West Ham Vs Southampton – The Saints Are Coming

Two points up, yet West Ham feels miles behind Southampton and for all the wrong reasons. Off-pitch issues have ground the season to a halt for the Hammers, and hosting Southampton this late in the season could see relegation staved off again, or all but confirmed.

For Southampton they have two big boosts to their team. New manager Mark Hughes has taken over the manager position from Mauricio Pellegrino. Playing a characterless style of play, Pellegrino didn’t take the Saints to the next level as many thought he could. Hughes stepped in at the beginning of the three week international break and has had time to drill his squad into shape.

The second addition is the reinstalling of striker Charlie Austin. Austin, who scored a penalty against West Ham in their early season victory over West Ham, is rejoining at a time where his squad needs him. Manolo Gabbiadini has left the Saints missing Austin at striker, and the script really writes its self, doesn’t it?

For West Ham they have two similar positives heading into this match. The first is Mark Hughes, yes Southampton’s new manager. Having been sacked by Stoke City earlier this season, Hughes was visibly pissed off at former star Marko Arnautovic who facilitated his move away from the Potters in the summer transfer window. Arnautovic steamrolled Hughes former team to the delight of West Ham fans and hopefully can do so again.

After a hotheaded performance that ended in an intentional elbow to Southampton defender Stephens, Arnautovic took his team to ten men early in the match. Chicharito tried his best to drag the teams level again, but just fell short as the game ended 3-2.

Southampton has yet to see the in form Arnautovic, and that could be West Ham’s secret weapon in this match.

The perfect wingback for Moyes’ unchanged formation returns for West Ham. After a loogie gone awry against Wigan, Arthur Masuaku has had a six game ban to think about his actions. Since then his team has fallen out of relative safety into the Kenny Loggins Danger Zone. What he brings in his return to the lineup is speed, shiftiness, and some impressive crossing skills he showed off against Dag & Red.

This game is almost too close to call really. New manager bump may carry Southampton over the line, where as fan unrest at West Ham may force the team to perform. Whoever wins, should three points be awarded, will secure one of the necessary games remaining for both sides against relegation teams.

The true defining factor for this match will come down to managing. Will Moyes have the guts to abandon his back-5 and implement a formation that will fit all of his of his offensive options? And will Hughes be able to inspire his new squad out of the bottom three?

Good lord, relegation is fun isn’t it? Horrifying, but fun.

Premier League Weekend Preview, Plus Predictions and Bets!

Its match week 32 for the Premier League, and the seasons end is quickly approaching! Here are my picks for the top three games of the weekend, and my bet for winners!

Everton Host Manchester City

This match sticks out for reasons related to Everton, rather than Manchester City. Quality fullbacks return to the lineup for Everton with Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman once again fit. This should give some defensive stability to the Everton backline, who despite performing well in 2018, will welcome some injury return support.

The January transfer addition, Cenk Tosun has struck form brilliantly in his last few weeks. With a brace against Stoke last match, and one versus Brighton the week before the Turkish striker seems a good fit for Everton and the Premier League.

Despite the positives for Everton they are playing arguably the best team in European football. They are human, however, if anything this match will be tough for the Toffees. Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, the now fit Gabriel Jesus and company make a potent offence that continued their form for their respective nations over the break.

Prediction: Everton 1 – 2 Manchester City. Everton will put up a good fight, but City will break the deadlock late to seal the victory.

West Ham Host Southampton

The basement bowl! Both teams are staring relegation in the face and desperately need wins. Despite West Ham being two points up on the Saints, all the pressure falls on the home team after the debacle against Burnely. A resounding 0-3 loss at home populated by pitch invasions and fan protests, West Ham cannot get behind in this match or the scenes could seal relegation for the Hammers.

Southampton, despite being in the relegation zone are welcoming in two faces to the team, one new and one old. Mark Hughes has been appointed new manager. He has been drilling for intensity and fitness since taking over the club earlier in the International break and Southampton could see the likely ‘new manager bump’ as they all try to impress their boss.

Southampton also welcome back striker Charlie Austin to the line up. Having scored a penalty in the early season clash with West Ham, Austin is likely to slip right back in the lineup either as a starter or sub for Manolo Gabbiadini.

Prediction: West Ham 3 – 1 Southampton. Despite their new manager, West Ham should react with their backs up against the wall. Arnautovic has been in form and destroyed Hughes’ Stoke team earlier this season.

Chelsea Host Tottenham

Ah, some elite competition. Both teams currently sitting in the top six, with Tottenham five points up on the reigning Premier League champions. Chelsea will look to pressure Tottenham and nab all three to stake their claim in the Champions League next season.

For both teams the International break saw players donning their national gear to represent their countries. Chelsea’s new striker Oliver Giroud scored for France against Columbia, while Hazard, Alonso, Willian, and Kante (France, as well) all played for their respective countries in International friendlies.

