Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The MLS Road Trip


The MLS schedule was released last week, which got me thinking about a full-season road trip. No, I won't be taking one, but it is always fun to plan. The MLS is like the NFL, with teams generally playing once a week and mostly on weekends. Unlike the NFL where there are only single games on Thursday and Monday, MLS splits its weekend slate more evenly, with 3 or 4 games on one day and 6 or 7 on the other. This makes it pretty easy to plan a road trip, especially with the geographic distribution of the teams.

There are 20 clubs this season as Chivas USA has folded while Orlando City SC and NYCFC have joined as expansion clubs. That allowed for realignment and there are now 10 teams in both the East and West divisions. Moreover, all but one of these teams is geographically close to at least one other without any area of the country dominating. The Pacific Northwest has Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver; California hosts the L.A. Galaxy and San Jose; the Rockies includes Real Salt Lake, Colorado, and Sporting KC; Houston and Dallas take Texas; Chicago and Columbus constitute the Midwest; Canada contains Montreal and Toronto, and there are now five clubs in the northeast: DC United, Philadelphia, New England, and the two in New York. Only Orlando is orphaned, all alone in Florida.

What this fairly even distribution across the country means is that you can see two games on a weekend in one area and then spend the weekdays driving to the next area to see another two games. The following schedule took me about five minutes to create, simply by starting on the first weekend with Portland and Seattle. I am sure there are more efficient trips, but I'm not going to bother looking for one.

Sat, Mar  7  Salt Lake at Portland
Sun, Mar  8  New England at Seattle
Fri, Mar 13  Orlando at Houston
Sat, Mar 14  Kansas City at Dallas
Fri, Mar 20  Dallas at Philadelphia
Sat, Mar 21  Montreal at New England
Sun, Mar 22  DC United at New York Red Bulls
Sat, Mar 28  New York Red Bulls at Columbus
Sun, Mar 29  Philadelphia at Chicago
Sat, Apr  4  New England at Colorado
Sun, Apr  5  Philadelphia at Kansas City
Sat, Apr 11  Vancouver at San Jose
Sun, Apr 12  Seattle at Los Angeles
Sat, Apr 18  Vancouver at Salt Lake
Sat, Apr 25  DC United at Vancouver
Sat, May  2  Columbus at DC United
Sun, May  3  Seattle at New York City FC
Sat, May  9  Portland at Montreal
Sun, May 10  Houston at Toronto
Sun, May 17  Los Angeles at Orlando

Assuming you start and finish in Portland, you'd be driving around 19,300 highway miles, more than I did on my NFL trip in 2013, mainly because you are making four cross country trips. Again, this is just for fun, if I were to do this I would spend a lot more time planning it. You might also notice that this schedule coincides nicely with the NHL and NBA playoff push as well as the first month of baseball not to mention March Madness (regional sites in Pittsburgh and Cleveland are easy to get to), so you can see sports pretty much every day in between the soccer games. I guess what this shows is that if you really, really, wanted to (and had unlimited resources), you could spend all your time driving around watching sports. To dream the impossible dream...

Best,

Sean

Sunday, January 11, 2015

OKC? OK!


The Oklahoma City Barons of the AHL are disappearing after this season as the minor league hockey picture continues to evolve. The Barons are affiliated with the Edmonton Oilers, who are likely to have a team much closer to home next season, as rumours of an AHL western division continue to circulate. I am drawn to these lame duck teams as it provides an opportunity to see a venue that may not be available in the future. Last year I saw the Huntsville Stars in their last regular season weekend of existence, and the year before I attended a San Francisco Bulls game at the Cow Palace just a few weeks before they folded. In both cases I was quite happy to have made those trips to see a club that no longer exists.

So why not head off to OKC for a Barons tilt? That's exactly what I'm doing. There are a few other teams in the area, including the Oklahoma Sooners in nearby Norman. However, flying to OKC from NYC is not as easy as ABC. Connections are necessary and that limits what you can see on the day you return, when the latest flight out is around 5:30. So instead, I'm flying to DFW, just 200 miles south of OKC, and driving up. I'm waiting for the college baseball season to start but not waiting too long, as I want to catch some college hoops too. There's only one weekend when the Barons are home and I can see both basketball and baseball, that being February 27-March 1.

