Monthly Archives: August 2014

Premier League Preview – Part 2/2

The Close But No Cigars

Southampton

10th – Southampton

Southampton was the talk of the town, or at least the Premier League, last season when they used a lot of homegrown talent to work their way to a surprising eighth place finish. However, the rest of the league noticed and when it comes to players, if you can’t beat them (or develop similar players through your own academy)… buy them, and that’s exactly what they did.

The Saints received more than a total of $150 million from the combined sales of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers and Rickie Lambert in this transfer window alone. They have started to spend some of it, bringing in goalkeeper Fraser Forster, midfielder Dušan Tadić and forward Shane Long, but there is still a huge chunk of change available for manager Ronald Koeman to spend. The problem is, he hasn’t spent it, and the season has already begun.

You can understand why Southampton might want to hold onto their mountain of money until the right transfer targets are identified, even if that means saving it for a few months or years, but at the moment the Saints have a large portion of their starting XI to try and replace. That they haven’t done so does not bode well for the immediate future. After all, you can’t play large sacks of money at positions on the field

They still have some very talented players left. The likes of José Fonte, Jay Rodriguez, Jack Cork, Gastón Ramírez, Maya Yoshida and others means Southampton isn’t in danger of relegation, but it is doubtful they’ll be able to mount the same kind of challenge they did last year. The Saints are also missing manager Mauricio Pochettino who left to take over the position at Tottenham.

One last note, the transfer of Forster from Celtic is an interesting one considering that Southampton probably have the deepest crop of goalkeepers in the Premier League (Chelsea’s situation with Petr Čech and Thibaut Courtois not withstanding). Forster presumably takes over the starting role with Artur Boruc as the back up. However, Southampton also have THREE more serviceable keepers on the roster: club legend Kelvin Davis, American Cody Cropper and Paulo Gazzaniga. Cropper is the main focal point for me since there have been a sizable number of articles popping up about the young, 21-year-old national-teamer. With so much competition, I’m assuming Cropper will have to go out on loan to the lower tiers to try and get some game time.

Swansea City

9th – Swansea City

Swansea City are an interesting team to try and figure out. The Swans came home 12th last campaign, but if this year’s fast start out of the gate with a road win against Manchester United is any indication, they could be ready to make a little more noise.

Two seasons ago, striker Michu was the toast of the Premier League after a breakout campaign that saw him near the top of the league scoring race. But after an injury-plagued season, Swansea were just as quick to let him go with a year-long loan and option to buy with Napoli in Serie A. Replacing his production up front will be the new breakout star of the Swans, Wilfried Bony from the Ivory Coast. He’ll have some help from Bafétimbi Gomis who arrives from Lyon in Ligue 1 on a free transfer.

Swansea have in fact been very busy in the transfer window with the other two other notable acquisitions in Gylfi Sigurdsson, an Icelandic international from Tottenham Hotspur, and Jefferson Montero, an Ecuadorian international. They’re joined on the offensive by Marvin Emnes, an underrated speedster the past few years in the Championship, who joins Swansea on loan from Middlesborough. Not to mention they already have a couple talented midfielders on the books in the forms of Nathan Dyer and Jonjo Shelvey.

Their biggest weakness is in goal where former Arsenal washout Łukasz Fabiański will be the starter with not too much competition to be expected from the other two keepers on the roster, David Cornell and Gerhard Tremmel. Fabiański taking the reins after Michel Vorm was sold to Tottenham.

Stoke City

8th – Stoke City

I am stoked about Stoke for the upcoming season. I look at the Potters squad and I get excited. Talk about a team that has made some smart decisions in the transfer market. Stoke City brought in five players this transfer window with three free transfers, one on loan and the other a smart business decision that saw them sign former Barcelona prodigy Bojan Krkić for just $5 million. The other players they added: Mame Biram Diouf from Senegal, Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell from England and Nigerian forward Victor Moses on loan from Chelsea.

Add those faces to a roster that includes goalkeeper Asmir Begović, defenders Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron and Robert Huth, midfielders Charlie Adam, Wilson Palacios, Steven N’Zonzi and Stephen Ireland and forwards Peter Odemwingie, Marko Arnautović and Peter Crouch. That’s a pretty impressive line-up. Stoke also has some prospects in the works with young goalkeepers Jack Butland and Dale Eve.

I’ve always had a great appreciation of Charlie Adam and his magical left foot since his days captaining Blackpool. The Nigerian duo of Odemwingie and Moses equals speed and goal scoring ability. Plus, Begović has quietly become a world-class goalkeeper for both Stoke and Bosnia and Herzegovina (ironically, after starting his international career with Canada).

Unfortunately, being the best of “close but no cigars” club is like getting the “win second place in a beauty contest, receive $10” chance card in Monopoly. It gives you sort-of, kind-of bragging rights and a little extra money, but you don’t get to go to Europe (to play in Champions League/Europa League or to compete against other first-place winning beauty queens).

Still, I’ll look for Stoke City to win a bunch of games and maybe even take a few points off the top four teams and play a role in who takes home the title.

The In The Mix-ers

Everton

7th – Everton

Everton had a totally respectable fifth place finish last season, but the fact is, they blew what looked like a great chance to nab a Champions League spot ahead of Arsenal as the season wound down. The Toffees simply cracked under the pressure and now have to deal with the somewhat lucrative but normally distracting Europa League. Some of the top flight managers have even complained in years past about how since they didn’t get into the Champions League they’d rather skip the Europa League entirely and just focus on the domestic table.

Everton also made a big statement about their aspirations for the future by paying out a whopping $45 million to permanently sign Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea. Lukaku had a superb season on loan with Everton last year, and even with the large price tag some people are wondering why José Mourinho and company in London didn’t want to hang onto the young prodigy considering their recent struggles with forwards.

This team is built solidly from the back with Tim Howard an experienced rock in goal and defenders like Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Séamus Coleman, Sylvain Distin and Tony Hibbert on the back line. Ross Barkley, Gareth Barry (officially with the team on a free transfer from Manchester City), Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar are capable players in the midfield, with Barkley putting on some good performances for England in the World Cup. Up top, fellow Belgian international Kevin Mirallas and Arouna Koné can take some of the pressure off Lukaku.