Tottenham had a similarly large list of international players, like defender Davidson Sanchez who factored into Columbia’s unlikely 3-2 win over France. As well, Danny Rose returned to action for England after a long injury lay off. The left back will likely step in over Ben Davies who has played well for Spurs in Rose’s absence.

Prediction: Chelsea 2 – 3 Tottenham. The attacking options of Tottenham will eventually overwhelm Chelsea who can only rely on Willian and Hazard for so long. Look to Son and Eriksen to drive the offence for Spurs.

Match Day Bets

In a five team win-pick parlay I have:
– Liverpool (1.50) over Palace
– Leicester (2.90) over Brighton
– Manchester United (1.22) over Swansea
– Burnley (2.70) at West Brom
– Manchester City (1.30) over Everton

With only one home team selected (Manchester United), the away team odds boosted the parlay to a five bet fold returning $373.23 on a $20 bet. Not bad!

 

 

Toronto Blue Jays Season Preview: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

With the MLB season just hours away from kicking off lets have a look at what could be in store for the Toronto Blue Jays this year.

The Good

For Toronto the biggest positive is their pitching rotation. Highly touted for the passed two seasons, the five starters of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, and new comer Jaime Garcia combine to make a stout rotation. All Toronto fans can hope for is the shoulder inflammation of Stroman to disappear, and for the blister problems of Sanchez to also be a thing of the passed.

Should the (significant) injury bug stay away from the Jays’ starters there is no reason that they cannot contend for a wild card spot, or take advantage of the divisional super teams (we’ll get to them in a bit) not meshing as a unit.

The new additions to the team are also something shiny and exciting for fans to fawn over. The outfield has two notable additions of different levels, the veteran Curtis Granderson and the everyday youngster Randall Grichuk.

Granderson brought the pop to spring training, hitting a homerun in his first at-bat as a Blue Jay. His spring ended well, putting up 4 homeruns,  a .279 batting average, and .360 OBP. Likely to be used in a committee role in left field, splitting time with Steve Pearce and Teoscar Hernandez. With Bautista now gone Granderson will be a veteran presence and can provide some stability in the clubhouse for the young players on the team.

Grichuk should be Toronto’s everyday right fielder for the season. A new face in right field after long standing fixture and club legend Jose Bautista parted ways with the club, Grichuk adds more athleticism and youthful competitiveness to the outfield. While he wont overwhelm with his power at the plate he can provide middle of the road offence with the upswing of better defence.

New infielders Aledmys Diaz, Gift Ngoepe, and Yangervis Solarte create a new, deep crew to bail out the oft injured duo of middle defenders Devin Travis and Troy Tulowitzki. Diaz should see starting time at SS with Tulo likely to start the season on the DL, but the versatility of all three players will allow for matchup play to maximize their effectiveness.

The bullpen also got a facelift for the Jays following the moving out of the surprising Dominic Leone (along with prospect Connor Greene) to get Grichuk. The Jays added Seung-hwan Oh, and veterans John Axford and Tyler Clippard to fill out the reserves. While not star studded, the Jays bullpen is strong and with the young talents of Osuna, Mayza, and Barnes in the mix they should be deep and economical this season, although another lefty couldn’t hurt.

The Bad

The Yankees and Red Sox are done messing around.

I could honestly leave it there, but we might as well embrace and explore the probably outcome of the season with these two monsters in the mix divisionally.

New York is fully embracing the Bronx Bombers title as they added Giancarlo Stanton to their impressively powerful team. Stanton will bring his explosive bat alongside Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez who, when combined in the 2-3-4 slots in the line up, will create a baseball Voltron that will not only smash balls out of the atmosphere, but will probably cause a concussive blast radius that will send most of the Jays to the DL.

It’s a horrifying lineup offensively, and if they can get a lead to Dellin Betances in the 8th inning the game will be as good as over as the stone-cold relief pitcher  hands the ball off to flamethrower Aroldis Chapman. Their starting rotation isn’t special but they’ll probably just win game 45-9 or something crazy like that.

Boston, on the other hand, will be a more balanced and therefore more scary opponent for the Jays to come up against. They landed their man in free agency with J.D. Martinez eventually signing, and he joins a team stacked in outfield youth and production.

Whats truly upsetting about the Red Sox is how young their positions players are. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Vazquez, and Rafael Devers. Wow. Mix in vets like Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, and Martinez and you’ll get a pretty damn potent team.

Their rotation also features Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello with Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright all starting the season on the DL. Boston is my pick to win the division this season. They are young, balanced, and have had time to marinade as a unit more so than the Yankees.

Toronto will be duking it out with Baltimore for the third division spot this season, with Tampa Bay falling behind yet again. The Orioles are a lot like the Jays, and not just in an aviary sense. Both teams have good starting rotations, good closers, and can play solid defence. Hopefully these two will be going head to head for the second wildcard spot, to add more intrigue to an already fiery division.

The Ugly

It’s pretty obvious, but when will Josh Donaldson leave the Blue Jays.

