Sunday, August 17, 2014

On the Premiership's Opening Day

We gathered in our Arsenal gear yesterday to watch much of the Premiership's opening day.  It's hard to conclude much from one game's worth of play, but here are a few thoughts:

1.  Manchester United Needs a Midfield and Experience in the Back.  First home opener loss in 42 years?  Yikes.  Was it that hard for ManU to sign players because they are not playing Champions League football this season?  Or was the turmoil too much?  It's hard to reason that United are a top-4 team this season.

2.  Arsenal.  Predictably, it was Palace who scored first, this after their manager quit the day before.  That's the guy who rallied them from a woeful start to an 11th place finish and became manager of the year.  It stands to reason that Tony Pulis will be among the top candidates to step in for a Premier League squad when a team or two sacks its manager mid-season.  But the Gunners rallied, first with a good header from Laurent Koscielny in stoppage time right before the end of the first half and then from a relative tap-in from usually in the right place at the right time Aaron Ramsey, who, when healthy, is one of the world's best midfielders.  That said, Arsenal looked a bit tentative out there, in contrast to the pace that they had set int he Community Shield game against City.  Jack Wilshere disappointed, and it's hard to see them winning the league with either Olivier Giroud or Yaya Sanogo being the two main options at striker.  Of course, the squad was without defensive stalwart Per Mertesacker and playmaker Mesut Ozil, so it's hard to read too much into one game.

While it would be great for the Gunners to add three more players before the transfer window shuts, it's doubtful that a) they have the money to do so or b) they could mesh all of those players with the team now.  But it seems that they might need another option at center back, a central defensive midfielder who can push people around (Patrick Viera, where are you when we need you) and a striker.  The names Manolas, Carvalho, Cavani and Reus keep popping up, and it would appear that Liverpool might try to outdo whatever Arsenal does.  That said, if you were in your mid-twenties with lots of cash, would you prefer to live in Liverpool or London?

3.  Tottenham.  Will they play much better this year because they had so many roster changes last season that it was difficult for two managers to get them to mesh?  While they might not draw pre-season raves or predictions that put them in the top four, they are formidable and not to be overlooked.  Then again, when you play in the league with Chelsea, City, Arsenal, Liverpool and United, among others, it's easy to get overlooked when the pundits pick the top group.  Spurs' late goal once again demonstrated that any fan who forgets them does so at his peril.

4.  Liverpool.  I was surprised that they also didn't go for Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin while they were signing Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana away from Southampton and how they could have let Luke Shaw get to United from the Saints.  One thing is for certain, though, and that is when you read articles and posts from veteran writers and observers about talent pipelines, Liverpool is at the top of the heap.  They will miss Luis Suarez greatly -- how could a team not miss him -- but in Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, they have a lot of firepower up front.

5.  A Potentially Humorous Interlude.  I have been thinking that certain Premiership players fit the bill of the "All Prison Gang" looking team. Right now, among the nominees are Martin Skrtel (who could be the skipper), his out-of-favor backfield mate Daniel Agger, Jonjo Shelvey, Raul Meireles, among others.  Do you have any nominees?  That's a tough-looking crew, and nominees are welcome.  Shaved heads, stark hair, lots of tattoos are prerequisites for membership on this not-so-elite club.

6.  Chelsea and City.  Sure, I should have written about them first because they are the favorites.  One of the principal differences seems to be that the ownership of the former is much less patient than the ownership of the latter.  The pressure is on Chelsea to win the league for the first time since, well, Cesc Fabregas left North London for Barcelona, and should Jose Mourinho for all his talk fail to deliver, he could get sacked too.  Lots of good players at Stamford Bridge, but with the mixing and matching of newcomers with veterans, the squad might take a little while to gel.  That said, they open with Burnley, a promoted team that already is among many pundits' list to get relegated this season.  As for City, they have to be relaxing, because much of the off-season talk has focused on Chelsea and then on Liverpool's and Arsenal's quests to add players and win the league.  City stayed with the leaders last year and then pounced after Liverpool met a tragic ending to its season by playing their way out of the title.  Can they repeat?  It's hard to argue that they will not.

7.  Everyone Else.  It will be interesting to see how Southampton fares after losing so many good players, how Palace does after their wonderful season, if Everton can provide an encore to stunning year last year (and whether Romelu Lukaku emerges even further and makes Chelsea's front office look really bad), whether Hull can recover from its collapse in the FA Cup final, whether Stoke will make some noise and whether West Ham have improved significantly.  I do wonder what it must be like to be a Stoke, a Hull, a Burnley, Leicester, Newcastle, Sunderland and any team not named Chelsea, City, United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham.  Is everyone else just playing for as high a place as 6th?  Financial Fair Play rules can help level the spending a bit, but at the end of the day can any of the other 14 teams in any given year make a significant run for the title and take it?

All good fun.  As for my Gunners, I hope that they can win the league, but realistically they need at least one if not two more pieces to make a serious run for the top spot.  It was good for them to win a trophy last season and get that pressure off them.  Now it's time to see if Arsene Wenger can add one more star to his roster and move the team forward even further.

Philadelphia and the Taney Dragons

The Taney Dragons play another game in the Little League World Series today.  Mayor Michael Nutter is hosting an event in Center City to celebrate and cheer on the team.  While the gathering might draw the crowds that the World Cup did, I would suspect that over 1,000 people will show up to support this wonderful team and participate in a great story.

A girl pitcher.  A city team.  An integrated team.  A girl pitcher who is a great athlete, bright, a media star and who wants the media to talk with her teammates.  They might not win it all, but this team and the people behind it are a celebration.

A celebration of humble, earnest parents coming together to give their kids a good experience.  A Phil Jackson-like zen master of a manager who puts the kids and their experiences first.  By doing that and emphasizing the importance of the process, the rituals and, yes, the journey, this team wins.  It's not about lunatic dads roaming the sidelines, intimidating umpires and other coaches and bullying children because they themselves are frustrated with their lives and their jobs.  Clearly, there's something more than that, and that's why the team is where it is.

The Taney Dragons might not win the whole thing, but they have won a lot so far and taught people from all over a great deal of good things.  Sadly, bad news travels faster and grabs the headlines.  And it's summertime to boot, which means that at times people's attention wanders away from the news to vacations and other things.  But this is a compelling story worthy of telling and re-telling and sharing and teaching.  Amidst much turmoil and disappointment (which the immediacy of news and the overall availability of it constantly helps reinforce), there is a gem from the City of Brotherly Love that bears magnification and warrants celebration.

The Taney Dragons.

You go, girl. . . and boys!  You've taken so many so far already.