Monday, November 30, 2009

One Week Left in the J.League Season

If you think the 26-week MLB regular season is too long, or maybe the 8-month grind of the NHL (including playoffs) is a bit stretched, you won't be a fan of soccer. Particularly the J League. The 2009 season started back on March 7th and is just finishing up this coming Saturday, for a total of 39 weeks. That's the same length of time it takes to have a child and I'm not sure which is more difficult to endure.

OK, I'm exaggerating a bit. I've seen some good soccer games this season. And the schedule is stretched due to international matches, Nabisco Cup ties, and Emperor's Cup fixtures. Still, it's too long and by the end, there is little left to decide.

There are only two teams left chasing the title. Two-time defending champs Kashima Antlers lead Kawasaki by 2 points. Sadly for Frontale, they lost a game at Oita back on November 23rd which cost them the league lead. At the time, Oita was the worst team in the league and already relegated. But Kawasaki couldn't manage to get even a point in a 1-0 loss and they are now staring up at the Antlers. The equivalent for NFL fans would be New Orleans visiting Tampa Bay needing a win to clinch the NFC title and losing (interestingly, Tampa Bay travels to the Superdome on the second-to- last week of the season).

December 28th update: Tampa Bay beat New Orleans in overtime so the Saints have yet to clinch first. My jinx continues!

Anyway, it's another in a long series of Kawasaki chokes as they continue to struggle to land their first top-flight silverware. The final weekend sees them visit relegated Kashiwa Reysol while Kashima travels to Saitama to take on Urawa Reds. Frontale needs a win and a Kashima loss or tie in order to take the championship. It's unlikely but not impossible and so there's a bit of excitement this Saturday.

I was toying with the idea of going to Kashiwa to see the game, but it's sold out as the Reysol fans are taking advantage of their last chance to enjoy J1 football. As well, with both games occurring at the same time, you would need an out-of-town scoreboard to properly follow the championship chase. I'm not sure if other scores are posted regularly in Kashiwa, so I think I'll just stay at home flipping between both games. I'll be rooting for Kawasaki; here's hoping that the last weekend of the season was worth the wait.



Update: Kashima won their game 1-0 to clinch the title while Kawasaki won 3-2 in Kashiwa. As for me, I was stuck at work and missed the games, although with the result, not that disappointing. The Emperor's Cup is all that's left for Frontale, so we'll see you in Sendai next week!

Update (12/4/2011): Kashiwa was relegated in 2009, but won the J2 championship in 2010 and the J1 title in 2011. Truly an amazing sports story that will get no coverage in the hype zone controlled by ESPN.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Winter Baseball Fails in Florida

When I do a sports road trip, I like to see a game every day if possible. But in the winter, there's really only hockey and basketball to rely on, and with only 3 games a week per team, it's tough to keep busy in one area. That's where the minor leagues and college games can really help. So I'm always on the lookout for new sports leagues that increase the chances of seeing a game in some far-flung locale.

I've mentioned that I'll be taking a big trip in January - I'll post separately on that once tickets are booked but I've put in on my 2010 schedule for now. I'll be spending a good length of time in Florida, a state that I've only been to once, back in 2001. I've planned a few NHL and NBA games, as well as some ECHL and NCAA games to fill out the time, but there was still January 24th that was empty. So I was intrigued to find the Florida Winter Baseball League would be holding their playoffs on that weekend. The League is the latest attempt at winter ball in the USA, billed as an alternative to Caribbean Winter Ball. Sounded interesting and definitely worth a look, I thought. If there was a game somewhere on the 24th it would complete my schedule perfectly. But as it turns out, there's no game anywhere that weekend: the FWBL has suspended operations after just two weeks.

It appears as if the League was not meeting its financial obligations so the group financing them backed out. I suppose when your average attendance of 367, it's tough to make much cash. I wonder how well the FWBL was marketed - perhaps Florida, which has pro baseball from February till October, is not the best place for this sort of independent league.

You have to feel for the players, who are going to have a tough time landing another job in the winter. They will still get paid apparently, but I'm sure missing out on those 2 months of ball is going to hurt.

As for me, well, I'll be watching the NFL conference championships on January 24th. New Orleans and Indy will likely be the hosts, so I don't think I'll be making it to a stadium. But with New Orleans only 13 hours from Miami (or a $250 flight) you never know.



Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Guam - America Without the Sports

It was a long weekend in Japan, so I ventured off to Guam for 3 days of beach and ESPN. Guam is only a 3.5 hour flight south of Tokyo but a world away when it comes to sports. First of all, it's part of the United States; their motto is "Where America's Day Begins". It's certainly disconcerting though, because it means that your evening sports are in the early morning. It's much the same as here in Japan (Guam is only an hour ahead) but the difference is that here, there are almost no live American sports on. In Guam, you've got ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN U, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, etc. So all the games are on live! But they're on while you are either sleeping or at the beach. Guam is 15 hours ahead of the east right now, so a 1 pm NFL game starts at 4 am. You can catch the end of the early games (I saw the two overtimes, including KC's win over Cincy) and then watch the late game which starts around 7:15. But by 9:00, you want to get out and catch some sun. At least SportsCenter is on in the evening, although it's the morning edition.

