear to be.

 

  1. The Devils will make the playoffs

The major news that the Devils were involved in this off-season saw them win one of the summer’s major blockbusters, picking up star scorer Taylor Hall in exchange for Adam Larsson.  Despite that, not many people have high hopes for this team making the post-season, especially because trading Larsson does leave them a little bare on the back end.  I understand those fears, but I also think that Corey Schneider is an underrated, and incredible, goalie that can make up for some of the defense’s shortcomings, and that adding Hall to a top-six forward group that includes Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri, and Adam Zajac will make New Jersey a true offensive threat for the first time since Ilya Kovalchuk went back to Russia.  The Devils will make the play-offs as the number one wild card in the East and give the Lightning all they can handle.

 

  1. The Kings will not make the playoffs

I’m a Blackhawks fan, so perhaps I’m a little bit biased here, because the Kings have been the ‘Hawks biggest threat to establishing a true dynasty.  But there’s something that just feels off about this year’s Kings.  Their offensive core is aging, so much so that the team captain, Dustin Brown, was effectively stripped of his job because of his ineffectiveness.  It doesn’t help that Marian Gaborik is out for a while, either, or that their bottom two lines don’t seem to be all that good.  Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin form a very good top defensive pairing, but the people behind them are either aging or generally ineffective.  Jonathan Quick is starting to show a little bit of the reality that he is human.  Throw this team into a division with the best team in its conference, the defending conference champs, and an up-and-coming Edmonton team, and you’ll see that the Kings will have to fight with the Central teams for a wild card spot, and that’s a battle they cannot, and will not, win.

 

  1. The Wild will end up with a top-5 pick

The Wild have seemingly always had the talent to be a very good team in the extremely competitive Central division, but always seemed to be missing something, whether it be a definitive style of play, an elite goaltender, or a true number one center.  This year, they seem to have a lot of holes.  They signed Erik Staal to be their number one center, but he proved last year in New York that he might be better suited for a number three role at this point in his career.  Their number two center, captain Mikko Koivu, is aging, and was unproductive relative to his ability last year.  So was Jason Pomenville.  So was Ryan Suter.  So was Devan Dubnyk.  Their bottom two lines and defensive pairings are made up of relatively inexperienced or ineffective players.  I think that Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle are two of the most underrated wingers in the game, but two wingers alone aren’t enough to make a team, especially when they’re in a division that is beyond loaded.  They’ll have a steep drop-off this year.

 

  1. The Stars will not trade for a goalie; the Flyers will

Dallas has been in the market for a goalie since around 2009, when they ditched former starter Marty Turco in favor of Kari Lehtonen.  Lehtonen is a perfectly capable goalie, but he can be extremely inconsistent, and he isn’t at the elite level that recent Stanley Cup-winning goalies have been at.  The team brought in former Sharks and Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi to give Lehtonen some competition, but he seems over the hill.  Despite the position being the only glaring hole on an otherwise solid roster, the Stars don’t have as many young assets to flip as the Flyers do, and while I think that Steve Mason is better than Lehtonen, he, too, is inconsistent, and I can see Philly trying to grab Brian Elliott from the Flames or Tuukka Rask from the Bruins to help bolster their team’s defense-first mentality.

 

  1. Jonathan Drouin will lead the league in points

I felt that Drouin was being a little bit pretentious when he and Lightning GM Steve Yzerman engaged in a semi-public battle over the young winger’s place on the big club- I didn’t know much about him, but didn’t think that his game warranted his confidence.  While I still think his actions last year were stupid, he does have a phenomenal scoring touch, as he caught fire in the play-offs, helping carry the team in the absence of star man Steven Stamkos.  With Stamkos healthy again, the prospect of Drouin pairing up with him, or Tyler Johnson, or Nikita Kucherov, or a combination of those men, for a full season, is truly frightening.  As such, I predict that Drouin takes a huge leap forward and out-duels Joe Pavelski for the league-lead in total points.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic

Lightning (#2)

Canadiens (#5)

Panthers (#6)

Red Wings (WC #2)

Bruins

Senators

Sabres

Maple Leafs

 

