Tuesday, December 27, 2011

NFL Playoff Picture - Week 16


Only 3 spots left with a week to go:
NFC
Week 4 Week 10 Week 11 Week 12 Week 13 Week 14 Week 15 Week 16
1. GB (4-0) GB (9-0) GB (10-0) GB (11-0) GB (12-0) GB (13-0) GB (13-1) GB (14-1)
2. Was (3-1) SF (8-1) SF (9-1) SF (9-2) SF (10-2) SF (10-3) SF (11-3) SF (12-3)
3. SF (3-1) NO (6-3) NO (7-3) NO (8-3) NO (9-3) NO (10-3) NO (11-3) NO (12-3)
4. TB (3-1) NYG (6-3) Dal (6-4) Dal (7-4) Dal (7-5) NYG (7-6) Dal (8-6) NYG (8-7)
5. Det (4-0) Det (6-3) Det (7-3) Chi (7-4) Chi (7-5) Atl (8-5) Atl (9-5) Det (10-5)
6. NYG (3-1) Chi (6-3) Chi (7-3) Atl (7-4) Atl (7-5) Det (8-5) Det (9-5) Atl (9-6)

AFC
Week 4 Week 10 Week 11 Week 12 Week 13 Week 14 Week 15 Week 16
1. Hou (3-1) Hou (6-3) NE (7-3) Hou (8-3) NE (9-3) Hou (10-3) NE (11-3) NE (12-3)
2. Buf (3-1) NE (6-3) Hou (7-3) NE (8-3) Bal (9-3) Bal (10-3) Bal (10-4) Bal (11-4)
3. Bal (3-1) Bal (6-3) Bal (7-3) Bal (8-3) Hou (9-3) NE (10-3) Hou (10-4) Hou (10-5)
4. SD (3-1) Oak (5-4) Oak (6-4) Oak (7-4) Den (7-5) Den (8-5) Den (8-6) Den (8-7)
5. Ten (3-1) Cin (6-3) Pit (7-3) Pit (8-3) Pit (9-3) Pit (10-3) Pit (10-4) Pit (11-4)
6. NE (3-1) Pit (6-3) Cin (6-4) Cin (7-4) Cin (7-5) NYJ (8-5) NYJ (8-6) Cin (9-6)

The NFC's final spot will go to the winner of the Cowboys-Giants game.

The AFC sees only 2 spots left. The Raiders and Broncos are vying for the West while the Bengals lead the Jets and Titans by a game.

Best,

Sean

Friday, December 23, 2011

Gazélec Ajaccio 3 at Paris FC 0 - December 17, 2011



Every year, I take one trip with my girlfriend where sports is not the attraction. However, I can usually find one or two games that happen to be taking place in the city we are visiting. Such was the case when we visited France for the past couple of weeks. We spent most of the time driving around the country during a rather quiet sports time, but for two days we were in Paris and I was able to check out a Championat National game with Paris FC hosting Ajaccio GFCO at Stade Charlety.

Championnat National

The Championnat National is the third division in French soccer and features 20 teams scattered throughout the country. The league has only been around since 1993 and consists of professional and semi-pro clubs. The top 3 teams enjoy promotion to Ligue 2 while relegation sees 4 squads relegated to the Championnat de France amateur league, which includes a number of reserve squads from Ligue 1 teams.

The season sees a typical home-and-away round robin making 38 games per team. I was fortunate to arrive in France just before the last day of action before the Christmas break, which traditionally lasts three weeks.

Stade Charléty


Located in the southern regions of the city, Stade Sébastien Charléty is easily accessible by the RER B line from Cité Universitaire station, or by tramway 3. The stadium is generally used for rugby and has hosted some Rugby League World Cup matches (not the much larger Rugby World Cup, which is the union game).


It holds up to 20,000 fans but for Paris FC games it is far too large as only 326 hardy souls showed up for the game I watched, so that only one half of the seating bowl is open. The stadium is part of a larger complex that also hosts a volleyball/basketball court as well as some other sports facilities.


Tickets are 8 euro and you can sit anywhere you want, as long as it is on the west side of the stadium. There are very limited food options; I ordered a Coke and was served some warm pop out of an open bottle. When halftime came, there were a few sandwiches available, but it seemed like half the stadium was in line, so I decided to wait. Frankly, it's better to eat in any sort of restaurant after the game, this is not to be critical but you can't expect much from a sporting event that draws so few fans.


There are two levels here and you can move around with ease. Most of the seating areas are covered so you are protected from the rain.


It's not fair to rate a stadium when it is not being used for its primary purpose; I am sure this would be a good place to watch rugby when it is filled with fans, but on a cold night with so few supporters in the stands, there are probably better places to be in Paris.

The Game

The visitors were Gazélec Football Club Olympique Ajaccio, usually referred to as Ajaccio GFCO, a team from the island of Corsica, most famously known as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. They were champions of one of the groups in the amateur league and hence had been promoted for this season, their first return to National since the 1999-2000 campaign. They entered the match on a 5-game winning streak.