He has brought so much excitement to Canada’s team over the passed few seasons and took the team from playoff maybe, to contenders. It’s an ugly situation because it appears to only be a matter of time before he gets shipped out to a team looking to become World Series favourite. Even more ugly is the face that that is probably the best thing for the team.

With Encarnacion a year gone now, the Jays are essentially playing out Donaldson’s contract before cashing in on him. What helps this situation is that prospects in the Jays organization, like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, are apparently on the cusp of the big leagues. With young pitchers on the team and high level prospects close, a Donaldson deal could be for prospects rather than draft picks to speed up this process for Jays fans.

Regardless, the day Donaldson leaves will be a sad one. He has been the focal point of the “new” Jays (despite what Bautista may think) and has brought the joy back to being a Blue Jays fan.

 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly are all out there now, the only thing left is to play. A strong start, opposite of last season, would certainly make the Jays a more watchable team, not to mention would justify the moves made by Shapiro and Atkins in the Jays front office. I think they could surprise some teams this year, but ultimately will end their own season by dealing Donaldson to a World Season contender.

Only time will tell, and boy of boy am I ready to welcome back the Boys of Summer into the TV rotation!

NFL Sleepers: From Laughing Stock To Buying Stock – Cleveland Browns

In a two part blog series I will look at two teams who were formerly laughing stocks, and why we should all be buying stock in them making pushes for the playoffs. Second up, the Cleveland Browns

This pick was probably a little easier to forecast than the Jets pick, and there is some actual proof to suggest the Browns may not stink next year! To begin with, they literally cannot get any worse than they were last season. 0-12 is impressively bad for an NFL team. That means they couldn’t sneak out a close one, or even pick up a meaningless win in the last few weeks of the season where Pittsburgh would have been looking to rest some players. I mean come on, 29 year old Stevan Ridley led their last game of the season in rushing yards. It’s not 2012, and still he managed 80 yard, almost 80% of his season production last year with a total of 108 yards all year!

So lets jump into it – how the HELL do the Cleveland Browns become not as much of a laughing stock next season. As I mentioned, the bar isn’t high but I don’t think that they are going to let the season goal be “just get one win.” Cleveland is in an interesting division with elite talent at the top and question marks in the middle.

Pittsburgh looks poised to continue Pittsburgh things. They have that rare mix of veteran reliability, mixed with youthful explosiveness, and have elite options at almost every offensive position. Big Ben Roethlisberger, Le’veon Bell, Antonio Brown all rounding out the veteran spots, with Juju Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, and even TJ Watt bringing youthful skill to both sides of the ball. Cleveland can aim high and look to compete against the Steelers, but not surpass them any time soon.

But Baltimore and Cincinnati are both more approachable divisional rivals. Cincinnati is odd – are Andy Dalton, Joe Mixon, and AJ Green elite? Green is without a doubt, but Mixon is coming off of a not spectacular rookie season where he was limited by his coaches inability to pick a lead back between him, Giovani Bernard, and Jeremy Hill. Thankfully, Hill moved on to the Patriots in free agency, limiting the options now. Dalton is a fine QB, but he isn’t elite. Far too reliant on one or two big plays, Dalton seems to be ineffective in low risk situations, and has never taken the next step towards being in the upper echelon of NFL QB talents.

Baltimore has really been a shell of themselves since Ray Lewis retired. Their Superbowl over the 49ers was so polarizing, but saw Joe Flacco receive a contact that made him elite, by pay scale anyways. While their defence is not as good as it used to be, it is reliable and will not hurt their chances at winning, their offence on the other hand…

Flacco is the mainstay here, a strong passer, but despite his pay-grade not an elite talent. He gets two good adds at WR with Crabtree coming from Oakland and John Brown coming from Arizona.

Flacco will surely see an uptick in passing yards from last season with these two upgrades, but their future success will rely on whether running back Alex Collins can cary the mail for the Ravens on the ground. Volume was his friend las season and he put up nearly 1000 yards, but broke 100 yards only twice in 2017. For Cleveland, there is certainly ground to be made up divisionally with Cincinnati and Baltimore not looking to shake things up massively to challenge Pittsburgh.

So what have Cleveland done to make themselves better? Well they actually have some good, young talent that has been brought up in their system. Defensive End Myles Garrett, #1 overall pick from 2017 is a force on defence, picking up seven sacks in his first season while only playing in eleven games. Corey Coleman, WR also showed flashes of brilliance last season putting up 305 yards and two touchdowns in nine games played.

Cleveland also added back their blunt smoking prodigal son, WR Josh Gordon. Gordon showed off his natural (wasted) talent in five games in 2017 with 335 yards and one touchdown on 18 receptions.

With the addition of Miami Dolphins elite slot receiver Jarvis Landry, Cleveland has a very respectable three wide receiver set. Both Gordon and Coleman are young and explosive with big play potential. While Landry, just 25 years old, can suck up targets in the middle of the field as he proved last year with 987 yards on a whopping 112 receptions with nine touchdowns. Even more impressive – Landry did this with Jay Cutler throwing to him. Look out for the Cleveland receiving corps, as they sneakily have one of the most talented and well rounded group of receivers in the league.

