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Will talent and skill finally trump politics and egos on U.S. men’s national soccer team?

Having covered American soccer for more than 30 years, I’m not inclined to jump on bandwagons – especially the next attempt to jump-start our men’s national team. But make no mistake, the U.S. men’s program made a quantum leap toward respectability in only 30 minutes this week.

It wasn’t just its 1-1 tie with Mexico in front of 30,183 fans in Philadelphia, after an embarrassing 4-2 loss to El Tri in the Gold Cup final earlier this summer. More important, the addition to this week’s U.S. game roster of some key athletes pushed to the sideline by former coach Bob Bradley was an infusion of fresh air for the stale program. To be more specific, it was a welcome lack of politics.

Commentators carefully avoided criticizing Bradley, who had some fine moments leading the men’s program to a 43-25-12 record. But he made the one mistake a coach cannot afford – he left some of his best athletes and top performers off the squad. As a result, the program was in a not-so-slow slide down world rankings (#30 and down six places since June).

That won’t happen under new coach Jurgen Klinsmann, if this week’s tie with Mexico is any indication. After 60 minutes of business-as-usual U.S. soccer – a decent defense and goalie with a predictable offense unable to finish – Klinsmann apparently had seen enough. The substitutions he made in the final 30 minutes represented a welcome new direction. Three replacements combined on the equalizing goal. All were active and aggressive, opening up room for Landon Donovan to work in space. Most important, the youngsters can flat-out fly.

Though Mexico was missing some key players – especially Javier Hernández  (“Chicharito”) – it’s still an explosive, talented team. With the U.S. missing underrated stalwart Clint Dempsey, things could have gotten ugly in the midfield for the Americans. And for the 60 minutes, it was.

The U.S. men didn’t have a single shot on goal or corner kick the first half. Ouch. That changed when Klinsmann brought in midfielders Brek Shea and Robbie Rogers along with 18-year-old striker Juan Agudelo.  Only one minute after entering the game, Rogers scored the tying goal on a perfect cross from Shea set up by Agudelo. From that point on, Mexico was the team on its heels as the U.S. challenged balls aggressively, pushed up-field with pace and finally took some shots (6).

In 30 minutes, a one-dimensional team seemingly built on drawing offsides penalties transformed into a well-balanced squad continually pressuring its opponent. Granted it’s just one-game, but style of play isn’t what encouraged me most. It’s the style difference between Klinsmann and the last two men’s coaches – the bland Bradley and arrogant Bruce Arena.

Case in point: On Tuesday morning, Klinsmann invited coach Bradley’s son – midfielder Michael Bradley – to coffee in their hotel café to ask his thoughts.  What a classy and intelligent move. Michael Bradley, only 24, already has 59 international appearances and has played in European club soccer more than five years. Klinsmann clearly can set aside politics and work with a variety of personality types. He’ll need that skill to mix veterans like Dempsey, Donovan and goalie Tim Howard with the next generation. Most important, the U.S. clearly must add speed to succeed in the faster game of international soccer.

That opens the door for players like former U.S. phenom Freddy Adu, who announced on Friday he’s returning from exile in Turkey to join the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer. Adu made his nationally-televised professional debut for the DC United at age 14 in 2004, but he has bounced around second-tier European clubs since 2007. Like a number of other top-quality offensive players, Adu never quite fit into Bradley’s conservative approach – and was played too infrequently to make a serious impact.  He was even left off the team for two years.

Now, all things seem possible.

“He (Klinsmann) told me: ‘You know what? If you’re playing and you’re doing well, you will get a chance,” Adu said in his first press conference with the Union today. “That really helped me obviously to make my decision, because … your ultimate goal is to be on the national team and represent your country.”

Adu and others will get their opportunity. And don’t be surprised if it happens by the team’s Sept. 2 game with Costa Rica. Klinsmann – a fine player, manager and World Cup winner himself for Germany – is a seasoned pro who will field the best athletes, hardest workers and proven performers. And he’ll do it soon.

