Thursday, April 28, 2016

wow Tavares is good

It was my first Islanders game since my Nana passed away in 2004. She was the one with the Islanders season tickets.

Even before she passed, Nana gave up on her tickets. The woman who taped every single game on VHS could no longer stomach the daily embarrassment in the late 1990s.

The doldrums continued for years, until the Islanders drafted John Tavares. As I moved to DC, I kept tabs on this new star. Still, there was so much losing. It felt like they were never going to win games again.

When my Uncle and his family visited DC in March 2013 and invited me to join for an Islanders/Caps game, I was not expecting to see the light.
Hockey is unique because television doesn’t do it justice. Sure, hockey is incredible to watch on television. It simply doesn’t tell the full story. There is an almost imperceptible difference from a very good to a great hockey player that must be appreciated in the flesh.

tavares beats panthers game 6
I watched John Tavares play on television and it appeared he was the best player on the ice.

I watched John Tavares play in person and it was obvious he was the best player on the ice.

In the same way the ballpark comes to a stop when Bryce Harper bats, every eye focuses on the puck when it’s on Tavares’ stick. It feels different when he has it – a goal is possible at any moment.

This feeling is amplified by the fact that the Islanders have not truly complimented him with other top scorers. Not only does it feel like Tavares is going to score, it feels like he has to score for the Islanders to win.

During the 2015 playoffs, the Caps wore down the Islanders after seven games. Every game at Verizon Center, I sat in the stands and patiently waited for the Tavares line to hit the ice. It was frustrating as hell, yet I loved it. The Islanders have never, in my lifetime, had anyone who came even close to John Tavares – sorry, Turgeon, but it’s true.
As the 2016 playoffs began, I can’t admit to optimism. This year’s team reminded me of last year’s, led by the best player in the league and lacking a second scoring line. The only solace was a last game loss that sent the Islanders to Miami instead of Pittsburgh.

While I may not have been optimistic two weeks ago, I am now dreaming of playoff victories, series-clinching goals and Stanley Cups. Why not? The Islanders have John Tavares, and the opponents do not.

The Panthers had no answer for Tavares over six games. Even though everyone in the building knew who was getting the puck, there was nothing they could do. That’s the mark of a true great, where the opposition cannot devise a strategy for stopping them.

While his play over the first five games was legendary, his performance in Game 6 was mythical. Yes, you know about the tying goal and the winning goal. But it was everything else that made that game so special.

Sports are defined by the indefinable. You can’t quantify leadership, or hard work, or attitude. You can only feel it. Game 6 was that defining moment for Tavares.

From the third period through the overtimes, there was a palpable buzz in the Barclays Center when Tavares came on the ice. It’s rare in hockey for a crowd to react – every single time – when a guy hits the ice. Even if you closed your eyes, you would be able to hear when Tavares was playing.

With about five minutes to go, and things looking incredibly bleak, I started to believe. For 23 years, I always assumed something bad would happen to the Islanders. On this night, I assumed something good would happen.

As overtime started, I knew the Islanders would win. I can’t explain it – I’m a lifelong Jets/Islanders fan conditioned to prepare for the worst. Inexplicably, I was waiting for the John Tavares to score the winning goal. Even more inexplicably, he did!

It’s not supposed to work that way in hockey. The overtime goal is supposed to be scored by some third-line winger on a fluke. Mark Messier didn’t score in Game 7 in 1994, it was Stephane Matteau.

As the Islanders won the series, I fully realized what John Tavares meant to the Islanders.
Some lead by screaming and yelling. Some lead by working hard than everyone else. Others lead by attitude, and that’s John Tavares. At every moment – on the ice and off – he excudes confidence, and it’s contagious. 

In 2015, the Islanders played to survive in the playoffs. In 2016, the Islanders played to win. That slight difference in attitude has open a whole world of possibilities. Nana would be happy.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Jealousy of Jim Harbaugh May Take Down the NCAA

Once the curtain is pulled back, the illusion is gone forever.