The schedule is:

Fri, Feb 27 BYU at Oklahoma (NCAA Baseball) 1:00
Fri, Feb 27 San Antonio at Oklahoma City (AHL) 7:00
Sat, Feb 28 TCU at Oklahoma (NCAA Basketball) 1:00
Sat, Feb 28 Arkansas-Little Rock at UT-Arlington (NCAA Basketball) 7:15
Sun, Mar  1 UMass-Lowell at Dallas Baptist (NCAA Baseball) 1:00

That's five games and five new venues in just three days, an ambitious trip. Several years back, I had planned to see a game at UT-Arlington but decided on an D-League game in Frisco instead. In those days, college basketball was probably my least favourite sport but now I am addicted to it, mainly because there are 351 venues to visit! Now that I have seen all 122 Big 4 venues, I find myself attending far more college games than those in the pros. It is not something I ever expected to happen, but it certainly does open up a whole new world of sports road trips!

Best,

Sean

Friday, January 9, 2015

St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers 78 at Fairleigh Dickinson Knights 69 (NCAA Basketball, NEC) - January 8, 2015


My next two months of local sports viewing will be devoted to college hoops. I'm focusing on visiting new venues and no sport has more than the 351 Division 1 basketball gyms. Not that I'll ever see them all, but there's no harm in trying (my wife disagrees with this statement). Yesterday, despite a cold snap that saw temperatures dip well below freezing, I ventured deep into New Jersey (by deep I mean Hackensack) to witness a battle for first in the Northeast Conference. The hosts were the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, who beat LIU Brooklyn on Monday in a game I attended. Their guests were the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers, preseason favourites to win the conference.



Getting to FDU is not that hard, as the Pascack Valley line commuter train stops at Anderson Street station; from there a 10-minute walk gets you to the Rothman Center, where the Knights play. Getting back home is another matter but more on that later. It is important to note that if you are using any sort of GPS system to get there, you need to enter Rothman Center as your destination instead of the university itself, as they are separated by the Hackensack River with the university's main campus residing in Teaneck (you can see the area in the screen shot below).



I followed Google Maps and took the roundabout way to the gym, walking along the river in near total darkness. An easier, if less scenic, way to get there is to cut through a bunch of parking lots, but those are not obvious on the map above. General admission tickets are $10 (reserved seats with chair backs are $15) before having to go through security. Yes, even at this level, metal detectors are used. It is worth pointing out that both St. Francis and LIU are in Brooklyn, which by all measures is far more dangerous than Hackensack, and they don't have any security, so I really don't know why they need it here. Anyway, I duly took out all metal objects and entered the gym.



This is another pretty basic NEC facility, with a Hall of Fame which lists a number of former athletes but without any of their achievements (you can see this in the top photo above). One touch I like is the reserved seats spell FDU in red, while the other side spells Knights. It can't be that hard to order a few chairs of a different colour; all schools should try this to make their gyms just a little more interesting.



The roof here is quite different and merits a photo. It doesn't seem to have a special name for this sort of shape; the university's own website calls it "tent-like" suggesting that the university needs to upgrade its English department.



My buddy Eddie, who is responsible for getting me interested in these mid-major college games, was already there, so after taking a few pictures for posterity (and this post) I joined him in the top row and we settled in for the game. For those who care, FDU's last tournament appearance was in 2005 when they lost to runner-up Illinois in the first round.



Both teams came in 2-0 so the winner would have the early lead in the NEC. You might think this  meaningless as March Madness berths are decided by conference tournaments rather than the regular season, but in the NEC, higher seeds host tournament games, so this was a somewhat important match early in the conference slate. Moreover, it was the best college game on the schedule as it was the only conference battle where both opponents were perfect having played at least 2 conference games. Yet ESPN did not cover it! And only 682 hardy fans ventured out to see this classic! What is wrong with you people?! (My wife tells me you people are actually normal and I am the one with the problem).