To solve the problem of the revolving door of QB’s in Cleveland, and to hopefully end (at least for a bit) the played out, crossed off name jersey joke that every other self hating Browns fan has to make themselves, the Browns traded for Tyrod Taylor from the Buffalo Bills. Not elite, but a stable talent, Taylor is a good passer and elusive rusher. Third last season in QB rushing yards Taylor has the ability to extend plays and grab yards himself.

He isn’t the answer for Cleveland, but he is the best option they’ve had in a while and enjoyed some moderate success in Buffalo, too. More of a bridge to their franchise QB Taylor is a good option to start his new team off on the right foot. Drew Stanton has also been signed as veteran back up QB to Taylor. Coming from Arizona, Stanton (33) would provide stability should Taylor get injured, and can also act as a mentor to the up and coming QB of the future for the Browns.

Perhaps their biggest offseason get, Cleveland signed running back Carlos Hyde out of San Francisco. Like Landry, Hyde is an elite talent and upgrade over the now gone Isaiah Crowell. He’s has game breaking ability and is is built to be a bell cow RB, exactly what Cleveland have needed. He will be backed up and relieved on passing plays by Duke Johnson Jr., a RB with great upside as a receiver, and can also limit overuse and the likelihood of injury for Hyde.

Cleveland is actually trending up this offseason. Wow, even as I type that I can’t really believe it isn’t written with facetiousness or in a joking manner. The Browns can build even more so upon their strong off season by taking advantage of their high picks. With pick #1 and #4, Cleveland can get their franchise QB, and don’t have to rush him into a the starter job immediately. Pick #4 can be used to add to their Offensive line as there is a Joe Thomas sized hole in their O-line now. Cleveland also has three second round picks to add to their teams depth, should they not dispatch a few of those for roster players before the draft.

I don’t think they’re going to make the playoffs, I’m not crazy here.  What I think Cleveland can do is actually make waves divisionally and move up amongst their AFC North peers. Cincinnati? Watch out. Flacco and the Ravens? Duck and hide. Cleveland can ride out a suddenly high powered offence to some much needed success next season. Their biggest threat outside of injury would have to be keeping the bong out of Gordon’s hands – they’re are a different team with him on the field and need to man-manage him to reach his massive potential.

Take the paper bags off your heads, Cleveland fans. The sun is peaking through the impossibly thick clouds as the NFL draft approaches. All the Browns players need to do is play like they can and there is no reason they can’t become a jump-started up and coming team starting this season.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: Already The Face of The Blue Jays?

Baseball’s most exciting prospect has already made his mark on his team this pre-season. In front of 20,000+ fans, in his home town of Montreal, Quebec, game deadlocked at 0-0, bottom of the ninth, Vladdy Jr. steps up and does this:

Wow.

Talk about a flair for the dramatic! It’s a performance that is driving Blue Jay’s fans wild and making an uncomfortable reality a little more palatable. Josh Donaldson may be as good as gone for Toronto, but Guerrero Jr. is right around the corner and ready to keep bringing the rain from 3B.

With his battery mate Bo Bichette at his side on the infield, Guerrero is bringing the performance he was rumoured to deliver when he signed under Alex Anthopoulos in 2015 as a sixteen year old. The two young stars are the next wave of talent waiting to make the jump to the majors for Toronto fans, and it may be sooner than everyone is expecting.

Guerrero will not start the season on the team. He has an all star thirdbasemen in front of him in Donaldson, and shouldn’t be thrown into the mix in an already messy outfield situation. AA ball seems to be his and Bichette’s landing spot post spring training, which developmentally is the best place for him, opposed to the veteran heavy AAA ball option.

He hit .323 in AA last season, with 13 homeruns and 76 RBIs. He took that impressive stat line and transitioned it into 13 plate appearances this spring (before the two game Montreal series), registering four runs, seven hits, one homerun, and identical .538 batting averages and on base percentages.

With a cool head and ice in his veins, the Dominican teenager comes from good stock with a strong Canadian heritage. Side by side with his Expos star father Vlad Sr., baby Vlad seems to have picked up a few things from his old man:

Moon. Shot.

Damn, I actually cannot wait for the start of the 2019 season. Should Toronto fall out of playoff contention early Josh Donaldson could be moved to a playoff contender, making space at thirdbase. However, the Blue Jays have brought in a WILD number of infielders this off season who could step into that role before Vlad would. If the Bringer of Rain is dealt Blue Jays fans can reserve some hope that Vlad may make a late summer appearance with roster expansion.

Regardless of rare appearances this season, Vlad and Bo seem locked in to have strong years in AA and bring youth to the left side of the infield for the Blue Jays in the near future. Despite a garbage year last season, and a possible repeat this season, Toronto has some impact prospects who are on the verge of making it and it’s exciting.