One of the other strange things about the time difference is watching Letterman at 11:00 on Monday night. Of course, it's only 8 am in New York, so the Monday show hasn't even taped yet, so Guam gets Friday' show. It's just a bit weird watching Dave talk about the upcoming weekend when its already happened.

Live Sports

There's not much in the way of live sports on the island. There's really only high school games, which were common but not worth visiting. There is a baseball league which was covered in the Wall Street Journal but there were no games on while I was there. I did visit Paseo Stadium which looked rather old but there was no way in. That's too bad, as tickets were only $2. I'll keep my eyes open for some information on the league to see if it's worth a short visit next year.

Why is there no game today?



Thursday, November 19, 2009

Emperor's Cup Quarterfinal Sites Announced - Trip to Sendai planned

The Emperor's Cup 4th round matches were held this past weekend, and Kawasaki Frontale defated the Yokohama F Marinos 2-1 to advance to the quarterfinals against Vegalta Sendai. What's slightly interesting about the quarter finals is that the sites are not determined in advance - I guess they have a draw once the teams are known.

I was hoping that there'd be a game in Kawasaki on December 12th, but when the sites were announced yesterday, the game was set for Sendai, a city about 2 hours north of Tokyo that is home to the Pacific League's Rakuten Golden Eagles. But with baseball season over, there'd be no chance of a doubleheader. But then I remembered that there's a pro basketball league known as the bj League.

I checked the bj League website and found that not only is there a team in Sendai, they have home games that same weekend! Sports doubleheader on the road! I'll be checking out Frontale on Saturday afternoon and then the Sendai 89ers on Saturday evening. It'll be cold, but I'm looking forward to seeing two new stadiums and enjoying some great Sendai food. And of course, I'll have a report here afterwards. I'm hoping this is the beginning of this blog becoming more about sports travel!



Sunday, November 15, 2009

NHL GameCenter Live

With the end of the baseball season, my weekend mornings were suddenly devoid of sports. Yeah, I could watch GameCasts on, but it isn't quite the same. When I woke up Saturday morning, I noticed that Toronto was visiting Chicago in NHL action (Friday night back home). I looked for this game on several sports streaming sites, but couldn't find a decent feed to watch it.

I knew that offered a GameCenter Live (GCL) package which allowed you to watch all NHL games live on your computer. It was much like the MLB.TV package that I had watched over the past few months of the baseball season. Generally though, I've felt that the NHL is somewhat technically behind the other sports in terms of their websites and other offerings. For example, it wasn't until a couple of seasons ago that the NHL had live scores on their top page while MLB was offering MLB.TV as far back as 2004. So I was a bit wary of subscribing to the GCL package, which costs $160 for the entire 8-month season.

Nonetheless, I decided to take a look at their webpage, and immediately noticed that they had an installment plan. For only $20 a month, you could start a subscription and then cancel anytime if you weren't satisfied. Well, it was definitely worth a double sawbuck to see the Leafs lose 3 times a week, so I filled in my details and within minutes was watching 4 games of live NHL hockey. And it didn't take me long to figure I wouldn't be canceling anytime soon.

The package

I've only had this package for two days, but it seems to offer every game live. In their advertising, they do say that you can see up to 40 games a week, so maybe there's a hard limit, but somehow I doubt it. The features are much the same as MLB.TV: up to 4 games at once; DVR capability; full screen with a picture-in-picture option; dynamic stats including an ice tracker that let's you view goals and other plays; and a chat window to talk to fellow viewers. There are three possible bit rates, including 2200kbps which provides a great picture on a full-screen iMac as well as an adaptive rate (requires a plugin) that lets your computer adjust the bit rate depending on your bandwidth.

I haven't used any of the optional features yet mainly because I'm too busy watching the games and the widgets take up screen space. I've also noticed that the quality of the broadcast is quite different from game to game even if your bandwidth doesn't change. I assume that's because the original broadcast that is being used for the feed is not in HD, although I thought that by now, every live sport would be shown in high def.

The Games

No need to recap the 18 games that happened over the last couple of days. Of course, the Leafs lost both of their tilts, so I actually didn't spend much time being frustrated watching another goal get by Vesa Toskala. That allowed me to actually watch some good hockey for a change, and I realized just how much the NHL has changed since I left Canada back in 96.

Of course, I'd seen plenty of NHL games live since then, but most of them weren't that good, usually because the Leafs were involved. So it was a treat so see nearly every team and plenty of great goals.

On Saturday, I caught two shootouts as well as an overtime game that involved the Islanders. It should be surprsing that they'd be involved, it was the Isles 9th extra time game this season, and they won it over Carolina on a Kyle Okposo goal. Two of the other three games were close - even Toronto only lost by a goal, which made it even more unfair when a video replay proved inconclusive (the puck was in but there was no camera angle that proved it). Only Atlanta's 7-0 thrashing (sorry, couldn't resist) of the Kings was a blowout.