Anyway, onto the action. The refs let them play in the first half, with a number of fouls going uncalled (the first was not whistled until after five minutes had passed) as St. Francis built an early lead behind some stellar passing and the shooting of Jalen Cannon (below in red).



Down 24-15 after just 9 minutes, FDU began to full-court press and the Terriers were not able to handle it, leading to some quick turnovers allowing the Knights 6 quick points. St. Francis eventually learned how to break the press though, and as we neared halftime though, the Knights started committing more than their share of illegalities, resulting in nine Terrier points from the free throw line as the visitors took a 47-32 lead at the half.



The second half saw FDU again use a full-court press to make a comeback, with a couple of long threes from Matt MacDonald helping the team to tie the game at 56 and then again at 58. You've heard about momentum, but studies say that it really doesn't exist and that was certainly the case here as FDU could not take the lead despite overcoming that 15-point halftime deficit.



Antonio Jenifer (#3 above) sank a three to stop the run, but FDU hit a couple of free throws to close within 61-60. After St. Francis botched two foul shots, Mustafa Jones missed an easy layup that would have given the home team the lead, and you sensed that it just wasn't their night. Jenifer followed with another three and a layup as the Terriers made it 69-64, and then he hit a third trey with just over two minutes left, and that was essentially the dagger. The officials had clamped down in the second half and the last few possessions ended in fouls and free throws as St. Francis won 78-69. The difference was again at the line as FDU was called for 27 of the 42 fouls leading to 39 free throw attempts for the visitors, who only made 26 of them. But that was eight more than the Knights made (out of 21 attempts).



As I mentioned, the return to New York is not as simple. Late in the evening, there is only one train back from Anderson Street, that being at 9:54. With the game finishing at 9, that meant nearly an hour wait, but fortunately there are NJ Transit buses that appear every 30 minutes or so that go straight to Port Authority in just under an hour. The bus stops are also quite a bit closer than the train station, so in the end it all worked out. I was surprised to be back home by 10:45, not much later than had I seen an MLB game at Yankee Stadium starting at the same time.

Notes

This was my 21st NCAA basketball venue, excluding tournament games. So only 330 left to go.

Next Up

I'm off to Iceland and Denmark because they are warmer than New York at the moment. I hope to see a hockey game in each country, so check back in a couple of weeks to see if I did so. In the meantime, the MLS schedule was just released, so I'll be posting a road trip plan for that. As well, I have my own

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Fairleigh Dickinson Knights 75 at LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds 69 (NCAA Basketball, NEC) - January 5, 2015


This year I'll be going to far fewer Big 4 events in the New York area and to more places I've yet to visit. Not only are they often costly, I find that the majority of NBA and NHL contests are not that entertaining, particularly in these first weeks of the year before the playoff push. When the summer rolls around, I'll give MLB another chance, and of course the NFL is always intriguing, but for the next few months, I'm going to try to visit as many new venues as possible.

At this time of year, the best bet is college basketball, with 351 Division I schools around the country, including over a dozen in the greater NYC area, of which I've seen only six. Last week, I revisited St. Francis (NY) as they beat Columbia; yesterday I made my first trip to the Wellness Recreation and Athletic Center (WRAC), home of the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds, who were hosting Fairleigh Dickinson. LIU is Just a half-mile from St. Francis; I'm not sure there are two Division I schools closer. Interestingly, St. Francis had a 4 p.m. start against Bryant but work precluded me from making the doubleheader.

I arrived at LIU (located just above DeKalb station) about an hour before the 7 p.m. start. Lots of small fast food restaurants lie along Flatbush Avenue, with Two Brothers Pizza offering cheese slices for $1. Who said New York is expensive?!



Outside the WRAC, there is not a single sign that a Division I event is occurring inside. LIU Brooklyn is no anonymous school, they made the NCAA tournament in three consecutive years from 2011-13, losing to North Carolina and Michigan State in the "second round" and bowing out to James Madison in the First Four last year, but still nobody really cares about mid-major basketball when you have the Nets playing just a block away. A lonely student sat in the box office, where tickets were $10 for general admission (an extra $5 gets you a chairback in a special section that you can see at the top of the photo above). If you need support and want to save the fiver, just sit in the last row of GA and use the wall.



