Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Cincinnati Bearcats 36 at UCF Knights 33 (NCAA Football, AAC) - November 21, 2020

If you read my last post, you know that my buddy Eddie and I left the Orlando City game early to get to UCF in time for kickoff. We arrived on campus about 10 minutes before the scheduled start and parked in Garage H, which was one of several free options. We then scurried past Addition Finance Arena, where I had seen a game way back in 2014, when it was known as CFE Arena. It seems like stadium name changes are all the rage in Orlando as all four venues that I encountered on this day had recently undergone moniker modifications. That includes the UCF gridiron, which is now known as Bounce House after Spectrum's naming rights expired in August of this year. It is so named because when it opened, fans jumping in unison caused the venue to shake noticeably. Although there were no concerns for the structural soundness, there were changes made after the first season to reduce the effects. Still, this is a great name for a stadium and should be kept. Maybe Proctor & Gamble can work with them to associate it with their Bounce product.

Anyway, Eddie ran on ahead of me as he wanted to be inside for kickoff, while I stopped to take a couple of pictures. The UCF Knight is quite an impressive mascot.

I had not purchased a ticket since I had hoped to get one at the box office, but as I approached, a gentleman offered me entry for $30, less than half face value. He walked me into the stadium and I handed him the cash, upon which he left. I didn't even have a ticket, but it didn't matter as it was general admission. I quickly made my way to the seating bowl, arriving just as the national anthem was starting.

I sat at one goal line and searched for Eddie. Turns out he was across the way in Zone 3 (to the right of the yellow seats in the photo above) and I was in Zone 1 (where tickets were $100 for some reason). Due to COVID, the stadium is divided into seven zones and movement on the concourse or in the seating bowl between zones is not permitted. So we would watch the game separately. Those yellow seats are the Cabana, which seems to be an overpriced premium area. To my left was the Knightmare student section, which is shown in the picture below. Normally it holds 12,000 but on this day, only 3,000 were allowed in, as per Florida's 25% capacity rules.

To my right was the Stadium Club, another premium area, with the Roth Tower above it. Along the facade of the tower are the team accomplishments, including their 2017 National Championship. They finished that year ranked #6 (AP Poll) after beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl to end with a perfect 13-0 record. The FBS Playoff winner was Alabama at 13-1, with their only loss coming to Auburn (who also beat CFP participant Georgia). So yeah, UCF has a legitimate claim to the title, and should have been invited to the playoff. But Power 5 arrogance would never allow that to happen.

Below is the concourse, with the fence separating my zone and the stadium club zone. Note the National Champions banner in the foreground.

Since I was unable to move around the venue, I did not take any more pictures. As is the case with all the stadiums I have visited during the pandemic, it would be far more enjoyable if there were a larger crowd on hand. With only 11,668 here, I never did experience the bounce in the Bounce House. 

The Game

Seventh-ranked Cincinnati (7-0) was in town to take on the Knights (5-2) in a battle that would be broadcast on ESPN. Bad news as that meant it would probably take four hours to complete the game. UCF received the ball to start and marched 75 yards in just 2:16 using their hurry-up offense, with Greg McCrae capping the drive with a 3-yard run. Cincy scored a FG on their first possession, and after UCF punted, Bearcat returner Ryan Montgomery muffed the catch and the Knights recovered on the Cincy 22. Six plays later, QB Dillon Gabriel found Marlon Williams (#6 wide open at the goal line below) for the TD. It was 14-3 after a quarter that took nearly an hour to play.

Cincinnati dominated the second quarter 16-3, with the UCF field goal coming with one second left. Of course. The ensuing kickoff went through the end zone too, adding more time to the proceedings. Anyway, Cincinnati started the second half with a 16-play, 87-yard drive that took an amazing 8:31, unheard of in college ball and the highlight of the game for me. Despite having first down at the 1, they could not punch it in, settling for a field goal. UCF responded with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that took only 2:30, with Gabriel again connecting with Williams for the score, as well as the two-point conversion to give them the lead 25-22, which is how the fourth quarter began.