Hosts Paris FC were in Ligue 1 back in 1978-79 but have since spent their time in the lesser leagues in France. Despite this, they have seen some talented players and managers begin their careers here before moving on to bigger things. They entered the game with 7 wins and 7 losses from 17 games to lie mid-table.

The game itself was played on a field that was very slippery as it had been raining in Paris for most of the past couple of days. This didn't stop the visitors from starting strong, as Louis Poggi opened the scoring in the 20th minute, heading the ball home while colliding with the keeper. Poggi celebrated briefly before collapsing at the corner stick, although he was fine shortly thereafter.


Nine minutes later, Roderic Fillippi leapt high off a corner and headed home to give Ajaccio a 2-0 cushion. Fillippi was back on the scoresheet ten minutes after that, getting ejected after garnering his second yellow card.


Paris FC were able to use the extra man to their advantage and began to attack, but Ajaccio keeper Clément Maury was the hero of the game, stopping several point-blank shots. The best save the game saw him getting caught going the wrong way and slipping, only to stretches his arm across his body to knock the ball behind the net, stopping what would have been a sure goal. That's him punching away a kick early in the first half.


Paris FC were continually frustrated by Maury's magic, and Ajaccio clinched the game when substitute Paul Maisonneuve slotted home to complete a 2-on-0 break, helped by a Paris FC defender falling on the slippery turf. The final score of 3-0 matched the temperature which was about 30°F by the time the final whistle blew.


After the game as I left the stadium I noticed a volleyball game happening in the gym next door. It appeared to be a French college game between Paris and Cannes; I watched for a few minutes from outside but as volleyball is not a sport I enjoy, I walked around a bit more.


I noticed that the press box for the soccer stadium was open and went in to take the following picture; I love to see stadiums that are lit up but empty inside.


Not a great game, but a memorable evening as I've got another league in the books.

Next Up

It's 2012 and I've begun planning two major trips. One will see me in Western Canada for the Flames and Oilers hosting the Leafs as well as a trip to Winnipeg to see the new Jets, not to mention several WHL games. Later this year I'll be in Florida for a 3-week jaunt that includes 6 Blue Jays games and the new Marlins ballpark. The schedule will be posted here shortly.

Hope that all my readers have a safe and happy 2012!

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

NFL Playoff Picture - Week 15


What a crazy weekend:
NFC
Week 4 Week 10 Week 11 Week 12 Week 13 Week 14 Week 15
1. GB (4-0) GB (9-0) GB (10-0) GB (11-0) GB (12-0) GB (13-0) GB (13-1)
2. Was (3-1) SF (8-1) SF (9-1) SF (9-2) SF (10-2) SF (10-3) SF (11-3)
3. SF (3-1) NO (6-3) NO (7-3) NO (8-3) NO (9-3) NO (10-3) NO (11-3)
4. TB (3-1) NYG (6-3) Dal (6-4) Dal (7-4) Dal (7-5) NYG (7-6) Dal (8-6)
5. Det (4-0) Det (6-3) Det (7-3) Chi (7-4) Chi (7-5) Atl (8-5) Atl (9-5)
6. NYG (3-1) Chi (6-3) Chi (7-3) Atl (7-4) Atl (7-5) Det (8-5) Det (9-5)

AFC
Week 4 Week 10 Week 11 Week 12 Week 13 Week 14 Week 15
1. Hou (3-1) Hou (6-3) NE (7-3) Hou (8-3) NE (9-3) Hou (10-3) NE (11-3)
2. Buf (3-1) NE (6-3) Hou (7-3) NE (8-3) Bal (9-3) Bal (10-3) Bal (10-4)
3. Bal (3-1) Bal (6-3) Bal (7-3) Bal (8-3) Hou (9-3) NE (10-3) Hou (10-4)
4. SD (3-1) Oak (5-4) Oak (6-4) Oak (7-4) Den (7-5) Den (8-5) Den (8-6)
5. Ten (3-1) Cin (6-3) Pit (7-3) Pit (8-3) Pit (9-3) Pit (10-3) Pit (10-4)
6. NE (3-1) Pit (6-3) Cin (6-4) Cin (7-4) Cin (7-5) NYJ (8-5) NYJ (8-6)

The NFC has 4 teams at 7-7 but only the Giants have a good chance to make it as they are just a game behind Dallas. Both Atlanta and Detroit just need one win to clinch.

The AFC sees only 2 spots left. The Raiders and Chargers are a game behind Denver while the Bengals have the same record as the Jets.

I'm in France now so this page is somewhat delayed and will probably be again so next week, in the meantime, check out the NFL's much fancier page.