Too early to say it? Probably. But I will anyways, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is already the face of the Toronto Blue Jays, purely out of anticipation. And – it’s a good thing. Homegrown talent with Canadian heritage, seems like Blue Jays have taken a page out of the Maple Leaf’s playbook here.

Dynasty in the making?

Follow me! @adamsmiiith 

The Case For Premier League Soccer in Canada

With NHL, MLB, NFL, and NBA all at the forefront of our sports collective minds, how could we ever etch out more time for another sport? Even if you had time outside of the ‘Big Four’ North American sports leagues there is the added distraction of more niche sports like tennis, auto racing, lacrosse, MLS Soccer, rugby, Esports, and more. Those, plus real life responsibilities usually fill the schedule for most functioning adults…most.

If only there was a league that offered limited games, and time slots that are uniquely open…

Airing on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the Premier League, a European football or Soccer league based out of England (and Wales) perfectly fits the bill. The season spans from August to May with 38 games being played between the 20 teams in the league. It fits the perfect middle ground between the minimalistic NFL schedule (16 games) and a wildly busy MLB season (162 games).

With the games being played in England, the usual start times for matches is 7:30am, 8:30am, 10:30am and 12:30am on the weekends with the odd weekday game being played at 3:30pm (all times in EST).

The season is extended in length by domestic tournaments, the English Football League Cup (EFL Cup) and the FA Cup, and European tournaments like the UEFA Champions League and Europa League. Season breaks are instituted for early round action of these tournaments as a majority of league teams will have early round games to play.

The Champions League and Europa League, designated for the best teams across all of Europe’s top flight football league, add to the desire to win and excitement in the football season. Should your team fail to qualify for the Champions League, which is the top three in the Premier League guaranteed, with fourth place in the Prem getting a play-in game, or Europa League which is designated for fifth place in the league, EFL Cup winning team, and FA Cup winning team also qualifying, you have rooting options. Either support a foreign team, or find another Premier League team that you don’t entirely hate to back as an English competitor.

Another foreign aspect of football to North American fans is relegation and promotion. There is no reward for tanking a season away, and more than just glory and bragging rights for league champions. To keep the Premier League fresh and constantly competitive there is a linking of the top league through the English Championship (tier below Premier League) and EFL League 1 and League 2 at the bottom.

The 92 team tiered system is completely dynamic, with the champions and top teams of the league below gaining promotion to the upper leagues and the bottom teams in the upper leagues getting relegated to the league below. This keeps the games important until the end of the season, either by the thrill of promotion, the fear of relegation, or the excitement of European tournament play, English football has multiple levels of excitement that revolve around these levels of competitiveness.

An aspect of Premier League football that adds to the watchability of the matches is the fully enveloped life that develops around that team. Each team is geographically rooted into a city, town, or community and many have decades of cultural importance with the people that reside there. These stories are told in a snapshot by the team names and badges; here are a few examples:

West Ham United – “The Hammers”
As shown on their crest, West Ham is a working mans club. Created from the Thames Ironworks, a ship building company in East London, West Ham United don crossed rivoters hammers on their crest within a shield-like shape that is actually a cross section of the hull of HMS Warrior, a ship created by Thames Ironworks in 1860.

Stoke City – “The Potters”
Based out of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire England, Stoke City currently are staring down relegation in the Premier League. The club was founded in 1863, originally nicknames The Ramblers, Stoke City now has their club nickname The Potters on their crest, a nod to the pottery industry that grips the region the club plays in.

Manchester United – “The Red Devils”
Created in 1878 and called Newton Heath LYR Football Club, Manchester United switched to their common name in 1902 and Red Devil nickname in the 1960s. Looking for a more marketable team icon (over their previous logo of a sailing ship) the Red Devils nickname was taken from the English Rugby team and printed on scarves and programmes. Now one of the most recognizable teams in all of sport, Manchester United consistently battles for Premier League dominance and European championships.

One last pitch for more Canadians to start watching the Premier League is the overwhelming sense of community that supporters get adopted into. Like I said, these clubs envelop everything about their supporters lives, and with social media linking people from all over the world, there is a massive group of club supporters waiting to welcome you into supporting their team.

Whether you are looking for trophies and glory by supporting Manchester United, or Chelsea, chasing Premier League stability like West Ham United or Leicester City, or chasing top flight survival like Stoke City or Southampton FC there is a strong community around all levels of Premier League teams.

So why not flip on the tube on a Saturday or Sunday morning? Nurse a hangover with the quiet, yet tense build up of the grass fuelled chess match that is European football. My advice? Find a club and start watching their games. Do some youtube research, and find some twitter groups to boost your connectedness to your team. It is truly the beautiful game, and deserves more North American eyes on it.

 

NFL Sleepers: From laughing Stock To Buying Stock – New York Jets

In a two part blog series I will look at two teams who were formerly laughing stocks, and why we should all be buying stock in them making pushes for the playoffs. First up, the New York Jets

It’s hard to justify any sort of “playoff” team in the AFC East when the New England Patriots are sitting atop the divisional standings, but as far as divisional competition don’t be surprised if the J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets! make a push for the ‘next best’ slot.