Just a minute in, Gabriel was intercepted by Darrick Forrest who took the ball to the Knight 16. Three plays later, after one touchdown was needlessly overturned on review, QB Desmond Ridder jumped over the pile to give the Bearcats the 4-point lead. After UCF punted, Ridder paraded his team 71 yards in 5:14, with a 7-yard TD pass to Leonard Taylor making it 36-25. UCF again responded quickly with a 75-yard touchdown drive that only took 2:48, and another two-point convert got them within 3. Now they had to stop Cincinnati, but they could not. The Bearcats methodically moved the ball down to the 1, where Gerrid Doaks smartly avoided scoring, forcing UCF to use their final timeout with 1:34 left. Two plays got it down to 8 seconds but Cincinnati fumbled on 4th down as the clock struck zero. Players celebrated and I left my seat, but the play was under review, which resulted in one second being added. UCF had a chance at a miracle play, but a short pass and lateral was quickly snuffed out and the Bearcats prevailed 36-33. And yes, the game took four freaking hours, by which time my phone had died. So no scoreboard picture. 

In the end, Cincinnati dominated the time of possession, 37:08 to 22:52, but ran five less plays than UCF. It might be efficient scoring quickly, but then your defense is on the field for longer than they need to be and UCF's D was gassed by the end. Nick Saban might think little of time of possession stats, but then he has a defense with depth. Ball control and clock management matters in a competitive game, but so few coaches seem to understand this bit of football strategy. 


This might have been a good game, but with so much dead time, it is really tough to focus when you are inside the stadium. There is no worse live sports experience than an NCAA football game broadcast on ESPN. There is no reason it should take four hours. On two occasions, we had a score followed by a TV timeout of about four minutes. Upon return, kickoff for a touchback, then another TV timeout of about three minutes. Not to mention the pointless reviews that added nothing to the game but allowed for more commercials. And being unable to move around the stadium made it much worse. Do fans actually sit at home watching this for four consecutive hours? 

Cincinnati retained their #7 spot when the first CFP playoff rankings were released, the highest for a Group of 5 team in poll's history, beating UCF's #8 ranking from 2018. They have two more conference games (update: their game this weekend at Temple has been postponed due to COVID) before the American Championship, and if they win all three, there will be calls for them to be invited to the playoff. Based on what I saw, they do not deserve it, but it will be interesting to see the comparisons between them and the 2017 UCF team.

Next Up

Raptors in Tampa! Just waiting for the NBA schedule to be released and to see if tickets will be available. If they are, I will be back down in Florida for a game or two.



Sunday, November 22, 2020

NYCFC 1-5 at Orlando City 1-6 (MLS Playoffs, First Round) - November 21, 2020

When the MLS playoff schedule was released, I noticed a potential tripleheader in the Sunshine State on November 21st. Orlando City would host NYCFC at noon, followed by Central Florida welcoming Cincinnati in football at 3:30 just across town. The third game was in Tampa as South Florida took on Navy at 8, though that would require leaving UCF early. After much thought, I decided to stick to the two games in Orlando, not that it mattered as USF had a COVID outbreak and that game was postponed.

Flights were very cheap and I flew down Saturday morning, arriving at MCO at 9:30. After checking in to my airport hotel to drop off my bag, I took a rideshare downtown to Exploria Stadium, home of Orlando City. The team is also known as the Lions, as you can tell from the logo above, which is on the back of the scoreboard. The building takes up two city blocks and was constructed right on top of Parramore Avenue, with the south portion of the street ending beneath the stadium name in the photo below.

Orlando City Stadium was inaugurated in 2017 in time for the season opener, which was Orlando's third campaign in MLS after four years in USL Pro, where they played at the Citrus Bowl (now Camping World Stadium). This new venue also changed its moniker when timeshare concern Exploria bought naming rights in 2019. Capacity is usually 25,500 but that had been reduced to 6,250 for this game due to COVID restrictions. Tickets were made available to the general public but only those with a Florida address could purchase, so I had to use the secondary market, which turned out to be cheaper. Of course, singles were extremely limited, but thankfully my buddy Eddie was joining me, so I picked up a pair the morning of the game. There are no hard tickets (even at the box office, you are sent a link to generate your mobile barcode) but upon entry, all fans were given a badge commemorating the game (below). Beautiful and much nicer than a stub. Notice the Orlando painted in the seats; my seat was near the top in the final O.

I entered via Gate A (Eddie was running late and would join at halftime) and my section was right there. Given the crowded concourse, I decided not to tour and instead just took a few pictures.