Republicans know. Since the election of President Obama, their primary objective was to object his every move. For seven years, the fa├žade remained. No, they weren’t against Obama – just his policies. They were merely fighting for middle class America. It was bullshit, but it worked.

Then Justice Antonin Scalia passed away and before the body was even in the ground, Republican Senators were denying President Obama’s future Supreme Court nominee.

At this moment, Republicans pulled back the curtain and revealed itself as obstructionists. Things got no better when Obama nominated Merrick Garland, essentially an American law hero from his work following the Oklahoma City bombing and far more moderate than whoever Hillary Clinton will nominate in 2017.

As the public overwhelmingly disagrees with Republican refusal to not even meet with Garland, it is remarkable how pointless the exercise has been. Republicans, through basic rules of government procedure, could have dragged their feet for months. Instead, the GOP will be lucky to survive 2016.

jim harbaugh camp
The NCAA is about to learn. Jim Harbaugh and his seemingly unending plot to destroy the Southeastern Conference dominated this offseason and the last. So it came as little surprise the SEC would oppose Harbaugh’s use of satellite camps. Similarly, it was no surprise the SEC brought a motion to end satellite camps.

However, it was very much a surprise the ban on satellite camps was approved, and it has set in motion what could be the end of the NCAA in its current form. The U.S. Department of Justice – aka, the entity that finally took down FIFA – has reportedly set its sights on the NCAA.

For everyone who wants to see student-athletes treated fairly and receive their fair share, this is the best piece of news in decades.

The NCAA has consistently hid behind the welfare of student-athletes as why they opposed so many initiatives that the general public supported. Why couldn’t we have a college football playoff? The kids need to be in class. Why can’t they get paid? The kids are amateurs. Why can’t they transfer immediately? The kids need to graduate.

Just as the GOP spun its obstruction to Obama, the NCAA and conference commissioners spun its decisions as a way to support student-athletes. While we knew it was bullshit, there was a kernel of truth that kept the illusion alive.

But the satellite camp vote changed everything.

It was very clear, from the very beginning, that satellite camps benefit the student-athlete. It gives them more opportunities to perform in front of more coaches. The vast majority of these athletes aren’t being recruited by Michigan or Alabama – they are looking for a place to play anywhere, on the FBS, FCS or lower level. The only aggrieved party from satellite camps were a select few Power Five football coaches and programs.

To compound the issues of banning camps, the votes revealed how decisions are being made without any inclination to think about student-athletes. In fact, almost every party involved – save the SEC – was voting against its best interests.

This was made painfully, and publicly, clear when Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said that 11 of 12 Pac-12 schools were against the ban. Except UCLA AD Dan Guerrero, the Pac-12’s representative, voted for the ban. Since the Power Conference votes count as double – hmm, that sounds like a cartel – Guerrero’s vote clinched the ban.

While the SEC was leading the charge, the ACC was right there with them. It was another curious move since less than half of the ACC would benefit from a ban. How is it good for Pittsburgh, Syracuse or Boston College to ban camps? Louisville has been mining Florida for talent for years – they would vote to ban an access point to that talent? Why would Wake Forest or Duke care?

Even more head-scratching was the decision by the Sun Belt to vote in favor of the ban. You could argue that no conference benefited more than the Sun Belt, whose teams are located in recruit-rich areas but are not competing with the SEC for talent. A Michigan satellite camp in the South is a boon to Sun Belt schools. Rumors of the SEC threatening to stop scheduling Sun Belt teams, and withholding those million-dollar checks, began flying immediately.

I hope the DOJ starts digging because it’s about time the government got its hands dirty with the NCAA. There is arguably no bigger racket in American sports. The NCAA had the audacity to sign another billion-dollar deal for the NCAA Tournament, proudly state that the money will be funneled to student-athletes and then immediately ban an initiative that thousands of student-athletes use to get scholarships.