At the top of the stairs is the LIU Sports Hall of Fame, with several plaques of people I have never heard of. That's not a criticism at all; I enjoyed reading about the achievements of these athletes, few of whom turned pro. All schools honour their past stars regardless of their exploits post-graduation, and it is nice to see LIU Brooklyn doing it so prominently. There is also a sculpture of some blackbirds over the door, reminding you of the team's nickname.



The gym itself consists of benches on both sides, as well as steep risers at both ends. When I walked in, the ladies' teams were in the middle of their second half. I sat down behind the FDU bench and watched as they came back from 10 points down to take a brief lead before LIU rallied for the 10 point win. It was interesting to watch the coaches interact with the referees and their players; they take these games just as seriously as any power conference coach (rightly so).



Between games I took a quick look around, but there is little else to see, other than a small concession stand with cheap but limited eats. Overall, the WRAC is a nice facility for students with a pool and workout gym, but as a basketball court for fans, it is as basic as they come. That shouldn't stop you from attending though, it's Division 1 basketball for $10 after all!



The Game

This was only the second game of Northeast Conference play, with FDU coming off a win over Central Connecticut while LIU were losers to Bryant. It didn't take long for the evening's theme to be established: fouls and lots of 'em. It seemed like every hand check, bump, and reach-in was called, and the first half seemed to take forever. FDU built a nice 40-30 lead as they went to the break, led by freshman Darien Anderson with an incredible 21 points.

The second half began the same way, with the first foul being called after 25 seconds and the next 4 seconds later. It seemed like the refs were trying to one-up each other, but in all fairness they were calling them according to the rules, just a lot tighter than usual. The Knights maintained their 10-point advantage until a monstrous alley-oop from Landon Atterberry (with the assist to Joel Hernandez) sent LIU on a 10-0 run capped by another thunderous dunk from Hernandez to tie the game at 60 (below, New Yorker sports fans will recognize Fuzzy in the background, check the comments for more on this legendary sports traveler).



Unfortunately, Hernandez was whistled for a technical for hanging on the rim (just what basketball needs: more stupid rules that slow the game down) but they withstood the two free throws and took a 65-62 lead on a trey from Gerrell Martin (#4 below).



That was their last meaningful field goal unfortunately, as they spent the remaining 4 minutes chucking up bricks, going 0/4 with two turnovers as FDU regained the lead and held on through the final minute, sinking enough of their free throws down the stretch to win 75-69.



This game was painful to watch. There were 49 fouls called, but even more annoying were all the substitutions. Players on both teams were shuttled in and out with reckless abandon. Why is this annoying? Because of the 20,000-decibel substitution buzzer! 1 don't know if acoustics are different here but I've never noticed it that loud in other venues. Add in all the timeouts, when the buzzer is sounded to warn the teams to hurry up, and by the end of things, I had a nice little headache. I don't understand why things have to be so earsplitting in such a small gym, it really WRACs your hearing.

Notes

The only MacDonald in Division I is Matt of FDU (#3 below). He finished with 5 points, exactly the margin of victory!



Next Up 

With my hearing restored, I'm hoping to see FDU (based in Teaneck, NJ, although their home court is across a river in Hackensack) at home on Thursday as they take on St. Francis. Both teams are 2-0, so the winner will have the NEC lead! Both work and weather might still make that tough to get to, but if not, I'll have a recap on Friday.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Iowa Energy 104 at Westchester Knicks 108 (NBA D-League) - January 3, 2015


With the NFL playoffs starting at 4:30 pm on Saturday, I had an afternoon free, and what better way to start the year off than checking out the newest team in the New York area? The Westchester Knicks began play in the NBA D-League this season, operating out of the Westchester County Center in White Plains, about 30 miles north of the city. The club is owned by the New York Knicks, another sign that the D-League is slowly becoming a true minor league. There are now 18 franchises across the country, with all but one owned by or singly affiliated with an NBA team (the defending champion Fort Wayne Mad Antz are the exception). Furthermore, at the end of last season, a third of NBA players had spent time in the D-League. True, few of those with experience in the minors are really stars, but that shouldn't stop you from visiting any D-League game and seeing a future NBA benchwarmer.



