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Srecko Katanec: A Big Deal in Slovenia

October 8th, 2017 · No Comments · Abu Dhabi, Football, soccer, Sports Journalism, The National, UAE, World Cup

As the ultimate international sport, one might expect soccer would offer all sorts of odd and interesting connections.

This guy played for that guy, and later became coach of this team that I covered …

It really is rather amazing, in a sort of “three degrees of separation” way. And I have noticed a few more of them today as more Russia 2018 World Cup berths are confirmed.

Including a guy who may be The First Man of Slovenian Soccer  …

And the man who coached Egypt to its first World Cup finals berth since 1990.

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Learning to Appreciate Yasiel Puig

October 7th, 2017 · No Comments · Baseball, Dodgers

I have come around on Yasiel Puig.

Not because he has turned into the greatest player in baseball, because he has not. Not because he had a great 2017 season, because he did not. Not because he is a fundamentally sound ballplayer, because he is not.

Why, then?

Because he is a fun player to watch. Almost like a big kid (a really big kid; 6-2, 255) set loose in the schoolyard, having a great time running around and doing goofy stuff — from which he derives great pleasure and for which he means no harm.

Fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers enjoy watching their 26-year-old Cuban outfielder: No one gets a noisier reception when the lineups are announced or when he comes up to bat.

And either the stodgiest among us have developed a fondness for his theatrical charms, or we have become inured to his flakier stuff because he has been doing it in L.A. since 2013. The bat-licking, the tongue-wagging, the little dances, the gestures toward the crowd or his teammates — or all of the above.

Tonight, he again brought more-tangible benefits to the game as the Dodgers defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 8-5 to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five National League Championship Series.

To wit: Three singles and two runs driven in.

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Dodgers: Is ‘Next Year’ This Year?

October 6th, 2017 · No Comments · Baseball, Dodgers

Some of us remember 1988 like it was yesterday.

OK, not yesterday as much as it was like last week. Last month. Last century. Some of it is getting downright hazy. Gibson’s home run, sure, and Orel Hershiser’s two starts … and who else played on that team? Steve Sax, maybe?

Also, some significant fraction of Los Angeles Dodgers fans have no memory of the club’s five-game World Series victory over the Oakland Athletics in ’88 … because it happened 29 years ago and they were not yet alive to enjoy it.

Here we go again. The Dodgers in the playoffs for the ninth time since 2004 and in the previous eight they not only did not win the World Series, they also did not play in it.

Fans are forgiven for not blocking out early November for a victory parade through downtown Los Angeles. They have lots of hope but not a lot of faith in their team, even the 2017 edition that won an Los Angeles Dodgers’ record 104 games. Because they also remember that 1-16 stretch of awful in August and September.

There are other issues, as well.

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U.S. Soccer: Greatest Challenge Since 1990

October 5th, 2017 · No Comments · Football, Russia 2018, soccer, World Cup

The U.S. national soccer team has played in the past seven World Cups and qualified for six of them. The Yanks hosted the 1994 World Cup and did not have to qualify.

From the outside, it looks like light work. A massive country of 300 million people needs only to finish in the top three from a six-nation final round sure to include three dinky Central American countries to secure one of the three berths granted to Concacaf — the acronym usually connected to the Confederation of North, Central and Caribbean Football.

And, despite hiccups here or there, the Yanks usually have had qualification wrapped up before the final match day. In 2010, they had it wrapped up before the final two match days.

But Russia 2018 is different. The Yanks have not clinched, and as the second-to-last round is played tomorrow, they cannot clinch a berth.

The qualifying process will go down to the final day, which is a pressure situation the U.S. has not encountered since 1989, when the U.S. traveled to Trinidad & Tobago knowing it had to win to win to reach the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.

So, we shall soon find out what sort of character this current team has.

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Catalan Independence: How Different from U.S. Declaration?

October 4th, 2017 · No Comments · Barcelona

By happenstance, we are in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, a day or two ahead of what could be a momentous local decision — declaring independence from Spain.

We had planned months ago to meet up with a friend here, a leading tourist destination a few hours south of the Spain-France border.