Metropolitan

Capitals (#1)

Islanders (#3)

Penguins (#4)

Devils (WC #1)

Hurricanes

Rangers

Flyers

Blue Jackets

 

Western Conference

Central

Predators (#3)

Stars (#4)

Blackhawks (#5)

Blues (WC #1)

Jets (WC #2)

Avalanche

Wild

 

Pacific

Ducks (#1)

Sharks (#2)

Oilers (#6)

Flames

Kings

Coyotes

Canucks

 

PLAYOFFS

Eastern Conference

First Round

Capitals def. Red Wings

Penguins def. Islanders

Lightning def. Devils

Canadiens def. Panthers

 

Conference Semifinal

Capitals def. Penguins

Lightning def. Canadiens

 

Conference Final

Capitals def. Canadiens

 

Western Conference

First Round

Ducks def. Jets

Sharks def. Oilers

Predators def. Blues

Blackhawks def. Stars

 

Conference Semifinals

Sharks def. Ducks

Predators def. Blackhawks

 

Conference Finals

Predators def. Sharks

 

Stanley Cup

Predators def. Capitals

 

 

 

2016 Champions League Preview

On August 25th, the draw for the 24th edition of the modern Champions League took place.  As usual, it was a drab affair, filled with smartly-dressed coaches, players, and executives closely scrutinizing little plastic soccer balls stuffed with the names of some of the biggest, and most ambitious, clubs in all of Europe.  Of course, it was just a precursor to what is the most competitive club soccer tournament in the world, in which victory is sweeter than every tournament except for the World Cup, that starts in just a couple hours.  So which team will pull off a victory in this year’s tournament?  Will Real Madrid be the first repeat champions since 1990, or will rivals FC Barcelona knock them off?  Will English giants Arsenal finally find some European success, or will their kryptonite, Bayern Munich, hoist the trophy?  Will PSG make their breakthrough, or will Juventus prevail?  Or will it be one of the underdogs that comes out a winner?  Here’s my prediction of what will happen in this year’s UCL:

 

Group A

PSG

Arsenal

Basel

Ludogorets

As much as I would love to see my beloved Arsenal place first in the group to avoid another round-of-16 loss, I have a lot of respect for PSG manager Unai Emery, and think that his astuteness in-game, combined with the dearth of talent he has at his disposal in the midfield, will allow the Parisians to trump the Gunners for first place in the group.  Arsene Wenger’s team should feel relatively safe in second place, though- Basel is still the toast of Switzerland, but doesn’t have the game-changers (Mohamed Salah, Breel Embolo) that it used to, and Ludogorets will have to overcome some unbelievable odds to make some real noise in this tournament.

 

Group B

Napol

Benfica

Besiktas

Dynamo Kyiv

Napoli lost its best player, Gonzalo Higuain, to Italian rivals Juventus, and that will greatly damage their prospects of being a true contender.  But the Blues, who are led by Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, have enough firepower to stay ahead of their Portugese rivals, who have a fantastic team spirit but lost their stars Renato Sanchez and Nicolas Gaitan.  Besiktas are fronted by the wily Ricardo Quaresma and the underrated Oğuzhan Özyakup- their tough style of play could cause some problems for Benfica, but ultimately, I think that the Black Eagles don’t have enough depth to move on.  Kyiv have one true stud in Andriy Yarmolenko but not much else- they’ll work hard, but will drop out of European competition without much of a whimper.

 

Group C

FC Barcelona

Manchester City

Borussia Monchengladbach

Celtic

This will be the best group, by far.  Celtic have bulked up by adding Brendan Rodgers and long striker Moussa Dembele to the fold, but they still won’t come close to matching the talent that is in the group.  Barca and Man City are pretty evenly matched on paper, and they both have strikers that have been on fire (Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero), fleet wingers (Neymar and Raheem Sterling), and some stars capable of producing magic (Lionel Messi and David Silva).  In the end, though, I think that Barca’s depth, combined with what I believe will be a strong desire from Luis Enrique to upstage his mentor’s return to Catalonia, will allow the Blaugrana to top the group with the Citizens tight on their tails.  ‘Gladbach is a dangerous team- I wouldn’t be surprised if they upset one of the top two teams and moved on to the knock-out stages, but on paper, I don’t think it’s super plausible.