The beauty is how truly pointless the entire satellite camp debate was to begin with. Who cares? If they continued, would anything in college football change?

Instead, they won’t continue and there’s the very real possibility that everything changes.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Best Way to Write Better Blog Posts

This post initally appeared on LinkedIn.

Write when you have an idea.

That’s it. That’s the absolute best way to write better blog posts. Sounds simple, right? Then why are so many blog posts not worth reading?

Too often, we write blog posts when we need to. That’s not a recipe for writing good blog posts. We need to start writing when we want to.

We are overloaded with content. This post will pop up as one in a stream in LinkedIn. If I tweet it out, it will join thousands of other links. What is going to make this blog post stand out?

Sure, you can write an excellent, engaging – or, click-bait – headline. You can bold certain words and underline key points. But if the content is not good, people are not going to share.

daryl hall guster
Too often, we are constrained by the process. There is nothing more damaging to good writing than process.

Daryl Hall hosts an amazing music show, Live from Daryl’s House, where he jams with fellow musicians and chats with them about music. In an episode I re-watched recently, the lead singer of Guster asked Daryl about his process for writing music. His answer was perfect.

“Process? I have no process. I hate process. It ruins my soul.”

Okay, so no one is going to confuse your next blog post with Sara Smile, but greatness should still be the goal. To write a great blog post, you need inspiration. However, that inspiration is not always going to be there when you start typing.

The challenge we have to overcome is the schedule we lay out for publishing. Yes, it would be great to have a set number of posts every week. No, that does not work out in practice.

We need to accept that spikes and valleys should happen when it comes to blog posts if they’re being done correctly. Some weeks, there may be an engaging, shareable blog post every day. On the flip side, there may be weeks without any blog posts and metrics will go way down.

Content marketing works when it doesn’t feel forced.

How can your post rise above the rest? It’s probably going to be on a topic that hits you when you’re not at work or even thinking about work. Maybe it happens when you’re taking the dog for a walk on a beautiful Sunday morning and a brilliant idea blows up in your brain.

When that idea hits, you need to write it down and explore it. Maybe all you have at first is a lead or a few paragraphs. That's okay, because simply writing the idea down is vital. It gives your brain a jump-off point for further ideas. Once the creativity starts, let it grow and see where it takes you.

To make this work, we cannot be limited by a schedule. If you have two really good blog posts ready to post on the same day, this is not a bad thing. This is a moment to be savored and exploited!

I used to write for a newspaper back when print still mattered – yes, I am aging myself – and I know what it’s like to fight for space. But if two major stories broke on the same day, would we delay one until the next day? Of course not. We’d go all out on both because they were worth it. We were usually rewarded with higher newsstand sales and a spike in interest. Online, you do not have to worry about space – so use that unlimited resource to your advantage.

If you free people up to be more creative about when and how they write, they will produce better content.

Writing a blog post should be far more than an item to check off. It needs to be engaging. It needs to be thought-provoking. It needs to be unique.

And if you succeed, people will be much more likely to click on the links that you want them to.

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Friday, April 15, 2016

The 12-Step Plan to Make MLS a Top League by 2022

“We want to be thought of the way the Premier League is thought of, Serie A is thought of, La Liga is thought of, the Bundesliga is thought of. When people think about the best leagues in the world, everybody knows who they are, and we want to be one of those leagues.” – Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, July 2014

liverpool beats dortmund
On Thursday afternoon, the scenes from Anfield as Liverpool completed a comeback for the ages against Borussia Dortmund were awe-inspiring. These were top clubs from top leagues laying it all on the line. It was the epitome of world-class football.

It also further illuminated the great challenge for Major League Soccer if it wants to be on that level.

