13 December 2012

Essay: This is hockey country

While in North Dakota, I had the chance to take in an amazing atmosphere at a University of North Dakota hockey game. While on an airplane a day and a half later, I took a stab at an essay on the topic. It's not my usual style or subject matter on this blog, but what is a free-lance blog for if not posting stories that you haven't been able to sell to anybody!?

So if you're interested, check it out after the jump. It was a fun night.

12 December 2012

MLS home-grown prospect update

The MLS offseason has a number of different sub-plots, and one of my favorites is collegiate soccer players with the potential to be signed to home-grown contracts. It’s early in December, but we’re already getting news on the home-grown player front. Between the NCAA College Cup and the initial list of players invited to January’s MLS Combine, we’re getting a good idea of which senior prospects could be signing directly with a club, rather than hoping to be picked in the SuperDraft. (Underclassmen, of course, are another story.)

I was a little surprised to hear so much talk about the draft prospects of Georgetown midfielder Ian Christianson (a senior) and Maryland forward Patrick Mullins (a junior) during the College Cup, given that both were claimed by the Fire on a 2010 list of home-grown claims. That list had yet to be ratified by MLS, however, and claims from a variety of teams later fell through. So I’ve been curious about the specific cases of Christianson and Mullins, and I think I now have answers:

It seems that Christianson played for the Chicago Fire Academy in his junior and senior years of high school and then went to Georgetown. Where the situation gets tricky, however, is the fact that Christianson’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is a good 220 miles from Bridgeview, much greater than the maximum of 75 miles allowed by the Fire’s specified home territory. Based on the original MLS home-grown player rules, which could have been changed by now, teams were allowed two territorial exemptions (players who live outside the home territory) per age group (there were six age groups at the time; the rules contain no explanation of what happens when a territorial exemption moves up an age group).

MLSsoccer.com’s Daniel Robertson reported on Sunday that Christianson said his lack of home-grown eligibility was a decision made by MLS, but Fire Director of Communications Brendan Hannan said in an e-mail that Christianson was not on the club’s home-grown list because, “the club is left with difficult decisions on who to place on the ‘out of area’ home-grown list.” Reading between the lines, the Fire must have (either now, or at some point during Christianson’s association with the club) decided to prioritize two other prospects from outside the home territory.

This is an interesting one. Mullins played youth soccer in Louisiana for Lafreniere SC, one of several clubs that merged to form the Chicago Fire Juniors Louisiana club. Hannan's email said, however, that Mullins had left for college before his club’s official affiliation with the Fire.

Normally this would be understandably clear-cut, but the decision not to accept the Fire’s claim to Mullins (a claim they did make as far back as 2010, and he has since played for Fire U-20 teams) seems to contradict a recent MLS precedent. Last year, MLS accepted the Portland Timbers’ home-grown claim to forward Brent Richards, who played youth soccer for EastSide United way before the MLS Timbers even existed and also played for the Timbers’ PDL team. EastSide United was later folded into the MLS Timbers’ youth system, providing the basis for Richards’ signing. In a somewhat similar situation, I have heard that the San Jose Earthquakes will be able to place a home-grown claim on former U.S. U-17 and current Santa Clara goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh, even though he left for U-17 residency before his club became affiliated with the Earthquakes. This is likely a few years away, but worth noting.

We don’t know how much back-and-forth there was between MLS and the Fire over these two players, but it is interesting to track some of these borderline cases. Believe me, there are a lot more behind the scenes that we don’t hear about.

As for home-grown MLS prospects, here is a summary of what is being reported about some of those already linked to pro deals for 2013, notably from Adam Jardy at the Columbus Dispatch and Ives Galarcep of Soccer By Ives:
MLS clubPlayerCollegeHG claim statusOutlook
Chicago MF Ian ChristiansonGeorgetownnoneMLS combine
ColumbusDF Chad BarsonAkronacceptedlikely to sign
ColumbusGK Justin LuthyBoston Collegeacceptedlikely to sign
ColumbusDF Matt WietUCLAacceptedlikely to sign
ColumbusMF Wil TrappAkron (soph.)acceptedhired agent, could sign
D.C. UnitedFW Uwem EtukWest Virginiaclub declinedMLS combine
FC DallasDF London WoodberryMarylandacceptedcontract offered
New EnglandMF Scott CaldwellAkronacceptedlikely to sign
PortlandFW Erik HurtadoSanta ClaradeniedMLS combine
Just for fun, here are some other players who could be looking at pro contract offers, even though I haven't seen it reported:
MLS clubPlayerCollegeResume
Chicago MF Bryan CiesiulkaMarquette (jr.)2nd tm Big East; 5g, 9a
ChicagoMF Harry ShippNotre Dame (jr.)3rd tm Big East; 6g, 6a
ColoradoGK Brendan RoslundSan Francisco (sr.)6-foot-6; 0.99 GAA
ColoradoDF Patrick SlogicCornell (jr.)6-foot-5; 1st tm all region
ColoradoMF Dillon SernaAkron (fr.)1st tm MAC; 2g, 8a
FC DallasDF Mikey AmbroseMaryland (fr.)2nd tm ACC; 1g, 7a
FC DallasMF Danny GarciaUNC (fr.)2nd tm ACC; Frosh POY
FC DallasDF Boyd OkwuonuUNC (so.)1st tm ACC
HoustonDF Sebastien IbeaghaDuke (jr.)ACC Def. POY
LA GalaxyFW Gyasi ZardesCSU-Bakersfield (jr.)MPSF POY; 15gls in 17gms
New YorkGK Keith CardonaMaryland (so.)1.14 GAA
New YorkFW Brandon AllenGeorgetown (fr.)Big East Rookie of Yr; 16g, 2a
(from NY)
MF Bryan GallegoAkron (so.)2nd tm MAC
PortlandMF Steven EvansPortland (jr.)1st tm WCC; 14g, 3a
SeattleDF DeAndre YedlinAkron (so.)1st tm MAC; 6a
SeattleFW Sean OkoliWake Forest (so.)2nd tm ACC; 11g, 3a
SeattleMF Aaron KovarStanford (fr.)Pac 12 Frosh of Yr; 3g, 2a
Toronto FCFW Allando MathesonUConn (so.)7g, 1a
Vancouver MF Ben McKendryNew Mexico (fr.)MPSF Newcomer of Yr

09 December 2012

Photo blog: My trip to North Dakota

I got the wonderful chance this week to visit North Dakota for the first time, letting me cross another state off my list. Not too many left! Somewhat fittingly, I ended up getting stuck in Fargo, N.D., for an extra day after my Sunday-morning flight was cancelled, but here's a photo blog from my first two days in this cold, cold state:

Friday was a long, long travel day. Shreveport-Fargo is not exactly a direct flight. It took 10+ hours, three flights, and a roughly 40-degree dip in temperature.