 

Group D

Bayern Munich

Atletico Madrid

PSV

Rostov

Bayern are blessed with the deepest squad in all of football- any player that is from Germany, has played in Germany, or is an elite superstar has the potential to be reeled in by the Bavarian giants- and the immense talent that comes from this depth will propel them to the top of the group.  Atletico is in the midst of a slight change in its roster makeup and hasn’t looked super sharp to start the season, but Diego Simeone and Antoine Griezmann should pick them team up enough to avoid the Russian champs, Rostov, and move on to the knockout round.  As for the Dutch giants PSV, led by two De Jongs (Siem and Luuk), as well as Mexican star Andres Guardado, they are a good team, but better suited for the Europa League than this group.  Seeing Rostov move on would be a great treat for the country, and fans of the underdog, but their European inexperience will see them out quietly.

 

Group E

Tottenham

Bayern Leverkusen

CSKA Moscow

AS Monaco

Spurs landed themselves in a fairly tricky group- Leverkusen are a better team than people realize, CSKA is perhaps the most talented team in Russia, and AS Monaco add a rejuvenated Radamel Falcao to a team that knocked North London rivals Arsenal out of the knockout stages a mere two years ago.  That being said, Mauricio Pochettino has built a deep and dynamic squad which should have enough within them to top the group.  I see the Germans, led by Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, placing second on goal differential over CSKA, who have a solid team headlined by captain Igor Akinfeev, but the Russians have struggled in virtually every European competition as of late, and while this squad is exceptionally talented, I expect them to blow at least one game to cost them a place in the knockout round.  As for Monaco, I really like them, but outside of Joao Moutinho, I don’t think that anyone in their midfield can really match up to the other teams in their group.

 

Group F

Real Madrid

Borussia Dortmund

Sporting CP

Legia Warsaw

Los Blancos will be looking to defend their title, and with their two stars, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, flying high after leading their teams to extraordinary performances in the European Championships, I expect them to be one of the major contenders.  Ronaldo’s old club, Sporting, and the German giants Dortmund will be left two fight it out for the second spot.  Both teams underwent some serious change in the transfer market- Sporting has upgraded their frontline by adding Joel Campbell and Bas Dost, but they lost their player of the year, Joao Maria, to Inter; Dortmund, meanwhile, have lost key cogs Mats Hummels and Henrikh Mkhitaryan while adding Ousmane Dembele and resigning Mario Gotze.  In the end, I think that Dortmund’s fast paced style while be enough the Portuguese, and they’ll move on.  Warsaw are far and away the best team in Poland, but they don’t have the talent or the depth to match up with some of the continent’s biggest teams.

 

Group G

FC Porto

Leicester City

Club Brugge

FC Copenhagen

The Portuguese giants lucked into having a fairly easy group, where their closest competitor is defending Premier League champions Leicester, who are making their debut in the tournament.  The Hector Herrera-led squad should make it to the next round with ease.  In my opinion, the Foxes should, too- a counterattacking style is perfect for the early stages of the Champions League, and I think that Claudio Ranieri’s team has more talent than Brugge, and therefore should be able to hold them off for the second spot in the group.  Copenhagen, who seemingly make the tournament every year but never make much noise, won’t simply be placeholders this year- in an easy group, they have a chance to move on- but I can’t see them really taking advantage of that chance.

 

Group H

Juventus

Sevilla

Lyon

Dinamo Zagreb

Despite losing one of their biggest names, midfielder Paul Pogba, the Old Lady has still managed to upgrade their squad, signing Miralem Pjanic and Gonzalo Higuain from rivals Roma and Napoli, respectively, while also managing to snag young Croatian phenom Marko Pjaca.  They will certainly be the toast of this group.  Next up should be Sevilla, who have been better performers in the Europa League in recent years, but will manage to overcome the losses of Grzegorz Krychowiak and manager Unai Emery by relying on new signing Ganso and loanees Samir Nasri and Salvatore Sirigu to make it to the knockout stages.  Lyon, led by the fleet Alexandre Lacazette, have struggled in Europe in recent years, so while they have the potential to top their Spanish rivals, I don’t see them doing it.  Zagreb have a chance to advance if they can continue to make their home ground a fortress, but the rest of the group has too much talent for that to be a reality.

