Saturday, April 15, 2017
Last week I attended my first USL game, when the New York Red Bulls II played at Red Bull Arena, relatively easy to get to on public transit. This week, the club again had a home tilt, but this time at MSU Soccer Park, their new regular ground for the 2017 season. MSU stands for Montclair State University, and the venue can be found on campus, about 15 miles west of New York. Transit to here is not nearly as regular as to Red Bull Arena, with direct trains from Penn Station averaging about one per hour, even during the evening rush.
I planned to take a NJ Transit train from Penn Station but just before leaving work, it was announced that an inbound train was stuck in the tunnel between Midtown and New Jersey. All NJ Transit service was delayed, which meant that there was no way I could get to the game on time. A panicked search revealed a bus from Port Authority that would go right by the field, but it left at 5:18. I had to rush to the terminal (no easy feat on the crowded streets of Manhattan) and managed to board the bus just in time. Just over 45 minutes later I was in front of the MSU campus, located in a very quiet neighbourhood. I took a couple of pictures of the surroundings, including a sculpture of a hawk, as Montclair State's moniker is Red Hawks.
The field itself is just behind a small amphitheater on the south side of campus. I followed some of the Orlando players there. In minor league soccer, there aren't many perks.
Tickets are $15 for GA, though you are supposed to sit in the section listed on your ticket. Nobody checks, so it doesn't really matter in the end.
As mentioned, this is a very small venue, with just a single long grandstand along the east sideline, which means the sun is shining in your face for the first few minutes of the game. There is also a small seating area behind the south goal for supporters.
Sitting in the top row allows you to rest your back against the fence, which is covered with signs encouraging hooliganism. Fortunately, none of the 722 in attendance paid any attention to these exhortations.
There is a small food stand with very basic offerings. The hot dogs, normally $2.50, were a buck on the night and pretty good. The only other hot food was a $3 pretzel; candy completed the menu. There is even a "beer garden" with $6 tall boys.
Overall, this as basic as they come for a professional sports facility. Given the difficulty in getting out here, especially on weekends when there are no trains to MSU in the afternoon or evening, I doubt many travelling fans will bother, but if you do make the trek, you should have an enjoyable evening.
Orlando City B were in town to take on the defending USL champs and fell behind early when Junior Flemmings scored from the top of the 6-yard box in the 16th minute. OCB (which sounds more like a disease than a soccer club) tied it on an Albert Dikwa header in the 34th minute, with the Red Bulls playing down a man due to injury. Late in first half stoppage time, NYRB II regained the lead as Frenchman Vincent Bezecourt (a St. Francis alum) let a weak curling shot go from the top of the box that should have been stopped by Earl Edwards Jr., but wasn't.
The second half didn't see much action until late, when the Red Bulls put things away on a quickly-taken free kick that caught Orlando napping. David Abidor had no trouble getting behind the sleepy defense and slotting home to finish the scoring as the Red Bulls won 3-1.
Not a bad game compared to the first one I saw, but not the sort of league I'll make an effort to see regularly. Highlights are here for those who are interested.
The NJ Transit debacle was mostly fixed by the end of the game, but there were still residual delays. The train back was about 20 minutes behind schedule, not bad considering outbound passengers were delayed up to 2 hours. Public transit infrastructure in NYC is decaying quickly and if something is not done soon, the problems will only continue to get worse.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
The NHL playoffs begin Wednesday and the Washington Capitals are considered one of the favourites to hoist Lord Stanley's mug come June. They won the Presidents' Trophy, which is obviously no guarantee of a playoff title (11 out of 30 Presidents' Trophy winners also won the Cup), but they have been snakebitten in the playoffs since Alex Ovechkin joined the team, not even making the finals once. If they beat Toronto, they will then have to contend with the winner of Pittsburgh and Columbus, and even if they escape the Metropolitan bracket, they might end up facing divisional foe NY Rangers in the conference finals (yes, the NHL playoff system is stupid).
