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Busy Soccer Season Ahead!

Feb 08, 2013 -- 2:30pm

By Todd Leabo

Soccer season in Kansas City is upon us.  Sporting KC has already been training in Arizona, now the focus shifts to Florida were they’'ll participate in the Pro Soccer Classic over the next three weeks at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World.

Here'’s what I'’m going to be looking for during training camp. 

First, how will designated player Claudio Bieler fit in?  Kei Kamara is on loan to Norwich City in the EPL.  Kei was a fan favorite and the club’s leading goal scorer over the past three seasons.  Manager Peter Vermes calls Bieler a finisher, which is just what the doctor ordered for a team that created tons of chances last year with not enough scoring.

Second, will Benny Feilhaber add scoring punch to the midfield?  Tireless worker Roger Espinoza is gone to the EPL.  Nobody was more aggressive in the midfield than Espinoza, but he wasn’'t a scorer and didn’'t create a lot of chances.  He only scored 1 goal and had 5 assists the past two seasons.  Feilhaber had 5 goals and 9 assists over that same period with New England.

Vermes doesn’'t expect forward Teal Bunbury, who tore his ACL last August, to be back until June, so it will be important for others to step up and add some scoring punch.

Sporting has enjoyed amazing success over the past two seasons.  Two trips to the postseason and winning the US Open Cup have been great.  But they'’ve got their eyes on more this season.

Taking home the US Open Cup last year earned them a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, where they'’ll face the best clubs in Mexico and Central America.  Having success in that championship will spill into 2014.

Sporting will also be defending the US Open Cup this summer. 

Of course, the competition most fans are familiar with is MLS play.  That begins March 2nd in Philadelphia and they hope it will continue into the playoffs and onto the MLS Cup Final.

Add into all of that, the fact that they'’ll have multiple players spending more time with the US Men's National Team at World Cup qualifying continues, and you’'ve got a very busy 2013.

High Hopes Fall For Area Teams

Nov 19, 2012 -- 10:36am

By Todd Leabo

High hopes.  That’s what people had heading into the weekend.  Everyone… even KU football fans had hoped this weekend could be special.

Let’s start with the most disappointing performance.  Last Sunday, K-State football reached its highest point in its history.  They were #1 in the latest BCS rankings and their all-everything quarterback was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Cats’ fans were buying up magazines and quietly making plans to head to south Florida in January.

Only the Baylor Bears and Texas Longhorns stood in the way.  Sure Baylor had a nice offense but the only Big 12 team they’d beaten all year was Kansas.  Well, if college football hasn’t already taught us to keep the cart and the horse in the right order then Saturday night in Waco was another reminder.

Baylor came out firing, not seeming to care about the feel-good story of Bill Snyder’s amazing return or Collin Klein’s too-good-to-be-true rise to Heisman Trophy hopeful.   Exploiting the fact that K-State senior safety Ty Zimmerman was out with an injury, the Bears rolled up 55 points (K-State had been allowing under 20 per game in Big 12 play) on 580 yards.  In a game of amazing stats, the league’s #1 rushing defense was carved up for 340 yards on the ground and the QB that had only thrown one interception in Big 12 play tossed three.

When the dusted settled, the ‘Cats were dodging Baylor students rushing the field after a 52-24 loss with their BCS dreams shattered.  Now, they’ve got two weeks to get ready for what likely will end up being a must-win game against Texas to win their first Big 12 title since 2003.

Our other local Big 12 team’s 2012 season had been just as much of a nightmare as K-State’s had been a dream.  Kansas had yet to win a league game in Charlie Weis’ first year.  They also didn’t win one in Turner Gill’s last year.  In fact, they hadn’t beaten a team that’s still in the Big 12 since 2009… Mark Mangino’s last season at the helm.

But hopefully, Saturday would be different.  It was Senior Night in Lawrence.  Coach Weis talked during the week about honoring this class that had been through so much in their time at KU.  Coach even offered to pay for tickets for any KU student that wanted to come to the game against Iowa State.

It seemed like the ‘Clones would be a perfect opponent.  After all, KU had almost them last year and the Jayhawks were coming off a near-victory against Texas Tech last week.

With Iowa State’s QB problems, you wouldn’t expect them to be tossing that ball around at ease.  But that’s what happened. After KU took a 7-3 lead in the first quarter, Iowa State went to their 3rd string QB Sam Richardson.  Richardson went on throw four TDs on just four incompletions in his first real playing time as a Cyclone.