 

Strongest Group: Group C

I think that this is a tighter contest than people realize between Group C, which features Pep Guardiola’s return to his Catalan roots in Barcelona, and Group E, which is arguably deeper from top to bottom.  That being said, overlooking a group that has two of the giants from Europe’s two biggest leagues, an up-and-coming  German team, and the legendary Scottish champions, for the honor of being named strongest group would be just plain wrong.

 

Weakest Group: Group B

No offense to Benfica, who won the Portuguese championship last year over their arguably more talented rivals, Porto, but they are probably the weakest group winner there will be.  Combine that with the facts that Napoli aren’t really a force to be reckoned with outside of Italy (and sometimes that isn’t even the case), Dynamo Kyiv aren’t as strong as they used to be, and Besiktas has never really performed in Europe… well, let’s just say this isn’t the best collection of teams in the tournament.  Very impressive in their respective countries, but typically unable to translate that to European success; at least now they’ll all have a chance.

 

Dark Horse: Borussia Monchengladbach

They got placed in the toughest group of the draw, and will have to overcome the teams that I think are the champions-elect of the two toughest domestic leagues in the world in Barcelona and Manchester City, so their progression is unlikely.  But if Andre Schubert’s team is able to pull an upset over one of those two giants, watch out.  The Foals found form at the end of last season and seemed to have carried it over to this year, if their destruction of Young Boys is any indication, and their deep squad, led by the electric Thorgan Hazard, will be buzzing with confidence if they are able to move on.  This confidence could enable them to knock off one of the game’s giants.

 

Champion: Bayern Munich

Having already picked Manchester City as the Premier League champion in my preview of the EPL, I was tempted to pick them to cast off their European burdens and when The Trophy with the Big Ears; their form thus far has been delectable, and Pep Guardiola has vast amounts of experience in the legendary championship.  However, I expect Guardiola’s old club, Bayern, to walk away as champions- it seems like the German giants have a squad that is better suited for new manager Carlo Ancelotti’s style than it was for Guardiola’s, and they’ll have time to work out the kinks in the group stage, where only Atleti will give them problems.  Once they figure it out, I expect Ancelotti to use all of Bayern’s incredibly deep and talented team to pull out the 6th Champions League title in club history.

EPL Season Preview- Part 1

After a dramatic off-season that included two major tournaments (three, if you count the Olympic tournament, which is currently in progress) and many big-named players switching clubs, the 2016 Premier League Season is finally upon us.  While the EPL is arguably the deepest league in the entire world, there have to be some teams that don’t get to experience finishing up at the higher end of the table, teams that have the guts but just simply don’t have what it takes to get the glory. Here is Part 1 of my projection for the upcoming season, starting at the bottom of the table:

 

  1. Hull City

Hull City have bounced back and forth between the Premier League and the Championship over the past few years, and you would think that they would have an advantage over the two other teams promoted with them because of their previous experience in staying up.  However, the club is currently in a state of disarray- they do not have a manager, with caretaker Mike Phelan set to start the season in charge after the resignation of Steve Bruce.  One of the team’s best players, Mo Diame, left for Newcastle in the Championship, citing the possibility of a better future.  They haven’t made any major signings, and their squad is woefully thin.  I just don’t see any way that they can stay up.

 

  1. Burnley

Sean Dyche is a fantastic manager, and his disciplined style of play, and his players’ typically flawless execution of it, will give the Clarets a chance to hang around the top flight next season.  However, outside of fleet striker Andre Gray and goalie Tom Heaton, the team just doesn’t have many Premier League-level talents, and like relegation rivals Hull, have not been able to secure any signings to help bolster their campaign to stay up.  The team will enjoy the money that the EPL will give them, and the experience of playing top-flight football, then they will drop back down to the second division.