Even the most ardent MLS supporter – and I have not been one – must admit the league is far from the best in the world. At times, the league has become a laughingstock. This past week, Sacramento Republic tried to make #BuiltForMLS a trending hashtag and they succeeded. The problem is the hashtag trended thanks to soccer fans mocking the league for its ineptitude.

Despite grand proclamations after each World Cup, the MLS has not shown the type of growth you would expect from a country that has more registered youth soccer players than all but one country in the world.

Americans love soccer. Americans don’t love soccer in America. This is a huge problem for the sport and needs to be addressed. It’s time for MLS to stop antagonizing and start embracing the large numbers of Americans who only watch foreign leagues, whether that’s EPL, Liga MX or the Champions League.

In order, here are 12 steps that MLS can take to achieve the seemingly impossible goal of being a top league by 2022.

Move the MLS Cup

The most popular television show in America is the 4:25 p.m. NFL game on Sunday afternoons. Guess when the MLS Cup was played in 2015? Yep, directly opposite.

This is mind-boggling, and a recently new development. For years, the MLS Cup was played on a Sunday – against television’s 2nd most popular show, Sunday Night Football. Then, the game was moved to a Saturday afternoon against the SEC Title Game, which is annually one of college football’s most-watched games of the year.

Why? Why? Why? The ratings from 2015 were frighteningly bad, falling far short of regular season NHL games and early morning EPL games. The MLS Cup cannot be programmed against football in December and expect to stay relevant.

The MLS needs to follow the lead of other sports and give up the fight against the NFL. If the MLS Cup absolutely must stay at the first week of December, it needs to be moved to a weeknight. On a Tuesday night, maybe ESPN can treat what should be America’s biggest soccer game like an actual event.

Stop Adding Teams

There are 20 teams in EPL, La Liga and Ligue 1. There are 18 teams in Liga MX and the Bundesliga. So why on Earth does MLS want to have 24 teams by 2020 and a ridiculous 28 teams as the ultimate goal?

The quality of play in MLS is behind other top leagues and adding more teams only thins out rosters to drag play down even further. We all know what is driving this, as expansion teams cough up an insane $100 million to join. But since none of this money has made its way into salaries, it hasn’t done the league any good.

The perfect number for MLS is 20 teams, split into two 10-team conferences. This is not rocket science.

Scrap the Current Playoff Format

In a league with 30 teams, MLB has 10 teams that make the playoffs. In a league with 20 teams, MLS has 12 teams make the playoffs. I wonder why no one cares about the MLS regular season?

Personally, I would remove all playoff games from the MLS because they have provided little to no tangible benefits. But I comprehend that MLS Cup is a necessary evil in the American sports landscape. Still, the fact that 60% of teams make the playoffs is absurd.

I would suggest the perfect number is 3 or 4 per conference – with 3 giving the top team a bye, while 4 would be acceptable if finishing first had another benefit. Regardless, 12 is far too many and hurting the overall product.

Change the Champions League Qualifications

Due to Canadian teams involved, the Champions League qualifications are full of if’s. If a Canadian team wins, if the Supporters Shield team wins the MLS Cup, if, if, if. It’s not good because it confuses the casual fan.

liga mx beats mls
Look at the EPL and how very simple it is – the top four makes the Champions League. No if’s, no but’s.

Because the schedules are not identical, it would be unfair for MLS to take just the top four. Instead, take the top two regular season finishers in each conference. That’s it. Make it simple.

The winner of the MLS Cup won the MLS Cup and the winner of the US Open Cup won the US Open Cup, those are trophies and should suffice. The league needs to focus on creating urgency in the regular season for the top teams, instead of coasting into the playoffs, and this is how you do it.

Stop Playing during FIFA International Windows

I don’t have much to say here because it’s ridiculous. MLS is the only American sport that would dare play regular season games without its best players. Could you imagine if the NHL kept playing during the Olympics? Could you imagine if the Cavs played one game with LeBron playing elsewhere?