It is not an easy path regardless, and I'm here to tell you that the Capitals will not win the Cup. Why? Because when you simulate the playoffs using season series results, the Capitals wind up on top. And every year that I have done this simulation, it has been completely wrong. Here is how the playoffs would happen if the season series held:
Montreal over NYR (3-0)
Ottawa over Boston (4-0)
Montreal over Ottawa (3-2)
Washington over Toronto (2-1)
Columbus over Pittsburgh (2-2)*
Washington over Columbus (3-2)
Chicago over Nashville (4-1)
St. Louis over Minnesota (3-2)
Chicago over St. Louis (3-2)
Anaheim over Calgary (4-1)
Edmonton over San Jose (3-2)
Edmonton over Anaheim (3-2)
Washington over Montreal (2-1)
Edmonton over Chicago (2-1)
Washington over Edmonton (1-1)*
* The final tiebreaker is overall goal differential for the entire season.
So based on the season series, Washington would win the Cup. Which means that they won't because this method is always wrong. So who will win? I'd guess
Thursday, April 6, 2017
The US soccer pyramid has undergone some substantial changes over the past few years, with the most notable the emergence of the United Soccer League as a de facto minor circuit. Founded in 2010, the USL has used an aggressive expansion strategy along with a partnership with MLS that leaves it with 30 clubs for the 2017 season, nearly four times the 8 franchises that remain in the NASL, which was considered the unofficial second-tier in the pyramid when it first began in 2009. Both leagues are now officially sanctioned as Division II, but with two franchises (including my hometown Ottawa Fury) leaving the NASL for the USL this past offseason, it is clear that the USL is in the ascendancy. The partnership with MLS helps as well as 22 USL teams have an affiliation with an MLS club.
Many of these affiliations are pretty obvious as the USL team simply adopts the name of their parent club and affixes a II, 2, or B to the end. One such club is the New York Red Bulls II, who began play in the 2015 season. For their first two seasons, they played primarily at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, home of their parent organization, but this year they made the move to MSU Soccer Park on the campus of Montclair State University. Still, they will play twice at Red Bull Arena, with one of those games on Wednesday night. I have a very occasional part-time job doing live reporting from venues and was asked to cover this game, so I headed out to Harrison after work to add the USL to my list of leagues seen. The USL does not draw well, which meant no crowds whatsoever, perhaps dissuaded by the $15 ticket price. Unfettered by fellow fans, I was able to grab a good shot of the exterior of the stadium (above) and a panorama of the empty interior below.
Attendance was announced at 396 but perhaps half that were actually inside the venue. The visitors were the Harrisburg City Islanders (so named because their home stadium is on City Island), one of the original franchises still in the league, though they lack an MLS affiliate.
As I wandered around the empty concourse, I noticed that some pillars had been painted with historic moments in the Red Bulls franchise, including the formation of the junior club. A nice addition to one of the best soccer-only facilities in the country, but all that is worth noting here.
The Red Bulls II are the defending USL champions and were on a 12-game undefeated streak dating back to last year, but played like crap for most of the night. Harrisburg scoring the only goal in the 62nd minute when former Red Bull and Puerto Rican national Manolo Sanchez took advantage of a poor back-header by defender Michael Murillo, beating keeper Ryan Meara to the loose ball and slotting easily into the empty net. The Red Bulls had a glorious chance to tie a few minutes later but Zeiko Lewis just missed with only the keeper to beat.
Overall, the quality of play wasn't that good, possibly about the level of League Two in England if I had to hazard a guess, and even that might be a bit generous. It is difficult to compare leagues across countries, but one point to note is that Jack McBean of LA Galaxy II, leading the league in scoring at the time, was loaned to League One side Coventry and made only six appearances over six months, though he did score 7 goals for their U23 side. Still, it is silly to be critical based on one game, after all, the USL is a development league, so expectations should be tempered. The players are young and have bright futures, so if you are a soccer fan, this is a league worth watching. With 30 teams, many in smaller markets, it is also a great addition for summer sports road trips.
Baseball's back! I'll continue my Toronto on the Road series with a trip to St. Louis in a couple of weeks to see all three games there, along with a return to Jackson, Mississippi to finally complete the Southern League after a rainout last year. This will begin a busy summer as I try to complete the minor league parks (I still have 27 to do). As always, updates will be posted here, so check back then.