 

  1. Sunderland

It seems like Sunderland ends up in a relegation battle every season, and I don’t expect this one to be any different.  The current players have shown that they are fully capable of stepping up their game to maintain their Premier League status, but I just don’t see it happening this year.  The club is transition between managers, and while both Sam Allardyce and David Moyes are fantastic coaches, the old manager, Allardyce, has a coaching style that is better suited to a relegation right than his replacement, Moyes.  Also, the squad is woefully thin- there are only 20 first-team players on the current roster.  The defense looks very weak after the departure of Wes Brown (released) and DeAndre Yedlin (returned to Tottenham), and could get weaker if Lamine Kone completes his move to Everton.  There hasn’t been anyone signed to help ease the burden on the aging Jermain Defoe.  I just don’t think the Black Cats have what it takes to survive another season.

 

  1. Swansea

Swansea have been very popular since their arrival in the Premier League back in 2011, when Brendan Rodgers was at the helm.  Their attractive, possession-based game won them a League Cup in 2012 and has helped them maintain their longest top-flight stay in club history.  However, teams started to figure out how to overcome the Swans’ possession domination last season, and the club struggled throughout the season.  They have made moves to upgrade last year’s faltering attack, but their defense will be sorely lacking after captain Ashley Williams inevitably departs for Everton.  The team is good, but they’ll be in for a season even tougher than the one they had last year.  They’ll have just enough to stay up, but they’ll need some serious improvements if they expect to recapture the success they had when they first arrived in the Premier League.

 

  1. West Brom

The Baggies are not blessed with overwhelming talent, but are blessed with hard-working players, embodied by the aptly-named vice-captain Chris Brunt, and a manager, Tony Pulis, whose direct style is well-suited to this roster and to a relegation battle.  The team could use a couple more signings to help settle fears over the possible departures of mainstays Jonny Evans and Sadio Berahino, but with or without them, I feel that the team has what it takes to hover above Sunderland and Swansea while staying in the league for next season.

 

  1. Bournemouth

The Cherries, like their promoted counterparts, Watford, weren’t expected to do anything last season; in fact, they were favored by many to drop back down to the Championship, especially after star striker Callum Wilson went down with an injury early in the season.  However, some great managing by the young Eddie Howe, and a few brilliant results mid-season, including back-to-back wins over Chelsea and Manchester United, secured them a place in the EPL this season.  The club knew it needed to add more pieces to stay up this season, and it did so wisely by investing in solid youngsters Brad Smith, Emerson Hyndman and Jordan Ibe.  With a strengthened squad and a full season of Wilson up ahead, I expect Bournemouth to take a (small) step forward from last season.

 

  1. Crystal Palace

Alan Pardew’s Eagles got off to a flying start last season, and it looked like they may turn into real European contenders.  That was before the offense dried up, and the Eagles slumped so badly that they were close to getting really deep into a relegation battle.  The team has made some good signings- they inked Andros Townsend and Steve Mandanda to bolster a core that already includes Yannick Bolasie and Yohan Cabaye, but Bolasie might depart for Everton, and the team still doesn’t have a truly dependable striker to put an end to their scoring woes.  Palace won’t be relegated, but their year won’t be particularly exciting, either.

 

  1. Watford

Last year, the Hornets were promoted to England’s top league for the first time since 2007, and they weren’t expected to do all that much.  However, the Pozzo family had built this team up to be the crown jewel of their portfolio of three pro teams, and the club ended the season in an impressive 13th place.  The team has managed to hang on to its biggest names- forwards Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo- and have a deep roster, with numerous players capable of filling multiple different roles and playing in different formations.  I worry slightly about overall defensive talent, and also about new manager Walter Mazzarri, who has a style of coaching that is more defensive than pragmatic.  This is why I feel that Watford will finish slightly lower than they did last year.