Best,

Sean

Thursday, December 15, 2011

NHL Standings After 27 Games


During the season, team schedules can vary considerably with some teams having played several more games than their competition. This can make it difficult to accurately assess just how well one squad is doing relative to their peers, particularly in the NHL where points are the measuring stick rather than win percentage. With some teams having played four more games than others, the standings can be a bit misleading at first glance. To overcome that, I like to look at the standings with all teams having played the same number of games, usually at a benchmark point of the season. This time, I'm choosing 27 games, about 1/3 of a full NHL season. Here is each team's record at that point:

East         GP W  L OT PTS ROW
NY Rangers   27 17 6  4  38  16
Boston       27 17 9  1  35  14
Florida      27 15 8  4  34  13
Philadelphia 27 17 7  3  37  17
Pittsburgh   27 16 7  4  36  13
Toronto      27 15 10 2  32  12
Buffalo      27 14 11 2  30  12
Washington   27 14 12 1  29  13
--------------------------------
Ottawa       27 13 11 3  29  9
New Jersey   27 14 12 1  29  8
Winnipeg     27 12 11 4  28  11
Montreal     27 11 11 5  27  10
Tampa Bay    27 11 14 2  24  10
NY Islanders 27 9 12 6  24  9
Carolina     27  8 15 4  20  8
  
West         GP W  L OT PTS ROW
Minnesota    27 17 7  3  37  13
Detroit      27 17 9  1  35  16
Phoenix      27 15 9  3  33  13
Chicago      27 16 8  3  35  13
Vancouver    27 16 10 1  33  16
St. Louis    27 15 9  3  33  15
San Jose     27 15 10 2  32  12
Dallas       27 15 11 1  31  13
---------------------------------
Los Angeles  27 13 10 4  30  12
Edmonton     27 13 11 3  29  12
Nashville    27 12 11 4  28  12
Colorado     27 13 13 1  27  9
Calgary      27 12 13 2  26  12
Anaheim      27  8 14 5  21  7
Columbus     27  8 16 3  19  6
ROW is regulation/OT wins, the next tiebreaker after total wins.

Surprisingly, the Rangers are the best team in hockey through this point, but it isn't noticed as they have played fewer games. The Leafs are in 6th spot and would face southeast champion Florida in the playoffs.

In the west, Phoenix are the top seed in the Pacific, a point up on San Jose, who are 7th despite a decent 15-10-2 record which illustrates the strength of the conference.

I like to run through the playoffs based on season series, but some matchups have yet to occur, so I'll save that for the second edition in February, during which I'll do this exercise again when each team has completed 54 games.

Next Up

I'm flying to France tonight for my annual non-sports road trip. I do hope to catch one third-tier soccer game in Paris over the weekend but after that I'll be driving around to smaller towns with no sports on the menu. I'll be back in Japan for the new year and should have a trip planned for early 2012 that involves more Leafs games, so check back then.

Happy holidays everyone!

Best,

Sean

Monday, December 12, 2011

NFL Playoff Picture - Week 14


With three weeks to go, there's still a lot to be decided although 4 teams have now clinched (in bold):
NFC
Week 4 Week 10 Week 11 Week 12 Week 13 Week 14
1. GB (4-0) GB (9-0) GB (10-0) GB (11-0) GB (12-0) GB (13-0)
2. Was (3-1) SF (8-1) SF (9-1) SF (9-2) SF (10-2) SF (10-3)
3. SF (3-1) NO (6-3) NO (7-3) NO (8-3) NO (9-3) NO (10-3)
4. TB (3-1) NYG (6-3) Dal (6-4) Dal (7-4) Dal (7-5) NYG (7-6)
5. Det (4-0) Det (6-3) Det (7-3) Chi (7-4) Chi (7-5) Atl (8-5)
6. NYG (3-1) Chi (6-3) Chi (7-3) Atl (7-4) Atl (7-5) Det (8-5)

AFC
Week 4 Week 10 Week 11 Week 12 Week 13 Week 14
1. Hou (3-1) Hou (6-3) NE (7-3) Hou (8-3) NE (9-3) Hou (10-3)
2. Buf (3-1) NE (6-3) Hou (7-3) NE (8-3) Bal (9-3) Bal (10-3)
3. Bal (3-1) Bal (6-3) Bal (7-3) Bal (8-3) Hou (9-3) NE (10-3)
4. SD (3-1) Oak (5-4) Oak (6-4) Oak (7-4) Den (7-5) Den (8-5)
5. Ten (3-1) Cin (6-3) Pit (7-3) Pit (8-3) Pit (9-3) Pit (10-3)
6. NE (3-1) Pit (6-3) Cin (6-4) Cin (7-4) Cin (7-5) NYJ (8-5)

The NFC saw Chicago drop out after they became the latest victims to Tim Tebow and the Broncos (a 59-yard kick to tie and a 51-yard kick to win in OT!) while Detroit and Atlanta won. The Falcons beat the Lions back in Week 7 so take the 5th seed. The 49ers still have a better conference record than New Orleans, but their loss to Arizona has to be troubling. The Giants take over the East after their stunning comeback win over the hapless Cowboys.

The AFC sees the New York's other team take over the last spot after Cincinnati lost to Houston, who themselves move back to the top as New England's win was over an NFC team, giving the Texans the best conference record. Baltimore grabs the second bye based on the common games tiebreaker, as the Ravens have beaten Pittsburgh twice, the Jets, and Indianapolis, while the Patriots have beaten the Jets twice and Indy, but lost to the Steelers. The common games tiebreaker requires a minimum of 4, so I believe this is correct at this point.