7 a.m. flight from Shreveport.

Connecting in Denver.

4:30 p.m. arrival in Fargo.
NDSU is everywhere in Fargo.
Naturally, my first destination was the Fargodome, capacity somewhere upwards of 18,000.
The inimitable Fargodome.

I met up with my partner, Ben Leber, and some of our crew on Friday night, and by airtime on Saturday, we were ready to go.
Former Vikings LB Ben Leber, a South Dakota native
who is well-known and popular in the area.
Almost time for kick-off.

The game itself was low-scoring but intense and highly entertaining. Both teams used a lot of clock with every possession, with Wofford trying to upset the defending FCS champion. North Dakota State's dominating defense (no offensive touchdowns allowed in last 14 quarters of playoff football) made crucial third- and fourth-down stops in the fourth quarter to advance to the FCS semifinals next week.
Noise level upward of 100 decibels at times during
the game, won by NDSU 14-7 behind its top-rated defense.

Afterward, a look at the production truck responsible for making us look good.
Behind-the-scenes magic.

Since it was a day game and I'm a long-time amateur hockey fan, I took the chance to drive 87 miles up to Grand Forks, N.D. to see the famed Ralph Engelstad Arena at the University of North Dakota. Despite some wind and really poor visibility, I'm very glad I went. The arena and atmosphere, with a sold-out crowd of 11,799, were simply amazing, and it was great to see some live hockey. Great end to a very fun sports day.
Yeah, it was snowing as I got to the arena midway through the first period.
As for the game, UND beat Denver 6-3 in WCHA action.

02 December 2012

Enjoying a different type of football

Home fans and their distinctive orange at
Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, Texas
I’m kind of a niche-sport guy. Always have been and maybe always will be. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy some of the big ones – Major League Baseball, college football, the NFL, the Stanley Cup playoffs – but I really get a kick out of covering sports I like that don’t get all that many headlines. College baseball, high school ice hockey, and – of course – Major League Soccer.

So when assigned an FCS college football playoff game last weekend, I was psyched. I watch these games on TV every year and really enjoy the football division formerly known as Division I-AA.

I got the matchup between Sam Houston State, last year’s runner-up, and Cal Poly. Oddly enough, I had already been to both teams’ home stadiums, but neither for a college football game. Throw in a reasonable, three-hour drive from Shreveport to Huntsville, Texas, and my trusty broadcast partner, Forrest Conoly, and I was anticipating a fun afternoon on Saturday.

The broadcast itself had a few more elements than we have had in our other games, including on-camera reporting at halftime, coach interviews, regular promotional reads for other ESPN broadcasts, and more. It sounds like par for the course for a lot of the broadcasts you see, but it is not the norm for us. That takes some getting used to, but it was pretty similar to a lot of the soccer broadcasts I’ve done, so I didn’t feel like we were overwhelmed by some of the moving parts.

We had a great production crew, from the guys in the truck to those manning cameras to the stage managers in the booth with us. While we’re used to working with solid crews, this was probably the best top-to-bottom group we’ve worked with on a football game this year, and it included a few friendly faces I know from Houston.

Our open aired while it was still light out.
I got to voice-over the most elaborate tease we’ve had this year – including video of the giant Sam Houston statue – and I thought we did well in the open. The game itself was a little disjointed, and it took us time to get in a rhythm. Both teams came in with great offensive reputations, but they struggled to reach the end zone. The first score of the game was a blocked punt that went for a safety, and that actually ended up being the difference. We did see a cool double-reverse touchdown pass from Cal Poly in the final minutes, but the Mustangs’ onside kick was recovered by Sam Houston State, and the Bearkats are on to the quarterfinals against Montana State.

It may not have been the perfect game or the perfect broadcast, but I really enjoy covering teams and sports that you don’t hear about on every sports talk show. Plus I think it’s great to cover playoff football at the college level, and Saturday’s game definitely had some of that desperate intensity that the playoffs can produce. I’m looking to more of the same next week, in what will probably be my final broadcast of the 2012 calendar year, so stay tuned.

25 November 2012

What a basketball debut!

I got a thriller Saturday night in my first ESPN3 college basketball game, as the College of Charleston shocked 24th-ranked Baylor 63-59 in Waco. I really enjoyed the broadcast alongside former DePaul standout and NBA veteran Stephen Howard, and I walked out of the Ferrell Center both exhilarated and satisfied.

The workday started with team shootarounds in the early afternoon, and they were even more helpful than I anticipated. Charleston went first, and we watched from the side with Director of Athletics Communications Marlene Navor and the radio crew of Jeff McCarragher and Everett German. Our familiarity with them would pay off later.

On the Baylor side, the big story was that sharp-shooting guard Brady Heslip would miss the game while recovering from appendicitis. We found this out at the shootaround, but we could not get anybody from Baylor to confirm it on the record, even though we tried right up to tip-off. Of course, much to our frustration, it ended up in the Associated Press recap of the game, so it was definitely not a secret.

We returned to the Ferrell Center for a late-ish tip-off, and despite my (needless) search for a proper credential and Stephen's (fruitless) search for a functional pen, we were ready to go in plenty of time. That was in stark contrast to Baylor radio announcer John Morris, who made a mad dash from the Bears' football game in Arlington, Texas, back to Waco in time for the game. That's what I call a full day!