On Sunday morning, there were 11 games, including the Leafs and Calgary in a Hockey Night in Canada matchup. The Leafs fell behind early so again I ventured off to other games and was rewarded with some great action from around the league. The Islanders went to overtime again but lost to Florida in a shootout. But it was the other two OT games that deserve some comment. First was Boston visiting Pittsburgh. Down 4-3 late, Boston scored a PP goal to tie the game and then a deflection with 2:29 left to take the lead. It looked like the Bruins would win as they were holding the puck in the Pens zone with 10 seconds left. The puck bounced to Patrice Bergeron near the blue line who tried to shoot it back deep. But his stick broke, Evgeny Malkin stole the puck and raced down the left wing, crossing the blue line with Sidney Crosby and Bill Guerin. He passed wide to Guerin, who set up at the top of the right circle and fired a rising wrist shot that beat Tim Thomas with 0.4 seconds left! An unbelievable turn of events! Naturally, Boston quickly collapsed in OT, and the Penguins went from 0 points to 2 because of a broken stick.

The other overtime game featured the Lightning and Kings in Tampa Bay. It was a 1-1 game at the end of regulation, so I tuned in for the OT period. With about 1:40 to go, Tampa shot from the point and the puck was deflected in. The Lightning piled off the bench to celebrate as the announcers said that their overtime luck had changed. When the puck went in, I thought that there might be a problem because there was a Lightning player in front of the goalie. But the referee had signaled goal, and when I saw the replay, it seemed clear that the Lightning player had been pushed into the goalie by an LA d-man, so I figured the goal would stand. I closed the window and moved on to another game.

I was a bit surprised then to see a few minutes later that the game was in a shootout. Sure enough, the other referee standing outside the blue line had waved off the goal and the game had continued. LA won the shootout and we had two games were the teams who were apparently going to win did not. Quite a memorable turnaround, but I wonder why the more distant ref made the call and overruled the one standing next to the net. Glad to see questionable NHL officiating hasn't changed!

There was one late game that featured Vancouver visiting Colorado. I saw these two play at the end of last season in a rather dull 1-0 OT affair won by the Canucks. Of course, this time, they scored 3 goals in the first 12 minutes and went on to a 8-2 rout of the Avs. I didn't watch the last two periods as it was time to enjoy the sunshine, but it was a great morning of hockey for me. Perhaps the coolest thing was watching Montreal and Nashville in French - reminded me of my childhood days when some nights, the only game on was the Canadiens on the French CBC. Unfortunately for Habs tonight, they did not score so I didn't get to hear the classic "Et le but!!!".

Differences between GameCenter Live and MLB.TV

I'm not sure if the NHL broadcasts are live or not, but I'll find out next week when I phone someone at home who is watching the game. I do know that the MLB.TV feed is about a minute behind because when I watched a game that was being shown on NHK here in Japan, there was a substantial lag. This meant that sometimes the updates on the full scoreboard would appear before the action on the field (in MLB.TV) would happen, which can be really annoying. In GCL, the goals are not put up on the scoreboard until well after they have occurred, so there's no spoilers in that sense.

Otherwise, I'd say the services are comparable. Neither work particularly well on my crappy laptop, but both are great on the iMac. Switching between games is easy; in GCL you can even drag and drop games from the scoreboard into the viewing window. Both offer extra features for the true stathead or chathead, but I don't really use those as I like to watch as many games as possible. All-in-all, both are good investments for those who enjoy live sports and have the time to watch.

As a rather stupid aside, watching 4 games at once in both packages has helped me better appreciate the differences between hockey and baseball. There's no doubt that it is much easier to watch 4 ballgames at once; each game has a rhythm so you can set yourself to watch each pitch in succession. With inning breaks, it's rare to have balls in play in more than 2 games at once, so you don't often miss big plays. It's no big deal to miss a walk or a strikeout, as long as you catch most of the homers and other key games. Since you know who is pitching, who is batting, and how many are on base, you can concentrate on the game that has the biggest probability of providing some action.

Hockey on the other hand, is more exciting to watch when you have several games going on. Goals occur much quicker than runs in baseball (just ask Boston!) so you are constantly looking at each game, trying to see if one team is on a rush or generating pressure. As well, I feel that with the NHL games being lower scoring and much closer, the last 5-10 minutes of any game were very entertaining. Too often a baseball game was over by the 6th inning.

Of course, you miss a lot as well when you don't concentrate on a single game. In baseball, you're not able to track each pitch like you would when you're at the game. In hockey, a lot of the penalties escape your notice, and you can't really tell which players are having a great game if you're just glancing at it every few seconds. Still, I expect as I get more accustomed to watching 4 games at once and learn the players a bit more, I'll get even more out of the GCL package. Just hope I get to see the Leafs win one!

Next up

No live sports for me this weekend, although there were plenty of choices, including a baseball tournament, Asia League ice hockey games, American football in the X league, Emperor's Cup soccer action, a women's volleyball championship, and even the World Kudo Championships. There's no better place than Tokyo to get your fill of live sports.