This is from midfield looking west. Camping World Stadium is just a few blocks away but not visible in this picture, though I could see it from my seat. As you can tell, purple dominates the interior.

Section 12 close to the pitch has 49 rainbow seats to honour those killed in the Pulse nightclub attack, which happened on June 12, 2016. It would be nice such memorials were not necessary, but once the pandemic ends, I am sure mass shootings will start again. This post from 2012 is still relevant.

My seat in section 137 was close to the scoreboard, which provided a poor angle to see the replays. Of course, those in the end section are unable to see anything, as are those under the scoreboard itself. Notice the far corner seats; each of the three corners other than the scoreboard has these seats and they provide a unique view of the field as they wrap around the corner stick. 

The supporters' section is on the north side of the stadium and is standing room only. Despite the limited capacity, they did a good job making noise throughout the game.

Before the game, they unfurled a banner with caricatures of Luis Muzzi (EVP of Soccer Operations), manager Óscar Pareja (El Papi) and leading scorer Nani. I don't think I have ever seen an executive positively mentioned on a supporters sign before.

Along the concourse is a photo opportunity with mannequins dressed in the jerseys of the starting 11. A unique way to inform fans who will be on the pitch that day. Of course, the picture would be more useful if it was taken from behind, so you could see all the player names, but I dare to be different.

Without being able to tour the entire venue, my experience was limited, but I was still very impressed by what I saw. Exploria is the best MLS stadium that I have been to (though I've seen only 8 of 26 active venues), with its downtown location and excellent sightlines the most important aspects. I'd love to come back to see a game with a full house, I imagine it would be quite entertaining. 

The Game

Orlando City won two titles in USL Pro and was the runner-up in the MLS is Back tournament held earlier this year, but this was their first playoff game in MLS, so there was excitement in the air. And it quickly grew as Orlando was awarded a penalty for handball in the third minute. Nani had no trouble beating Sean Johnson, although he hesitated a couple of times on his approach, which is legal, but still drew complaints from some NYCFC players.

The supporters released purple smoke to cool effect after the goal was scored.

It did not take the visitors long to reply as Maxime Chanot headed home off a Jesus Medina corner in the 8th minute. It looked like an exciting game was in store, but after that, things got ugly. NYCFC did have two excellent chances in the first half, but keeper Pedro Gallese made some superb stops to keep the Lions in it.

The second half saw things get chippy and the ref, Allen Chapman, seemed to lose control of the match. There were several injuries, yellow cards, and even a straight red to Orlando's Ruan for kicking Gary McKay-Steven in the groin. There was very little offense and it became clear that extra time would be required. With UCF starting at 3:30, we had to leave by 3 to get there in time, and when 10 minutes of stoppage time was announced for the second half, I realized that the 60-minute buffer we had between games would be lost. I hoped for a goal from either team and Orlando had one chance just before the whistle but it was missed and the game went to extra time. Very little happened in those thirty minutes and as the clock approached 3, we decided to head over to the Bounce House.

Turns out that we made the right decision as the penalty shootout was a disaster, lasting 22 minutes and filled with terrible officiating decisions that resulted in Chapman being told he and his crew would not referee any more playoff games. I am not going to recap it here, you can read all about it if you desire. It would have been incredibly frustrating to be watching this having to get to another game, so although I missed a crazy outcome, I am glad I did not have to sit through it. Orlando won the shootout 6-5 and it all finished around 3:20, by which time we were on the UCF campus.

This isn't the first time this has happened to me; it is always a risk when seeing two games on the same day in different venues and games sometime take longer than expected. Soccer normally lasts two hours and even a game with penalties should finish in around three hours. Unbelievably, this one was nearly 3.5 hours long. With no rooting interest in the game, I didn't have any concern about leaving and was happy to be in the stands for kickoff at UCF. More on that in the next post.



Friday, November 6, 2020

2020 MLB Award Predictions

The MLB award finalists are out, so it is again time to look at the Bases Per Out (BPO) statistic to determine who should win each award. To refresh your memory, the formula is: (TB+BB+SB+HBP+SAC+SF)/(AB-H+CS+SAC+SF+GIDP). That's the total bases achieved by the batter against the number of outs he made, and obviously, the higher the ratio the better. As usual, this stat ignores defense, which is why it is imperfect, but it does give some insight into a player's offensive contributions and is better than OPS.