The game itself was fascinating - Charleston rained 3-pointers early and led at the half, then survived Baylor's revved-up defense in the second half despite getting just one point from leader Andrew Lawrence. He instead turned provider, setting up teammate after teammate for key baskets. The Cougars had six of their eight players contribute at least eight points, and sophomore center Adjehi Baru hauled in 15 rebounds. The key man was his frontcourt partner Willis Hall, who went 8-for-10 from the free-throw line (his teammates were 4-for-10) and hit his only two field goals in the final minutes for the 63-59 win.

Up close and personal, shortly before tip-off.
Behind the scenes, basketball moves so fast that there were some great efforts to aid the broadcast and keep us on top of things. We got an outstanding performance from our statistician on this day, Jeff, who provided helpful notes all game and constantly helped me keep track of individuals' foul trouble. His biggest play, however, came when No. 13 checked in for Baylor. This player was not listed on the roster and had no last name on his jersey; luckily, Jeff knows the program and alerted us that it was freshman Taurean Prince wearing a different uniform, and we were able to introduce him quickly and pass that on to the CofC radio crew.

Finally, as we got into the final five minutes with College of Charleston still in the game, I used my phone to email Charleston's Navor, who was sitting diagonally across the court from us, and I asked her for the date of Charleston's last win against a Top-25 team. I had noticed earlier that the season (2009-10) and opponent (North Carolina) were in the notes, but not the exact date. I never figured it would come into play! I could see Navor across the court, rifling through records, but I was still worried she hadn't gotten the message. In the final minute, my phone finally buzzed with the crucial email, telling us the exact date (Jan. 4, 2010) and the fact that this win was only Charleston's second ever on the road against a Top-25 team and first since 1993. I let Jeff relay the message to the graphics crew, and we were able to get it on the air at the final buzzer. Perfect execution!

Stephen even has a height advantage in post-game interviews.
After we went off-air, Stephen interviewed Doug Wojcik to provide material for the ESPN family of network, and we also filmed a web segment that you can see here. We actually shot a second take that was a little smoother, but the one currently online is our first effort.

Basketball never ceases to make me feel short.
All in all, I really enjoyed my first basketball game of the year and hope it leads to a few more here and there. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Baylor and College of Charleston as the season heats up. It'll be back to football next Saturday, though, with a little bit of soccer thrown in during the week. I'm very thankful to be this busy.

18 November 2012

Great day of college football

Getting set up in Lafayette.
I'm feeling good tonight after Forrest Conoly and I called Louisiana-Lafayette's come-from-behind win over Western Kentucky at Cajun Field in Lafayette. Good broadcast, good game, and we got to watch the entertaining end of the two big upsets at dinner afterward. How can you argue with a day like that?

This was our second trip to Cajun Field and our third broadcast of the Ragin' Cajuns, while we were seeing Western Kentucky for the first time. Still, I felt through research and talking to coaches from both teams, we had a good handle on both teams. It was nice to see some familiar faces before the game, and the staff from both sides did a good job of preparing us for a few things - Louisiana-Lafayette's black jerseys, some WKU lineup changes, etc.

Nobody warned me about the details of the Cajuns' black jerseys, however! They had a giant fleur de lis on the front, rather than numbers, which is a nightmare for broadcasters. There were mini numbers on the front up by the shoulder pads, but seeing those from a camera well is virtually impossible. It created a few challenges. The jerseys also had French words on the name plate, so I did my best to translate them on the fly. I got combattre (to fight), croire (to believe), and unité (unity), but I wasn't sure on fierté, which turned out to be pride. My bad.

Our open airs shortly before kickoff.
The open is the part of the broadcast where the focus is most on us as hosts. We're on camera and we're singling out storylines, rather than taking from what the game gives us. So naturally we take some pride in putting together something presentable. Our open wasn't 100-percent flawless, but it was definitely the best we've done this year. We ran through it once to get an idea of timing of graphics, and then we knocked it out. We laughed and had fun with some nicknames (Forrest dubbed UL receiver Harry Peoples "The Peoples Choice," which we used throughout the game) and, hopefully, established the game as a battle for bowl positioning. I said "blocked field goal" instead of "blocked punt" in reference to the Ragin' Cajuns' loss last week to Florida, but otherwise I thought we got our facts straight.

The game lived up to our expectations, with Western Kentucky controlling the ball through its dominant ground game and tailback Antonio Andrews (300+ all-purpose yards for the third straight game, leads the country.) Louisiana-Lafayette was effective too, largely thanks to the versatility of quarterback Terrance Broadway, but it looked like four turnovers would undo them. Leading by three late in the game, WKU elected to punt and pin Louisiana-Lafayette in its own end rather than go for it on 4th-and-1, which seemed uncharacteristic for head coach Willie Taggart. Seemed like a decent move when the punt was downed at the 7, but Broadway led the Ragin' Cajuns on a dramatic drive and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a quarterback draw in the final minute. (ESPN video)

A good night to work in college football.
That was exciting enough to call, with Cajun Field going nuts - the crowd noise in our headsets was crazy! But then Western Kentucky got into position for a pretty decent Hail Mary, but it was at the back of the end zone, and the receiver (actually the starting safety) was ruled out of bounds. WKU asked for a replay review, but for some reason it never came, and the only angle we saw was, unfortunately, not very clear.

A dramatic night and two teams that are very fun to call - I'll be rooting for them down the road.

09 November 2012

MLS Cup Playoffs Best 11 (+7) so far

My apologies for the lack of posts - I've doing some mix of working and procrastinating, and I'll leave you to determine which has won out. I've also been watching as much of the MLS Cup playoffs as possible and have enjoyed the ridiculous drama, even though I'm often watching on delay and could simply open a new tab to find out who won.

Rather than a whole, long, drawn-out, "I told you so," I'll just point out that one team will have a huge competitive advantage in the MLS Cup final (home field) based on a difference of five points or fewer over its opponent, one which may have played a more difficult regular-season schedule. As long as that schedule is unbalanced and the final is a single game, I believe it must be played at a neutral site, purely for competitive reasons.

But I digress.