Next weekend is a long weekend so I'm off to Guam. Doesn't seem to be much to see there, but I'll report back a bit on the island. It's part of America, so I'll be watching my share of ESPN and NFL! Can't wait!



Update: When I wrote this post, I referred to the package as Center Ice, it is really GameCenter Live and I've updated all references.

Monday, November 9, 2009

JEF United Chiba 2 at Kawasaki Frontale 3 (J League, Division 1) - November 8, 2009

With the end of the soccer season approaching and Kawasaki Frontale barely holding on to their lead atop the J1 standings, I thought I'd revisit Todoroki Stadium on a sunny day to see them take on JEF United Chiba.

There's not much background to give here. I've seen both teams already this season; Chiba has had a terrible season and lies 17th out of 18 teams, while Kawasaki is hoping to rebound from their Nabisco Cup loss.

Before I get to the game, a slight aside. This blog is really supposed to be about traveling to watch sports - reports on more than just the game, but the whole experience - how to get there, what else to see, and any other tidbits that readers might find useful. But I haven't done much in the way of travel in the past few months as I needed a job first to secure my visa. So to keep things interesting, I tried to see as many sports in Japan as I could, visiting new stadiums, learning about different teams and even checking out new sports. But I don't want the blog to devolve into a simple recap of games I've seen - if there's no useful to pass on, the post is not warranted.

I think that this is the first time when there's no new information. The only thing different between this visit to Todoroki and the previous one in April is the competition. Today it's the J League, then it was the Champions League. As it turns out, this is a big difference for fans - attendance today was over 18,000 so good seats were difficult to find. You really need to show up when the gates open to secure your favoured spot. Back in the Champions League, there were only 8,000 fans, and in my head, I expected it be just as easy to find a decent seat today. Well, it wasn't - I ended up at the goal line, down low - not a great spot to watch the game, as you can see below.

What surprises me is how the league games are so much more popular than the Cup competitions. Personally I prefer the sudden death nature of an elimination game, but it seems like most fans enjoy the regularly scheduled league contests. Not sure why that is, but I now know to show up much earlier or get a fixed seat ticket whenever I go to the J League.

The Game

This was a surprisingly good game. I'll avoid the shot-by-shot recap here to save us all a bit of time. Chiba took a shock lead in the first half, only to have Kawasaki tie it on a Renatinho penalty early in the second. A few minutes later, Renatinho added another, and it looked like Frontale was on their way. But Chiba tied it with just two minutes to go after a goalmouth scramble and the Frontale faithful saw their dreams of a title slipping away. But as the clock turned into extra time, Juninho raced down the left side and crossed to Renatinho who headed home the winner and garnered himself a hat trick in the process. An amazing finish with 2 goals in the last 5 minutes as Kawasaki wins 3-2!

Renatinho might have had 4 goals had he not missed a header in the first half. In the picture below, it looks like the ball is in, but it's just gone wide. Renatiho is the Frontale player at the right of the picture, slightly hunched. When this ball hit the side netting, the fans in my section started cheering - it really did look like a goal. Obviously it wasn't, but that was about the only blemish in Renatinho's near-perfect game.

With the loss, Chiba is officially relegated to J2 next season. This might not sound like a big deal, but their fans were devastated and the players came to their cheering section to bow in contrition. A TV interview tonight showed one of their players crying as he tried to explain the embarrassment of dropping down a level.

Meanwhile Frontale maintains their 1-point lead on Kashima with just 3 games left. Kawasaki is home to Niigata, a top-5 club, and away to Oita and Kashiwa, who are two of the worst teams in the league.

Final Score

The big news for Japan's national team is that Kengo Nakamura has pulled out of their next two matches against Hong Kong and South Africa after being injured late in the game. We'll have to see how this affects Frontale over their last 3 league games and the Emperor's Cup.

Nakamura corner

Other thoughts

I wasn't a huge soccer fan until I worked at the 2002 World Cup. But even after that, I found the J League somewhat difficult to follow. Over the past few months though, I've become much more interested in the league and its various competitions. I've been lucky with the games I've seen; all have been fast-paced with some good goals. No doubt if I had seem some 0-0 stinkers, I'd be complaining about how dull soccer is. But I didn't, so I'll definitely be looking to follow the league more closely next season.

For now, that looks to be it for live sports in 2009. My job takes up too much time during the week and I'm exhausted after seeing two games this weekend. I might try to catch one more J League game on the final match day, or maybe an Emperors Cup fixture somewhere, but we'll see how things develop. The job should be over in December, at which time I'll let you all know of a great road trip that starts in mid-January in Atlanta.

It's been a great year for sports watching for me. I've seen 61 events comprising 8 sports in 4 countries (would have been 5 except I was rained out in Korea). It's been a lot of fun, especially discovering the minors here in Japan. Not sure where I'll be next year, but you can bet that I'll be somewhere watching sports.