It’s unthinkable because it’s stupid. If every other league can figure out how to schedule around these breaks – and MLS plays fewer games than others – than MLS can figure it out too. How does playing games opposite the World Cup help anyone?

Scrap the All-Star Game

If you want to be perceived as a top league, it’s not a good look to have all your best players on one side against an European club. You’re telling the entire world you’re a minor league. This is bad.

I understand the need for a mid-season showcase, so why not make it a benefit for winning, say, the US Open Cup or MLS Cup? The team that wins that Cup gets to host a mid-season showcase against the top European club. You can still name an All-Star team, and maybe do a skills completion before the showcase game to keep that signature event on the calendar.

Stop Signing Old Players

David Beckham was a landmark signing for MLS because, despite his advanced age, he was still a world-class footballer that could play at the top level. He was also a huge star and brought much-needed attention to a league that desperately needed it at the time.

You know what MLS doesn’t need? Guys like Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard, who could no longer compete in EPL, being granted massive contracts to finish out their career. The “retirement league” stigma looms over MLS on a daily basis.

Instead of spending money on older players that don’t bring fans to the league, funnel that money into developing young American players and signing overlooked talent wasting away on the benches of top European clubs.

Increase Emphasis on U.S. Open Cup

I never know when the US Open Cup is on. That’s probably because it’s not on. The US Open Cup is the only part of American soccer that has ever emulated European soccer. Since it features teams from NASL, MLS rarely promotes it properly.

MLS needs to realize that a smaller division club upsetting MLS teams is a good thing, because it adds the needed pressure to the proceedings. Make the US Open Cup a signature event and push for a television deal that puts it on ESPN, Fox Sports 1 or NBCSN. This could be a signature event and another way to grab casual fans. March Madness shows us every year that people love knockout tournaments and they love big upsets.

Scrap the DP Rule

It’s ridiculous that guys making far less than I are professional soccer players in this country, playing alongside guys making millions. When new teams are paying $100 million for the right to join the league, it’s criminal.

Allow teams to pay players fair value. If superclubs emerge, that’s a good thing. The “parity” in MLS looks suspiciously like mediocrity, and top leagues are not mediocre.

Increase Emphasis on Champions League

Right as the 2016 MLS season started, MLS clubs were slaughtered by their Mexican counterparts in an embarrassing display. While the American soccer media came out of the woodwork to defend the performance, it was pathetic.

The Champions League needs to be a focus for MLS. Once the DP rule is scrapped and teams can develop depth on their rosters, they can start competing with Mexican clubs. You can’t be a top league if Liga MX bashes your brains in every February.

End the Single Entity Ownership

Once we’ve reached this point, it’s time to end the single entity ownership that is ultimately the anchor around the neck of MLS. Cut the cord and let teams live and die on their own. There may be attrition, but that’s the beauty of capitalism.

Simply put, the league will never, ever be a top league in its current structure because there’s no room for growth. Right now, it make no sense to scrap the single entity structure since the league is losing money. After instituting these first 10 steps, MLS might eventually be closer to turning a profit.

Push for Promotion & Relegation

Yes, this is the ultimate goal – to open up American soccer to everyone. Right now, the league is focused on big markets and desperately emulating the NFL. It’s not working.

I fully understand, as with the single entity, that MLS and the US Soccer Federation can’t institute promotion/relegation right now. Instead, a roadmap must put in place that marks out how that end goal can be achieved.

It doesn’t matter how that plan looks like – it could be dividing the U.S. up into two regions for travel, or maybe it’s dividing the top division’s conferences differently each year based on location. What matters is that everyone involved in American soccer puts their heads together, negotiate a solution and put it in action.

Why Soccer Works Everywhere Else

During a recent EPL game, the announcer summed up the thrill of English football right now: “There’s a battle for first, there’s a battle for fourth and there’s a battle to stay up.”

Every year as the MLS regular season winds down, the only battle is between mediocre teams that can’t finish in the top half of the table.