The top 6 in BPO in the AL:
Player         Bases  Outs   BPO
Jose Ramirez    178    161  1.106
Mike Trout      163    149  1.094
DJ LeMahieu     139    128  1.086
Nelson Cruz     139    137  1.015
Brandon Lowe    141    145  0.972
Jose Abreu      170    175  0.971
The finalists are Ramirez, LeMahieu, and Abreu. In a shortened season, small differences in numbers can result in big changes, and that is what happened to Ramirez, who managed to steal 10 bases, thus giving him the BPO title. If he only stole 6, he would finish behind LeMahieu, who led the league in OPS+. I would choose Ramirez, but LeMahieu will likely win due to the NY bias. Winner: Abreu in a surprise. RBIs still matter to the voters.

The top 12 in the NL:
Player           Bases  Outs   BPO
Juan Soto         155    103  1.505
Freddie Freeman   187    147  1.272
Marcell Ozuna     184    155  1.187
Ronald Acuna Jr.  143    124  1.153
Bryce Harper      165    149  1.107
Trea Turner       175    166  1.054
Mike Yastrzemski  144    138  1.043
Dominic Smith     131    126  1.040
Mookie Betts      160    160  1.000
Wil Myers         142    142  1.000
Fernando Tatis Jr.172    172  1.000
Manny Machado     166    172  0.965
Why so many? Because Betts and Machado are finalists and I wanted to include their stats to show how silly these picks are. The other nominee is Freeman. Juan Soto, who dominated the majors in this stat, only played 47 games after an early season COVID diagnosis (which may have been a false positive).  Regardless, Freeman should win this award as he is far superior to the other two nominees. Winner: Freeman in a landslide, with 28 first place votes (Betts had the other 2).

Cy Young

For pitchers, the statistic is reversed, giving Outs Per Base ((IP*3)/(TB+BB+HBP+WP+BK+SB+SH+SF)), with higher numbers again better.

The top 6 in the AL:
Player          Outs  Bases  OPB
Kenta Maeda     200     86  2.326
Shane Bieber    232    102  2.275
Dallas Keuchel  190     88  2.159
Marco Gonzales  209    107  1.953
Lucas Giolito   217    116  1.871
Hyun Jin Ryu    201    111  1.811
The finalists are Maeda, Bieber, and Ryu. Bieber finishes second in OPB due to 5 wild pitches, but his 8 wins. 122 strikeouts, and additional 10 innings pitched make him the clear favourite and he should win. Winner: Bieber, unanimously

The top 9 in the NL:
Player          Outs  Bases  OPB
Dinelson Lamet   207    93  2.226
Trevor Bauer     219   107  2.047
Yu Darvish       228   113  2.018
Kyle Hendricks   244   125  1.952
Brandon Woodruff 221   119  1.857
Adam Wainwright  197   108  1.824
Zack Wheeler     213   117  1.821
Zach Davies      208   117  1.778
Jacob deGrom     204   117  1.744
The nominees are Bauer, Darvish, and deGrom. Yes, the best pitcher in the league, San Diego's Dinelson Lamet, was completely ignored. deGrom is again hurt by stolen bases, but even without those, he would finish behind Bauer and Darvish. I think Bauer should win, but I wonder if the voters will punish him for his outspoken social media presence. Winner: Bauer, with 27 first-place votes, so no punishment at all. Good to see.

Rookie of the Year 

In the AL, the nominees are Kyle Lewis (Mariners, 0.819 BPO), Luis Robert (White Sox, 0.736) and Christian Javier (Astros, 1.567 OPB). It is not easy to compare BPO and OPB, so I use the league average for both (0.698 BPO, 1.385 OPB) and see which player is better relative to the average. Lewis is 17.3% above the average, while Javier is 13.1% above, so Lewis should win. But Robert got a lot more press playing in Chicago, so look for another bad choice from the voters. Winner: Lewis, unanimously, helped by his defense.