 

  1. Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough have been on the verge of regaining their place in the Premier League since manager Aitor Karanka took over back in 2013, and this past season finally saw the former Jose Mourinho confidant lift his team to the big show.  The team had a decent, but seemingly below Premier League quality core upon coming up to the first division, but Karanka invested wisely in some players to bolster his squad.  He got Victor Valdes and Brad Guzan to fight for the #1 goalkeeper spot, Marten de Roon and Gaston Ramirez to upgrade the midfield, and Alvaro Negredo to join the underrated Jordan Rhodes up top.  I still think they could add another defender or two to bolster their back line, but otherwise, I feel this team has enough to stick around for another season.

 

  1. Southampton

The last three years, the Southampton team has been purged of its core.  2014 saw Nathan Clyne and Rickie Lambert leave, while last summer, Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin left for Manchester United.  Both of the corresponding seasons, though the Saints responded with a fantastic finish in the league.  This year, though, with manager Ronald Koeman leaving along with Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle, and Victor Wanyama, I think the team from St. Mary’s will finally drop off a little.  They’ll still be good enough to hang with the big boys in some games- Claude Puel is a very good manager, and his top players, defender Jose Fonte, midfielder Jordy Clasie, and striker Shane Long, are no slouches, but they don’t have the true game-changers, or the depth, to finish as high as they have the last two years.

 

  1. Everton

The Toffees are an interesting team.  They have a solid core to build off of with Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley, with some solid veterans like Gareth Barry and Leighton Baines in support of them.  However, over the past couple seasons, they have played below the overall sum of their parts.  They have a new owner, Farhad Moshiri, that is ready to spend, and a new manager, Ronald Koeman, that seems perfectly suited to this kind of team.  The defense seems a little shaky after the departure of John Stones (enforcements are expected, but they won’t come close to matching Stones’s talent), and I think it will take a while for Koeman to get the squad to play his style instead of the more possession-based game of his predecessor, Roberto Martinez, and because of that, I feel the blue side of Liverpool will have to slog through another mediocre season before things change around.

 

  1. Stoke City

This season will be Mark Hughes’s 4th season at the helm of the Potters, and he has drastically reshaped the team’s image from what it was under Tony Pulis.  Led by Swiss dynamo Xherdan Shaqiri, the team is incisive and attack-focused, yet disciplined at the back.  The have the talent to make a run at a spot in Europe, but sometimes too much is forced on either Shaqiri or fellow winger Morgan Arnautovic, and that makes Stoke a one man team that is easy to stop.  They need to discover cohesiveness as a team in order to really make a push towards the top, and while Hughes has assembled a very solid squad from top to bottom, with their current team balance, I just don’t think they have that yet.

 

You can check out Part 2 of this preview on my new soccer website, gunnerupdates.com

The US and Immigration

There are many different things, many different moving parts, that make up the United States of America. Some of them are not the most positive things in the world- the fact that the US has more people in jail more than any other country in the world is one thing that comes to mind about why this country isn’t always the shining light that many people make it out to be. That being said, there are still many things to be proud of about the US, and one of the things that I am the most proud of in this country is the amazing diversity that it has. There are tons of different cultures, and thousands of different viewpoints, that come from the many different people that live in the US. Here at Babson, I’ve met people from Mexico, Canada, Turkey, South Korea, Egypt, China, Switzerland, South Africa, and, I’m sure, people from other countries that I’ve been too nervous to talk to.

Most, if not all, people in the US, are either immigrants or descendants of them. That includes the people that just came to this country yesterday, but also includes me- my great-great grandparents on my dad’s side came to America for a better life in the after the Irish potato famine. While the immigration rate is far lower than it was in its heyday, which saw hundreds of thousands of people enter the country while making Ellis Island into a national landmark, the American Dream is very much alive today. However, many conservatives, with Donald Trump among the most vocal, believe that the number of immigrants, particularly illegal ones (and, in Trump’s case, the number of immigrants, illegal or not, from Mexico), need to be reduced drastically, and that a wall might need to be built along the US-Mexico border to make that happen. I believe that Trump, and those that wholeheartedly believe in his policies, are terrible people for their blatant racism towards the Mexican people. However, I do believe that our immigration policy needs to be revised to cut down on the number of immigrants let into the country, illegal or not, Mexican or otherwise, as soon as possible.