Today, just for fun, I'm picking a Best 11 from the first 10 playoff games of 2012. Why? Because I want to inspire an official all-tournament team for the MLS Cup Playoffs. It's gotta start somewhere, right? Unlike most Best 11s, I will use the Arabic numeral 11, rather than the Roman numeral XI. And unlike most Best 11s, I will choose a starting lineup with players in their actual positions. Groundbreaking, I know. OK, here we go:

MLS Cup Playoffs Best 11 (+7) (conference semifinals and knockout round games only)
GK - Nick Rimando, Real Salt Lake - I'm actually not a huge Rimando fan, because I prefer a 6-foot-plus goalkeeper who can control the penalty area, but a shutout with a broken nose and that exceptional save on Brad Evans early in the second half Thursday night make him a must-choose. Honorable mention to Michael Gspurning and Tally Hall.
RB - Robbie Russell, D.C. United - I know he only played one game, but it was a great game, and all the other right backs who played both games did very little. Seriously, count them. Sarkodie, Myers, Franklin, Beitashour, Lade, Johansson, Beltran. I really like some of those players, but Russell's 90 minutes stood out more than their 180.
CB - Omar Gonzalez, LA Galaxy - This guy is a giant. Not only that, he's really good. If LA wins the title, people will complain about how low a seed they were, but LA was 7-2-3 during the regular season when Gonzalez started, and he was excellent against Wondo and Lenhart. How many center backs were secretly pleased when he elbowed Lenhart in the face?
CB - Jeff Parke, Seattle Sounders - The Sounders didn't allow a goal in 180 minutes against a very good team, and while some of that is on RSL's pathetic execution in the final third (they finished the year being shut out in their last five games), Seattle's defense has to get credit, and Parke's the man for that. Honorable, honorable mention to Bobby Boswell.
LB - Seth Sinovic, Sporting KC - I know, I know, you think I'm picking a defender just because he scored a goal, but really I'm going with Sinovic because Boniek Garcia was relatively quiet in both legs for Houston, none of the Dynamo goals came on Sinovic's side, AND he was the only KC player to find the net. With a diving header. Hard to beat. Honorable mention to Corey Ashe, who was outstanding in the knockout round against Chicago.
RM - Landon Donovan, LA Galaxy - This is tricky, because he did play forward in this series, but I thought this was the best spot for him. He silenced a lot of doubts with a two-assist performance on Wednesday, and I never pick against Landon in the playoffs.
CM - Osvaldo Alonso, Seattle Sounders - This guy works his butt off, and even though it seemed like he was fouling Javier Morales every five minutes in last night's game, the Sounders rarely got pulled out of position against RSL's very tough midfield, and he deserves a lot of the credit. Honorable mention to his partner in crime, Brad Evans.
CM - Ricardo Clark, Houston Dynamo - He has been everywhere in the Dynamo's three playoff games, sliding to break up a play and set up the game-winning goal against Chicago before frustrating Roger Espinoza in Houston last week. His range has reminded everybody of why Dom Kinnear's 4-4-2 was so successful from 2005-09.
LM - Mike Magee, LA Galaxy - All he does is score big playoff goals. And occasionally play goalkeeper really well. But really, it's the clinical playoff goals that put him here. Honorable mention to Nick DeLeon.
FW - Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy - Duh. I enjoy disagreeing with statements made by Bruce Arena (he wants you to disagree with most of them), but when he praises Keane as the best player in the league this year, you can't really argue. Especially when Thierry Henry won't take a last-minute free kick with his team down a goal in a playoff series.
FW - Will Bruin, Houston Dynamo - Clinical, clinical finishes. Three of them. Two of which are not the type usually scored by Houston forward. Easy choice here. Honorable mention to his wingman, Calen Carr.

Bench (these players were actually used as replacements in the postseason)
GK - Joe Willis, D.C. United - If he can come off the bench and save a PK, it's good enough for me. Might be better than Bill Hamid right now anyway. He's definitely more composed.
CB - Andre Hainault, Houston Dynamo - He had really struggled in the second half of the year (and he was on the field for Honduras 8-1 Canada), but he looked confident and competent when called upon against KC.
CB - Tommy Meyer, LA Galaxy - I'm cheating a bit here, but the guy had only started 4 MLS games since May, so I don't consider him a full-time starter.
DF/MF - Lewis Neal, D.C. United - Surprise under-the-radar pick-up who helped Orlando City to USL title last year. Makes you want to promote them straight to MLS, doesn't it?
MF - Oriol Rosell, Sporting KC - He got to play with lower-than-usual pressure because of the situation, but I was impressed with his composure and ability to keep things simple from that deep-lying midfield slot.
MF - Mario Martinez, Seattle Sounders - Yes, I'm picking him just because of his one, series-winning shot. It was that good.
FW - Alan Gordon, San Jose Earthquakes - Goonies never say die. Even when they sprain an ankle.

22 October 2012

My TV soccer season in the books

With the 3-1 FC Dallas loss to Seattle last night, my soccer broadcasting season came to an end. It was my first year working primarily (and, as it turned out, exclusively) on television, and my first year as a free-lance broadcaster rather than as a full-time team employee. As such, there were a lot of changes to get used to and adjustments to make throughout the year.

In the end, I worked 20 soccer games – 8 preseason, 12 regular season – with eight different partners in three different roles for productions by four different clubs and broadcasts on up to eight different outlets, depending on how you count it. To simplify, I called the preseason Disney Pro Soccer Classic (with a one-game cameo as a color analyst) and 10 regular-season FC Dallas games, adding one game of play-by-play for Houston and one game as a sideline reporter for Kansas City. Full schedule.

I fulfilled a major goal – earning a living (or something close to it) as a broadcaster, rather than as a communications professional who broadcasts – and owe a lot of people, both personally and professionally, for their respective roles in that.

The most memorable moment of the season was definitely Julian de Guzman’s dramatic goal against Vancouver on September 15:

I’ve had the pleasure to call some clutch late goals, both for and against my employer, since my first pro soccer broadcast in 2008, and this was one of the most fun. It was an important goal, the timing last-gasp, and the quality of the goal (how I wish we had an end-zone view of it!) satisfied the hopes of an electric crowd. That’s just about everything you can ask for. Comparing it against other plays, it loses a little bit of luster because the playoff chase went unrewarded, but anybody there that night will not soon forget it.