We had no idea that the independence movement would choose the previous Sunday, October 1, to conduct a referendum. Nor that it would produce scenes of federal police roughing up Catalans attempting to vote.

The referendum violated Spanish law, the government said, and most outsiders seemed to agree on that point.

Yet, it went on, nonetheless, and 90-plus percent of those who voted endorsed a break from Spain — and an independent Catalonia.

It is easy to side with the considered constitutional opinions of Spanish jurists, as well as that of most European nations, which do not support Catalonia breaking away from Spain.

But at some point, those of us who come from a country that began with just such a declaration of independence … cannot help but see parallels to what is happening here.

And to sympathize with it as reflecting the will of a people to govern themselves.

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Lonzo Ball and Ridiculous Expectations

October 3rd, 2017 · No Comments · Basketball, Kobe, Lakers

I already feel sorry for Lonzo Ball.

What we can reasonably expect from the Los Angeles Lakers’ 19-year-old NBA rookie bears no resemblance to what most fans and even many “experts” seem to expect from him.

One of those self-professed experts is his father, LaVar, who does Lonzo no favors when he suggests — well, actually, states as inevitable fact — that his son will be the league’s rookie of the year and already is a better basketball player than one Stephen Curry, of whom you may have heard.

Let’s look at three highly regarded players of the past generation and see what they did as rookies.

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Time to Fret Over the U.S. National Team?

October 2nd, 2017 · No Comments · Football, Russia 2018, soccer, World Cup

You bet. Start worrying now, if you are not already doing so.

Only four days till the U.S. national team plays host to Panama, only eight days until an away game with Trinidad & Tobago, as Concacaf hexagonal qualifying for the 2018 World Cup concludes.

At stake, the U.S. streak of seven consecutive World Cup appearances that goes back to 1990.

At risk, vengeance aimed at the Yanks for crucial road victories that kept Panama (in 2014) and T&T (1990) from qualifying for the World Cup — which would have been a first for either country.

The pressure is on, and this group of U.S. players has not seemed adept at coping with it.

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Catalonia, FC Barcelona and Football Chaos

October 1st, 2017 · No Comments · Barcelona, English Premier League, Football, France, Italy, soccer, Spain, Sports Journalism, UAE, World Cup

Catalonia took another step on the road to sovereign status in a referendum today. And, as we typically do in reflecting the world of sports, we make it about us.

To wit:

“If  Catalonia leaves Spain … what does this mean for FC Barcelona and the Spanish league and the Spanish national team?”

The short answer?

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The Rave … Just Over Our Hill

September 30th, 2017 · No Comments · France

Raves. All-night dance parties that often just appear at some lonely place where young folks show up, thanks to a furtive, word-of-mouth campaign.

We didn’t know raves were still a “thing”. Maybe it’s just France.

It started Friday night. A rumbling thump-thump-thump coming from over one of the hills that surround the village, going on late into the night.

What really got our attention was the thump-thump-thump that greeted the dawn, and then carried right on into the afternoon. That wasn’t a party down around the corner.

Something bigger was going on, and by the afternoon we found an online site for a French-language newspaper … that let us know that a three-day rave, expected to attract 1,000 fans, was going on at the old “aerodrome” barely a mile away from our town.

A rave! Something I thought disappeared 20 or more years ago.

We couldn’t help ourselves. We walked over to investigate.

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Darnold, USC Lose Their Grip

September 29th, 2017 · No Comments · College football, USC

Elite college football programs are allowed one pratfall in the national-championship chase.

USC’s Trojans just took theirs.

Heisman Trophy candidates can maybe — maybe —  get away with one stinker and still aspire to pick up that famous trophy in New York.

USC quarterback Sam Darnold just had his forgettable game.

It was already Saturday on this side of the Atlantic (5 a.m., actually) when I caught up to USC at Washington State, and after a few minutes of watching closely it wasn’t just the score (WSU 20-17) that looked dire for the Trojans … it was how unsteady Darnold looked at quarterback.

Darnold reminded me of Jim Everett, circa 1989, the nervous and fearful Rams quarterback who had the infamous phantom sack in the NFC title game. And that is never good.

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