However, the fact is this is nearly the exact same Everton squad as the last campaign with Lukaku and Barry now being permanent members of the Toffees instead of just loanees. So why put Everton in the seventh spot when they finished fifth last year? It’s simple, the injury to Ross Barkley. The youngster is such a key component to this team that removing him from the line-up for a significant amount of time is enough to send them back a few places.

Tottenham Hotspur

6th – Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur should lock up the sixth position in the Premier League table after making a couple of shrewd moves in the offseason. First, they sacked inspiring, but somewhat ineffective manager Tim Sherwood and hired Argentine Mauricio Pochettino away from Southampton.

Next, they got busy in the transfer window, signing left back Ben Davies and goalkeeper Michel Vorm from Swansea, while bringing in England youngster (who ironically was signed and taught the game in Portugal) Eric Dier. Lastly, they took a multi-million dollar flier on U.S. international DeAndre Yedlin from the Seattle Sounders.

Yedlin won’t join the club until either January or the summer of next year, depending on what they decide. Davies and Dier give an immediate boost to their back line while Vorm may be the most interesting signing of things to come. The athletic Dutch keeper appears to be in the back-up role behind French international Hugo Lloris, but 43-year-old American Brad Friedel (he of the 2002 World Cup heroics) is also on the roster. It appears that with the addition of Vorm, Friedel will adopt more of a coaching role with the Spurs.

The club already has talened defenders Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson on the books along with Érik Lamela and Christian Eriksen in midfield and Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado up front on attack. They appear to have plenty of depth to deal with both a Europa League campaign and the domestic schedule and should be right back where they were in 2013-14.

Manchester United

5th – Manchester United

“Oh how the mighty have fallen,” the critics cried when Manchester United struggled to a seventh place finish in the league last year. David Moyes, the handpicked successor to the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, never really got off the mark and the Red Devils sputtered out of the gate. You don’t get much of a chance to settle in at United and Moyes was sacked this summer and replaced by Louis van Gaal who led the Netherlands to a third place finish at the 2014 World Cup.

Van Gaal is an interesting manager. A brilliant tactician who isn’t afraid to disrupt the status quo, van Gaal has a tendency of alienating players who have been at the club in years past. A lot of players have left Old Trafford this summer, some because they were already planning to leave Manchester United and some because they would be deemed surplus to requirements by van Gaal, and more will follow shortly.

Players like Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand who once ruled the roost are now gone, two on free transfers. Nani has been loaned out to Sporting CP and highly touted international players like Japan’s Shinji Kagawa, England’s Danny Welbeck and Mexico’s Javier Hernandez could all soon be leaving as well.

As always, Man U have splashed some cash this summer, spending a combined $120 million on just three players: Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera and Marcos Rojo. The Red Devils still have one of the most talented rosters on the planet with stars everywhere you look. David de Gea will look to continue improving in goal, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will lead and young and talented defensive unit, breakout youngster Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata lead a talented midfield that has about 11 realistic options available and up front new captain Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie provide the firepower.

However, United had a similarly talented squad last year and still managed to fail repeatedly. The long shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson stretches a long way and there will be a lot of pressure on van Gaal to try and turn things around quickly. I think his adversarial managerial style will hurt him in the long run and Manchester United will have to settle for a fifth place finish. Still, it’s better than last year.

The Elite

While there can only be one winner, the top four spots in the Premier League grant entry into UEFA Champions League, and all the money and potential glory that brings with it.

Liverpool

4th – Liverpool

A near miss on the Premier League title for Liverpool showcased just how fast a team can turn things around after a poor season. A seventh place finish in 2012-13 turned into a second place (by just two points) finish in just one year. However, this season the Reds will also have to deal with European football, something they didn’t have to focus on while making their title charge last season. There is also the matter of the giant bite-sized hole in the line-up after the departure of Luis Suárez (see what I did there).

Now, there are probably seldom few who loathe the racist, cheating, diving, biting Luis Suárez more than I do, and the fact that he is now playing for Barcelona, one of the great creators of football, is a travesty, but I can admit that the Uruguayan forward was certainly an effective player for Liverpool. His 31 goals led all players and earned him the Premier League Player of the Season award. That said, I’m certainly not complaining about his four month ban from football for his latest chomp at the World Cup.

So Suárez leaving this summer for Barcelona is a huge blow for Liverpool’s hopes of mounting another title challenge. They did receive a reported $125 million for his transfer fee, but it’s hard to replace a player who has that big an impact on how you do.

Not that Liverpool aren’t trying to replace him. That hefty transfer fee has already been spent, as the Reds wasted no time putting the money to use. Thus far they have brought in Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Lazar Markovic, Divock Origi, Emre Can, Rickie Lambert and Alberto Moreno for more than a combined $145 million (!!!)!

That’s a good return on their investment for pretty much just one player, but Liverpool still have some work to do on their squad. Goalkeeper could be a position to cause problems if Belgian Simon Mignlolet takes a step back from the level he was at last season, and even then the Reds leaked more goals than any other club who finished in the top five of the table. He doesn’t have much competition either with only Australia’s Brad Jones and youngster Danny Ward on the roster.

Striker Daniel Sturridge, who finished runner-up to Suárez in the goals scored department, will have a lot of pressure on him to keep up the pace. He’ll have the support from a sublimely talented midfield with Raheem Sterling, Steven Gerrard, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson (not to mention all the new midfielders they brought in) all supplying passes.

Liverpool will be in the race this season, but I don’t think they quite have the talent necessary to push them over the top or quite as far as last year. Still, a top four finish will be a success for them.

Arsenal

3rd – Arsenal

Arsenal are my choice for the number three spot in the table standings. An up-and-down campaign in 2013-14 saw the Gunners go from title to contenders to in danger of finishing outside the top five before ultimately sliding into fourth place. Longtime manager Arsene Wenger, who has been at the club since 1996, has always been a frugal spender in the transfer market, much to the chagrin of the club’s fans. However, this summer Wenger has looked like a genius with the choices he’s made on players to bring in.

Alexis Sanchez is the big, blockbuster move for the unyielding attacker who starred for Chile in the World Cup. He came with a big price tag from Barcelona for a total of $60 million. This marks the second straight summer where Arsenal have raided one of La Liga’s giants for a star player after they signed Mesut Özil from Real Madrid for $50 million in 2013. The Gunners also made a shrewd move for Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle United and bolstered their goalkeeping depth considerably with the addition of Colombian national team keeper David Ospina from French club Nice. The last move seems a bit of a risk with the signing of young and rather unproven defender Calum Chambers from Southampton for not exactly “deal” worthy money.