One of my other favorite calls from the season, one that may have flown under the radar, was this Bryan Meredith save against FC Dallas on May 9:
The play was a great one, but I felt the whole call worked well. I was able to transition from a separate point (Seattle fatigue) into the play via Fabian Castillo, I correctly identified Andrew Jacobson as the player who headed it back, and “Oh, what a stop!” felt like a good reaction to the play. After the play stopped, I was able to sum it up before turning it over to Ian Joy for the replay (which happened to come from my favorite angle).

I also really enjoyed my one foray as a sideline reporter, working for Kansas City in a June game in Philadelphia, but unfortunately all video evidence of that night seems to be lost. Kansas City fans were understandably quick to jettison any DVR recordings of their 4-0 defeat, and as far as I know, only the Philadelphia broadcast of the game still exists.

Looking back, I think the biggest improvement I made over the course of the season was ramping up the energy on my broadcasts. That applies mostly to on-camera segments, but also to play-by-play. I’m a low-key guy by nature, so I don’t like to get worked up until a moment really calls for it, but I am always excited to be calling a game. On camera, however, it sometimes takes a little bit of effort to make sure that excitement impacts the viewer. I think opening segments and slow moments in the game sounded much better in May, July, September, and October than they did in March and April. That change really started with some feedback from do-it-all analyst Brian Dunseth, so my thanks to him for that honest, helpful critique.

Overall, I felt good about my debut season on television. I would have loved to call a game every weekend and call some playoff games, but I got more comfortable each game and got better as the year went on, and that’s what you hope for. I’m excited to watch the MLS postseason and even more excited to call MLS games next year, hopefully as early as February or March.

20 October 2012

You know you're in Texas when ...

It's game day in San Antonio, and as if Forrest and I needed another reminder, our hotel breakfast let us know exactly which state we are in.

We went to the UTSA walk-through yesterday afternoon and were very impressed with the Alamodome - looking forward to seeing and hearing the crowd this afternoon.

To get ready for today's game, which you can watch on ESPN3 and discuss on Twitter with the hashtag #SJSUvsUTSA, you can also check out today's articles from the local papers:

San Antonio Express-News:   Preview  |  Keys to Victory  |  Key Matchups  |  Player Spotlight
San Jose Mercury-News:   Preview  |  Game Facts

Kickoff is 1 p.m. Central Time - check it out!

19 October 2012

Big questions face UTSA, San Jose State

San Jose State QB David Fales and UTSA RB David Glasco
square off Saturday.
This weekend, I’m headed to San Antonio for some college football, covering UTSA against San Jose State for ESPN3. It’s Homecoming and the first home conference game for UTSA, which is in its first year of a two-year transition to the FBS level. As such, the Roadrunners’ 5-1 record is a bit misleading; they are 2-1 against FBS opponents, including South Alabama, which is in its second year of the same two-year transition. San Jose State entered conference play as a title contender along with favorite Louisiana Tech and Utah State, but a lopsided loss to Utah State last week dampened the Spartans’ confidence somewhat.

I’ll be working the game with former Florida State offensive lineman Forrest Conoly, a familiar face by now, and we spent some time this week on the phone with both coaching staffs. There are a lot of matchups and sub-plots to keep an eye on, but here are the two biggest questions of the game:

Can San Jose State’s offense bounce back?
San Jose State was sacked 13 times last week. 13! That’s only two shy of the NCAA record. Nobody expects UTSA to duplicate that effort; the Roadrunners’ defensive front is nowhere near the equal of Utah State’s, and San Jose State will definitely make some adjustments. But UTSA is going to have to get pressure on Spartan quarterback David Fales, a junior college transfer with an almost unerringly accurate arm. If Fales is forced to move in the pocket, it could disrupt his throws enough to keep UTSA in the game. San Jose State will also try to take some pressure off Fales and his receivers by running the ball – after all, Rice ran for 301 yards against the Roadrunners last week – and the UTSA defense will likely need to continue producing turnovers to win the game.

Can UTSA win without a full-strength Eric Soza?
Roadrunners quarterback Eric Soza scored the first touchdown in program history, has started every game, and rarely misses a snap. Any discussion of team leaders starts with him. So when he jogged to the locker room with a hip injury late in the first half last week, it was a troublesome sign. He returned to play the second half and practiced this week, but he is still a question mark for Saturday and will not be at 100 percent even if he does play. It is asking a lot of UTSA, which is probably outmanned on pure talent, to win without him or with him at less than 100 percent. If he cannot go, redshirt freshman Ryan Polite should get the call; he looked good on two drives against Rice. How the possibly hampered Soza or the inexperienced Polite performs will be the first make-or-break challenge facing UTSA.

Players to watch
San Jose State
10 David Fales, QB 162-316, 1,867 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INTs
Coaches on both sides rave about his accuracy, capable of squeezing throws into tight spaces, and Fales has talented receivers to make it pay off. He struggled to get rid of the ball quickly, however, against Utah State's fearsome pass rush.
43 Travis Johnson, DE 39 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks
As consistent as they come, Johnson continues to get into opposing backfield despite facing regular double-teams. He's tied for the national lead with a tackle for loss in 12 consecutive games, and he is the only player from a non-BCS school to be one of 25 quarterfinalists for the Rotary Lombardi Award.

1 Kam Jones, WR 12 receptions, 205 yards, 1 TD
Forrest always likes to ask about a 'wild guy,' and Jones is it. A former high school quarterback from small town Edna, Texas, Jones can catch, run, and throw from his wide receiver spot. He hasn't scored since the season opener, but he's the offensive playmaker.
17 Erik Brown, CB 16 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1 forced fumble in 5 games
Brown was a high school star at local power Converse Judson, but finished high school in Arizona and began his college career at Fresno State. Back home in Texas, he is responsible for five of UTSA's 17 forced turnovers and a key player in a secondary that faces a stiff test on Saturday.