Friday, March 17, 2017
It’s March again, which means another round of March Madness is upon us. If you like hype, crap officiating, office gambling, and media timeouts, this is the event for you. If you appreciate fairness, on the other hand, best look elsewhere. I’m talking about the real madness behind the NCAA basketball tournament: the annual snubbing of successful mid-major teams.
There are 32 conferences in Division I basketball, and each runs a postseason tournament with the winner getting the conference’s automatic berth to the tournament. Some tournaments are held at campus sites, with the higher seed hosting, making the regular season somewhat meaningful, while others are held at neutral locations. Some even hold the tournament at a pre-determined campus court regardless of regular season record; the Ivy League played their first tournament this year at Penn’s Palestra, and the #4 Quakers nearly upset #1 seed Princeton due to their undeserved home court advantage. At least the Ivy only invites 4 of 8 teams, most of the other tournaments invite every single team in a cynical move to generate as much revenue as possible, which again renders the 30-some games played in the regular season meaningless. Top teams get byes, so you end up with the #11 and #14 seeds facing off. Why? Seriously, why?
After the 32 automatic bids are set, the other 36 bids are decided by a selection committee, who are now celebrities in their own right, getting their own show to reveal their picks on the Sunday before the tournament begins. Meanwhile, “bracketologists” like Joe Lunardi predict the outcome, with bubble teams separated into “Last 4 In” and “First 4 Out”. The hype is ridiculous. Do even real college hoops fans care if Kansas State or Syracuse makes it in? Both are bad teams with no chance at winning the whole thing.
In the end, 33 of the 36 at-large teams came from power basketball conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, American); the only outsiders were Dayton and VCU from the Atlantic-10 (arguably not a mid-major) and St. Mary’s from the West Coast Conference, and even they are not truly mid-major as #1-seed Gonzaga is also a member. For the other 23 conferences, only the tournament winner was afforded the chance to dance. And this is what is so unfair. The committee has an inherent bias against squads from smaller conferences, primarily based on strength of schedule. Thus garbage teams like Kansas State (8-10 in Big 12) and Wake Forest (9-9 in ACC) get coveted spots, while Horizon League champ Oakland (14-4) was left out after losing their tournament opener to Youngstown State (5-13), a game that was played at neutral Joe Louis Arena.
It is not necessarily the committee’s fault either; the entire college basketball world favours the power conferences. Mid-major teams rarely host teams from power conferences (Philadelphia’s Big 5 schools are a notable exception) so they don’t have much of a chance to establish themselves in terms of the statistical requirements mandated by the committee (“body of work”, “strength of schedule”). In other words, a small fish in a big pond is better than a big fish in a small pond when it comes to selecting schools for March Madness. And that is outright wrong.
Want proof? As a conference champion that did not win its tournament, Oakland gained an automatic bid to the NIT (along with 9 other such teams), where they were given a 7-seed. Their opponent in the first round was Clemson who finished 6-12 in ACC play. Oakland traveled to Clemson and won, 74-69. Cal-State Bakersfield from the WAC, another regular season champ who lost in their tournament, was given an 8-seed. They visited Cal, who finished 10-8 in the Pac-12, and came away with the upset win as well.
Of course, other mid-major champions lost, such as Monmouth falling to Ole Miss, but the point is that these teams can compete with the lesser lights of the power conferences and should be allowed to do so in the NCAA tournament, not in the NIT.
How can this be fixed? In some cases, regular season mid-major champions should join their conference’s tournament champs in the Big Dance. It is wrong to punish these teams for a single loss. The regular season supposedly matters for power conferences (I say supposedly because seriously, how did Wake Forest get in with their 9-9 ACC record, or Vanderbilt at 19-15 overall) but not at all for the mid-majors. Second, no team that is at or under .500 in conference play should be admitted unless they win their tournament (in fact, tournaments should not accept such teams but I know this isn’t going to happen). Kansas State (8-10) beat Baylor in the Big 12 tournament, which probably got them into the dance, but does any serious fan of college hoops really want to see another crap power conference team instead of Oakland or Belmont? Upsets are the lifeblood of the tournament and Xavier beating Maryland is not an upset.