To help offset the cost of their summer expenditures the club chose to let a lot of players walk away, as Nicklas Bendtner, Daneil Boateng and Chu-Young Park were all released, and several more players (including longtime defender Bacary Sagna) left on free transfers. The club should have plenty of money saved up in the war chest anyway, and they can afford to splurge every once in a while without too much worry.

The end result is that Wenger has a very sleek, skilled and experienced squad at his disposal that isn’t so bulky that he has to worry about players becoming unsettled over lack of playing time. Well done, Arsenal.

Ospina will challenge Poland’s Wojciech Szczęsny for the starting spot in goal. Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, Kieran Gibbs and Debuchy make up a very strong defense. The midfield has Özil, Sanchez, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla all available not to mention speedy wingers Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. As for strikers, Olivier Giroud headlines the pack with German Lukas Podolski right behind him in selection and youngster Joel Campbell will make a case for playing time after a breakout performance at the 2014 World Cup for Costa Rica.

Arsenal are set for another top four finish, but I think the lack of a huge goal scorer (Giroud had 16 last year… good, but not great) will keep them from claiming the crown.

Manchester City

2nd – Manchester City

My how things can change for a club when you get billions of dollars pumped in after a take over by a group from the Middle East. The Abu Dhabi United Group have seen a return on their massive investment by capturing two Premier League titles in the last three years.

Manuel Pellegrini and company haven’t made too many changes to their club, which edged out Liverpool for the crown last season. Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell were the only two players sold (not a huge loss) while many more were released or allowed to leave on free transfers. The biggest departing names are defender Joleon Lescott and goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon. Both played a significant part in last season but are replaceable.

Manchester City didn’t go on one of their many massive transfer shopping sprees this summer like they have in years past. I mean… they still spent more than probably most Premier League clubs, but they only have brought in Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando from FC Porto, Willy Caballero from Malaga and Bacary Sagna on a free transfer.

Joe Hart is entrenched as the starting goalkeeper, even with the addition of Caballero, but questions remain about the England #1’s effectiveness. Defender Vincent Kompany is everything a team could want in a captain and leads the back line. In midfield, Yaya Touré is the player who largely will determine if the Citizens repeat as champs. Last year he was sensational, scoring a career-high 20 goals.

He has lots of help with Samir Nasri and David Silva also in the middle of the park. They even have the services of longtime Chelsea foe Frank Lampard on loan from Manchester City-owned club New York City FC (who will start play next season in MLS). City also appear to have given broadcasters a headache by having both Fernando and Fernandinho (both Brazilian midfielders) on their roster. Up front though, things are kind of sparse. Edin Džeko, Sergio Agüero and Álvaro Negredo lead the attack and will need to provide some more goals to bolster the efforts of Touré.

Bottom line, Manchester City look very talented, but won’t have enough to repeat as Premier League champions.

Chelsea

1st – Chelsea

Chelsea and their manager José Mourinho (the “Special One”) finished third in 2013-14. While they have been near the top nearly every season, it has been a while since the London based club added some meaningful silverware. Chelsea last won the Premier League in the 2009-10 season and lifted the Champions League trophy in 2010-11. Mourinho and company will hope to change that this season.

The Blues can thank French club Paris Saint-Germain for providing them with a large portion of their transfer window funds by buying Brazilian defender David Luiz for the outrageous and astronomical price of $65 million! They also got a cool $45 million off Everton from the sale of Romelu Lukaku. That money has been reinvested to bring in Cesc Fàbregas from Barcelona and Diego Costa and Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid for a combined $135 million. They also brought back club legend but aging striker Didier Drogba on a free transfer.

The big debate for this team is in goal where Chelsea are blessed (or cursed depending on how you look at it) with two of arguably the top five best goalkeepers in the world with the established but still in his prime Petr Čech and the young hot shot from Belgium who took Atletico Madrid to the Champions League final last season in Thibaut Courtois. It appears that Courtois has won the job for now, but you have to worry if your a Chelsea fan that Čech won’t be satisfied with being a back-up and may leave the club.

Fàbregas looks to be the dynamic player in midfield. The Spaniard had struggled in Barcelona to find a position that fit him, often being deployed in the “false nine” role or on the wing, which didn’t necessarily promote his playmaking abilities. He’ll partner with Belgian international Eden Hazard who’s skills and footwork make him appear as if he could dance through a team’s defense on his own.

Striker has been the biggest problem for Chelsea, especially last season. The platoon of Demba Ba, Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres never really amounted to much. Two of those three are gone (Torres makes too much money after his mega-deal move from Liverpool to be able to be sold) and Diego Costa should provide plenty of goals while Drogba gives them more bite up front as well despite his old age. Chelsea also have André Schürrle who is fresh off his victory with Germany in the World Cup. The 23-year-old youngster provided the cross on the trophy-winning goal and should have a ton of confidence going into this season.

Chelsea will be hard to beat in 2014-15, and should find themselves back on top.

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Premier League Preview – Part 1/2

So the season has technically started and every team has a match under their belt. That’s no reason I can’t still be totally off-base with some predictions for how the 2014-15 Barclays Premier League table will turn out. In fact, I’m pretty confident that I’ve nailed the order for these 20 clubs… which is even more of an indication that I’ve probably messed it up. Without further ado, here’s part 1 of 2 of my Premier League Preview.

The Doomed

Queens Park Rangers

20th – Queens Park Rangers

My vote to prop up the league table goes to QPR. It’s not so much for what the London based club lacks on its roster, QPR has a pretty decent squad when you glance down the list of names, but the problems (or at least the rumors) going on in the front office. Stories about wage problems this summer have dogged the Hoops, and the club doesn’t look to have made any great strides to fix the problems that have hampered it the last couple of seasons.

In 2012-13 they had a terrible campaign, which saw them spend boatloads of money to bring in player after player to no avail. Last season, after not cutting their wage budget despite being relegated, they managed to barely squeak back into the Premier League via the Championship play-offs. This summer QPR have brought in an over-the-hill Rio Ferdinand and saw a transfer for Loic Remy to Liverpool fall through at the last hurdle when he failed his medical evaluation. Expect it to be another long season for Queens Park Rangers.