Sunday, November 8, 2009

Pohang Steelers 2 vs Al Ittihad 1 (AFC Champions League Final) - November 7, 2009

I've written about the Asian Champions League before, so I won't go into the details again here. The final was set for Tokyo's National Stadium, likely in anticipation that one of the two finalists would be from the J League. Although all 4 Japanese teams made the knockout tournament, the draws were not favorable to them. First Kawasaki knocked off Gamba Osaka only to face Nagoya in the quarters. With Kashima losing to FC Seoul in the round of 16, the J League was guaranteed just a single team in the semi-finals. It turned out to be Nagoya, who were thumped 8-3 on aggregate by Saudi side Al Ittihad. Meanwhile, Pohang Steelers from Korea advanced after defeating Qatar's Umm-Salal 4-1 on aggregate.

More on National Stadium

Although I visited National Stadium for Tuesday's Nabisco Cup Final, I didn't have much time to walk around. I rectified that today, spending about a half hour wandering. The stadium has two levels on the back stand, but only one in the main stand and end zones. You can complete the circuit on the lower level; the concourse does become slightly cramped behind the end zone seats. There's very little on the upper level concourse, just a few food and drink concessions. There's also a shortage of garbage cans, so at the end of the game, they are overflowing. In the States, most people leave their garbage at their seat, but here in Japan, most people try to throw it out when they leave. So it doesn't take long for the garbage can to fill up when there's not enough of them. I don't know why they just don't add a few more trash cans.

On the lower level, the main stand is where all the cool stuff is: displays, handouts and the like. Yesterday they had jerseys from all the competing teams which was neat. It's strange that they don't set up anything on the back stand since there's about twice as many seats there, but most people seem to enter by the main stand and then make their way around.

View from the middle of the back stand

There are plenty of food concessions, although I think they might change depending on the event. I didn't notice any sort of speciality items; it was mostly just Japanese fast food.

Overall, there's nothing particularly impressive about the stadium; it's a testament to functional design. Still, it's hard to believe it's 50 years old - it's still in good shape, and definitely worth visiting if there's a soccer game in town.

The Teams

Al Ittihad are based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and won their place in the Champions League by finishing 2nd in the Saudi Professional League in 2007-08. They went undefeated through the entire group and knockout stages, scoring 29 goals and yielding only 9 in their 11 matches.  I've known about this team since they won back-to-back Champions League titles in 2004-05. The latter victory garnered them an appearance in the 2005 Club World Championship, where they finished 4, losing in the semifinals to eventual champion Sao Paulo.

Their most famous player is Mohammed Noor, who has played with the Saudi National team at the two previous World Cups. He scored a hat trick in the first game against Nagoya and has totalled 4 goals in the competition.

Pohang Steelers qualified by winning Korea's version of the FA Cup in 2008. They went undefeated through the group stages as well, including a critical victory over Kawasaki Frontale to take the group title. After a 6-0 thumping of Australian side Newcastle, they lost a 3-1 decision away to Uzbekistan side Bunyodkor in the quarter-finals. Needing a big win on the home leg to advance, the Steelers managed a 4-1 win in extra time to make it to the semi's, where they swept Umm-Salal. They tallied 22 goals while giving up only 8 during their 11 games.

They won back to back titles in 1997-98 but haven't done much internationally since then. Their top scorer is Brazialian Denilson, who had 7 goals in the tournament, good for 3rd overall.

The Game

I had no idea what to expect in the game today. Judging from the stats, I expected both teams to be fairly good on defense but to also attack quite a bit. So something had to give.

It didn't take Al Ittihad long to gain a chance. In the first minute, Pohang keeper Hwa-Yong Shin went wide to get a ball but overran it, giving Hicham Aboucherouane a chance from just off the goal line, but he sent it into the side netting.

The first 10 minutes were generally controlled by Al Ittihad; their crisp, quick passing forcing Pohang on the defensive. But the Saudi side couldn't find the magic opening and the half then degenerated into a lot of midfield play as both sides tried probing attacks with little success.

The highlight of the half was Aboucherouane rocket-like free kick from 35 yards out which Shin barely managed to deflect over the bar.

Zaid punches one away

In the first minute of the second half, Al Ittihad continued their assault as Amine Chermiti headed a ball that beat Shin but bounced off the crossbar and just beyond the reach of Noor, who had an empty net. Chermiti missed again a few minutes later when he was alone in front of the net, and Pohang countered. Denilson was fouled about 8 yards outside the box, setting up a great free kick opportunity. Byung Jung Noh took the kick and sliced a perfect low drive that went through the Al Ittihad wall and into the corner of the net past a diving Mabrouk Zaid. A shock goal and the Steelers had the lead.

Zaid saves an easy one

Nine minutes later, Pohang had another free kick, this time from the far right side. Jae-Sung Kim lofted one in and defender Hyung-Il Kim rose high to head it by a motionless Zaid. Kim fell to the ground with joy, while the Steelers fans went into a frenzy at the picture-perfect goal.

But Al Ittihad was not to be counted out. Just eight minutes later, Chermiti's header forced Shin back, where he was able to palm the ball down. Unfortunately, it landed at the foot of Noor, who blasted it home to cut the lead to 2-1 (all the goals are found on this video with ecstatic Korean announcers).