MLS isn’t a top league but it’s not completely broken. At least not yet.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Choking in 2015 Saved the Washington Nationals

The 2015 Washington Nationals were Matt Williams’ team. They should’ve been Bryce Harper’s team.

For reasons I cannot fathom, Williams felt that humbling the best player in the league was part of his job description. It began weeks into his tenure, when he inexplicably benched Harper for committing the sin of lolly gagging to first base on a routine flyball.

bryce harper home runFor reasons I cannot fathom, the DC media not only gave Williams a pass – they applauded him for that action. Led by Thomas Boswell, a rash of DC scribes began to beat the drum that Harper didn’t respect the game. Similar to the barbs levied at RG3, Harper was labeled as a malcontent who had not yet earned the right to politely job to first base. It was complete and total garbage. Yet it persisted.

Of course, there were a grand total of zero Nats fans who agreed with this assessment. Bryce Harper was the reason we went to the ballpark. Bryce Harper was the reason the Nats had unlimited potential. Bryce Harper was the franchise.

As the 2015 Nats season imploded, it became apparent that Williams was not a fit for the Nats, despite GM Mike Rizzo’s bizarre insistence on backing him publicly and the media’s stunning refusal to call for his ouster. If you ever need an example of sports media being completely out of touch with the fans, the 2015 Nats coverage could be exhibit 1A.

So when Jonathan Papelbon reached out to choke Harper for lolly gagging on a routine flyball, everything came to head. Finally, Nats fans had enough and let everyone know about it. For the first time in the Nats’ brief history, the fans revolted.

At the time, it looked like the incident would mark the end of the Nats’ window to win a World Series. All of the good vibes built up by Davey Johnson and a remarkable 2014 regular season had seemed to come crashing down to Earth, starting with Williams’ disastrous 2014 playoff decisions and ending with a late-season swoon that embarrassed the franchise.

Instead, it has the very real possibility of saving the entire franchise.

The Nats had great success under Johnson, the definition of a player’s manager. He let the talent show off and the wins followed. A 2013 season derailed largely by injuries convinced Rizzo and the front office that a stern, authoritative voice was needed in the clubhouse.

The 2016 season is only a week old and we already see the folly in that notion. Dusty Baker, a very similar figure to Johnson, has lightened the mood in the clubhouse. Harper’s “Make Baseball Fun Again” has become a rallying cry for the Nats. While the national media looks at that slogan as a general shot at the old-school, it is clear that Harper is sending a message specifically to Rizzo, Papelbon and Williams – this is a game and should be treated as such.

The best teams in any sport take on the personality of their leader. Look at the Golden State Warriors, whose remarkable team play and flair flows down from Steph Curry and his style of play. Likewise, the 1996 Bulls were defined by Michael Jordan and his indomitable will to win.

We’ve seen this play out over and over again in baseball. The Jeter Yankees were a reflection of Derek Jeter’s desire to be great when it mattered. The 2004 Red Sox shocked the world by embracing the idiots they were. Even the Royals, without a true star player, have taken on the attitude of its quirky manager and small-town fan base to play with an edge that always seems to pay off in the late innings.

It is far too early to definitely say that the Nationals will ascend to those heights. There are many games to win. Dusty Baker, for all his past success, has yet to prove the ability to win it all. Still, there is no doubt the Nationals have the talent – up and down the lineup, throughout the rotation and in the bullpen – to contend for a World Series.

If you’ve watched the Nats interact early in 2016, you’ve noticed a distinct difference in their attitude. It appears the weight of the world has been lifted off their shoulders. It’s not just Harper – the Nats have a collection of players, from Jayson Werth to Anthony Rendon to Michael A. Taylor, that play better with a smile on their face, not a scowl.

It should not have taken a public assault to get here, but the Nats franchise has finally arrived exactly where it needs to be.

The 2016 Washington Nationals are Bryce Harper’s team.

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