Iowa State rolled up 38 first-half points and cruised to 51-23 win and bowl eligibility while KU was left to wonder what hit them and having just one more chance at a win this season in two weeks on the road at West Virginia.

The Missouri Tigers had bowl eligibility on their minds Saturday night.  Playing non-con opponents near the end of the season is an SEC byproduct of playing league games early.  But MU is new to the game and had to fill their schedule late, so while the likes of Western Carolina, Alabama A&M, Wofford and Sam Houston were taking butt-kickings and pay checks across the SEC, the Tigers had an actual BCS opponent on campus.

If playing Syracuse instead of Jacksonville State wasn’t enough, the team suspended their all-everything defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson before the game for breaking team rules.

With all that going on, the Tigers still got off to a hot start and lead by 14 points in the 2nd quarter.  But the defense wilted under pressure and allowed wide receiver Alec Lemon to grab seven catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns… in the fourth quarter!  For some reason, after Lemon already had 100 yards in the first three quarters, the Tigers decided he wasn’t worth covering late and he put a dagger their heart with a TD catch with :20 left in the game.

The Tigers still need a win to make a bowl and that looks like a difficult task with giant killer Texas A&M and Johnny Football standing in the way.

So there you have it, our college football weekend in a nutshell… disappointment all around, and that was just Saturday.  Chiefs Sunday was equally disappointing, but I’m too depressed to write about it right now.

College Football This Weekend: Better Than Nothing

Aug 29, 2012 -- 7:37am

By Todd Leabo

College football season is upon us.  Fans across our area are fired up.  MU fans have been waiting to be a part of the SEC, KU fans want to see how the Charlie Weis Era starts and KSU fans are anxious to see if Coach Snyder can back up 2011’s 10-win campaign.

I’m definitely excited about all of that and more.  But what I’m not too excited about is what looks to be one of the worst Big 12 non-conference schedules in recent memory.  There just aren’t many compelling games out there.  FCS teams like Savannah State, Missouri State, South Dakota State, Western Illinois, Northwestern State and Florida A&M are on Big 12 schedules this year. Heck, some schools are even scheduling "people" like James Madison and Sam Houston.

Even when the Big 12 teams throw an FBS team like New Mexico on the schedule (like both Texas and Texas Tech have), it doesn’t look good.  The Lobos are worse than some FCS teams… they’ve gone 3-33 over the past three seasons.  They are the nation’s worst FBS program.

Miami (Fla) and Notre Dame are on the schedule for KSU and OU this season.  I suppose that’s nice, but it’s not 1990 when they were two of the nation’s best programs.  But it is likely the best we’ve got this year.

I guess one of the reasons the schedule looks so weak these days is partially based on numbers.  There used to be 12 teams playing four games per year so you 48 chances to get a good match up.  Now there are only 10 teams with three non-con games so you’re down to 30 contests.  That extra league game has changed the scheduling philosophies of some programs. 

Hopefully, when the postseason changes take place in a couple of years, teams will step out and schedule tougher games to impress the soon-to-be-formed selection committee.  We can dream.

In the meantime, we’ll just have to be excited to see some college football this weekend.  It’s better than nothing.

Sporting KC: Going Platinum

Jun 21, 2012 -- 7:42am

By Todd Leabo

Sporting Kansas City reminds me of one of those rock bands that finally hit it big. You know what I’m talking about, the kind of band critics and new fans call an “overnight sensation” when they’ve actually been touring the country in a bus and selling CDs at their shows for eight years.

The franchise has been doing just that. They knocked around Arrowhead Stadium and Community America Ballpark for over a decade. They changed their name like bands have to do sometimes. Heck, they even won a championship that didn’t really register in KC. I suppose that’s a little like a band having a song in a big hit movie that people like but not enough to go out and buy.

Yep, it’s been a long road to “overnight” success for soccer in Kansas City. The next couple of years are crucial to see if it’ll really catch on for real. When I say “for real,” I mean will fans start caring more and more about winning and roster moves than just going out to the new stadium because it happens to be the “in” thing to do. I think they’ve got a legitimate shot to do just that. They’ve got talented young team in a league that seems to be on the rise.

MLS seems to be in good shape right now. Salaries are enough that players can make a living (a very nice living in some cases) and not so high that they’re out of the business model of the league. I expect salaries to increase as network and local TV money grow. Will you see payrolls like you see in European leagues? Doubtful. But as long as players can make a decent living and the elite American players can strike it rich in Europe, this league will be just fine.