One compromise would be to add four more teams to the NCAA tournament – the best mid-major champs who lost in their tournament – to create a First Eight. I’d be much more interested in any of those matchups than Providence vs USC, both of whom went 10-8 in conference play.
So while you sit back for the next three weeks to enjoy 67 basketball games, pay attention to the NIT as well – it has a few teams that you should be watching instead.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
As I've mentioned in previous posts, when this weekend trip was planned, the Red Wings/Rangers game was scheduled for 12:30 on Sunday afternoon, allowing me to book an evening flight back to NYC. When the game was pushed to the evening by the evildoers at NBC Sports, I had a decision to make. Should I fly home Sunday and sell my game ticket, or stay an extra night? In the end, after adding the Windsor game to the itinerary, I decided to stay and see Joe Louis Arena one last time.
So after crossing back into America with no difficulty (the CBP officer laughed when I told her that I was in Windsor for hockey and going to Detroit for hockey), I drove around downtown looking for a parking spot, since street parking is free on Sunday. After a few minutes, I found a perfect spot near a People Mover station, so I left the car on the street and walked over to the Joe. Along the way, I had a great view of the Renaissance Center (below), where I stayed on my first ever sports road trip back in 1986, when three friends and I traveled to see the Jays play two games at Tiger Stadium (they split). What I like about this picture is the sculpture of a fist in the bottom right corner - it represents the fist of Joe Louis, and the story behind it is quite interesting.
I wrote in detail about the rink last time, so won’t cover those points again. I walked through the Cobo Center to get there and really appreciated the sign below. A unique font for a unique arena.
There are some small differences from two seasons ago, such as commemorative photos on exterior doors…
…and small “Farewell Season” stickers on the concourse floor.
I also noticed a display case with several miniature Stanley Cups and other memorabilia. I always appreciate when a team honours its past like this and hope this display finds its way to the new arena too.
The Joe remains much the same as it did when it opened in 1979, with a few additional banners honouring the team’s ridiculous record of success over the past couple of decades.
See how close the upper bowl is to the lower bowl. Just a few feet separate the two. Pretty sure that’s gonna change when the team moves to Little Caesars Arena next season.
My favourite thing here is the $2.50 box of Timbits (donut holes), possibly the cheapest Big 4 food item around. Along with the small soda courtesy of the designated driver program, it was a very affordable, though rather unhealthy, dinner.
The Joe will certainly be missed; it is the last of the old-time hockey venues. Only MSG is older as an NHL rink, and the recent renovations there make it seem brand new. The Wings are not going to make the playoffs, so if you want to see one final game here, you better do so quickly. It will be well worth the effort.
The Red Wings have fallen hard and fast and are now in last place in the East, while the Rangers are 4th in the conference, and 4th in their division too. Yes, the Atlantic is so bad that the top team (Montreal) has a worse record than the 4th place team in the Metropolitan. Anyway, I hoped that the Red Wings would put on a show for this prime time affair featuring the last visit of an Original 6 rival, but that was just silly of me. With seconds left in a choppy first period and Detroit on a power play, the Rangers broke away on a 3-on-1 and Ryan McDonagh finished off by poking home a pass from Kevin Hayes.
Detroit tied it in the second on another power play when ex-Islander Frans Nielsen completed a fantastic four-way passing play to beat a helpless Antti Raanta, starting for an injured Henrik Lundqvist. But that was the highlight as the Rangers scored two quick ones late in the frame, including another from McDonagh, and added a clincher on a power play with about 4 minutes to go in the game as they won easily 4-1. A rather disappointing end to the trip for me, but that's the way it goes sometimes.
Fans were booing heartily (spoiled brats), but it is obvious this team is in need of a rebuild. Henrik Zetterberg is far past his prime, and with other perennial stars having retired, the club has to start from scratch again. The recent passing of owner Mike Ilitch has added a bit of uncertainty, but given the way the team has performed in the past, I expect them to be back in contention for the playoffs very soon.