The last 15 minutes were all out as Al Ittihad tried to force extra time, but they were unable to find the equalizer and at the full-time whistle, Pohang's players celebrated their title.

Pressure on the Korean defense

Attendance was a decent 25, 743 consider no Japanese team was in it and the Giants were winning the Japan Series at the same time. Both sides had their supporters there, although naturally the Koreans had a larger contingent. To even things up, somebody was handing out plastic bibs that resembled Al Ittihad's uniforms - a cute idea.

Steeler Supporters

All-in-all, a great game, particularly the second half. These sudden-death matches bring out the best in both teams, and it's a lot of fun to watch them give it their all. Many might think this a meaningless title, but there was no doubt that the Steelers were overjoyed to lift the trophy. I look forward to this tournament again next year, and may try a road trip outside of Japan to catch a game or two.



Thursday, November 5, 2009

Game Times and Other Playoff Thoughts

Game Times in the Playoffs

I've been posting about game times in Japanese baseball over the past few months, mainly in relation to NPB's effort to shorten overly long games. The average game time this season came in at 3:13, which was 21 minutes longer than the average MLB game in 2009. Doesn't sound like much (only 1 minute every half inning) but I find the pace entirely different here and it's what drove me away from the game years ago.

I also made note of how the playoffs in baseball haven't been that exciting recently. But now I realize that not only is it the fact that so few series go the distance (not a single MLB playoff series went to a deciding game this year) but the games are excruciatingly long. I did a quick check of the average game time in the playoffs this year and was stunned to find it coming it at 3:37! Excluding 4 extra-inning games, it's still a laborious 3:28. Only one game came in under 3 hours!

So MLB playoff games are 45 minutes longer than those in the regular season. That's over 25% more time for the same number of innings. I thought TV might be to blame, but they only get an extra 15 seconds per inning break. So it's just all the posturing, mound visits, pitching changes, and gamesmanship that makes these games much duller than they ought to be. I like baseball, but if games were 9 hours long, I wouldn't be watching either. Let's pick up the pace guys!

What's really interesting to me though is that Japanese playoff games are pretty much the same length as those in the regular season. Through game 5 of the Japan Series, the average was 3:20, just 7 minutes longer than their regular season average and a full 17 minutes shorter than the MLB playoffs. I've often thought that a regular season NPB game is treated like a playoff game - even in a blowout, there's more time between pitches and it seems to be that both teams are still playing seriously when the game is already decided. It's a small statistical sample, but there's certainly less difference between the regular season and playoffs over here.

World Series Thoughts

The Yankees win, Theeeeeeeee Ah shut up. Unfortunately I put my last $200 million into the stock market last year, so I couldn't afford to buy me a World Series this season. The Yankees had no such problem though. Must be fun to be a Yankees fan, just spend, spend, spend and take the World Series every few years. I hate the way major league baseball is run now.

Frankly, I thought that the Yankees would not win when the season began; mainly because I felt Sabathia and Burnett weren't that good. I was wrong. And Andy Pettite, who looked washed up against the Jays back in July, was back to his old self in the playoffs. With those 3 on the hill and Marte and Rivera in the pen, you've got a chance. Doesn't hurt to have Jeter, A-Rod, Teixeira, and Cano in your lineup either.

It seemed like a dull series; I didn't watch much of it as I am still working and my boss didn't seem to like the idea of me watching MLB.TV on my computer. But the games weren't particularly close and I don't think there were any classic moments we'll be talking about for years to come. Just more proof in my mind that the MLB playoffs are overrated.

There was one bright spot in Hideki Matsui getting the MVP. Despite his playing for the Giants here and then the Yankees there, I've always rooted for Matsui to do well. He's quiet, efficient, and a pretty decent hitter to boot. He can't play defense any more with his wonky knees, but after his performance in the playoffs, I don't see why he won't get a shot to be the DH somewhere in the States again next year.

Japan Series Thoughts

Over here, the Yomiuri Giants have taken a 3-2 lead over the Nippon Ham Fighters. The Giants are Japan's equivalent of the Yankees - they spend lots of money and are universally hated, except by their obnoxious fans.

Game 5 was last night and certainly one to remember, except for a certain Fighters reliever. By the time I got home, it was in the 8th inning and the Fighters led 1-0. In the bottom of the 8th, the Giants had a runner on second and wily veteran Noriyoshi Ohmichi was batting. This was the guy who hit a game-winning homer in a minor league game I saw back in July. What was amazing is that his hit was in the bottom of the 11th with two out - in other words, he was the last batter because games stop after 11 innings. So even though the Giants beat the Swallows, I was actually happy that he homered as it avoided a 0-0 tie, an obscenity in baseball.

Anyway, after a wild pickoff throw allowed the runner to advance to third, Ohmichi battled before finally fisting a single to right to tie the game. Truly a clutch hit and probably his last big moment on the national stage.