The other thing that Sporting has going for them is having good local players. Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic certainly aren’t the stars of the team (being a defender doesn’t generally lend itself to being a star in soccer), but they are starting and contributing for a team in their hometown. That’s good news. What might be even better news is that goalkeeper they have waiting in the wings. Jimmy Nielsen has been fantastic for KC, but Jon Kempin looks like he’s got a great shot to be another local boy done good. Kempin is a product of the club’s junior academy who they signed as a 17-year-old. He made his debut in a US Open Cup victory this spring.

My point is the time might be right for soccer to really take off in Kansas City. Kansas City is so thirsty for a winning sports franchise. The combination of a new stadium with a great atmosphere and a great team is hitting right now. Sporting Park is basically sold out for the rest of the year. They designed it to be expanded if the need arises. At this rate, they may need to do that sooner rather than later.

College Football Playoff: Hard to Wait

May 22, 2012 -- 4:21pm

By Todd Leabo

Frustration has been the feeling most college football fans have been feeling for a long time.  It will continue as we continue towards creating a better postseason.  We have become such an impatient society.  Technology puts information at our fingertips.  Not that long ago we used to have to wait days or weeks for details about things like conference realignment.  Now we want it now. 

That works fine for getting info about things, but we’ve taken our thirst for wanting to know what’s going on immediately to wanting things to happen immediately.  But that won’t work.  Formulating a new college football postseason isn’t like watching a game.  It takes time.  It’s complicated. 

There are so many levels involved.  College presidents want one thing, athletic directors and coaches may want another.  TV executives want something else.  Politicians from a home district of a school stick their noses in.  It’s hard to believe, but there have been arguments in the hallowed halls of legislative branches across the country about college football.

We haven’t even talked about what the fans want, which is usually comes from a very selfish point of view.  I’ll admit it. I’m selfish.  I don’t care if a player gets to enjoy a proper traditional bowl experience.  I don’t care if someone who works for a bowl and gets to fly around to games all year “scouting” games loses their job.  I don’t care if an athletic director loses out on getting schmoozed by bowl games with golf tournaments and fancy banquets.  I don’t care if a big-name coach has to run the risk of losing a playoff game and hurting their win percentage.  I don’t care about any of that… and I probably don’t care about any other scenario you can think up to avoid a true college football playoff.

I want more games that matter after the regular season.  I’m not crazy like Mike Leach who years ago talked about having everyone in a postseason tournament like the Texas High School playoffs.  But I’m not happy that most of the discussions have settled on four teams.  That seems low to me.  The reason given by the powers in charge of college football seems to be preserving the regular season.  I think that’s bogus.  The real reason is keeping the powerful club at the top of college football small.  It’s about protected themselves from programs or leagues crashing the party.

I think, if done properly, a tournament of up to 16 teams would actually enhance the regular season.  As it stands right now, there are usually just a handful of teams by October realistically dreaming of winning it all.  If the right 16 teams (a mix of league champs and at-large teams) get picked the regular season would be so much more important for so many more teams.  Just making the 16-team field would be a tremendous accomplishment.  Teams would be fighting and scrapping ‘til the end of the year to be a part of it.

I dream that eventually we’ll get there… to a legitimate postseason with powerhouses and Cinderellas at the same party.  But it’ll take a lot of patience which is very short supply in the world today.

Our Time To Our Climb?

Apr 16, 2012 -- 8:41am

By Todd Leabo

The first time through for the Royals starting rotation was promising.  The second time through is not going as well.  Three starters have ERAs over 5.50 now and Detroit is in town for a three-game series.  The Tigers have scored the second most runs in the American League… only Cleveland (who just scored 32 of their league-high 52 runs in KC this weekend) has more.

There’s no question that it’s too early to hit the panic button, just like it was too early to plan a parade after the Royals starters had a 1.55 ERA their first time through.  But facts are facts.  The Royals are winless at home (and the losses came against the team they were supposed to be battling for second place in the AL Central); they have been shut out twice already; OF Mitch Maier has already had to pitch in a blowout game; and Alex Gordon (who just got a long-term deal) is barely batting over .100.

Their next ten games are against Detroit (the odds-on favorite to win the Central), Toronto (who have the 3rd best ERA and best opponent batting average in the AL) and Cleveland (who just embarrassed the Royals in Kauffman Stadium this weekend). 

If they don’t right the ship, Our Time will quickly turn into Our Climb… which we’ve become all too familiar with over the past generation.

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