The NL rookie finalists are Alec Bohm (Phillies, 0.867 BPO), Jake Cronenworth (Padres, 0.814) and Devin Williams (Brewers, unbelievable 3.074 OPB). Williams had an outstanding season giving up just 27 bases in 27 innings pitched and notching 53 strikeouts, but he just didn't play enough to warrant selection here. He faced 100 batters, while Bohm had 180 plate appearances, 12 fewer than Cronenworth. Bohm should therefore win but I expect the voters to choose Williams and his sparkling numbers. Winner: Williams.

One major surprise for me in Abreu, as the voters appreciated his 60 RBIs in 60 games. He didn't walk much and that hurt him in BPO. Otherwise things were mostly as expected.



Monday, November 2, 2020

Inter Miami 1 at Toronto FC 2 - November 1, 2020

As Canada has strict rules about who can and cannot enter during the pandemic, Toronto FC has been playing their home games in Rentschler Field, which is usually home to UConn football. Located in East Hartford on the former Pratt & Whitney airfield, the stadium is named for Frederick Rentschler, who founded P&W. In fact, the full name of the venue is now Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentshcler Field, quite a mouthful. The first five matches were played in front of empty stands, but for the final home battle of the season, up to 5,000 fans would be allowed. Not wanting to miss this unique opportunity, I avoided quarantine by taking a COVID test (negative, of course) and then traveling to another state.

Tickets were $25 and a buddy bought a pair, as singles were not available. On game day, I picked him up in downtown Hartford and we drove across the Connecticut River to the stadium. Parking was a ridiculous $20, though obviously most people came with someone else to help defray the cost. Cars were not allowed to park next to each other to allow for social distancing, as you can see above.

The stadium was opened in 2003 and is rather basic inside, with 3 sections of blue chairbacks at midfield on both sides and benches the rest of the way around. The press box and suites are on the south side and make quite an imposing sight.

The concourse is pretty barren as you would expect, with only a couple of concessions open. It was very wet and windy on this evening and many fans were standing in the concourse during the game, though security was asking them to move to their seats.

The Connecticut High School Coaches Hall of Fame is located near the southwest corner of the concourse. I had a quick look but did not see any familiar names.

We had seats in the top row with the press box and suites directly above us. This did not protect us from the elements however, but did allow us to stand for most of the evening.

Near the end of the game, we moved down and got a picture of that side of the stadium. Attendance was reported as 1,394 and I think even less showed up. This was not the first MLS game to be played here in front of fans, in 2017 NYCFC hosted Houston and over 10,000 were in the stands for that one.

One nice touch was altering the TFC logo so that the T resembled a whale's tail to honour the Hartford Whalers, who are still lamented in these parts. 

The scoreboard was showing the game using the TSN feed, and it was interesting to see that the seats across the way had been electronically replaced by advertising. You can see that in the highlights. As well, the ribbon boards around the field were showing Canadian advertising as this was a TFC home game. Even the anthems were reversed, with The Star Spangled Banner being played before O Canada, which confused several fans who are used to sitting down after hearing their anthem.

I'm not sure if they will use The Rent for TFC's playoff games, but I doubt they would bother to open it for fans since so few showed up, and we are now in the middle of the pandemic's second wave. But I'll keep watching and who knows, maybe another trip to Hartford could be in the offing.

The Game

Inter Miami, an expansion club that has David Beckham as part of its ownership group, were the visitors and TFC had the run of play early on, but there were no chances worth mentioning. In the 42nd minute, Inter's Lewis Morgan took advantage of a handling error by fellow Scot Tony Gallacher and romped into the box. A first cross was blocked but Morgan regained possession and sent another cross that was knocked away by TFC keeper Quentin Westberg, but right to French international Blaise Matuidi who had no trouble slotting it inside the left post for his first goal in MLS.

Halftime was marked by a quick but heavy storm that lasted into the early minutes of the second period and sent fans scrambling for cover. The rain seemed to give TFC some life and they tied things up in the 55th, when Ayo Akinola beautifully chested down a long cross from Patrick Mullins and calmly beat John McCarthy.

While we were moving down to make a quick exit, TFC's Richie Laryea drew a penalty after Miami's Ben Sweat brought him down near the touchline in the 82nd minute. Alejandro Pozuelo then scored from the spot (above) to give the Reds the 2-1 lead.

That was the final and I was very happy to see Toronto win. We exited the stadium immediately upon hearing the final whistle, beating the crowd that was being asked to exit section by section, so as to minimize the chances of transmitting the virus.