Their divisional competition could dictate their success next season. Both the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins have noticeably gotten worse. The Bills have lost their starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor in a trade with Cleveland, while bringing in backup QB AJ McCarron as their apparent starter. As well, personal issues have emerged around young receiver Zay Jones who may not be ready to start the season.

The Miami Dolphins are attempting a culture change and have lost two major pieces, one offensive and one defensive. Stud receiver Jarvis Landry, who is a target vacuum, was traded to Cleveland. This will create a massive hole in the offense of Miami who will be without their sure handed slot receiver now, with QB Ryan Tannehill returning from injury. The Dolphins also cut Ndamukong Suh, their controversial pass rusher. While consistently living in the grey areas of football, Suh was a QB’s nightmare, pushing O-linemen back on their heels closing the pocket.

The kings will remain kings in the AFC East with the probable Super Bowl contender New England Patriots atop the division. However, this doesn’t discredit a playoff push coming from the Jets. The Jets will most likely need a minimum of nine wins to be in wildcard contention, a far cry from their five from the previous season – but those four wins could be helped along with divisional play.

The Jets divisional record last season was 2-4-0, losing to the Patriots twice, Miami twice, and sweeping the season series with Buffalo. Miami will be taking a step back, quote me here. Buffalo, unless hitting on gems in the draft, will also be stepping back. The Jets can capitalize on lesser divisional competition to boost their play off hopes, and who knows maybe even put up a fight against the Pats too.

So why will the Jets be better? Well for starters they aren’t starting from nothing. Last season one of the biggest surprises was that “holy shit, the Jets are actually winning games!” This deflated into a 5-11 season, losing four out of their last five games, but still an impressive start for a team perceived to be tanking the season away.

Their biggest attribute is the explosive passing game due to three big pass catching options. Jermaine Kearse, the wide out from Seattle was acquired before the 2017 season in a trade for defensive star Sheldon Richardson. A year out from free agency, the Jets capitalized on his value and brought in the reliable receiver who contributed to their surprising offense and offered sure hands in the slot.

Robby Anderson is the next impressive talent for the Jets. His break away speed, and ability to turn three catches into 100+ yards and multiple touchdowns is insane efficiency. He adds the ‘big play’ variable to the Jets offence and is a key member of their possible uptick in play.

Bilal Powell is the third and final member of this passing game. Believe it or not, this back was more valuable that their QB, as Josh McCown failed to flash brilliance, but instead was reliably predictable. Powell, who rushed well last season, has breakout ability in the passing game with screen pass proficiency, and break away ground speed.

So why am I betting on the Jets take the next step in 2018? They have had a brilliant off season so far! Starting with a deal that has yet to have ramifications, the Jets traded their 6th pick along with two 2018 second round picks, and a 2018 second round pick to the Colts to move up in the draft to #3. The Jet’s are undoubtedly looking for that elite, top prospect QB in the draft and have payed a massive price for that opportunity. Should they get their man, their offseason additions (to follow) will allow for him to wade into the league and not get thrusted into action immediately.

But before QB’s lets look at how the Jet’s have added strength to their offence outside of their signal caller. Firstly, Isaiah Crowell has been added as a starting running back. Starting is a finicky term because of Powell’s importance to the passing game, but Crowell adds veteran stability and will probably relish any opportunity outside of playing for the Browns.

The Jets also added gadget player Tyrelle Pryor in free agency. He adds a ton of value to the passing game, adding another elite receiving option that opposing secondaries will have to factor in to their coverage. Pryor is also useful in his applicability. I described him as a gadget player because, as shown in his Cleveland years, he can act as a rusher in end-arounds, a deep threat as a wide out, or even throw the ball. The Jets will probably fashion a trick play or two around Pryor’s skills which makes him a valuable add, even more so than he already was.

The final piece the Jets have added that makes them better than last year is signing beloved former Minnesota Viking QB Teddy Bridgewater. Drafted to be their franchise QB, Teddy exploded his knee in a non-contact injury in pre-season training to a horrific extent in 2016. His teammates were crying and praying for him, and two years later it has factored into him being moved on from by Minnesota. Bridgewater still has high value, and over Josh McCown could provide a more explosive talent at QB instead of a game manager.

With McCown also signed on with the Jets, the Bridgewater move is even better. Teddy is convinced he is a starter but the lingering effects of his injury could possibly dampen that. The Jets have reliable stability behind him and in doing so they don’t gamble an important year for their team away on a high-risk free agent signing.

The Jets may not be a sexy pick for a playoff team, but Joe Flacco has made a career and won a Superbowl off of being reliably ‘just good’ and offensively unsexy. The Jets have breakout potential and could see an influx of bandwagon support, especially with their cross town rivals the Giants being a mess on the field. The success the Jets can have is reliant upon their free-agents meshing well, their offensive players to take the next step, and their draftees making an impact. Sure, that is a long list of things that need to happen, but what will help is a weakened AFC East division outside of the Pats.