During the national anthem, somebody threw an octopus on the ice. The tradition dates back to the days when 8 wins was needed to take the Stanley Cup, and grew in popularity during their Cup runs, but these days, it is just a sad reminder of how things used to be.
That’s the last road trip for a while as I’m going to hang out in NYC for the next few weeks. There’s always plenty of see here, and I’ll be going to games here and there, but the next out-of-town adventure will be in late April to see the Jays visiting the St. Louis Cardinals. Of course, plans change, so check back on occasion to see what I’m up to.
Monday, March 13, 2017
I visited Detroit this past weekend to see the Pistons and Red Wings before they move to Little Caesars Arena for next season. The Red Wings game was originally scheduled for 12:30 Sunday, allowing me to fly back that night. Unfortunately, NBCSN decided to switch that game with the Chicago/Minnesota tilt, moving the Wings to 7 pm. Other than the NFL flexing games (a well-documented policy that can generally be forecast in advance), I absolutely hate when game times are shifted for TV, which results in paying fans, particularly those traveling, getting shafted. I can't believe that NBCSN expects that they'll get more afternoon viewers in the Central Time Zone the day after Daylight Saving Time took effect, but who knows what they were thinking.
But I am not one to cry over spilled milk, I'd rather make lemonade. Or something like that. So when I found out that the Windsor Spitfires were home that afternoon, and I was able to book a mileage flight back to NYC for Monday morning, I decided to forgo my original flight and see both games, making it a two-country hockey doubleheader.
In a well-known bit of trivia, Windsor is actually south of Detroit, and there are two ways to get there: the Ambassador Bridge, and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which is generally a better option as no commercial traffic is allowed. There is a toll both ways ($5 on the way there, $4.50 on the way back, slightly more in Canadian dollars) but the bridge is no cheaper and you certainly can't swim across. With the Flint Firebirds the visitors, I expected a few Michiganders to make the trip, but I guess I overestimated the popularity of the OHL in Michigan and there was no wait at the Canadian border.
Opened in 2008 to replace Windsor Arena, WFCU Centre is about 10 km from the tunnel along surface streets, but on a Sunday morning, an easy drive by the waterfront, with views of Detroit across the river. Parking is free in the general lot just off McHugh, with season ticket holders getting the spots a bit closer. There are a number of community rinks and a pool here too, so you can use that lot if you prefer, but it might take you a while to get out after the game as it is on the far side of the facility.
My Michigan friend Mike decided to join me and brought his family along to root for Flint. The Spitfires have a special where you get 4 tickets for $69 along with 2 programs and $15 to use at Subway, so Mike picked that up and I got a single ticket next to them. Those seats are in the Red section behind the net that Windsor defends twice and are $18 usually, so not much of a discount. The view from our seats is above. Center ice seats are $25 and there are $14 seats in the top few rows higher up. There are also platinum seats but these seem to be only available to season ticket holders and are not on sale to the general public.
The arena is not symmetrical in that sense that at one end is a restaurant, which limits the number of regular seats behind that net (view from the restaurant above).
The other end has about 30 rows (above), including those $14 seats, and it was mostly empty on this day so if you want some space, this is where to sit. I was surprised that Windsor attacked the end with less seats; I would expect you'd want more fans to see the home team goals.
The concourse is relatively narrow but sufficient for the crowd, although it can be a bit busy during intermissions. Along one side there is a lounge for those platinum seat holders who want some space before the game. As I walked by, I noticed the Chicago-Minnesota game on TV and realized that I would not be here if that game had not been switched. There are also suites above the seating bowl as you can see below.
The Spitfires have a long history and won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009-10, and these are commemorated with banners, along with other titles and accomplishments.
A number of players have gone on to NHL greatness (Adam Graves and Ed Jovanovski for example) and banners on the opposite side of the rink denote these.
You might also notice #18 for Mickey Renaud above. Renaud was the Spitfires captain and a Flames draft pick when he suddenly passed away from a heart condition in 2008. There is a display case honouring him along the concourse, while the road leading to the rink is named for him as well.