Burnley

19th – Burnley

Burnley are a club with a long history (established in 1882) who have made what now seems a clichéd climb back to respectability after a long (and nearly club-ending) fall from the golden years. Burnley twice won the football league back in the pre-Premier League era before crashing to the bottom of the league as recently as 1992. They were most recently in the top flight back in 2009-10 where they were relegated.

It looks to be a repeat performance for the scrappy Lancashire team. Burnley finished runner-up in the Championship to world-beaters Leicester City. They don’t seem to have the necessary quality to compete with the rest of the league. They do however have some slick attacking options in Marvin Sordell, Sam Vokes and Danny Ings. The latter, a 22-year-old forward who has represented England at the U21 level, will have a lot of eyes watching him in his first Premier League campaign. Ings was named the Championship Player of the Year this past March and bagged 21 league goals while hauling Burnley up the table. If he does start off the season well, expect several large bids to be floating in for him come January.

West Bromwich Albion

18th – West Bromwich Albion

For me, West Brom is the club that when I look at the Premier League table at the beginning of each season, I always have to look at them baffled for a few moments and go, “Oh yeah, they are still somehow in the Premier League, aren’t they?” How on earth that has remained the case, I do not know. They beat out Norwich City by three points last year and finished a deceptive 8th in 2012-13 (they were 12 points behind seventh place Liverpool and only eight points ahead of Newcastle who finished 16th), but they also finished 10th and 11th respectively the two seasons prior.

The secret to their success has always been winning a double-digit amount of games rather than going for draws. It’s an admirable strategy when you consider that points-wise, one win equals three draws, so if you go for it and can pinch a victory out of every three games, you’ll do just fine. That strategy inversed itself last season when they won just seven while drawing 15.

If the Baggies are to survive this season it will largely depend on two things. One, their back line looks pretty decent actually with the likes of Joleon Lescott and Jonas Olsson at center-back playing in front of goalkeeper Ben Foster… not a bad combination. Two, they need massive signing Ideye Brown to pan out big time, with the Nigerian being relied upon to score a lot of goals. I have West Brom in the final relegation spot for one reason though, new manager and Premier League newcomer Alan Irvine. Evidently, West Bromwich Albion have a non-traditional set-up at the club, which treats the man in charge more like a head coach, with less power than a normal manager. Rumor is this put-off a number of more experience suitors for the job.

The Desperate

Crystal Palace

17th – Crystal Palace

This was a real debate for me, but I think Crystal Palace will be able to avoid the drop, but just barely. Last season, former Stoke manager Tony Pulis managed to do the job after taking over for Ian Holloway, one of my favorite men in football (just do a google search on “Ian Holloway media comments” and you’ll have several hours of good laughs). Shockingly though, Pulis left Palace just a few days before the start of the new season. Keith Millen is currently in as caretaker manager, but there should be another move to come and this kind of uncertainty just as the season begins is obviously not a help.

The Eagles should secure another season in the top flight (see what I did there… Eagles… flight… I’ll be here all week) based on the fact that they GOT PACE FOR DAYS! Players like Yannick Bolasie, Jason Puncheon, Marouane Chamakh and club record signing Dwight Gale should be able to run rough-shod over a defense that lets down its guard for even just a moment. Plus, a return to form for Glenn Murray who missed much of last season with a knee injury but scored 30 goals the year before, would help a lot, as will the addition of Frazier Campbell.

West Ham United

16th – West Ham United

West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce may occupy the hottest manager’s chair in the Premier League. Loathingly referred to as “Big Fat Sam” (his photos speak for themselves) by team fans, Allardyce is one of the favorites to get the boot early on. Heck, one of the team’s co-owners even favorited a fans’ tweet asking if they’d get rid of him soon! Allardyce took over the Hammers in 2011-12 after they had just been relegated following a last-place finish. He barely managed to get his team back into the Premier League via the play-offs, but his rudimentary style of physical football has left fans wanting something more.

Plain and simple, West Ham are a boring team, but with players like Andy Carroll (assuming he stays healthy), Ravel Morrison (assuming he doesn’t have another falling out with Allardyce that gets him loaned out) and Enner Valencia fresh off a solid World Cup with Ecuador, they should (unfortunately) remain in the Premier League for at least another season.

Sunderland

15th – Sunderland

Sunderland enjoyed one of the greatest escapes in modern football last season when they somehow survived. With five matches left in the season, the Black Cats seemed like a sure bet to fall through the trap door, but they proved to be bad luck for whoever crossed their path the rest of the season (puns are fun). They astonishingly reeled off four straight victories to secure another season of Premier League action at the Stadium of Light.

A lot of faces left the team this summer, but some solid additions arrived. Goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon arrived from Manchester City on a free and Sunderland pinched midfielder Jack Rodwell from the reigning champions for a hefty fee. Jordi Gomez should provide some depth while young Will Buckley is a risky but potentially very rewarding signing.

Pantilimon will battle with Vito Mannone for the starting spot in goal. Sebastian Larsson appears to be back on track and underrated midfielders Lee Cattermole and Adam Johnson can put in the work. But the single biggest reason I think Sunderland should survive is that American striker Jozy Altidore can’t possibly have as bad a campaign as he had last season. I’m pegging him to find the back of the net much more frequently once he returns to full fitness.

The Mid Table Obscure

[*Aside: I’ve often found the description of teams being in “mid table obscurity” a bit demeaning, because frankly some of the best football is found when these teams that have both some strengths and some weaknesses meet up. These teams are worth watching.]

Hull City

14th – Hull City

Hull City A.F.C. or Hull City Tigers Ltd. or whatever seemingly crazed owner Assem Allam has them going by these days, should finish in mid table… but at the bottom of it. This team has a lot of question marks that seem to mirror where I have them finishing in the standings.

Goalkeeper Allan McGregor is good but not great. Striker Nikica Jelavic is… pretty decent. Defender Maynor Figueroa is… good. The team definitely needs some more quality. They appear to have reinforcements this summer with the signings of midfielders Robert Snodgrass and Thomas Ince, two very good young players. Snodgrass has Premier League experience with Norwich City and Ince has made plenty of headlines for Blackpool over the years before getting a taste of the Premier League himself on loan with Crystal Palace last season.

Selling striker Shane Long to Southampton this summer leaves a big whole, but Hull City have the cash necessary to line up a few good replacements. Fans of the Tigers will be hoping rumors of Jordan Rhodes potentially coming in, turn out to be true.