That may be the most encouraging news for the U.S. men’s soccer team in decades.

— New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

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Does defense really win titles in NBA? Stats over past 10 seasons tell a different story

The National Basketball Association began its arduous two-month post-season journey last week, meaning we again must endure endless debates about what wins titles. A recent HoopsWorld article repeated my favorite cliché: “Defense wins championships.” That may be true for many sports, but it hasn’t been accurate the past 10 NBA seasons.

The previous 10 NBA champions averaged seventh in the league in points allowed per game. However, they also only averaged 10th in points scored. So how did they end up league champions? Like any good organization, the best NBA teams won because they hired the best employees who executed the best business plan. Who knew?

In relatively low-scoring sports like baseball, hockey or soccer, one dominant defender can significantly affect outcomes. For example, a great goal-keeper can be huge when you’re down to shootout stage of a major soccer or hockey match. And a strong relief pitcher can stop a rally by a great offense at key points in baseball or softball games. But in high-scoring sports like my golf game and basketball, it isn’t always so clear. There is too much talent in the NBA now for any one player to control every game. At least not since Wilt Chamberlain forced the goal-tending rule.

Only two of the past 10 champions ranked first in points allowed during the regular season – the San Antonio Spurs in 2004-2005 and 2006-2007. And none of the 10 champs led the league in scoring points. In fact, Detroit was the last team to win the title in “classic” D-style. In 2003-2004, the Pistons were 2nd in points allowed and 24th in points scored. Defensive purists still revere that team. Yet even the Pistons, like the other nine champions, were more concerned with being in position to reach the Finals than with regular-season team statistical rankings. (Individual stats are a different issue.)

Most important: All of the past 10 champs placed top-three in their conference, meaning home-court advantage the first couple of rounds. That helped get them into the NBA Finals, where anything can happen.

Take the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000-2001, for example. They ranked 23rd out of 29 teams in points allowed per game yet won the title. How? They scored enough on the other end to get them second in the conference seeding, and leveraged the home-court advantage to reach the conference finals – where they smoked the #1 seed Spurs to get in the Finals. There, they beat the East’s top seed, Philadelphia, 4-1. It was the only game the Lakers lost in four playoff series that year.

Of course, they also had Kobe Bryant and Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal in prime time leading the way.

The Lakers improved from 23rd to 10th the following season in repeating as champ, but they still messed up the case for defense in the process. When a team tournament has a multi-game format, you must play solid in all phases to make a deep run. One great night in one facet of your game won’t do it. Also, many other things factor in – injuries to key players (on your team or the other), favorable matchups, level of experience, equipment issues, officiating assignments, press distractions, family problems, travel glitches and much more.

If you want a wrap-up of the most important factors, the past 10 NBA champions had three things in common:

  • All had great athletes, a necessity no matter what the debate on approach
  • All positioned themselves in their conferences to reach the Finals
  • All peaked in the playoffs, playing some of their best games of the season

Veteran teams view the playoffs as the start of the real season, so they pace themselves during the regular season and thus have something left to give in the playoffs. They know they’ll need it. The intensity and physicality of play do ramp up considerably. Much less goes uncontested.

In part that’s because referees, under the bright lights, are hesitant to call anything but blatant fouls. I’m OK with that. It’s fun to watch the big boys bang inside a bit without the officials constantly interrupting the game. Unfortunately, the result of allowing more aggressive defense generally is lower-scoring games. The perception “defense wins titles” again gets reinforced when it’s really more about attitude toward the playoffs.

More specifically, it’s about the chance to be in the Finals. Like most organizations, NBA teams set their bottom-line goal as being #1 in their industry. Few care who won the regular season that year. It was a nice long run of consistent exposure in local markets, thank you, but the playoffs – especially the Finals – are show time for the NBA. So the stakes are high.

Players and officials feel it most, and the pressure picks up on both sides of the court. That’s when those three key factors stand out: All of the last 10 champions positioned themselves to get into these Finals, where great athletes who were peaking right now executed best in key moments of key games. It also got them lots of pictures hoisting trophies, along with very cool rings and many beautiful “friends.”