The scoreboard is octagonal and quite small, with the video screen barely enough to see the replays clearly, but at least replays are shown, including those of visiting goals.
Food is quite cheap, at least when thinking about it in American funds. For example, a $5 hot dog is only 3.75 USD, a relative bargain these days. If you wish to eat beforehand, there is a Tim Horton's about a kilometre away, though this branch did not have sesame bagels for some reason. Seriously, how can a Tim Horton's not carry sesame bagels? Let me tell you, 12-grain is no substitute.
Overall, WFCU Centre is typical of junior hockey rinks built in the early years of the 21st century. A simple seating bowl, a few amenities for the season-ticket holders, a restaurant, and some history on display. It is a simple recipe, and although not as unique as older barns in Kitchener and Peterborough for example, it is still well worth a visit for any hockey fan. If you happen to be in Detroit in the winter and want to see some Canadian junior hockey, check out if the Spitfires are in town and make the trip across the border to add this rink to your collection.
Windsor was 5th in the OHL’s West Division with 39 wins from 64 games while Flint was 7th, but substantially worse in terms of record, having won 32 of their 64 contests. Both teams had already clinched playoff spots, so there wasn't a lot to play for. The Firebirds scored early when Everett Clark sped by a defenseman and beat Michael DiPietro (no relation to Rick) just 1:48 in. The rest of the period was crap, with Flint outshooting Windsor 7-6.
In the second stanza, Flint again scored in the first two minutes, this time Nicholas Caamano (drafted in the 5th round in 2016 by Dallas) tipped in a Clark shot. Midway through the period, Caamano added a power play marker and the fans became quite restless as their team didn’t seem to be playing with much urgency. Shots after two were 14-13 for Windsor, a snoozer that continued into the third period, though the Spitfires started to attack more.
With about 9 minutes to go in the third, Caamano poked home a rebound for the hat trick, and the fans behind me got up to leave, saying “That’s it, we’re outta here”. But wait! The referee did not signal goal! The play was offside but nobody heard the whistle! The score remained 3-0, but the fans behind me had already left, breaking the golden rule of attending a game: “Never Leave Early”. A couple of minutes later, Flint again had a goal disallowed after a review showed that it had been kicked in. I jokingly told Mike that Windsor would use these disallowed goals as motivation, but it turns out I was right. About a minute after the second disallowed goal, Sean Day (Rangers 3rd-rounder in 2016) scored a seeing-eye goal on a power play, and just 22 seconds later, Julius Nattinen (Anaheim's 2nd rounder in 2015) slid a backhander through the legs of Garrett Forrest to cut the Flint lead to 3-2. The Spitfires sensed the Firebirds were fading and kept buzzing around the net, quickly tying the game with 5:25 to go as Nattinen added his second on a slapper from the left circle.
Flint managed to get the game to overtime, but that was their only accomplishment as Windsor kept the pressure on during the 3-on-3 session and eventually Aaron Luchuk scored after being left all alone in front to complete the improbable comeback. A great finish to an otherwise dull game, but I can’t help thinking of the reaction of those fans when they heard the final score was 4-3 in favour of Windsor. How could that be? They were losing 4-0 when we left! Once again: "Never Leave Early".
Highlights can be seen here if you care.
Only the first goal was scored in our end, lending credence to my claim that Windsor should attack the end with more seats to make the game more exciting for their fans.
The WFCU Centre will host the Memorial Cup this year between May 19-28. The Detroit Tigers have home games against Texas from the 19-21 but are out of town the rest of the time. All games are in the evening, so a same-day doubleheader is not possible.
Even though Windsor is not likely to win the OHL title, they will contend for the Memorial Cup as hosts. I have always hated this rule because it rewards the ability of the bid committee to attract the tournament, and not the team itself. If Windsor doesn’t take home the OHL championship, the fourth team should be the OHL team with the best record in the regular season to make the games that much better. Even Windsor fans would probably appreciate competitive games over seeing their team get shellacked.