Leicester City

13th – Leicester City

Leicester City are back in the Premier League for the first time since 2003-04! After setting the Championship on fire with a record 102 points last season, the Foxes look to keep themselves in the top division for a longer run than their last stay. This is my potential reach pick, but every season, at least one (if not more) of the newly promoted sides seems to stay up, and I believe Leicester City will be that team.

The thing is, I’m not entirely sure why I’m so convinced of this. They don’t have a particularly strong squad. Some of the highlights are former Manchester United defender Ritchie De Laet, Jamaican defender and captain Wes Morgan and New Zealand forward Chris Wood. Even some of their better players are folks I don’t know a ton about. Midfielder Danny Drinkwater won a lot of plaudits for his play last season, Leonardo Ulloa was an expensive acquisition from Brighton and Hove Albion this summer and Marc Albrighton was brought in on a free from Aston Villa and should provide experience.

However, by far and away their best player is goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. The Danish son of former legend and Manchester United keeper Peter Schmeichel, Kasper has been a well-kept secret in the Championship for years after spending his early career out on loan from Manchester City. Leicester has been by far his most lengthy stop though and plenty of playing time has seen his flourish. I fully expect him to make big waves this season.

Aston Villa

12th – Aston Villa

Aston Villa are a team of once great standing. Heck, they even won the Champions League (back when it was the European Cup) against Bayern Munich in 1982. There weren’t many remnants of that caliber a team last season. Aston Villa and American goalkeeper Brad Guzan allowed 61 goals, the most of any team that wasn’t relegated. I’m all for American success abroad, but I think Villa would be well served to give former Ireland international Shay Given another shot at the starting job.

News that Belgian striker Christian Benteke is on track for a faster-than-expected return from a ruptured Achilles tendon should boost Aston Villa’s hopes. In the meantime, Austrian striker Andreas Weimann will be relied on to show the way up front. Gabriel Agbonlahor and Charles N’Zogbia add some major pace to the team and a return to the good old days for Darren Bent and Joe Cole would certainly add a cutting edge to the team’s attack.

Newcastle United

11th – Newcastle United

Alan Pardew may be second on the list of managers on the hot seat. After his headbutt on Hull City’s David Meyler last season and a 10th place finish, the pressure is on for Pardew to right the ship and get Newcastle United back to playing the type of football that saw them finish fifth in 2011-12. Not to mention the fact that the checkbook has been opened, allowing Pardew to buy seven new players so far. If he can’t succeed this year and fast, he probably won’t get another chance.

Newcastle still have a myriad of solid players with the likes of defenders Fabricio Coloccini and Davide Santon, midfielders Moussa Sissoko, Jonás Gutiérrez and Hatem Ben Arfa, and striker Papiss Cissé. They also have Dutch keeper and apparent World Cup penalty-saving specialist Tim Krul in between the posts. That’s without considering their new signings. If the team comes together and gels they could cause problems for some of the top teams, but I see Newcastle finishing the year in the 11th spot.

Worst Sports Moments of My Life – Part 3

2004 Stanley Cup Final

Event: 2004 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 7
Teams: Tampa Bay vs. Calgary
Venue: St. Pete Times Forum – Tampa, Florida
Date: June 7, 2004

The #1 worst sports moment of my life came courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the seventh and deciding game of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, against my beloved Calgary Flames.

The Flames had been my favorite as a kid for basically one reason, my favorite hockey player played for them. That man was 5’6” tall Theoren Fleury, who was an NHL superstar when I was just getting into hockey in the late 1990’s. As a very short athlete myself (as far as soccer, rookie-league baseball and pond hockey went), there weren’t a lot of role models to look up to. Fleury was one with his incredible offensive ability and his “tenacious, never back down” attitude. I also found out that Mike Vernon, my favorite goaltender and another small NHL player at 5’9”, had spent the majority of his career with the Flames. This cemented them as the choice for my team.

Theoren Fleury

The Calgary Flames came out of nowhere to make the Stanley Cup Final during the 2003-04 season. The team broke a 7-year stretch of missing the playoffs by qualifying as the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

The biggest move the Flames made during the season was acquiring Miikka Kiprusoff from the San Jose Sharks on November 16, for a second round draft pick in 2005. Calgary had some talent with forwards Jarome Iginla and Craig Conroy, but Kiprusoff put them over the top. The Finnish netminder moved from being a third-string choice in San Jose, to the starter in Calgary, and he made the most of the chance. Kiprusoff posted a modern-day, record-low goals against average of 1.69, going 24-10-4 in 38 games.

This was despite the fact that the Flames didn’t have an overwhelming offense to help him out. Captain Iginla led the team with 41 goals and 73 points. Only five other players had more than 10 goals on the season, and nobody else had more than 18, not exactly the best support for a goalie.

The Flames opened up the playoffs with a dramatic seven-game series victory over the #3 seed, the Vancouver Canucks. The deciding final game featured an empty-net goal by the Canucks with just 5.7 seconds left to tie the game and send it to overtime. However, even after that potentially demoralizing setback, the Flames bounced back to score the sudden-death winner, courtesy of Martin Gelinas banking a shot off of goaltender Alex Auld. The Flames had won their first playoff series since 1989.

That would be the first of many heroic Stanley Cup moments for Gelinas. The veteran forward also scored the series-clinching goal in round two against the #1 seed in the playoffs, the Detroit Red Wings. This time the Flames got the job done in six games, including back-to-back 1-0 shutouts in the final two contests, with Gelinas’ winner once again coming in OT.

In the Western Conference Final, the Flames faced the #2 seed, the San Jose Sharks. This series also went six games and it was, you guessed it, Martin Gelinas with the eventual winning goal (albeit this time in the second period) during a 3-1 victory on home ice. The Flames were off to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since lifting the trophy in 1989.

Standing in Calgary’s way was the #1 seed out of the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning, an expansion team that didn’t even exist the last time the Flames were champions. They were extremely deep on the talent end led by Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards. The series was back-and-forth right out of the gate. The Flames took game one with a 4-1 victory, only for the Lightning to bounce back with a 4-1 win of their own in game two. A shutout-win for Calgary in game three was equaled by a shutout for Tampa Bay two nights later.

