Surviving the Summer Sports Slog

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The NBA Finals are finally over. A champion has been crowned. The lifelong struggle of a man who promised to bring a championship to his hometown has been fulfilled.

The arduous marathon of an NHL season has also come to a close. The Kid brought a second championship back to the ‘Burgh after 7 years of disappointing playoff exits.

These two story lines are wonderfully and conveniently paralleled.  LeBron James and Sidney Crosby both rose up and unpredictably captured a title against tall odds.  It’s fitting that they came to a close within days of each other.Both are satisfying in their conclusion, but in the wake of those great sports stories, we are left with a summer wasteland of almost nothing to take their place.

Usually the end of the NBA and NHL seasons spells the down time of the year with no other options except the dreaded June/July baseball. Day in and day out. For weeks on end. Day games. Night games. Double headers. Rain delays. Never ending replay reviews.  Teams bringing up young prospects to test their mettle. Middling teams selling off their hot hitters for a host of farm teamers. Pennant chasers renting two months of a slugger or pitcher in hopes of taking that elusive pennant.

Baseball is fun. Let me get that out there.  I like baseball a great deal. On its face some of the those things can sound exciting.  The occasional post-work, 4 Natty Boh baseball game at Camden Yards is as good a way as any to wind down after a shitty summer work day that you didn’t even want to be at in the first place. Even a Sunday Night Baseball game called by Dan “Voice made of Silk and Velvet” Shulman can be a relaxing way to end a long day.  But….

When baseball is the ONLY thing I can watch every day for 2 months. That’s when I start to lose my mind. Quickly spiraling down a depressing drain of 45 minute long innings and never ending infield fly outs.  The slog is real.

However, this year is different. This year, 2016, the year of the monkey, the sporting gods lifted that baseball shaped primate off our backs and graced us with not one, not two, but THREE sporting events to get us through the summer until domestic European soccer and the NFL return.

Copa América

Over the past century, South America has intermittently played a tournament involving 10 South American teams at various sites across the continent. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first ever Campeonata Sudamericano de Football held in July 1916 between Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil. The participants, formatting, and regularity of the tournament have taken on many, many iterations over the years, and this version is no different. Since 2007 the tournament has been held every 4 years, however due to the special anniversary falling in 2016, the event was played one year after the 2015 tournament.

Despite the odd nature of the tournament and some claims that it was purposefully played this year not only for the historic anniversary, but in order to directly compete with rating of other lauded international tournaments, the event has been an exciting and worthy alternative to endless baseball games.

For much of the tournaments history it was held in South America with only CONMEBOL teams participating, but starting in the early 90s a select few CONCACAF members were allowed. This will be the fourth time that the United States had a chance to participate in the tournament while also hosting the event for the first time ever on American soil.

On the whole, this year’s iteration of the tournament did not disappoint. Group stage play saw surefire contenders, Brazil (despite fielding a B team), Mexico, and Uruguay eliminated in the tournament’s first two weeks. Upstarts like Venzuela and Ecuador advanced to the knockout and showed that despite it’s inconsistent nature, this tournament could still effuse some semblance of parity.

The United States stumbled early against a clearly superior Colombia side before taking care of business against Costa Rica and Paraguay to advance to the knockout stages. A tough match up against Ecuador followed in the quarterfinals, but a perfect header from Clint Dempsey and an insurance goal by Gyasi Zardes with 25 minutes to play sealed the USMNT’s berth into the semifinals against Argentina.  From the start of the match against Argentina, the US were on their heels and folded quickly and easily to a team with overpowering offensive capabilities.  When you concede a goal like this, there is little chance of coming back.  The US matched their best finish of 4th place, and overall I see their performance as a positive against some pesky South American competition.

Argentina advanced to play defending champs Chile in the championship game. After 120 minutes of back and forth chaos, most of which was played with 10 men on each side, Chile came out victorious in penalty kicks. Argentina’s drought of international hardware continues, and the critics of Messi’s inability to bring championships to his home nation grow by leaps and bounds. It was a wonderful three and a half weeks of soccer.

 

EURO 2016

Where Copa America lacks consistency and viability, the European championship is the gold standard of international competitions not named the FIFA World Cup. We have now entered the quarterfinals of the tournament, which starts today at 3pm between Portugal and Poland.

On the whole, group stage play was slightly disappointing resulting in poor performances from well know stars like Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Zlatan Ibrahimavic.  The expansion of the tournament from 16 teams to 24 allowed several teams who may not have deserved a spot in most other iterations of the tournament, cough… cough… Ukraine cough… cough…

Group stage did however result in several absolutely spectacular finishes from some of the world’s finest footballers. Including, Dimitri Payet’s absolute ROCKET to save France from an embarrassing draw in the waning moments of the tournament opening match against Romania; Luka Modric’s perfect volley for Croatia against Turkey; and of course the venerable Gareth Bale does it again on a set piece against Slovakia.

Now that the knockout stage has been set and the final eight teams have been decided, this is when the real tournament starts. Every foul and challenge matter as compounding yellow cards could spell disaster for a team if one of their stars is disqualified from an upcoming match.  All the pressure is on the favored team and sometimes it leads to disaster (Just ask England), while underdogs can play confidently and cohesively to secure international glory no matter how small their country (Iceland :D).

Host nation France look to be rounding into form at just the right time, but face the darlings of the tournament in Iceland (Sunday, July 3rd). While ever-consistent Italy and Germany (Saturday July 2nd) appear destined to flow and pass their way into a technical blood bath. Poland’s Lewandowski and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo will face off to see who can lead their home nations to glory (Thursday June 30).  And lastly, my favorite team of the tournament, Belgium, (JUST LOOK AT THOSE KITS)  will try to tame the Dragon and knock off Wales and former Tottenham chosen son Gareth Bale (Friday July 1).

My expectations for the final two weeks of this tournament are very high and while I hope to see my chosen club, Belgium, succeed all I really want is two more weeks of high quality football so that I don’t have to resort to a Monday Night Baseball game between the Tigers and Athletics as my only source of sports entertainment.

Rio Olympics 2016

And lastly, but certainly not least, the Rio Olympics are fast approaching (August 5 – August 21). I’ll likely go more in depth on the upcoming games as we get closer, but for now I wanted to highlight a few of the fun story lines that will likely dominate the the three week event. Namely Michael Phelps returning for his 5th and final games to hopefully add to his already impressive trove of medals; Usain Bolt also returning for what will certainly be his last games; Katie Ledecky’s high likelihood of obliterating the competition in women’s swimming; the US Women’s National Team shooting for a World Cup/Olympic gold medal double; the USA Basketball team going for three straight golds under Dookie and noted rat-face Coach K; and this dude Ashton Eaton being the best all around athlete I’ve ever seen. Baseball Shmaseball.

 

 

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