In the end, neither offense nor defense rule in the NBA. It’s about having good athletes on a team with a good 12-month plan. Gee, good employees with a good business plan. Go figure.

— New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

PS: Would the NBA have a more international flavor as the North American Basketball Association? Even better, expanding into Brazil they could become a broader Basketball Association of the Americas (BAA) – or Asociación de Baloncesto de las Américas ­(ABA) – including North, South and Central Américas. Just a thought…

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‘Groundbreaking’ Arco Arena name elicited tough stance from Sacramento Bee in 1980s

When the Sacramento arena naming-rights contract with Arco expires next week, I’ll have mixed emotions. Something considered to be heartbreaking by Sacramento Bee staffers 25 years ago is being called “groundbreaking” by current editors. Truth is, the name Arco Arena brought a tough and controversial initial response from the local paper. 

Back then, I was sports editor of The Bee, which purchased a table at the Sacramento Kings’ 1985 preseason community luncheon event a few months after the deal to change the name of the 10,333-seat temporary facility from “Kings Arena” to “Arco Arena.” I dreaded going, because all was not well between the team and newspaper. 

The Bee refused to call it Arco Arena in news stories – on the grounds Arco was just placing advertising content in Bee news coverage – and instead called it Kings Arena until the current permanent facility was finished three years later. The Kings’ ownership, then the Sacramento Sports Association, was vocally upset at the decision. Worse for me, our table at the luncheon happened to be near the front – and I was the only Bee representative in-seat when the event began. 

Gregg Lukenbill, then managing general partner of the Kings, looked down at me as he strolled to the podium. We had struggled through numerous private conversations on the issue. He knew I was a loyal-but-less-than-enthusiastic supporter of The Bee’s policy.  I knew he felt our position was pompous if not downright arrogant. Worse, I knew Lukenbill wouldn’t be able to resist a dig: 

“Well, I see the folks from The Bee had trouble finding Kings Arena,” Lukenbill quipped. “I guess they should have followed the signs to Arco Arena like the rest of us.” 

Everyone laughed, but in retrospect it probably summed up things well. Few other media outlets saw it as a problem. However, Bee staffers were significantly split – leading to many interesting discussions over how to handle sports naming rights years before it became de rigueur in international marketing.                           

In those days, editorial decisions at The Bee began and ended with executive editor Gregory Favre, a top-notch newspaper editor who was intensely passionate about excellence in journalism and the role of the press in society. He was recruited from Chicago by C.K. McClatchy and led the rise of The Bee from state to national recognition. He also was an active and knowledgeable sports fan. So when Favre expressed concern over “Arco” being in every news story and picture published about the team and arena, he was not being frivolous. 

To the Kings, converting the warehouse was a way to move the team from Kansas City quickly – and the Arco deal would help fund a new permanent arena. To Favre, this money was being used to promote the oil company, not the facility – which he contended was originally converted and named solely to house the team. He believed Arco was simply buying its way into daily news coverage 

Like many Bee staffers, I agreed but wrestled with how far that should go. This was new turf for mainstream journalists. Were we reporting the truth by calling it something different from the name on the building? Also, how would we handle a photo with prominent Arco logos? You can only crop them out so much. And what about other divisions of the newspaper, such as advertising, circulation and marketing? Were newsroom concerns worth all this? 

The issue came to a head in a standing-room-only meeting of editorial managers plus other guests. Favre sat at the head of the table, per custom. He led a lengthy, wide-ranging and robust discussion. Afterward, he took a straw vote on the issue. The overwhelming consensus was to call it Arco Arena. Favre thanked everyone for their input, announced we would call it Kings Arena until they built a new facility, and that pretty much ended the meeting. 

None of us had any illusions it was a democracy, but the decision affected the newspaper well beyond editorial. Advertising and marketing account managers had to deal with it for years when handling arena events. Some subscribers boycotted briefly. And there were predictably caustic letters-to-the-editor. However, the issue soon lost steam – then went away completely when the permanent arena was built. 