The big turning point was in game five in Tampa, FL. The Flames pulled off a 3-2 overtime win thanks to a goal by Oleg Saprykin on a scrum in front of the net. That moment: Saprykin’s hard work hammering away at the puck, stuffing it between the pads of Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and the look of joy on his face in the moment of celebration were all enough to make it one of my favorite sporting moments of all time (a much more difficult list for another time). That goal was so impactful on me as a young sports fan that Saprykin (who didn’t last much longer with the Flames before he was traded to Phoenix) remains one of my all-time favorite players.

The Flames had a 3-2 series lead going back to Calgary for a chance to win the Stanley Cup. I was ecstatic. I distinctly remember watching game six of the series. For some reason, I remember the game going very late into the night, which it very well could have considering the game was in Alberta, Canada and I was watching it on the east coast (I’m willing to bet the NHL wasn’t able to move the start time up that much no matter how much they wanted to cater to a national audience).

The game also lasted quite a while, going into double overtime. Both teams scored two goals apiece in the second period. Brad Richards lighting the lamp twice, with a Calgary player canceling out his tally each time, first Chris Clark followed by Marcus Nilson.

Now this is where the controversy starts. Late in the third period, the Flames SCORED a goal. Now, the NHL says they didn’t score, and history will show that they didn’t score, but trust me when I tell you they DID score. A shot deflected off Martin Gelinas’ skate (yes, him again) and appeared to cross the goal line before Khabibulin’s right pad knocked it away. I cheered as if the Flames had just won the cup, because like everyone else watching the game on TV, I thought they just had. Take a look at the video for yourself…

Evidently the referees disagreed and play continued. However, the controversy really begins with the fact that the referees did not review the goal during the next stoppage in play. They never even made a motion like it was necessary to do. It would be impossible for a situation like this to occur in today’s NHL, but the game that night continued and Gelinas was ultimately robbed of what I’m sure would have been the first time that a single player ever scored the series-deciding goal for his team throughout the playoffs.

Ultimately, Martin St. Louis scored in double overtime off a rebound to send the series back to Florida for a winner-take-all showdown. I was devastated, and for the first time saw that sports didn’t always end with clean-cut decisiveness and clear honesty.

So it all came down to one contest on June 7, 2004. The Flames were so battle-tested, so gritty. They had dealt with all kinds of injuries in the playoffs, particularly to their defensive corps, which was now on its ninth player on the depth chart in a position where only six suit up. They had played with heart, and the city of Calgary had rallied around them with passionate displays from their people who had been dubbed “The ‘C’ of Red” by the media. All of Canada was pulling for this upstart underdog. In my mind I didn’t just want them to win, they deserved to win.

But then there was Ruslan Fedotenko, a name that more than a decade later still makes me cringe and brings up painful memories. The Russian forward opened the scoring when he hammered home a rebound on the power play. Advantage Lightning.

Fedotenko did it AGAIN to make it 2-0 Tampa Bay after two periods. He buried a shot from the slot past Kiprusoff after a nice play by Lecavalier to control the puck behind the net. As if that wasn’t bad enough the Flames offense had simply failed to show up. Through 40 minutes of play Calgary had less than 10 shots to show for their efforts. That just wasn’t good enough, especially against a goalie as talented as Khabibulin.

Needing a complete turn-around and facing a Lightning team that was now playing defense-first hockey, things looked bleak. That’s when alternate captain Craig Conroy, he of the 8 regular season goals (of course he did have 39 assists), rose to the occasion. Conroy hustled to keep a puck in the offensive zone at the blue line and in one fell swoop turned and rifled a slap shot just underneath the cross bar, upper-90, past the glove of Khabibulin. The Flames had life down just 2-1.

The floodgates opened and the Flames let loose a barrage of rubber against the Tampa Bay goal, firing 16 shots in the final 10 minutes. I admittedly woke my mother late in the game when Marcus Nilson skated onto a rebound at the side of the net and saw his shot robbed by Khabibulin’s blocker. That was the best scoring chance Calgary would get as a late penalty call by referee Kerry Fraser, already a hated figure to Flames fans from his earlier terribleness in the series, effectively ended the game.

The horn sounded and the Lightning players leapt from their bench to celebrate. Jarome Iginla coasted slowly around at center ice, bent over at the waist, barely able to glance at that end of the ice. The tears slowly came to my eyes.

I was experiencing the same feelings of pain that sports fans the world over can identify with when their team comes so close to victory, but ultimately falls short. It was heartbreaking for me. I understood in that moment what it meant to root for a team, to be a fan of a team, to be invested in a team. Their victories were my victories and their defeats were mine as well.

I remember having to turn the TV off, unable to watch Tampa Bay captain Dave Andreychuk being presented the Stanley Cup (that should be Iginla!). I slowly walked upstairs, headed for what I was sure would not be a very restful night of sleep, but I just couldn’t go to bed. I walked into my mother’s room, still somewhat awake from my earlier outburst while watching the game. I needed to talk about what had just happened, about what that Calgary team meant to me. And so I did, through muffled sobs, slowly forming the thoughts and emotions, which I was struggling to put into words.

As a sportscaster, I have developed my sense of impartiality over the years. I believe I can now appreciate fairly well the accomplishment of any team, regardless of sport, and can enjoy a well-played game regardless of outcome. But in 2004, I could not, and in a way I’m glad. Sports can bring you a lot of happiness, but it’s a two-way street and sadness is also a part of being a fan. I believe my appreciation and joy of sports is better served because of that night on June 7, 2004.

That said… screw you Ruslan Fedotenko.

Worst Sports Moments of My Life – Part 2

Adam Vinatieri field goal

Event: Super Bowl XXXVI
Teams: St. Louis vs. New England
Venue: Louisiana Superdome – New Orleans, Louisiana
Date: February 3, 2002

I was a month shy of my 11th birthday in February of 2002 when the St. Louis Rams took on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. This was one of the earliest sports memories I have where I can really clearly remember more than just one or two specific moments from the game. It was also around the time where I was becoming a really big sports fan.

The St. Louis Rams and their “greatest show on turf” offense led by Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt quickly drew me to their side, starting in 1999 when they took off. Add in Warner’s amazing rags to riches underdog story and I had declared the Rams as my rooting interest for life.

Speaking of memories, one of the first plays that I can remember is Warner’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Bruce two year’s earlier when the Rams beat the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. I watched that play on TV so many times when it would be run by NFL Films, that the play-by-play call from then Rams’ radio broadcaster Mike Bush is permanently etched in my brain.