30 September 2012

Fun with nicknames

Cajun Field prior to kickoff.
We had some fun with nicknames on our ESPN3 college football broadcast Saturday night, as I covered Louisiana-Lafayette against FIU, teamed with my first repeat partner of the football season, one Mr. Forrest Conoly. We used nicknames or variations for several players on the broadcast, but it actually all started earlier in the day.

Before every game, the analyst provides ‘Keys to the Game,’ one of those segments you see on just about every broadcast. To keep it from being too straightforward and clichéd, the production staff often tries to use puns or wordplay in the on-screen graphic, counting on the announcer to explain its meaning.

For this game, Forrest and I met with our producer in the afternoon at one of the hotels. It had poured the night before, was raining again, and the forecast called for scattered thunderstorms throughout the night. We figured throwing the ball could be tough, so the ground game would be important, and Louisiana-Lafayette uses a two-back system, rotating a bigger back (Alonzo Harris) with a quicker back (Effrem Reed). We didn’t want to put ‘run the ball’ on the graphic, so we looked out the window, and quickly arrived at a(n admittedly clichéd) moniker: ‘Thunder and Lightning.’ This has been used for countless running back duos, so it is not at all original, but we liked the double entendre referencing both their running styles and the weather.

Once the game began, Forrest of course explained his keys to the game – “That’s Alonzo Harris and his ability to be a powerful runner, as well as Effrem Reed and his scatback ability to get to the outside and get those corners” and later elaborated further – but I don’t know if fans got the second meaning, given that there was no literal rain, thunder, or lightning during the game. At any rate, we had fun with it, and Forrest would occasionally call them simply ‘Thunder’ or ‘Lightning’ while analyzing a replay. I, the straight man, used their names while calling play-by-play.

But I had to have some fun when the Ragin’ Cajuns went to seldom-used wide receiver Bradley Brown, a transfer from Northwestern State in his first year at the FBS level. While doing research for my first Louisiana-Lafayette game, I had learned that his high school nickname was ‘Downtown,’ courtesy of an article at theGaiterView.com. This developed in my head into a rhythmic ‘Downtown Bradley Brown,’ vaguely reminiscent of the Jim Croce song ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.’

So when Brown got into the game late in the first quarter and made a big catch, I couldn’t resist saying, “Bradley Brown – they call him ‘Downtown Bradley Brown’ –with the first-down catch.” I figured that was all I would get out of it. But two plays later, Cajuns quarterback Blaine Gautier found Brown in a lot of space, and I had my chance to use it live: “Catch is made by Brown, and he’s going downtown!” He couldn't quite finish the play, as two FIU defensive backs were able to pull him down inside the 20-yard line, but it was definitely a fun one to call. If that nickname ever started to wear off, hopefully this helps him bring it back!

I also made a few puns with UL quarterback Terrance Broadway, the unquestioned star of the game after passing for 228 yards and one touchdown and running for 28 yards and two more scores. I don’t think I’m the first to make a ‘Broadway’ joke, and I’m sure I won’t be the last (especially with the unfortunate news that starting QB Blaine Gautier will be out at least four weeks with broken bones in his throwing hand.)

Anyway, those are some of the nicknames we dropped on the broadcast, the last one we have scheduled with ESPN3 at the moment. We’re a bit of a size mismatch for on-camera portions of the broadcast (Forrest is 6-foot-7, I’m somewhere in the 5-11/6-0 range), but I think we complement each other well in most other aspects and, most importantly, we enjoy working together. Hopefully we get the chance to do some more games this year, maybe even involving Louisiana-Lafayette. After all, the Cajuns are 2-0 when we call the shots.

28 September 2012

Why all of the final CCL matches matter

Houston could play the second leg of a quarterfinal at
BBVA Compass Stadium, depending on goal differential
The group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League - contested for the first time in eight groups of three - is down to one remaining round of matches, to be played October 23-25. Three teams have clinched their spots in the quarterfinals, but even those three teams need to be on their game next month. Here's why.

One of the changes to the competition is that matchups in the quarterfinals (and beyond) are now determined by performance in the group stage, rather than by random draw. This is an underrated move by CONCACAF, in my opinion. Yes, the teams are being compared against unequal opponents; is it really fair to reward teams that go 4-0 against a group that included a Caribbean or weak Central American opponent? But the move is worth that question because (a) it legitimizes a competition that sometimes seemed to be fixed to get at least one American team to the semifinals and (b) it makes every minute of the group stage count.

Seeding in the knockout round is very important, because the higher seed gets the second leg at home, usually a big advantage. This is far from the only reason Mexican clubs have dominated American ones in head-to-head competition, but the second leg has been in Mexico more often than not. This time, they'll have to earn it.

So here's how the race for home-field advantage in the elimination round shapes up. Projected seeds are how I think the teams will finish, not their current spot:

Proj SeedTeamRecordGDLast Game
(Almost) clinched
1Santos Laguna3-0+1110/24 vs. Toronto
ORToronto FC2-1+510/24 at Santos Laguna
2Monterrey3-0+910/23 at Chorrillo
3Seattle Sounders3-0+510/24 vs. Marathon
4LA Galaxy2-0-1+710/25 at Metapan
Battling it out
5Houston Dynamo2-0-1+610/23 vs. Olimpia
OROlimpia1-1-1+210/23 at Houston
6Real Salt Lake2-1+210/23 vs. Herediano
ORHerediano3-0+310/23 at Real Salt Lake
7Tigres1-0-2+410/24 vs. Alajuelense
ORAlajuelense2-0-1+410/24 at Tigres
8Chivas1-1-1+310/25 vs. Xelaju
ORXelaju2-0-1+210/25 at Chivas

Head-to-head matchups will determine the final five spots (CONCACAF may have a history of corruption, but the people running do not miss a chance for drama, pairing two powers in the final match of each group), but you can see where this is going. If the home teams prevail with the results they need, we'll get the Mexican/U.S. quarterfinals, but the matchups would play out to something like this:

1. Santos Laguna vs. 8 Chivas Guadalajara
2. Monterrey vs. 7 Tigres
3. Seattle Sounders vs. 6 Real Salt Lake
4. LA Galaxy vs. 5 Houston Dynamo

Of course, that's taking a lot for granted. Five teams still need to take care of business just to advance. But the point is that they need to focus not just on doing enough to advance; they need to be worried about their quarterfinal seed. Santos cannot afford to tie Toronto at home; a win would secure them the top seed. Seattle cannot afford to be on cruise control against Marathon; they have an outside chance of catching Monterrey for the all-important No. 2 seed, which could give them a home game in the semifinals.