But the Fighters were not to be deterred. In their 9th, Shinji Takahashi homered to make it 2-1. In the bottom half, it was up to Hisahi Takeda to hold off the heart of the Giants order and send the Fighters back to Sapporo up 3-2 . But the ghost of Byung-Hyun Kim's career made an appearance. A leadoff homer by Yoshiyuki Kamei tied the game. Then with 1 out, catcher Shinnosuke Abe came to the plate and cranked one. Back, back, back and gone! Ah crap. 3-2 for the Giants and the Fighters take one in the gut. I'm not sure if they can recover from this sort of loss, but games 6 and hopefully 7 are this weekend, so I'll let you know what happens.

Update (11/8). The Giants won game 6 2-0 (in just 3:02) and took the series 4-2. A depressing end to the baseball season as both the Yankees and Giants won their respective series.



Tuesday, November 3, 2009

FC Tokyo 2 Kawasaki Frontale 0 (Nabisco Cup Final) - November 3, 2009

Today was Culture Day in Japan and you're supposed to celebrate by doing something cultural or artistic. Well, the J League is certainly a cultural experience in Japan, so I headed off to National Stadium to see if I could find a ticket to the Nabisco Cup Final game between FC Tokyo and Kawasaki Frontale.

Outside the Stadium

The Nabisco Cup

Most soccer leagues have a cup competition to supplement the regular season games. In Japan, this is known as the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup, after the main sponsor. Unlike most league cups, which are simple knockout competitions and often involve teams from lesser leagues (such as the Carling Cup in England, which features teams from the Premier League down to League Two), the Nabisco Cup only invites the 18 J1 teams and begins with a group stage, where teams play a round robin against each team in their group. This leads to many more games being played and subsequently more revenue for everyone involved. It also gives those teams who are out of the league chase a chance at some other silverware.

This season, the 4 teams who played in the AFC Champions League were excluded from the group stage. The remaining 14 teams were then divided into two groups of 7 and played a 6-game tournament with the top two teams in each group advancing to the quarterfinals, where they were joined by the Champions League teams. These 8 then played home-and-away legs in a knockout format to reach the winner-take-all final at Tokyo's National Stadium.

National Stadium

Located in the Meiji Shrine's Outer Garden, the National Stadium is one of a number of sports facilities in the area, along with the two Jingu ballparks and the Chichibunomiya rugby stadium. This Google Maps satellite photo shows you all 4 venues.

The National Stadium was the main stadium for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and is now over 50 years old. It's held up quite well over the years and is surprisingly quite modern despite its age. I didn't spend much time walking around today due to the crowds, but will revisit there on Saturday for the AFC Champions League Final and have more info.

I can say that the stadium is a multi-purpose facility and therefore has the track surrounding the soccer pitch. This leaves you at a distance from the action and is the biggest drawback here. The stadium is not symmetrical when it comes to seating. On the main side, which is partially covered, there are only about 40 rows divided into two levels, while on the uncovered back side there are 65 rows in 3 levels. The total capacity is 48,000 seats.

I entered by the backstand gate and found the concourse to be very wide and not crowded despite the sell-out. This is quite different from older stadiums elsewhere, where fan comfort seemed to be an afterthought. My seat was conveniently located in that I didn't have to go up or down a level - from the entrance I just walked over to section 21 and just stepped two rows down from there to reach it. It was in the middle of the row, so I didn't move for the rest of the game, so I can't give any reports on food or other amenities.

The Ticket

The game was sold out just an hour after tickets went on sale back in September, no doubt a result of having two Tokyo-area teams facing off. I didn't have a ticket; in fact I wasn't even planning on going to the game once I found out it was sold out. But when I woke up and saw the weather was perfect, I decided it was worth the short trip to see if I could snag an extra ticket.

There was a decent crowd out front but it seemed everyone was waiting for a friend. I asked one guys who was standing around holding a ticket if he was selling, but he just shook his head.

It was still an hour till kickoff, so I wasn't particularly worried. Eventually I overheard one guy telling another to walk around shouting "I got a ticket". The guy was too shy to do that, but I knew that he was hoping to sell, so I casually approached him. He definitely wasn't a scalper, just a guy with a couple of extra ducats, so I offered him face value for one. He asked if I was a Tokyo supporter, which is a critical consideration when buying tickets to soccer games. Each ticket is either in a home team or away team cheering section. There are no general sections for fans who just like the sport. So although I suppose I'm a very weak Frontale fan, I wasn't going to let such a minor quibble ruin my chance at a ticket. I told him that I was not cheering for either team, just looking to watch the game and that was enough for him - I took his ticket, he took my money and in I went.

I didn't care where the seat was when I bought it, but it turned out to be a good location - facing the top of the penalty box midway up the back stand. I was in the middle of FC Tokyo supporters, but I wasn't wearing any Frontale colours, so it didn't matter. The sun was out and shining brightly, so I sat back and waited for the festivities to begin.

The Fans

Both supporter sections were completely full and already raucous. Although I was among Tokyo fans, they were not part of the "official" cheering section, which was in the end seats. In the picture below, you can see them with balloons, a great visual effect. I expected them to let them go as the fans do in baseball games here, but it didn't happen.