All the angst we expended back then seemed futile, until now. With fewer companies willing to dole out for traditional big-ticket advertising – especially long-term vehicles such as stadium naming – the issue could simply disappear due to irrelevance. I mean, Power Balance Pavilion? Really? 

In the end, the journalistic quandary about free advertising in news stories will be resolved by economics, not ethics. What’s next, advertising on the front page of The Bee? 

New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

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When men were barred from women’s locker rooms

Should women reporters be allowed access to men’s locker rooms? My opinion hasn’t changed since a personal brush with gender bias as a man in a woman’s locker room 30 years ago. Simply put, players have a right to privacy until they let even one reporter of either gender in the room.

When purposely sexy reporter Ines Sainz of Mexico’s TV Azteca got more attention than she (or we) wanted from the New York Jets in September, the righteous indignation over women in locker rooms felt dated and clichéd. For me, the position was clarified in the winter of 1979-80. Weeks after watching male reporters berate a female colleague outside the Minnesota Vikings’ locker room, I was the butt of gender bias myself while covering a woman’s basketball game.  I saw the issue from both sides first-hand, and it left an impression.

As assistant sports editor of the St. Cloud (Minn.) Times in 1979, part of my job was covering Vikings home games. During that season, I collaborated on stories for the Gannett News Service with Michele Himmelberg, a terrific journalist who was covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press. The paper threatened a lawsuit to gain her equal access to the team’s locker room that season. When she went on the road, other teams were forced to change long-standing policies. That included the Vikings.

The Bucs came to Minneapolis late in the season, and Michele’s presence rankled some long-time Viking beat writers. In a hallway after the game, words became heated, and one arrogant ex-jock radio reporter got in her face. She didn’t back down. Several of us stepped to her defense – then, and later in print.

After the excitement of Michele’s visit, I soon returned to the less glamorous chores of a mid-size paper. That included covering St. Cloud State University, which was hosting an exhibition with a team from the fledgling Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL). They were barnstorming the upper plains states, and I decided to attend.

To be honest, I was most interested in an appearance by the league’s poster-child, “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin, a Midwest legend from Iowa. First, Molly was drop-dead gorgeous and I was a young male reporter. Hello? Second, her stats were hard-to-believe gaudy:

  • Molly’s first game as a junior in high school in Iowa, she scored 63 points on her 16th birthday.
  • She averaged 50.4 points per game as a junior and 54.8 per game as a senior.
  • Molly scored over 70 points in a 32-minute game five times and set a single game scoring record of 83 points.
  • She was the first player signed to a contract in the WPBL, which was launched in 1978 but only survived for three seasons.
  • Molly was the WPBL’s co-most valuable player in 1980, averaged almost 25 ppg as a pro, and was a fierce competitor who had a knack of playing big in all-star and playoff games. (I couldn’t begin to do justice to all her achievements here.)

Most important, Molly was tireless in promoting women’s basketball, which brought her to St. Cloud and my world. I remember the game vividly. Though Molly was attractive, her skills quickly overshadowed everything and everyone else.

I’ve seen some great players live – Bird, Magic, Jordan, etc – but I’ve never seen a display of pure shooting like I saw that night. I don’t remember her stats, only that she absolutely dominated. She’d steal inbound passes, dribble through a crowd and then smoothly drain a shot from 20 feet. Actually, she hit from everywhere on the court and almost never missed. I came out a believer and was hugely looking forward to interviewing her.

After the game, I watched Molly chit-chat with fans and autograph programs. Then she moved toward the locker room with a group of reporters. As I hustled to catch up, I realized I was the only male in the group. They all went into the women’s locker room, the door closed, and Hilga The Locker Room Nazi assured me this was as far as I was going.