Now, you may think me racist, or may think me in line with the extremely conservative view on immigration. But I beg to differ on that. I don’t feel that the illegals that are already here should be deported; nor do I feel that their children should be denied American citizenship due to their parents’ status as illegal immigrants. I’m also extremely grateful for many of the immigrants, for what they do to keep our economy working by taking jobs that many white, “traditional” Americans refuse to take due to the hard work required, or due to the idea that the job is “below them.” As such, we need to consider WHY so many immigrants, particularly Mexican ones, are so willing to take such low class jobs, and risk deportation, to come to live here in America. And, the sad fact is that the quality of life for many immigrants, illegal or not, is very poor, far poorer than would it would be even in the slums of the American towns and cities that they end up in. Mexican immigrants, for example, have to live with a government corrupted by the vicious drug traders that threaten the lives of many thousands of people. Middle and eastern Europeans face both economic (Greece) and political (Ukraine) instability, and the ever-looming threat of the all-powerful Russia. Asians come over due to overpopulation and a lack of resources in the region. All of these things are very valid gripes, and while the US certainly has its problems, its current status as a beacon of capitalism makes it a desirable place to move for all of the immigrants.

Here’s the problem: immigrating to the United States, or a western European country, in the face of trouble has become the status quo. Or, if immigration isn’t the status quo, then having a multinational company go into an unstable, impoverished area to employ the disadvantaged people to make products for low wages is the status quo. The point is, we, as a country, are fostering the wrong idea of what people should do when faced with a problem. We shouldn’t just run from our problems, and nor should we put on a big show (in this case, the show would be a multinational corporation) to cover up the problem.

We should, instead, enable people, and encourage people, to buck the status quo of fleeing from their poor environments. Obviously, there are many immigrants for whom it is almost necessary that they flee their homeland and move to another country- Syria comes to mind for me- but if every person in a situation that might warrant moving to another country decided to pack up their bags and move to a developed country, then many countries’ caring capacities will become stretched thin. Resources will be stretched to their absolute limits, and the rate at which our planet’s environment is deteriorating will increase beyond anyone’s ability to control it. And, on top of that, the economy would be so concentrated into certain areas of the world that the idea of a local economy would no longer exist. Big multinational corporations would be able to function with little to no resistance, and would easily be able to take advantage of people in the way I described earlier. Massing people into more developed countries may mean a good short term outcome for displaced people, but would mean long term disaster economically and environmentally.

What we should be doing, instead, is to get in to disadvantaged people, enable them to do or to get what they need, and get out. Obviously, doing that is easier said than done, with many people that are the most desperate for help- particularly Africans, who are at a huge disadvantage due to their lack of resources (particularly money) in relation to the rest of the world- but if we were to make ENABLING people the status quo, instead of encouraging people to immigrate and work for a better life, it is obvious what the benefits would be. Not having people flooding into Western countries will allow them to somewhat maintain their caring capacities, and not have to dive in and ruin other countries’ landscapes in search of resources. Enabled peoples will be more enlightened on how to use the resources that they have in order to live productive lives in local economies, which, in turn, deemphasizes people’s needs for a lot of money and a larger, more “connected” (that is, closer to more of society) lifestyle that is so prized by the Western way of life. Enable peoples also would be able to know how to make their lives continue on, as normal as possible, in the face of adversity, similar to how Native Americans have been resilient, despite their constant removal from their tribal homes by the US government.

Again, as I stated earlier, I do not believe that every immigrant, illegal or otherwise, coming into this country should stay in their homeland. It makes a lot of sense for a good chunk of people to come to the United States, or another Western country, and work hard to make a living the best that they can- it’s very admirable that they do so, and it makes our country a better place. But, if we could cut down on the number of immigrants coming to the US and enable people to, in essence, live productive lives with what they have been given, either by nature or through limited assistance from our enabling, and not to conform to the gluttony and materialism that permeates modern capitalism, then every country in the world would be much better off, economically, environmentally, and emotionally.