Oh Deary Me, Who is This Lad Named Alfie?

West Ham got a good look at depth players and young prospects in their international break friendly with neighbour Dagenham and Redbridge FC in a fundraiser night for the club…erm I should specify their club. With senior players making most of the big headlines like Michail Antonio scoring a brace and Adrian making some phenomenal saves, some youngsters did turn heads in the match, most notably Alfie Lewis.

Named to the starting squad Lewis, occupied the midfield alongside Mark Noble and really took the lead in that part of the pitch.

West Ham, unsurprisingly, controlled possession for the majority of the opening half, but the identity of their standout performer would certainly have been a shock to the thousands of Hammers fans inside the ground – Alfie Lewis.”

Alfie Lewis was described by the club’s own recount of the match as the “standout performer” most likely because he didn’t instantly pass the ball back to his defenders. But in all honesty, his name was said more than anyone else’s, he commanded play, was always an option in the middle of the field, and held onto the ball even under pressure. It was a low-league friendly, I know, but he was a star on the pitch surrounded by a lot of first team players who failed to look anything special.

So who is the lad?

Currently 18 years old, Alfie Lewis is a versatile midfielder that is based centrally but can play both defensive and attacking mid. He signed his first pro deal in May of 2017, a three year contract that has him at West Ham until 2020. He has played in ten total games this season, three Premier League 2 games where he failed to appear on the score sheet, and seven for West Ham’s under-18 Premier League side where he has one goal and one assist.

Should he get a chance?

Should he and will he are two different things. Should he – absolutely! West Ham are desperate for ball moving midfielders to solidify what looks like a hollow formation most games. He showed he is up for it in his one chance with the big club, so why not?

Will he? Probably not, no. Moyes has stuck with Cheikhou Kouyate in midfield despite awful performances, even when Josh Cullen a recent graduate of West Ham’s academy looked good in his return from loan. Cullen and Rice would likely get picked over him, not to mention Joao Mario who the club seem keen on buying amidst his loan from Inter Milan. Marcus Browne, another academy graduate has also been selected to the bench after performing well for the PL2 team after injury this year.

Alfie most likely won’t make an appearance any time soon for West Ham, but he is a promising prospect and still has time to come into his own. He’s only 18 and will build confidence off of this one performance. He will likely feature more so in the academy games to allow for management to get a better look at him after his showing at Dag & Red this week.

I know, I know, it was a friendly against lesser opposition and I will take the performance with a grain of salt. Something that can’t be overlooked was the Dagenham player’s ability to push and attitude in the game – they wanted to win. They set up strong, countered well, and scored off of a relentless attack coming from a corner.

I’d love to see a midfield featuring Lewis, Rice and Cullen to be honest. They are three young players who would give 110% on the pitch, not yet spoiled by insane Premier League wages, looking to cut their teeth in the league. It’s promising from Alfie – his performance was something West Ham have been missing all season.

 

 

Is It Time To Start Paying Attention To ESports?

Remember coming home from school or work in the afternoon, flipping to TSN or Sportsnet and seeing paintball on TV? It was awesome! Maybe it was just the fourteen year-old me that though so, seeing as I loved the sport while simultaneously being petrified of getting hit by paintballs, but it was unique and new wave. That trend has since died out but there appears to be a new one on its way to North America.

Enter Esports.

The concept is pretty well understood: teams or solo players face each other in a video game either in one match or tournament play to see who is the best. It’s the same system as traditional sports in North America, the game is just League of Legends or Hearthstone, instead of football or hockey.

So why isn’t it popular in Canada and the United States yet? To this i’ll provide two answers – It already is popular, and what i’ll designate as “the NASCAR argument.”

It Already Is Popular

With dominant players coming out of South East Asia, and Europe there has certainly been a delay in the mass-market reach of Esports in North America. However, with companies based in the United States like Blizzard Entertainment constantly bringing more games into the fold of Esports, the opportunities for domestic success have grown. For both Hearthstone and Overwatch, Blizzard games that are heavily regarded as Esports games, the player base is in the millions globally. Overwatch surpassed 20 million copies of the game sold in 2017, and Hearthstone (a free to play game) had 30 million players in May of 2015.

With large percentages attributed to players in North America, these Esport friendly games have reached millions of users in North America on a player basis. What helps to get people invested in the games is fully fleshed out back stories of characters and the worlds these games exist in. It’s like HBO’s Hard Knocks, a documentary series that follows NFL training camps, but live and mixed in with game play.

The environment in which the games takes place has players and spectators willing to watch someone else play these games so they can experience high level play in something they have experience in. And the same can be said for traditional sports – we’ve all thrown a football or hit a baseball, but very few can throw a 60-yard pass into double coverage for a touchdown, or crank a fastball out of a stadium. We have physical memories of the actions, and will pay to see someone do it really really well.