Real Salt Lake, Tigres, and Chivas will all be trying just to get the win that will send them to the quarterfinals (RSL needs to win 1-0 or by multiple goals), and Houston needs just a tie at home against Olimpia. Given its precarious MLS playoff position, the Dynamo will probably put out a mixed squad, but winning and tacking on a few goals should still be a priority in an attempt to wrest the second leg of a potential quarterfinal matchup away from recent rival LA. After all, Houston's last two playoff outings have ended at The Home Depot Center.

The new format of the Champions League has its positives and negatives, but there is something to play for in all eight of the final matches, and we could be in store for the most storied quarterfinalists in the tournament's short history.

22 September 2012

An Obama sighting in ... Texas?

Dan McCarney addresses the Mean Green Friday.
I haven't had time to blog about my game this weekend, North Texas vs. Troy, but it's not because I haven't been preparing for it. I arrived in Denton on Friday afternoon and quickly headed to highly-regarded Apogee Stadium, which opened last year, for the Mean Green's walk-through. I ended up seeing a more than credible impersonation of President Barack Obama, about the last thing I expected to find in Texas, as part of the North Texas post-game speeches.

The impersonation came from actor Aaron Norvell, who played under Dan McCarney at Wisconsin in the early 90s and was one of two of McCarney's former players invited to speak to North Texas following its light workout. As McCarney put it, "I don't let anybody speak to this team unless they're special, I love them, or both," and it was a nice way to close the afternoon.

In terms of the game, it's a great "battle of philosophies," as Troy head coach (and Friday birthday boy) Larry Blakeney put it, between Troy's wide-open, up-tempo aerial attack (537.7 yards per game) and the battering, physical, ball-possession approach favored by North Texas. To put it in perspective, Troy threw more passes in one game this year (75 against Louisiana-Lafayette) than North Texas has all season (73). Both teams, former conference powerhouses, badly need a win to get into the Sun Belt Conference title race.

The real key to the game, though, will be turnovers. Troy is an abysmal -5 on the season, including turnovers on four straight possessions against Mississippi State last week - the Trojans wound up losing by one score. North Texas is +3, and I think the Mean Green will have to win the turnover battle again to open the year with a win.

Apogee Stadium, opened 2011.
For more on the game, check out the excellent blogs by the teams' respective beat-writers, outgoing Drew Champlin (Dothan Eagle) and  Brett Vito (Denton Record-Chronicle).

Tonight's game kicks off at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN3 and WatchESPN. Follow @jtyardley for more coverage before and after the game.

13 September 2012

FC Dallas vs. Vancouver: What I'm watching for

Vancouver will have to stop David Ferreira on Saturday night.
I’ll return to MLS action for the first time since July 28 this weekend, calling the most critical game so far in the Western Conference playoff race, with FC Dallas hosting the Vancouver Whitecaps. Catch it on TXA 21 Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. CT.

FC Dallas trails Vancouver by four points, but the Whitecaps have a game in hand, so Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi’s quote in the Vancouver Sun that “it is a must-win for them more than it is for us” is a spot-on assessment.

FC Dallas has to win this game to have any realistic shot of making the playoffs; Vancouver could definitely get by with a tie and will still be favored even with a loss. That’s mostly because of an incredibly favorable closing schedule, with Vancouver hosting the bottom three teams in the Western Conference down the stretch. Even seven points of a possible nine in those games would all but secure the last playoff spot, especially given that Dallas is unlikely to take major points at San Jose and at Seattle.

But that’s why they play the games! Dallas can keep itself in the race with a win on Saturday night, and word on the street is that the crowd is likely to be a big one. These teams have been going in opposite directions since June 23, with FC Dallas averaging 1.58 points per game (5-3-4) with Ferreira and Vancouver struggling to the tune of 0.91 points per game (3-7-1) in July, August, and now September. What’s more, the Whitecaps have lost six straight road games, tied for the second longest streak in MLS this year.

With all that in mind, and without consulting my partner, traveling man Brian Dunseth, here are some angles I’m keeping an eye on Saturday night:

12 September 2012

The important stuff: Tying a tie

A Troy, Alabama welcome.
I really enjoyed my trip to Troy, Alabama, last weekend, including Louisiana-Lafayette's 37-24 win over Troy, breaking a 25-game Troy winning streak in home openers. Hopefully the good people of Troy won't hold it against me.

The game was my first working with former Florida State offensive lineman Forrest Conoly, and we made sure to sample some local fare, going to Hook's BBQ for Friday dinner and Julia's Restaurant for Saturday breakfast. It should be noted that somebody awarded Julia's 'Sun Belt Conference Best Breakfast Spot' last year, and it didn't disappoint.

My version of a half-Windsor.
Forrest and I also bonded over trying to tie just the right tie knot for the occasion. Now, although we wear suits and spend the game in them, we're usually not on camera all that long. Those in-game booth close-ups that Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit get? Not really done at this level. So worrying too much about your tie knot, when it's only on screen for about 30 seconds, really doesn't make much sense.

No pressure, Forrest, but my tie is already good to go.
But at my brother's urging, I decided to try a half-Windsor knot for this game, rather than whatever you call my normal knot. I'm not going to lie, it took me a while to get it, and I have a certain YouTube video to thank for the final result. I ended up feeling pretty good about the knot, though, so I couldn't resist having a little fun with my partner in crime as he tried to tie his just right.

Eventually both our ties were ready to go, we recorded what I thought was a very solid opening segment, and the game was on. Four hours later, after many penalty flags and replay challenges, our ties were still going strong at the final whistle. We even wound up with some extra camera time, thanks to our halftime interview with the Troy chancellor, Dr. Jack Hawkins, and so our half-Windsors came in handy.