Westchester County Center



Opened in 1930, the Westchester County Center's Art Deco design is not one that you see often in a sports venue. Check out the lobby below, pretty fancy stuff. The WCC was renovated in 1988 and it is still in very good condition. If you are taking transit, Metro North Railroad stops at White Plains, which is just five minutes away on foot. A round-trip, off-peak ticket is $17. There are other options, but this is the easiest for those without a car.



The WCC is actually mostly used as a concert hall and the circus comes to town every year, but it is still well suited to basketball. The court is surrounded on three sides with a balcony, 6 or 7 rows in each section. The first row here is the best place to sit, especially behind the net, where you are almost on top of the court.



Tickets start at $10 and given how small the place is (just 5,000 seats), there is not much reason to spend more, though $25 will get you a seat at mid-court in the balcony.



There are lower level seats along the left side of the court, but these are just folding chairs and the last couple of rows are partially obstructed by the upper deck, as you can see above. At $35, these are not worth the extra money. As this is more of a cultural venue, the balcony seats are plush and quite comfortable (below), and provide a better view as well for less money.



There are some VIP seats such as the semi-circular tables below, as well as courtside seats just in front of them. Tickets here range from $80 to $124 should you be interested. Note that TicketMaster charges add at least 10% to these prices, so many fans show up and buy their tickets at the box office, which leads to a long line just before tip off. I found a gentleman with a few extras who sold me one quite cheaply, thus allowing me to avoid the line.



A few more shots from various angles:











Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs offers a fast-food menu at very reasonable prices, though much of it is pre-cooked. The bacon cheeseburger I tried was not appealing at all. Try one of the chicken options instead.

Overall, I was very impressed with the job the Knicks have done in turning the Westchester County Center into a top-notch minor league basketball venue. The people who run the game day operations are from Madison Square Garden (they interviewed me for the big screen due to my affiliation with Stadium Journey) and it is very professionally done without the hype that dominates pro sports these days. It is a great family atmosphere and I saw mostly parents with their children in attendance, all having a good time. If you like basketball and are in New York, consider a trip to White Plains to see the Knicks. Even with the cost of public transportation, it will be cheaper than seeing the woeful parent club at MSG, and far more entertaining too.

The Game

The Iowa Energy (affiliated with the Vancouver Memphis Grizzlies) were in town to start a three-game road trip. Both teams were in last place in their respective divisions with just six wins (the Knicks had played 18 games to Iowa's 14). The most recognizable names were Iowa's Damien Wilkins (son of Gerald), who has played several seasons in the NBA and Westchester's Thanasis
Antetokounmpo (#43 below), whose brother Giannis plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.



The Knicks got out to a 13-6 lead early but Iowa fought back and had an 8-point advantage at 42-34 midway through the second frame. Westchester used 9 points from Darnell Jackson (#45 above) to storm back and the game went to halftime knotted at 51.



Iowa started the third quarter on an 8-0 run, but again the Knicks battled back, with recent trade acquisition Ron Anderson (#34 above) making a jump shot to tie the game at 70 late in the period. From there, the Knicks went on an 11-7 run to enter the fourth up 81-77.



When Westchester's Todd Mayo (half-brother of O.J., also with the Bucks) sank a couple of free throws (his only points of the game) to make it 85-77, the Knicks looked in control, but this time the visitors came back, tying the game at 94 with 3:20 to go.



Then Langston Galloway (#11 above) took over, draining a jumper and two treys as Westchester went up 104-96 with 30 seconds left. The rest of the game saw Iowa fouling in a vain effort to get back in it, but they came up short, losing 108-104.