Out of 12 playoff teams, 10 have either 10-3 or 8-5 records.

I'm out of the country for the next two weeks so the playoff picture might be a bit delayed, in the meantime, check out the NFL's much fancier page.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Post-Lockout NBA Road Trip


The NBA has ended its lockout and released an updated schedule. Fans can't wait for the season to start, but with all those games in such a short time, I expect the quality of basketball to be rather low as players get tired from all that travel and back-to-back games. There is a winner from the compressed schedule though, namely the basketball road tripper. With more games in less time, it is far easier to plan a 30-stadium jaunt. So that's what I did. Starting on Christmas, you can see all 30 stadiums in 53 days, finishing up with a Clippers tilt in mid-February. I suspect with a little extra work, you can find an even shorter trip, but I like this trip as there are no ridiculous drives and some big ticket matchups.
Dec 25 Chicago at LA Lakers
Dec 26 New Orleans at Phoenix
Dec 28 LA Clippers at San Antonio
Dec 29 San Antonio at Houston
Dec 30 Toronto at Dallas
Dec 31 Phoenix at Oklahoma City
Jan 03 Sacramento at Memphis
Jan 06 Cleveland at Minneapolis
Jan 07 Charlotte at Indiana
Jan 09 Detroit at Chicago
Jan 10 Dallas at Detroit
Jan 11 Sacramento at Toronto
Jan 13 Chicago at Boston
Jan 14 Philadelphia at Washington
Jan 16 Orlando at New York
Jan 18 San Antonio at Orlando
Jan 19 LA Lakers at Miami
Jan 21 Cleveland at Atlanta
Jan 23 San Antonio at New Orleans
Jan 24 New York at Charlotte
Jan 25 New Jersey at Philadelphia
Jan 29 Toronto at New Jersey
Jan 31 Boston at Cleveland
Feb 01 Miami at Milwaukee
Feb 03 LA Lakers at Denver
Feb 04 LA Lakers at Utah
Feb 08 Houston at Portland
Feb 11 Phoenix at Sacramento
Feb 12 Houston at Golden State
Feb 15 Washington at LA Clippers
Obviously this is not a journey that I will be taking, but as usual, it was fun to put together.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

NHL Realignment and Road Trips


The NHL announced its realignment plan for next year and it is mildly disappointing for road trippers. There will be four conferences aligned geographically, two with eight teams and two with seven. There is no more east/west separation, rather teams will play their interconference rivals 5 or 6 times and each other team twice, once at home and once away. The first two playoff rounds will be contested within each conference, with the semifinals seeded based on regular season records.

The Leafs are in a 7-team conference that includes their current Northeast Division foes plus Florida and Tampa Bay. They will play three home and three road games against these teams (36 games) plus one home and away against the rest of the league (46 games). Compare that to the situation now, where they play 24 divisional, 40 conference, and 18 non-conference games and you can see that the new alignment reduces the variety in opponents.

For road trip planning, this makes things slightly harder since I am more interested in seeing the Leafs against non-divisional teams on the road. This season I had 29 chances; next season this number will be reduced to 23. Essentially half the road games against each of the 10 teams in the Southeast and Atlantic Divisions are being replaced by an additional four games against Florida and Tampa Bay and 6 games against Western teams. The Leafs will visit every rink in the league now, which is an improvement, but overall there is going to be less chance to see them.

Overall, the league will see 45% of the schedule composed of interconference matchups, compared to 78% now, so in one sense there is more variety, but this is somewhat misleading as there are far fewer teams in a conference.

I am disappointed that the playoffs will be conference based as again, there is less variety. I think the top 4 teams in each conference should be seeded 1-16 and play from there, but of course, this could result in a lot more travel, so it will not change. The good news is that Toronto is in a smaller conference so they have a slightly better chance of making the playoffs then under the current system, but that will change when the league expands to Quebec.

The most interesting aspect will be the elimination of the east and west, which will increase the odds that the two best teams will meet in the finals, as long as they don't come from the same conference. Whatever the case, I am looking forward to the schedule being released and planning my next NHL roadtrip.

Best,

Sean

Update: The NHLPA ixnayed the realignment, citing travel concerns and the unfair playoffs. Good on them - they've been pushovers for far too long. Just move Winnipeg and one of Detroit/Columbus/Nashville and be done with it until we get teams in Quebec and Seattle!

