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It's a long, snowy Sunday ahead. Here's what to watch today.
One of the best criticisms of English soccer over the past few years has been the top-heavy nature of the league. So far this year, though, that hasn't been true; Arsenal, famously low-spending, can go seven points clear at the top of the standings with a win today - and if they do win, Manchester United, with all of their piles of cash, will be closer to last place than first place.
The oil gazillionaires at Manchester City and Chelsea are still doing well, so it's not completely topsy-turvy yet in England. But Liverpool is in second place, and Everton can get to a tie for second with a win today, and Tottenham and Newcastle aren't far back; it's an actual race this year.
Anyway, it's either that or diving headlong into the random number generator that is the college basketball season. Or talking to your family, I guess.
1:00pm: World Cup Skiing (NBC): It's the Olympics this year. Get in the mood with the World Cup men's downhill, from Beaver Creek, Colorado -- the only American stop on the circuit all year.
3:25pm: Seattle at San Francisco (FOX): It's a divisional rivalry, with the Niners needing a win to stay ahead of the Wild Card pack, and Seattle just a couple of victories away from clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs - a big deal, given the noise in Seattle. Also, it's the perfect football lead-in to...
7:20pm: Carolina at New Orleans (NBC): One of these teams will win the NFC South, and clinch a first-round bye in the process. The other will have to play an extra playoff game. This game could be the difference in deciding which is which.
And by the time that's all over, you'll be feeling ready to take on the week. That's the power of Sunday Funday.
Some highlights from today's media day over at Target Center:
Nikola Pekovic: "I just hope everyone stays healthy. That's what we need." Amen.
Kevin Love had many variations on the same theme, which was, to paraphrase: nobody wants to talk about last year, and this is another year. He couldn't not have been more clear about that. Thank you for the Twitter suggestions to ask him about knuckle pushups, but we're pretty sure that would have resulted in a direct punch to our face -- and therefore possibly another hand injury for Love.
Head coach Rick Adelman said it took him a while to make a final decision on coming back this season, but he said it was looking that way for most of the summer. If the season started today, he isn't sure who his starting small forward would be. The rest, naturally: Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Love and Pekovic.
*Derrick Williams looks noticeably slimmer, down to 235 pounds after playing at about 250 last season. He played bigger last year while trying to defend power forwards; this year, with Chase Budinger potentially out for a while with a knee problem, he could be in the mix for minutes at small forward.
*Quote of the day from Alexey Shved, when asked about his weight and body: "The weight is the same, but I make more muscles."
*Ricky Rubio appears to be wearing his hair a little differently, which is always a subject for discussion. Also, he opened up his presser with, "Hi everyone." Think about that as you look at his picture since it was snapped at around that time.
New people who are getting into the league quite naturally feel the need to pick a favorite team, something NBC Sports did its best to play up. This does, however, tend to lead to something I can't quite figure out: fans that have adopted the rivalries of their new favorite teams. You need go no farther than Twitter, or really any message board where soccer fans congregate, to find Americans - with no connection whatsoever to any kind of local rivalry - abusing each other as a result of these long-held grudges.
When you think about it, this makes no sense. Obviously, local rivals - say, Manchester City and Manchester United - have a long. contentious history. But that contention has been caused by proximity, by the experience of a City fan that's grown to hate United fans because he's been surrounded by them at school and at work and so forth. It's no different than Vikings fans and Packers fans in Minnesota; there wouldn't be a rivalry if there weren't Packers fans around, fulfilling their apparent destiny as the most annoying group of people on Earth.
I know you're out there, Premier League fans. I understand that you quite naturally want to be as big of a fan as you can be, and that this may, in your mind, mean adopting the traditional rivalries of your club, but this makes no sense. Be a big of a fan as you want, but unless somehow you've become (for example) an Everton fan that's lost in a sea of Liverpool supporters, leave the rivalries alone. Making fun of someone else for a rivalry that you're not part of doesn't hurt their feelings - it just makes you look like a moron.
*On with the links:
*At Twins Daily, Nick Nelson looks at the future of Twins catching prospect Josmil Pinto, whose development seems all the more important in the wake of Joe Mauer's concussion.