I decided to roll with it, figuring they’d come out soon. They didn’t. Almost an hour later they emerged in a group, laughing and hugging as they walked toward the bus. Not wanting to be completely shut out, I hustled my way up to Molly and got a couple of cookie-cutter quotes before she left. Obviously anything personal, unique, or in the emotion of the moment was said in the locker room. And I was the only one not allowed in.

Now I had seen it from both sides. I was indignant when a football team barred a competent and experienced female colleague. I also was indignant when I had to sit outside a Minnesota college gym on a winter night simply because of my gender. These days, I’m just indignant we’re still debating it.

I understand athletes sometimes need space after laying it all out in public competition. I hated talking with anybody right after a tough loss as a wrestler. And I get that the pressure increases with the stakes. In addition, common sense says privacy trumps access concerns in a bathing and dressing area every time.

However, once you allow a reporter of either gender in that area, you’ve now declared it a working interview room instead of a bathroom. Exclusion then becomes an access issue, not a privacy question.

It’s true whether you’re an insanely sexy Latina reporter covering a football team, or an incredibly handsome young newspaper reporter covering a basketball goddess.

New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

PS: I crossed paths with Michele again a few years later at The Sacramento Bee, which filed a lawsuit to win her equal access to the 49ers’ locker room. By then I had moved from sympathizer to advocate. Blame it on Machine Gun Molly.

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Here come the NFL’s Young Guns II

In 1983, an influx of new quarterback talent in the National Football League helped to revitalize some key franchises – including Denver under John Elway, Miami under Dan Marino, and Buffalo under Jim Kelly. Most important, the Quarterback Class of ‘83 added new glamour boys playing a highly visible position.

Don’t look now, but it’s happening again. And I love it. Combining the past two NFL drafts, five quarterbacks were taken in the first round – including the last two overall #1 picks, Matthew Stafford from Georgia (Lions) and Sam Bradford from Oklahoma (Rams).  But several QBs picked in lower rounds are now also starting, sparking a youth movement in the NFL at a key skill position.

The past two classes included Mark Sanchez from USC (Jets), Colt McCoy from Texas (Browns), Tim Tebow from Florida (Broncos), Josh Freeman from Kansas State (Bucs), and Rusty Smith from Florida Atlantic (Titans) – with Jimmy Clausen from Notre Dame and Tony Pike from Cincinnati both getting time for the Panthers. Smith was picked #176 overall by Tennessee but got bumped from third string to starter last week when Vince Young went down for the season.

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Chase Daniel

And that doesn’t include sleepers like my sentimental favorite, Chase Daniel from Missouri, who quietly has worked into the backup spot for Drew Brees with the Saints – after spending their Super Bowl season on their practice squad facing the starting defense every day. (Don’t forget the undrafted Daniels’ brief stint with the Redskins included a come-from-behind preseason victory.) In addition, waiting in the wings are college underclassmen such as Stanford’s Andrew Luck, Boise State’s Kellen Moore and Auburn’s Cam Newton.

Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos

For all the expert analysis, history shows players like Tebow, not your “classic” NFL quarterback, usually end up starting – and winning – against the odds. (“Undersized” Joe Montana was a third-round pick.) Why? Certainly this current group has great athletes to start with, and most have been winners in every sport on every level.

Call it a hunch, but this crop just seems to have an unusually large number of driven and tough competitors at a key position that can change results in the NFL. These are the kind of men who have consistently made whatever adjustments and skill-building they needed to succeed, and only injuries or prison terms will keep that from happening now. Later, some will become Hall of Fame coaches, retiring to motivational seminars near you.

Unfortunately, that two-year window doesn’t even touch on young talent like the Falcons’ Matt Ryan, the Ravens’ Joe Flacco or the Bills’ Ryan Fitzpatrick – all only 25 with at least four years in the league. It must make the Chargers’ Philip Rivers (age 28) and Packers’ Aaron Rogers (29) feel like geezers. At 34, Peyton Manning may need a walker soon…

New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

PS: One notable exception to the exceptional ’83 class: Kansas City crumbled after picking Todd Blackledge #7 overall.

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