Monday, December 5, 2011

NFL Playoff Picture - Week 13


The stretch run is underway:

NFC
Week 4 Week 10 Week 11 Week 12 Week 13
1. GB (4-0) GB (9-0) GB (10-0) GB (11-0) GB (12-0)
2. Was (3-1) SF (8-1) SF (9-1) SF (9-2) SF (10-2)
3. SF (3-1) NO (6-3) NO (7-3) NO (8-3) NO (9-3)
4. TB (3-1) NYG (6-3) Dal (6-4) Dal (7-4) Dal (7-5)
5. Det (4-0) Det (6-3) Det (7-3) Chi (7-4) Chi (7-5)
6. NYG (3-1) Chi (6-3) Chi (7-3) Atl (7-4) Atl (7-5)

AFC
Week 4 Week 10 Week 11 Week 12 Week 13
1. Hou (3-1) Hou (6-3) NE (7-3) Hou (8-3) NE (9-3)
2. Buf (3-1) NE (6-3) Hou (7-3) NE (8-3) Bal (9-3)
3. Bal (3-1) Bal (6-3) Bal (7-3) Bal (8-3) Hou (9-3)
4. SD (3-1) Oak (5-4) Oak (6-4) Oak (7-4) Den (7-5)
5. Ten (3-1) Cin (6-3) Pit (7-3) Pit (8-3) Pit (9-3)
6. NE (3-1) Pit (6-3) Cin (6-4) Cin (7-4) Cin (7-5)

The NFC saw the top 3 teams win while the next 3 all lost, so no changes. The Giants are the only team at 6-6, their game against Dallas next Sunday has huge implications.

In the AFC, Houston's win was over an NFC team, so they dropped back to third as the Pats have the better strength of victory and Baltimore beat the Texans already. Tebow has the Broncos in the playoffs following Oakland's loss. These two split the season series, so Denver gets the nod based on their better divisional record. There are four 7-5 teams vying for that final wild card spot, one per division. Cincy takes it right now based on their 6-4 conference record, but Tennessee is at 5-4 while the Jets and Raiders are at 5-5, so it could go to any of them depending on how the final four weeks play out.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kashiwa Reysol 3 at Urawa Reds 1 - December 3, 2011


One of the things I enjoy seeing is championships in pro leagues, because they are so rare and memorable, not to mention historic. I've been at a Stanley Cup winning game (Devils in '95), World Series championship (Diamondbacks in '01) and the Yakult Swallows' Japan Series win in '97. I've also seen some minor league championships such as the Memorial Cup Final in 1990, one of the greatest junior hockey games ever played.

These matches are relatively easy to see because they occur in championship series so you just have to show up, pay the exorbitant ticket price, and regardless, one team will eventually take the title. The situation is a bit different in soccer. League titles can be decided before the season is over, or you can have multiple teams in contention on the last day of the season, so you have to be in the right stadium at the right time.

Such was the case in the J League this year, with 3 teams in contention on the final matchday. Kashiwa Reysol had a 1-point lead on defending champions Nagoya Grampus, while Gamba Osaka was just 2 points back. Fortunately for me, Kashiwa was visiting the Urawa Reds in Saitama, close enough for me to venture up on Saturday afternoon to see if they could hold on for the crown.

Saitama Stadium 2002


Opened in 2001 for the 2002 World Cup, Saitama Stadium 2002 is one of the largest football-only venues in Asia. It hosted 4 matches in that World Cup, including England's 1-1 draw with Sweden and Brazil's semifinal win over Turkey.


The stadium is located about a mile north of Urawa-Misono station (which commemorates the World Cup with the mural above), which itself is a 45-minute ride from the center of Tokyo, on trains that get very, very crowded. There are shuttle buses from the station, but I prefer to walk along the footpath as there are concession stands along the way and you can appreciate the size of the stadium as you approach. There are also meter markings along the way so you know how far you have left. I don't think you save much time with bus anyway, as the lineups to board were huge.


Outside the stadium is a large plaza with a number of food trucks serving a wide variety of Japanese and western food. There are also a sizable number of plastic tables on which to eat, so you can relax to enjoy your meal. I highly recommend you arrive early and choose one or two of these culinary choices as it is going to be far better than the food you get inside. My favourite was the yakitori spot below, called Nihonichi, which served a good variety at 100 yen a stick.


Tickets here are reasonably priced for Reds games, with the best seats going for just 4,500 yen and the unreserved seats just 2,000 yen. The stadium is divided into four quadrants (A, B, C, D) that are colour-coded, with A and C along the sides and B and D used for the end zones.


You can enter the lower concourse via any gate and walk around, as long as you are not wearing the visiting kit. I recommend you do this as there are a number of displays that recall those heady days of the World Cup. I worked at this stadium for those games and it was rather nostalgic to see the memorabilia still on show.


In order to reach the upper deck, you have to enter the specific gate on your ticket and walk up several flights of stairs. The ticket also includes which specific aisle to use, which is important as there are limited walkways in the seating bowl, which makes getting out after the game a real hassle.


The home fans occupy the lower deck in the north end of the stadium, while the visitors are confined to a small area on the south side. Even then, fans of both squads were interspersed in the other sections, I was surrounded by yellow-clad Kashiwa supporters on one side, while Red rooters were on the other.



As this is a football-only venue, the seats down below are close to the action and make for a good investment, if you can get them. Even the upper deck seats are good, although I was at one end, which was not the best. There is plenty of leg room here, and no problem seeing the field with the upper deck rather steep.