“Warner back to throw… rainbows the far sideline and it is caught by Isaac Bruce. Makes a move to the 30… 25, 20… and they won’t catch him today! Touchdown Rams!”

Unfortunately, Maine was one of the few places where it was not a good time to be a Rams fan since all of New England was pulling for the Patriots first title. A friend of mine’s father, who was my barber, had a Super Bowl viewing party that I went to see the game at… along with about 20 Pats fans who were pretty excited.

The Patriots were in the midst of a pretty incredible season themselves with Tom Brady having come out of nowhere to take the team to the playoffs in place of the injured Drew Bledsoe, ironically very similar to Warner replacing Trent Green in 1999. Things had reached a fever pitch with New England’s dramatic victory over the Oakland Raiders in driving snow and Bledsoe’s return to the field a week later to take over for an injured Brady against Pittsburgh and get the team to the Super Bowl.

The game started off well enough with the Rams taking a 3-0 lead after the first quarter, but a host of little mistakes and a missed field goal meant that the Patriots were still very much in the game midway through the second quarter. The good news was the Patriots offense wasn’t doing much of anything.

Cornerback Ty Law then picked off a Warner pass and took it to the end zone for a 7-3 lead. Late in the half, Ricky Proehl fumbled to give the Patriots excellent field position, which they converted on with a Brady touchdown pass. It was 14-3 New England at halftime.

I managed to stay calm while gorging myself on nachos and other food, convinced that the Rams would do what they usually did and throw three or four touchdown passes themselves in the second half. But another long drive stalled and resulted in a punt. This was followed by an interception when Torry Holt slipped and fell, giving the Patriots a field goal and a 17-3 lead heading into the final quarter.

By this point I was not a happy camper. Besides dealing with the fact that I was 10 and my favorite team was losing the Super Bowl, my mood was worsened by the fact that there were so many screaming, cheering, happy Patriots fans around me. I also remember being angry at the multiple late hits and other penalties by the Patriots that I saw go uncalled, although that could have just been natural fan bias.

The near tipping point was on the next drive, when the Rams drove all the way to the New England goal line, but couldn’t punch the ball in for a touchdown. On fourth-and-goal they went for it, Warner was left having to scramble for the end zone but lost the ball, which was taken 97 yards back to the end zone to all but end the game. I remember the explosion of cheers around me, and the incredible sinking feeling I got while watching the Pats player (Tebucky Jones) racing down the field.

However, there was vindication! A penalty for holding on Willie McGinest gave the Rams an automatic first down, which they were kind enough to convert, with a QB sneak from Warner. I had hope with the score at 17-10.

St. Louis was now in a race against the clock to get another touchdown and tie things up. The defense did their job by forcing a three-and-out, but again the Rams offense stalled inside Patriots territory. The defense again forced a three-and-out and the offense took over near midfield with less than 2:00 to play. Suddenly, the rapid-fire passes from Warner were hitting their targets. Two straight passes motored them down the field before Proehl made up for his earlier fumble with a beautiful cutback move to turn a short pass into a 26-yard touchdown. It was tied 17-17.

Now it was my turn to lose it. I started jumping up and down, shouting my head off as all around me Patriots fans sunk into their seats in disbelief. I let them know that their gloating had not gone unnoticed as I tried to rub it in their faces that St. Louis was back in it. The Rams had been heavy 14-point favorites heading into the game and it seemed like time had finally run out on the Patriots dramatic run.

The only problem, if any at that point, was that the Rams had perhaps scored too quickly, leaving a minute and a half left on the clock. Not to worry though I thought, the Patriots didn’t have any timeouts left and Brady hadn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire up to this point. I remember even John Madden suggested that the Patriots should just try and play for overtime.

Of course, nearly everyone remembers how that final drive turned out. Brady showcased what he would do so many more times over the next decade-plus with New England, taking the team on a dramatic game-winning drive down the field. At that point, I didn’t know any of that and I remember urging the Rams’ linemen to sack him on each snap of the ball, to which Brady responded by seemingly just slipping out of their grasp three times before dumping the ball to his running back on each occasion.

Each time, the sense of dread I was feeling in the pit of my stomach swelled up a little bit bigger. Then Brady really opened it up with a long pass to Troy Brown to get them in St. Louis territory. A quick pass to a tight end and a spike to stop the clock gave the Patriots a last-second field goal attempt from 48 yards out to win the Super Bowl.

I could barely watch as Adam Vinatieri, the hero from just a few weeks ago, trotted out for the attempt. I had some hope that he would miss. After all, it was nearly 50 yards away and I had seen the Rams’ kicker Jeff Wilkins (a pretty good field goal kicker in his own right) miss from just a little bit further back earlier in the game.

But it just wasn’t to be. Vinatieri launched a kick that had plenty of room to spare and the Patriots were champions. It was one of the few times that a sporting event brought tears to my eyes (another being the #1 moment on this countdown), and it was magnified by the fact that everywhere Patriots fans were celebrating, with a few overindulgent adults even rubbing it in the face of the little boy who had rooted so openly against them. It was a horrible, horrible night.

The end of the “greatest show on turf” is still one of the main reasons I think I didn’t turn into a huge NFL fan (along with the fact that I, being a scrawny sub-five foot tall kid until high school, never really wanted to play the sport). That offense was so much fun to watch with huge touchdown passes being launched and Faulk dancing his way through defenses, that nothing else I saw afterward seemed to come close.

It also didn’t help that the Rams essentially collapsed a few years later and haven’t really been a contender since. The most involved I got in a season since then was actually in 2008 when Warner led the Arizona Cardinals to a Super Bowl appearance, in a rewrite of his original improbable story, throwing for more than 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns.

Those Rams teams did leave me with plenty of great moments and helped build the foundation for my love of sports. They also imprinted on me a near permanent hatred of the New England Patriots.

Freakin’ Tom Brady…

Worst Sports Moments of My Life – Part 1

Sports bring a lot of joy to people. Fans revel in every victory. A lot of sports fans can point to a time where their team triumphed as one of the happiest moments of their lives. But maybe equally as impactful (and maybe more so) are the devastating losses by that team.

I’ve become a lot more impartial over the years when it comes to sports… that’s just a product of the sportscasting business when you have to try to look at everything from a neutral and unbiased point of view to make sure your commentary is professional.