The fans here were very vocal, booing the Kawasaki introduction video and then cheering loudly when their players were introduced. Toilet paper seems to be the decoration of choice and was being throw wildly about in the minutes before the game, but it disappeared once the game started.

The Frontale fans were somewhat quieter I thought, although this might be because I was further away. The only interesting thing I noticed was a cool looking star formation before the game, shown below.

The Game

Kawasaki currently leads the J League while FC Tokyo lies 5th, only 6 points back. So both teams are strong, although Tokyo has had some injuries of late and were considered the underdogs.

Kawasaki had the better chances in the first half. In the 12th minute, a long-range kick was barely tipped over the bar by Tokyo keeper Shuichi Gonda. Then in the 20th minute, Juninho was gifted the ball with a gaping net, but managed to send it high.

Japanese national team member Kengo Nakamura with the ball

As is so often the case, the team on the defensive counterattacks quickly and finds a bit of luck. In this case, FC Tokyo moved the ball up slowly when 18-year-old Takuji Yonemoto ran to the left side. He passed ahead to striker Sota Hirayama who quickly passed back. Space opened up in front of him, so Yonemoto decided to try his luck from outside the box. He sent a curling, diving ball that Frontale keeper Eiji Kawashima dove for. Kawashima got his hands on the ball and deflected it - into the net! An unbelievable strike for Yonemoto and for the FC Tokyo fans, who were not expecting such a great goal. When they realized the ball was in, there was a half-second of stunned silence as they confirmed the ball was actually in the net before they erupted in cheers. It was 1-0 Tokyo with 22 minutes gone in the game.

Nakamura's kick is blocked

The rest of the half was fairly quiet, although both teams had more chances, neither keeper was tested seriously. At the start of the second half, Kawasaki continued their assault, and time and again they had decent opportunities but were left wanting for lack of finish. And again, Tokyo put a counterattack to good use. This time, the ball was being headed back and forth in the Tokyo end when Hirayama finally headed it out of danger. The ball was then quickly played ahead to Tatsuya Suzuki who ran down the left side. Hirayama meanwhile raced down the right side, catching up to Suzuki. As they entered the box, Suzuki crossed to Hirayama who headed it past a sprawling Kawashima. A beautiful play all-around and Tokyo had their insurance goal with 30 minutes to go. Here's a great video of the goal, watch Hirayama running from when he heads the ball at the 1:05 mark - great anticipation and pace.

Tokyo celebrate their second goal

Immediately, Tokyo took off forward Shingo Akamine and replaced him with defender Yuto Nagatomo. It was clear that their intention was to defend the lead and for the rest of the game, the play was almost entirely in the Tokyo end. This sucked for me as the sun was directly above the Tokyo net the whole time, forcing me to squint for the last 30 minutes. It also sucked for Frontale, who kept up a constant pressure, but the Tokyo defense did not break. Juninho hit a crossbar and Gonda made a fine save on another shot, and when the whistle sounded, it was a 2-0 victory for Tokyo.

A rare Tokyo attack

Kawasaki outshot Tokyo 17-10 and had 12 corner kicks, most coming in a frenzy in the last 20 minutes. But it was their inability to take advantage of their chances plus their poor defense against the counterattack that cost them the game. Full credit to FC Tokyo though, who played a great game and deserved the championship. Yonemoto was the MVP and looks to be someone worth watching in the future.

The Goodies

As the tournament is sponsored by Nabisco, all the fans received a small pack of goodies. Inside was a booklet describing the history of the Nabisco Cup as well as how each team reached the final. Even better, though, were 3 bags of Nabisco's new 100-calorie snack packs. They've taken old favourites and slimmed them down so that they're more appealing to health-conscious consumers. Ritz crackers, Oreo cookies, and Chips Ahoy are all featured; I think they chose those 3 packs as they match the colours of the teams playing today. FC Tokyo is a red and blue, while Kawasaki is a light blue and white. The picture below shows the snack packs, the booklet, and the ticket, which is pretty cool.


I've often thought that Japanese soccer is doomed by the players inability to finish. Time and again they create chances only to see a muffed kick or an extra pass go astray. This is certainly noticeable in international play and it was certainly Kawasaki's problem today as they failed again to win the Nabisco Cup (they lost in 2000 and 2007). I also found an interesting article on the topic, which summarizes the situation quite well.

Despite Kawasaki losing, I really enjoyed this game. Perfect weather, lots of chances, a sold out stadium with vocal supporters, and two excellent goals. Not a much better way to spend Culture Day!

Next Up

I'm back to National Stadium this Saturday evening for the ACL Champions League final between Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia and Pohang Steelers from South Korea. The next day I'll revisit Todoroki to see Kawasaki host JEF United Chiba in a regular J League match.

And that's probably it for a while. With baseball nearly over and just a month left in the soccer season; I'm afraid the next two months will be devoid of much sports watching. But stay tuned, there's a big trip in January planned and I'll be posting details here shortly.