This was a fun contest, with a few lead changes and hot shooting by both teams. The difference was at the charity stripe: Iowa was whistled for 28 fouls, leading to 37 Westchester free throws (they made 30), while the Energy only enjoyed 15 attempts (missing just two) on 14 Knick fouls.

Notes

This was my 520th venue and 5th in the D-League, all of which have been enjoyable experiences. I hope to visit more of these franchises, but their odd locations (Maine, Delaware, Canton etc.) and sparse schedule will make it difficult as long as I am working.

Galloway played collegiate ball at St. Joseph's, and coincidentally I saw him play on the first Saturday of 2014. Three days later, after the Knicks traded J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, Galloway was called up and made his NBA in Washington, scoring 7 points off the bench in a 101-91 loss.

Next Up

I'm going crazy for college hoops in the next two months. There are at least 12 schools in the NY area at which I've yet to see a game, and as 2015 will be about me visiting new venues, I'm going to try to see 10 of them by season's end. That starts with a trip to LIU Brooklyn on Monday as the Blackbirds host the Knights of Fairleigh Dickinson. Check back for a recap of that one.

Best,

Sean

Friday, January 2, 2015

Happy New Year!


They say the New Year is a time of reflection, but for me, it is a time to issue a new sports road trip schedule! This year, however, I will do both.

I started this blog nearly six years ago, mainly to chronicle my extended sports road trips, but also to try to publicize the idea of sports travel. This secondary aim has been remarkably unsuccessful. As I journey around the country to various venues, I realize that most fans have little interest in sports or games other than those involving their favourite teams. For example, when Charger fans visited Buffalo back in September, they didn't care to attend a college game at the University at Buffalo the day before. There is a small collection of hardy sports road trippers that have found a collective home on Facebook; we try to see as many games and venues as possible regardless of the teams playing, but a larger demographic of those dedicated to sports travel simply does not exist. My NFL Road Trip book was the final nail in the proverbial coffin, demonstrating that the vast majority of sports fans really don't care about games or stadiums unless they have a rooting interest.

Despite the grim realization that my passion is shared by so few, I realize how the blog has instead become a great diary of my travels. As I get older and my feeble brain gets even feebler, I tend to forget many of the games I have seen. Just last week, I was checking out stats on Cal basketball before going to their game against Eastern Washington and noticed that they had one top-50 RPI win, over Syracuse. It took me a couple of minutes to remember that I actually attended the first half of that game, even though it had taken place just a month before. Hello dementia!

With this blog, I can look back and review the games I saw years before, most of which I can recall only a moment or two. It is particularly interesting to note players who were still relatively anonymous when I saw them in the minor leagues or college but who have gone on to stardom in the big leagues. So even though sports travel is a tiny niche in the world of sport, I'm going to continue this blog for a while yet as it provides value to me, and I hope in some little way, to you as well.

Looking back at 2014, I saw 128 events, including the Super Bowl, and added 57 venues to my count, now at 519. Looking ahead, the 2015 schedule can be seen here. It is obviously very, very tentative at this point. The trip to Iceland and Denmark is booked, but I have no idea if I'll actually make it to either hockey game. The Barbados trip is also set, but other than that every game depends on the three W's that might keep me from going (work, weather, wife). Games in the NYC area are added at the last minute, as I will often decide based on ticket availability on StubHub, though in general I don't have much interest in the local pro hockey or baseball teams and I'm boycotting the crooked NBA this season. I hope to see plenty of college hoops over the next few months, but many are in slightly inconvenient locations, so I have to plan carefully. The 2015 NFL season will see the Bills in Philadelphia, Washington, and Nashville among others and I hope to visit at least two of those games. The Brooklyn Islanders will move into Barclays Center and I'll definitely be at the first Leafs contest there.

I'm also thinking of a CFL road trip in September before returning to London for the incredible trifecta of NFL, Rugby World Cup, and Euro Qualifying. Plans are fluid, but you can always find the updated schedule here, along with the results of the games I've seen. So keep following along and if you happen to be in a town I am visiting, drop me a line and join me for a game.

Best,

Sean