* You really need to read Wright Thompson's profile of Dan Gable.
*Chris Brown explains the reads that quarterbacks need to make in the modern-day passing game. (Basically: things are a lot more complicated these days than they used to be.)
*Also from Twins Daily, and Cody Christie, the kind of crazy speculation I like: could the Twins re-sign Johan Santana this year?
*And finally: Lourawls Nairn. There aren't enough exclamation points in the world for that name. (And his nickname is Tum Tum!)
There are two sports that have become absurdly popular, in part, because they have this figured out. One is college football, which has the weekly Top 25 poll to lean on. It takes two seconds to figure out what's at stake when you turn on a college football game; if you see #3 vs. #6, you know it's a big game, even if it happens to be Boise State vs. Oklahoma State, or some other matchup of nontraditional powers. Throw in the regional rivalries, and what's at stake comes through the television loud and clear.
The other one is English soccer, which has gained a surprisingly large foothold on American television. A combination of a much freer market for talent, the lack of an effective salary cap, and teams owned by oil gazillionaires mean that only three English soccer teams have a shot at winning the league title, and only about seven have a chance of being any good at all. This is terrible for league parity, and I imagine if you happen to be a die-hard Fulham fan, it'd be immensely frustrating. For American fans, though, it makes the league intuitively easy to understand; even casual fans know that Chelsea vs. Manchester United is a big game, and that if Manchester City is playing Swansea City, then Swansea are the scrappy underdogs. Either way, knowing what's at stake is simple.
This week, American soccer star Clint Dempsey made a surprise return to America, leaving English club Tottenham for the Seattle Sounders. Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated covered the details of the transaction, but the thing that stood out to me is that Major League Soccer - which is run as a single entity, and thus governs player allocation in cases like this - made no bones about wanting Dempsey to go to what it clearly considers one of the league's marquee teams in Seattle.
MLS has long suffered from a decided lack of big teams and big games. Even if they're both good teams, the excitement of a Colorado-Montreal game just doesn't come through the screen. It's possible that this Dempsey allocation, while potentially not great for league parity, at least shows that MLS is starting to think about making the league interesting to the casual fan.
*On with the links:
*Weekend links favorite Parker Hageman talks with Jared Burton about pitching, and it's fascinating.
*This cartoon by Molly Brooks explains, better than I ever could, why sports are better than fiction and reality TV and pretty much every other form of entertainment.
*Clint Irwin is the Colorado Rapids' starting goalkeeper, but as somebody who's making the league rookie minimum and has played in the lower North American leagues, he can describe for you exactly how hard it is to scratch out a living.
*At Grantland, Sean McIndoe fixes the NHL, and I must say I pretty much entirely agree with him.
*Joe Posnanski writes about Cap Anson, but really about the entire Hall of Fame debate and who belongs in the Hall.
When we spoke to Major League Soccer's Executive VP of Communications Dan Courtemanche in mid-May, expansion plans for the league were not firm. A second team in New York was soon-to-be-announced, but beyond that nothing was certain.
Well, at halftime of the MLS All-Star Game last night, Commissioner Don Garber shed more light on things. The league plans to add four more teams by 2020, bringing the total up to 24. Locations are TBD, but Garber said there has already been discussion with potential owners.
The timetable fits nicely into a team potentially coming to Minnesota and playing in the new Vikings stadium, which will open in 2016, since the Vikings will have exclusive rights to bring an MLS team to the new stadium for five years after it opens.
Courtemanche said in May that the new Vikings stadium -- despite having a roof and featuring turf and not being soccer-specific -- is viable for MLS. "No question," he said. "We believe it’s another strong indicator of the growth of soccer across the country when you have venues like this that can house not just a potential MLS team but a World Cup game in the future."
Vikings VP Lester Bagley said in May that the Vikings remain interested in an MLS franchise but said it is "on the backburner" for now.
Still, having a definite number of teams and clear timeline means markets can at least move forward.
And there was this in the MLS web site story: Wednesday’s news gives immediate hope to several markets looking to break into the league, such as Orlando, Miami, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit and Sacramento, to name a few – several of whom had representatives presenting to the MLS Board of Governors here on Wednesday afternoon.