The stadium is one of the most attractive in Japan, which is used to seeing functional but boring arenas. Here, the upper deck seats taper from the center to the end zones and are covered by curving roofs, while the end zones are open. This allows views of the surrounding countryside from the upper deck, although there isn't much to see.


From a distance, the stadium reminds me of Miller Park in Milwaukee with its roof open, but it is just an illusion, the two roofs do not approach each other at any time.




Overall, Saitama Stadium is a great venue to watch soccer. The proximity of the seats allow the supporters to be part of the game, and the unique architecture and souvenirs from 2002 make it a special place for students of the game. The only problem here is the access - it is far from the city, far from the station, and there are not enough walkways or washrooms. Keep that in mind if you ever decide to pay a visit here.



The Teams

The Urawa Red Diamonds are one of the best-supported teams in Asia, averaging over 40,000 fans per game over the past few seasons. Winners of the League and Emperor's Cup in 2006, the Reds were the fourth Japanese club to achieve Asian glory, taking the AFC Champions League title in 2007. Lately though, they've fallen into disarry, and they lay 15th out of 18 teams this season. They were technically in danger of being relegated if they lost, but they needed the 16th-place team to win by 13 goals if they lost by 1, so it was unlikely. Their fans are famous for their boisterous displays and provide terrific atmosphere in this large stadium.


Kashiwa Reysol were the champions of J2 last season, earning automatic promotion back to the top league. This season they had been near the top of the league since the beginning, along with 3 other clubs. After 23 rounds, Kashiwa lay fourth, behind Gamba, Nagoya, and Yokohama F. Marinos. But an 8-1-1 record from there put Reysol in first with just one match day to go. It is unheard of for a promoted team to challenge for the league title but that was just what Reysol had done; in a season where no squad dominated, they were the most consistent, with 22 wins and 3 draws from their 33 games. Both Nagoya and Gamba had better goal differential, so Reysol needed a win to ensure the crown, a draw would not be enough.

The Game

The morning started with heavy rain, but by game time, it had cleared, though the field was still slippery. As I took my seat, I could feel the tension in the air; the Reysol faithful were nervous being so close to their first league title. Although Urawa were not the powerful side from years gone by, they had their home fans urging them on. I expected a good game and was not disappointed.

It was clear early on that Kashiwa were the better team as they attacked continuously, only to have their shots go wide or over the net. It wasn't until the 29th minute when Jorge Wagner took a corner kick that was first saved by a defender, then booted off the post. The ball bounced out to Wagner who was running in from the corner untouched. He blasted a shot that would have missed but it bounced off the leg of keeper Nobuhiro Kato and through his legs to make it 1-0 Reysol.


Nine minutes later, another Kashiwa corner fell to defender Wataru Hashimoto, who tapped the ball over his head with his back facing the net. Kato was caught well off the line and Hashimoto had his first goal of the season and it looked like Reysol were well on their way, up 2-0.



The second half saw Kashiwa look tentative early on, and Urawa took advantage when an innocent-looking cross found the head of Yosuke Kashiwagi, who put the ball in the upper right corner of the net to cut the Reysol lead in half.



At this point, the stadium found an extra level of tension. Nagoya had scored in their match which meant that if Urawa could manage another tally, Reysol would lose the title. The Reds pressed and had a couple of good chances, but it was their keeper Kato who would be the story yet again. Off yet another Kashiwa corner, the ball bounced out to Akimi Barada, who softly lobbed it towards net from 35 yards. The ball bounced just in front of Kato, who mishandled it and watched it cross the line to give Reysol the insurance they needed. The fans around me erupted knowing that the title was theirs. Highlights of all the goals can be seen here. Interesting that two of them were the direct result of goaltender gaffes.

The rest of the game was mere prelude to the postgame party. There were no chances on either end as the teams played out the last few minutes with Reysol knowing they were about to be crowned 2011 J League Champions.

The Celebration

When the final whistle blew, the Reysol players collapsed in exhaustion on the field while the substitutes raced over to commence the group hug. Manager Nelsinho Baptista was given the traditional do-age (pronounced doh-a-ge), where the coach is tossed in the air three times.


The players then went to their supporters and bowed in appreciation. When it was time for the trophy presentation, they gathered around a small sign declaring them champions, and were presented with the championship plate, which they held up to the crowd (below). I was on the wrong side of the stadium to get a good picture, but you can see it is not a big trophy by any means.


The players returned to the front of their supporters section and a different group of players raised the plate to raucous cheers. Then it was over. The players filed off and that was it. The whole thing took maybe 15 minutes and was rather anti-climatic compared to the championships in North America.

Notes

After Kashiwa cleared the field, the Reds players came out for a final goodbye. Team president Mitsuo Hashimoto spoke and I was shocked at the hatred the fans had for him. The booing was loud and incessant, lasting from the moment he appeared until the stopped speaking. Check out this video for the evidence.