There are still some moments though, that are painful for me to think about even to this day. Games that brought deep sadness, and in some cases even tears, when the clock hit zero and the score went final. Here’s the top three, starting with one that happened fairly recently.

Sweden vs Portugal Ibrahimovic goal

Event: 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifying
Teams: Sweden vs. Portugal
Venue: Friends Arena – Solna, Sweden
Date: November 19, 2013

The first entry in this tale of disappointment came during qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Now, while I may be an American (USA! USA! USA!) my favorite international soccer team is surprisingly Sweden. I should also mention that I am not of Sweden ancestry, no relatives living over there, no family stories connecting me in any way to the Scandinavian country.

Now that will probably lead to some head scratching for most of you (okay… ALL of you). You will find this is a theme repeated over and over again when it came to picking my favorite teams in each sport as a child. I’ve thought back to how I came to each of these and I’ll give an explanation for each one that comes up.

I did not pick teams based on their geographic location. I think for the most part this had something to do with growing up in the state of Maine where the only professional sports teams when I was a kid were the Portland Pirates (AHL) and Portland Sea Dogs (AA MiLB).

For whatever reason I never bought into the whole idea that just because Boston was the nearest place with major league teams, I had to root for them. I mean, for pete’s sake that was two whole states away… may as well have been on the moon for all the good it did me as a kid. (I think it also may have had something to do with the first sport that I really got into, which thanks to my father was NASCAR. And you pick a favorite driver in that sport, it doesn’t usually have anything to do with where that driver was born. That’s conversation for a different day, and possibly for a therapist, but that’s neither here nor there).

ANYWAY, back to the topic at hand, when I really got into international soccer in 2004, striker Henrik Larsson was my favorite player, and I started really following the Swedish team in their pursuit of EURO 2004 and the 2006 World Cup. I was hooked for life, and I can tell you more than you probably would ever want to reasonably know about Freddie Ljungberg, Andreas Isaksson, Olaf Mellberg, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the rest of the Swedes that have made up the national team scene since then.

Sweden missed out on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to Portugal and Denmark, something that was very frustrating since the world’s greatest sporting event comes around just once every four years. So when Sweden emerged as runners-up in their UEFA qualifying group (behind eventual World Cup winners Germany, mind you), they had to go to the European play-off. Waiting for them was Portugal and their oily-haired, arrogant, diving, whining captain Cristiano Ronaldo… one of the best players in the world.

I desperately wanted Sweden to emerge out of this two-legged play-off and book a ticket to Brazil. I didn’t necessarily expect them to go on and win the whole shebang, but there’s something about just qualifying for the World Cup that is immensely special.

Sweden disappointingly played defense-first football (yes FOOTBALL… I insist on referring to that game that the NFL plays as American Football) in the first game, on the road in Portugal. The winner of the play-off was the team with the most combined goals from the two games, with a tie going to the team with the most goals scored by the team on the road, so in a way it made sense for the Swedes to try and hang on, keep the score down, and head back to Scandinavia where they’d have more luck sparking their offense in front of a friendly crowd.

Portugal grabbed a 1-0 win (stupid Ronaldo grabbing a late winner) to set up the must-win showdown in Solna. The way the qualifying calendar for the World Cup stretches out (and on and on and on it seems like), the penultimate game came in the middle of a west-coast workday for me in Stockton, CA. I put the game on my laptop courtesy of ESPN3 and tried my best to get at least some work done and not spend every second of the next two hours staring at it (I had only been on the job for a couple months, the season was young and there was still plenty to do).

Sweden lacked offensive firepower in the first half, and a scoreless first 45 minutes meant they needed to come out of the gate with something inspired to keep their dreams alive. However, it was maddeningly Ronaldo (again…) who broke the seal in the 50th minute for a 1-0 lead. To add injury to insult, Portugal now had an invaluable away goal, which Sweden did not, so the Swedes now had to score THREE goals in the next 40 minutes in order to go through.

Depression was starting to set in for me as the minutes wound down (I was by this point hopelessly engrossed by the game and wasn’t worried about letting the rest of the office know it) when that gloriously egomaniacal, occasional teammate-punching, footballing genius by the name of Zlatan Ibrahimovic decided to do what he does best: he Zlatan-ed things up (if you think my use of his name as a verb is somewhat odd you should check out his autobiography, I Am Zlatan). First, he powered home a header from a corner kick in the 68th minute, outmuscling the static Portuguese defenders who dared try and jostle him. Just a few moments later he absolutely blasted a free kick (pretty sure there were flames coming off the back of the ball, like some kind of insane video game) into the back of the net from just outside the box in the 72nd minute.

Sweden were leading the game 2-1 and were amazingly now just ONE GOAL away from completing a highly improbably comeback and sending Ronaldo sulking back to his tanning bed. The goals seemed to come from nowhere, and the emotional upswing I experienced at that time was something that has rarely happened to me before. I literally leaped out of my chair and charged up and down the rows of cubicles in the office, not really doing anything, but being unable to contain my excitement. It was exhilarating.

That’s when it all came crashing down. Sweden, now playing with confidence and being urged on by roaring fans, decided to go for it and threw most of its players forward hoping to capitalize on the momentum and get the necessary goal quickly. But just five minutes after Ibrahimovic’s second strike, a quick counterattack from Portugal sprang Ronaldo (AGAIN!) loose on goal all alone, where he drove the ball past Isakkson and drove a dagger into Swedish hearts.

It was like all the air was sucked out of my lungs. I literally felt like I had been sucker-punched. It was devastating. Ronaldo (whom I didn’t care for much already as you might have noticed) suddenly became an object of irrationally intense hatred to me. Sweden now needed two goals in the last 13 minutes.

While it wasn’t impossible (heck, Ibrahimovic had just scored twice in four minutes), it felt even less likely than at any point before. All the momentum and energy was gone. The moment had passed. As if to rub it in, and prove that perception to be accurate, Ronaldo scored (AGAIN!!!!!!!!!) less than two minutes later to effectively end the game. Sweden had failed to qualify.

It might seem odd that this game could cause me so many painful emotions, especially as someone not even from the country it was affecting and who, as an adult and a sports broadcaster, understands better than the average fan that the game is ultimately just a game and there will be another one relatively soon. Emotions though, are rarely rational, and that stretch of around 12 minutes (the 67th to 79th minute) was like a rollercoaster from low to high to low that I can’t recall ever experiencing in my life.

Here’s to Russia 2018.