The younger generation is dictating the success of these games as view-able programming because of the decline in traditional sports. Console and computer games are readily accessible for children with global player bases able to connect through the internet meaning there is little to no queue for these games. And without fear of concussion or injury outside of eye-strain and carpal tunnel, parents are opening up to these activities over physical sports.

“The NASCAR Argument”

This argument is reserved for the people aged 28+ who never grew up with video games being as mainstream as they are now. Older siblings, parents, some of your peers, whoever this group encompasses had been raised in households that featured sports as watchable entertainment, and video games as child-distracting hobbies.

I call this explanation “the NASCAR Argument’ because I don’t like NASCAR, or any racing really, where the car/horse/motorcycle seem to be doing all the work while a person sits in/on it and takes the glory. Are NASCAR drivers athletes? Well, they can turn left at an incredible speed, and if they don’t crash they’ll be able to complete hundreds of laps in a row, so my answer is No. I understand the reaction time, and coordination skills required – not to mention the ability to hold your bladder for hours on end, but I just don’t see it as a sport. I can appreciate it as an activity that is done at a high skill level but I can drive my Ford Focus to the grocery store, or get that baby humming to 120 mph on the highway and not be athletic at all!

The same goes for Esports. I can play hearthstone literally while sitting on my toilet, so how in the world can this be a sport? Well, I don’t think it is, but it sure is satisfying to see someone win a bunch of times in a row at a game that I struggle to compete in on ‘easy difficulty.’ It’s exactly like NASCAR – people will pay (whether with attention or cash) to see someone do something at an extremely high level of excellency.

TSN programming has constantly been telling me that I am wrong about NASCAR not being a sport by having weekly races feature across their multi-feed television network. The reality is that if we go by what makes a sports broadcasters programming schedule to justify what a sport is, we will just be following what has a viewing market in that region. For example, if competitive knitting etched out a niche market in Toronto you can bet that TSN1, and SPORTSNET ONTARIO would have Sunday Knight-Knit-o-rama on their TV schedule to cater to that market.

 

So, the discussion has to shift beyond “is it even a sport?” to “are people actually watching that?”  and the statistics don’t lie here either. Brace for it NHL fans. After opening on TWITCH.TV for their first week of regular season play, the Overwatch League, a 12 team global league of Overwatch players, which began on January 10th 2018 is averaging 392,000 views on a massive six hour stream, with it’s peak number hitting 442,000 viewers. This is just 18,000 views off of the average NHL’s North American viewership.

Take it with a grain of salt- peak numbers don’t suggest staying power, can’t really be linked to average views, and January viewership of the NHL is expected to be lower with the dog-days of the season fully underway, nevertheless the Overwatch numbers are still impressive for a sports league in its infancy.

So why are so many people oblivious to Esports being a watchable event for entertainment in Canada and the United States? Because the mainstream, television media has yet to pick up on the trend. Sites like TWITCH.TV, which see individual streamers live stream their video game play with their personal audio over top can reach a wider audience through computer and mobile integration.

What fuels the success of this broadcaster is the link between the video gamer demographic and video game streamer demographic. Companies like Blizzard Entertainment capitalized on this already installed and invested viewership by striking a $90 million deal with TWITCH.TV to have exclusive broadcasting rights to show the Overwatch league.

The result of the growing fan base of Esports is that eventually we will see consistent programming for League of Legends, Overwatch, Hearthstone and more video games on our television menus. The real dictating factor in all of this is money. Much like NASCAR, if people will pay to watch it, TV programmers will make it available. Esports’ trajectory is already shooting beyond that of paintball when I was in highschool, because it isn’t trying to fit into the mold of standard television programming. There is unique success to Esports viewing and mainstream media will have to adapt to that, in order to capture the growing market of video game nerds.

I really look forward to two things: Joe Buck calling a League of Legends match, and seeing the first Overwatch team sponsored by Tampax.

West Ham’s Shaky Future Wastes Moyes’ International Break

With their Premier lives hanging in the balance, West Ham United are stuck waiting for the international break to be over rather than taking advantage of their time off ahead of the off season.

Normally the international break would see management and ownership teams spectating lower league play and the actual international friendlies to look over transfer window targets in rare out of league action. For Moyes, he doesn’t know what league he will be managing in, and if he will have a job at all for the following season.

Moyes has stated multiple times that he isn’t revisiting contract talks until the end of the season, as his job is yet to be done. These questions have dyed down in frequency seeing as his table position has gone from ‘mid-table success’ to ‘we need to beat Southampton to stay in the Premier League’ in a matter of weeks. Regardless of position Moyes has also stated he is preparing for next season’s transfers now.

So, maybe he has some vested interest in the international break but it seems unlikely to me. My assumption is he’ll go to Portugal’s game to look at William Carvalho… again, and deny he was there for him. This would be ridiculous too, considering there is no way he would come to a Championship side in England.

So what does Moyes have to do during this break? Hopefully reevaluate his squad, look at changing a formation, and devising individual game tactics to maximize the remaining games left this season to secure Premier League safety.