On the way back to the station, the Kashiwa fans were quiet, talking about their team's chances in the upcoming Club World Cup tournament or next years AFC Champions League. There were no drunken louts screaming, no fights, no riots, just happy fans basking in a hard-fought championship. On the train home, you wouldn't have guessed that their team had just completed a historic season, they all sat quietly and studied their smartphones.

That's one difference between fandom here and there. In Japan, the fans give it all inside the stadium, screaming and yelling for hours, but once the game is over, they revert to their normal, quiet selves. Back home, fans cheer long after the game is over, usually getting smashed in the process, and often smashing other things. I have always complained about the lack of real emotion exhibited here at sporting events, but as sports in the States has become consumed by hype, I find that I now prefer the self-control exhibited by fans here. I'm all for having a good time but too often it comes with a heavy price, with damages to a city's reputation taking far longer to repair than damages to a few shop windows. I'm sure there's a happy medium here, but not sure how it can bee achieved.

Update: Minutes after I posted this, I read about 13 fans being injured rushing the field after Oklahoma State's Big 12 championship win. I hate college football for so many reasons, and this episode just adds to the list. It also illustrates my point - hype drives college football now, so fans think it is actually meaningful to win a championship in a conference that features 3 or 4 competitive teams, so much so that they rush the field and tear down goalposts without regards for the safety of others. Is there no perspective left in American sports?

Next Up

I'm flying to France shortly for a 2-week roadtrip that doesn't involve sports. I'll be back in Japan for the new year and planning all my 2012 trips. Check back then for an exciting announcement about me going to see more Maple Leaf road games.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Flying and Fort Worth


My 4-day trip to Texas has come and gone and not surprisingly, it was rather too short. Still, I managed to see 5 pro games, including a Toronto win, and part of an amateur affair as well, so it was time well spent. But I did a few things other than sports.

Flying to DFW via DTW

First I want to talk about flying, which is a topic I have touched on in the past. Aviation consistently receives a bad rap in the U.S. but all of my flights this trip were completely without incident. I flew via Detroit both times as it was the least expensive option given my late booking and I was concerned about delays causing me to miss the connecting flight. But it was as smooth as could be, the airports were clean and security lines moved quickly despite it being Thanksgiving, and I found the Delta flight attendants friendly and professional. I also found my fellow passengers seemed to be experienced travelers, which makes things a bit easier on everybody. There is nothing more frustrating than watching someone hold up the boarding process as they try to stuff an oversized suitcase into the overhead bin. All in all, a good trip and evidence that the US airlines and airports are not the dinosaurs they are often made out to be.

Fort Worth

The second topic is the less famous city in the DFW area, Fort Worth. It is the 16th-largest city in the US, but is overshadowed by Dallas and Arlington, home of the four major league sports teams. On my previous trip here, I toured only Dallas, seeing the 6th Floor Museum and Reunion Tower. I did catch an independent league ballgame in Fort Worth but no tourist attractions.


So I made sure to stop by Fort Worth this time. The jet lag still had me up early, so I first stopped at the Fort Worth Botanical Garden. It was open early on Black Friday and offers a large garden center that you can wander around for free. Given that it was late fall, there wasn't much in bloom, but it was a quiet getaway with fresh air, something I don't get in Tokyo very often.


There's also a Japanese garden that I did not check out, as well as a small conservatory for $1. I just spent an hour outside enjoying the relative peace (there is a highway that runs just south of the garden and you can hear the drone of traffic as you approach).


A rose garden lies at one end of the garden center, but again there were few fully formed flowers due to the season. Still, a nice way to start the day and well worth a visit if you are in town.


After lunch at In-N-Out (yes, they have expanded to Texas!) I went over to the Kimbell Art Museum to check out the Caravaggio exhibition.


This exhibition was the reason I was visiting this area in the first place. It was initially shown at the National Gallery in Ottawa, and my parents told me about it after they went to see it. I would have liked to have seen it but was unable to make it home during its limited run. When I found out it would also be in Fort Worth, I checked the hockey and football schedules and saw the Leafs would be in town the day after Thanksgiving, and presto, a sports road trip was born.

Woman Addressing the Public: Project for a Monument by Miro

Photography was not allowed in the exhibition itself, but it was fantastic, with paintings arranged by topic over 8 rooms. A free audio guide was distributed and really added to the presentation.

There is also a permanent collection in which you can take pictures, below is an early Monet, "The Cape de la Hève at Low Tide".


The Great Divide

Finally, I think this photo summarizes America in 2011. In a Walmart parking lot, you are encouraged to help keep prices low, while the biggest and most expensive stadium in the land sits just across the street.


Best,

Sean

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Austin Toros 101 at Texas Legends 96 (NBA D-League) - November 26, 2011


After a 30-minute drive from Dallas, I found myself next to Dr Pepper Ballpark, home of the Frisco RoughRiders of the AA Texas League. Of course, I wasn't there for a baseball game, but the season opener in the NBA D-League, the minor league of the NBA as the Texas Legends play in Dr Pepper Arena, just next door to the ballpark.

