Tuesday, June 17, 2014

World Cup Heroics and More!

In the past week, we have seen two sports culminate, a German golfer run away with the U.S. Open and the beginning of the World Cup. Let's dive into these great sports moments.

World Cup
I will admit that I'm not a big soccer fan. In fact, when I was younger, I will also admit that I was spoiled by the mass scoring of the popular American sports and equated little scoring in soccer with boredom.

But, as I've gotten older, I've started to appreciate the sport (the same goes for golf!). Even more so, I've found myself immersed in the World Cup madness.

I've been trying to figure out why I love it so much, and why many very casual American soccer fans, like myself, get so into the cup. The most obvious reason is to be patriotic, pull for our country and wave the flag proudly. But beyond that, I believe it is because it's one of those few sports where the U.S. is never expected to win. Think about that for a minute. Our country is dominant in basketball, has by far the most successful football and baseball leagues in the country, and often finishes near or at the top in medal count in the Olympics. Even in hockey, where Canada is always the favorite, America is still typically a top team. In the World Cup, our country isn't expected to advance very far, and sometimes, not even out of our own group.

So, when the USA beats Ghana in a thrilling 2-1 victory to open their cup, it's a big deal! Not just because America exacted revenge from two straight cup losses to Ghana, but also, the way we did it. It started out with a bang when American star Clint Dempsey netted a goal in the first 29 seconds, one of the rarest sights you'll ever see. Ghana seemingly dominated play for most of the match thereafter, but squandered many opportunities. Then, they struck gold in the 82nd minute, tying the game at one, and ripping out the hearts of Americans in the process. Many of us just wanted to hold on and win. Three points in the opening match for American soccer seemed like an enormous gain, and looked to be taken away. Then, the unthinkable happened. Off of a corner, USA's John Brooks became the first American substitute to score a goal (fast forward to 2:21) when he headed a game winner past the keeper in the 86th minute for a decisive 2-1 victory! It was pandemonium across American bars, and among the jubilant U.S. contingent in Brazil.

The chant, "I believe that we will win" came true. But, let's look at that chant for a second. It is really a chant of hope, not expectation. And, that's precisely why this victory and cheering for American soccer at the cup is so fun. A logical American soccer fan, at best, can hope for a win. Based on history, they can never expect to contend. And, I'm okay with that! Let's be excited for the surprises, take in the small victories and be optimistic for the future.

NBA Finals
In a rematch of the best floppers in the world, the Spurs throttled the Heat. More than that, the Spurs avenged last season's brutal choke job, that saw an NBA title, seemingly in grasp, change hands after a miserable final 28 seconds in game six.

The overwhelming line that came out of the Spurs play this finals was that, "This is how the game is supposed to be played." This stems from the fact that the game has changed to the point that one-on-one play is seen far too often and team basketball is seen far too infrequent. On top of that, the NBA has been tarnished by all these star players wanting to go play with their friends in big markets. The idea of representing your hometown or the city you play for and building your team through the draft has often been a thing of the past. That's why many people respect the Thunder and Spurs, and loathe the Heat and Nets.

This finals was about a team beating a star, the denial of a dynasty and the adding to a legacy. While the media overhyped how this is all about Lebron,  they should have focused much more on how this is about Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. Duncan is one of the few guys left from the 90s, and he is now the only player to win a title from three different decades. That's an remarkable feat. Whether or not you like the Spurs, you have to respect Duncan and Popovich. Duncan is the best power forward in history, while Popovich is a top five coach in history. The two have five titles, and have adapted brilliantly through the years. Duncan is a rare guy in today's league that leads from within, and is a humble superstar. Popovich has perhaps extended his career and strong play by carefully managing his minutes, while also getting his players to execute a brilliant system that is unmatched in today's game and wins titles. This duo won't last much longer, so appreciate it while you can!

One of the most interesting aspects of the finals is that a decent number of Mavericks fans cheered for San Antonio. The hatred of Lebron James and Miami, mixed with the fading of the Mavs-Spurs rivalry, seems to have resulted in Mavs fans cheering out of respect, hate and a win for the league. Well, they got their wish. We will see what ensues this off-season. It should be a great draft and a solid free agency. Will the Mavs finally land a top free agent? If they don't, it might be a very mediocre team next season, with the Thunder getting their first round pick. Time will tell.

Hockey has just not been the same since the strike, but one thing that will never change is parity. The Kings have now won recent titles as the 8 seed and 6 seed. That's unheard of in the NBA today.

While hockey is much more fun in person, the playoffs were very compelling, even on TV. The up and down roller coaster ride of the LA Kings truly proves that it's not over until the fat lady sings. Coming back from 3-0 down and winning more than a half-dozen elimination games was the ultimate showing of resiliency. And, if anyone questioned why Jonathan Quick was in goal for the USA in the Olympics, those questions were put to rest. Quick was brilliant in the finals, while his Olympics back-up Ryan Miller was traded to the St. Louis Blues mid-season and struggled in the playoffs.

The Kings proved that regular season seeding does not mean you can't contend for a Stanley Cup. Hot play and solid goalie play can make all the difference in this true team sport. And, in local action, it was great to see the Dallas Stars finally make the playoffs and win a couple games in the process. Hopefully, the team can build off their momentum, and the playoffs as a whole will be as scintillating as 2014 was.

U.S. Open
Like soccer, I used to think golf was very boring. But, as I've aged, I have appreciated it more and more.

One thing you have to appreciate is Martin Kaymer's remarkable 9-under score to take the U.S. Open. The closest score was eight strokes behind, and that was the kind of score many golf enthusiasts and analysts predicted would win the event. While many struggled to even make par, Kaymer dominated the course.

Shifting gears, golf seems to be about story lines. Fans want to get behind a golfer and go crazy. Many were fixated on cheering for American favorite Phil Mickelson to complete the career major, but that wasn't to be. Others were worried that Tiger's injury and absence from many events would hurt the sport. I would argue that the sport is just fine. There are a ton of skilled golfers, those brilliant shots that light up a crowd like Kenny Perry's, the rise of young star Jordan Spieth and great stories like Erik Compton's. If Phil and Tiger are contending, that's great for the game, but the sport has enough story lines to create excitement and keep its fans entertained. Just sit back and enjoy the golf!

Unless you are into tennis, golf or baseball regular season play, sports will be pretty dull after the world cup, from mid-July until September when football starts up. Nevertheless, this last month of sports was incredible, and shouldn't be taken for granted. There is no guarantee these championships will produce such quality, and the World Cup is every four years. Let's appreciate the great moments. Here's to next year!