Dr Pepper Arena


The Dr Pepper Arena is a multi-purpose facility located in Frisco, a city in the northern reaches of the DFW Metroplex. The venue was built in 2003 and also hosts the Texas Tornado of the NAHL, a junior A circuit.


Like other stadiums that combine hockey and basketball, the court lies in the middle of the rink area, but the open spaces between the basket and end boards are not filled with seats, rather the Legends put a few attractions, such as a climbing pole (below) and a mini basketball court in what is known as the Kidtastic Fun Zone. It makes a game here much more entertaining for the kids and is a smart marketing move. There are no end zone seats behind the Fun Zone, so it doesn't block anything, not that many would want to sit there anyway.


Tickets were $28 for the sidelines, $18 for the corners, and $10 for the real bad seats near the fun zone. I had no trouble sitting where I wanted with the stadium about half full. It should be noted that the Legends' website listed prices $3 cheaper but this seems to be out of date.


There is one food court hidden behind a wall at the far end of the stadium. Two concession stands are here, one with typical arena fare, the other with baked goods and canned soda. Nothing of interest for me, but I did have an RC Cola (only products from the Dr Pepper Snapple group are sold here) and RC is tough to find in Japan.


The arena also houses the Dallas Stars practice facility, team offices, and a team/equipment store. The rink is also used for local tournaments (more on that below) and there was a tribute to GM Joe Nieuwendyk, who was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, in front of the team store.


Essentially, the Legends are the arena's secondary tenants, as the place was not designed for basketball. So it isn't a great venue for fans of the game, but it works well anyway, mainly because of the thought put into it by the franchise. Minor leagues are known for instability and I'm hoping that the Legends can lead the way in making the D-League a more stable circuit, resulting in many more roadtrips in the years to come.

Texas Legends

This is the second D-League game I have witnessed with the first being the Colorado 14ers back in 2009. The 14ers won the championship that year and were bought soon after by Dallas Mavericks president Donnie Nelson, who moved the franchise to Frisco and renamed them the Texas Legends. After skipping a season, the Legends began play last year with Nancy Lieberman as their coach. She was the first female to coach a professional men's basketball team, leading them to a 24-26 record and a playoff spot. This year she moved to the front office so the Legends honoured her before the game with the banner below.


The Legends are what I would hope to see from every franchise in the league. They have ties to the local NBA team, they are run by people with lots of basketball experience, and they reach out to their fans. The ceremony to honour Lieberman featured Donnie Nelson and his father Don, as well as new coach Del Harris and Lieberman, all basketball royalty. The younger Nelson gave a great speech lauding the fans and presenting a blueprint for the season and the future of the franchise. It was very classy and gave me hope that the league will grow to become a true feeder system for the NBA.

The Game


Austin (affiliated with the San Antonio Spurs and wearing white) beat Texas 101-96. I don't remember how this happened because I found myself fighting to stay awake as the jet lag was finally catching up to me. It was a fast-paced game with lots of scoring early on, and there were several lead changes throughout the night.



The 4th quarter began with the Legends up by 3 but Austin started on an 11-0 run to take control. Texas slowly clawed their way back and took a 1-point lead with 4:30 to go. That was their last gasp as the Toros replied with a 12-3 run over the next 2:30 and that was all she wrote for the Legends.


In the end, poor free throw shooting (13-24) hurt the home team, who had outplayed the Toros on the boards and in the turnover department as well. It seemed like a good game, but my brain was in the shutdown mode for most of it, so I can't add much more.

The player I most noticed was 6-11 center Jamal Sampson, who was drafted in 2002 (one slot behind Matt Barnes) and is a cousin of Ralph Sampson. Jamal has a bit of NBA experience but had played in Asia for the past couple of seasons before the Legends drafted him this fall. That's him signing autographs after the game.


Notes

After the game, the fans were allowed out on the floor to get autographs and photos with the players and cheerleaders. I always enjoy this sort of activity and it seemed like everyone was having a good time, including Legends' coach Del Harris.


The NBA and its players reached a tentative agreement that was announced that day, which may make the D-League more relevant depending on how things develop in terms of player promotion and demotions. I'd like to see this league function more like the AHL, where players are known to their fans and call-ups and send downs are common.

This was the second of three games I had planned to see, but with the jet lag hitting hard and then spending time on the floor afterwards, I decided to hang out in the rink next door and watch some hockey. The Dallas Stars hold a number of youth tournaments and Thanksgiving weekend saw the 10th Annual Fall Round-Up take place. I saw the Bantam Gold final featuring a team from Calgary taking on a team from California, who won by a score of 5-3. Not quite the tripleheader I had envisioned but then again, I don't think I would have lasted through another basketball game.

Next Up

I'm back in Japan and going to a J League game this weekend in which league leaders Kashiwa visit Urawa Reds with a chance to clinch the championship. Later this month, I'm off to France for two weeks at year-end, which will include a single game in the Championnat National but no other sports. December will be a quiet month for this blog, but check back in early 2012 for news on a hockey trip planned for February.

Best,

Sean