Dr. Hawkins, what do you think of our ties?
There's a lot that goes into these broadcasts - memorizing names/numbers, talking to coaches, studying statistics and schedules - but tying that tie just right certainly can't be overlooked!

07 September 2012

Why you should watch: Saturday's Sun Belt opener for Troy, Louisiana-Lafayette

After an early wake-up call in Shreveport, I returned to southern Alabama for the second consecutive weekend, this time for tomorrow night's Sun Belt Conference opener between Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette. My partner for this game will be former Florida State offensive lineman Forrest Conoly, and we had a great time this afternoon touring the Troy campus and talking with Trojans head coach Larry Blakeney. One thing to watch for on the broadcast: There's a slight height differential. As in, Forrest stands 6-foot-7, and I would be generously listed as 6-foot-0. We'll see if the camera can fit us in the same picture.

Turning to the game, I think it's going to be a good one. Troy was 3-9 last year, but the Trojans dominated the conference from 2006-10, and they haven't lost a home opener since the mid-1980s (24 wins in a row since a tie in 1987). With an enthusiastic crowd expected, this is their chance to prove to themselves and their fans that they can contend for the conference title once again.

On the other side, Louisiana-Lafayette (they prefer just 'UL') may have the most momentum of any program in the conference. The Ragin Cajuns (can't say that nickname enough) are coming off of the best season in school history (9-4) and a dramatic New Orleans Bowl victory over San Diego State. That energized their passionate fan base, which had the largest attendance increase in the NCAA last year, and has helped second-year head coach Mark Hudspeth's recruiting efforts for the future.

Both teams see themselves as Sun Belt contenders and have reason to believe they can win the tone-setting conference opener. What I'm excited about for tomorrow night:

1. The atmosphere
Troy is an under-the-radar football hotbed. A long-time Division II powerhouse that transitioned to Division I back in 2002, Trojan fans have tremendous pride in their history of conference titles and NFL players. (For the record, I've had healthy respect for them since they kicked my Rice Owls' butts in the 2006 New Orleans Bowl.) I expect Troy fans to come out in force for the home opener, but I also expect Ragin Cajun fans to travel well and provide some support for the visitors. If the rain holds off (which remains a bit iffy, but we can hope), 33,000-seat Veterans Memorial Stadium should be rocking.

2. Quarterbacks
Any discussion of these two teams has to start with their signal-callers, the MVPs of the last two New Orleans Bowl games. Troy junior Corey Robinson set a national high-school record with 91 touchdown passes in one season as a senior in Paducah, Kent., and he's thrown for 3,400+ yards in back-to-back seasons. On the other side, UL senior Blaine Gautier makes the Cajuns go. He can throw the deep ball - although he was erratic downfield in the season-opening win - and scramble when necessary. He tied Jake Delhomme's school record with five career games of 300+ yards passing, except Gautier did it in a single season. Yeah, these guys can play.

3. Second, third, fourth chances
Both teams have guys who have overcome long odds, adversity, or their own mistakes to become productive collegiate players. For example, Troy walk-on linebacker De'Von Terry, the reigning SBC Defensive Player of the Week, used to be excused from some practices by Blakeney so he could earn enough money to stay in school. Lafayette linebacker Le'Marcus Gibson and Troy safety Barry Valcin are both sixth-year seniors who had to apply for extra years of collegiate eligibility, while Gibson and teammates Tig Barksdale and Delvin Jones are both playing at their third school. These are just some examples, but we're going to be watching a lot of seriously motivated guys tomorrow night.

4. The big men
They may not be quite as big as my esteemed partner, but both teams have some big guys up front who you will definitely notice. As Blakeney put it, "the guys who hit each other on every play" are going to play a big role. Each team has three linemen upwards of 290 pounts, led by the Quave brothers - Daniel and Mykhael - at guard for UL and Troy center Kyle Wilborn. On the defensive side, watch for Lafayette nose tackle Justin Hamilton, a 330-pound sophomore who forced two fumbles against Lamar, and the speed of Troy ends Tony Davis and Marty Stadom.

5. Throwback kickers
Both teams employ specialists who handle punting and placekicking, which seems kind of old-school. Lafayette's Brett Baer is closing in on the NCAA record for kicking accuracy and hit from 50+ yards last week. He's also 7-for-9 on onside kicks in his career, recovering four of them himself. Troy's Will Scott, a junior college transfer signed for his punting, won the kicking spot and hit from 44 yards against UAB. If my opener was any indication, one or both of these guys could be lining up some high-pressure kicks on Saturday night. I hope you'll tune in to see it.

Saturday night's game will kick off at 7 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN3 and WatchESPN. Follow @jtyardley for more coverage before and after the game.

01 September 2012

Dramatic welcome to college football! UTSA 33, South Alabama 31

Wow. What an introduction to college football broadcasting that was!

Just like last year, UTSA and South Alabama traded momentum all afternoon, with some impressive big plays tempered by a mess of turnovers and penalties. It was fascinating to see things swing first one way, then the other, and continue back and forth throughout the game. In the end, though, we got one of the most dramatic endings we could have asked for.

In last year's game between the teams, UTSA kicker Sean Ianno had a chance for a close-range game-winning field goal with three seconds remaining. Whether due to a low trajectory, a slight struggle at the line, or some combination thereof, the kick was blocked. South Alabama went on to win in overtime. While the play does not go down as Ianno's fault, you have to believe he had been seen that kick in his dreams plenty of times over the last 11 months.

He got a chance to make up for it and then some on Saturday, as UTSA, trailing 31-30, reached the 34-yard line in the final 30 seconds. Ianno seized his chance, hitting a bomb from 51 yards that cleared the crossbar with plenty of room to spare, giving the Roadrunners a win in their first game as a transitional FBS team. It was an incredible moment both for Ianno, personally, and for the UTSA team and school.

It was also a lot of fun to be part of as a broadcast team! Cole Cubelic was a great partner for my first televised football broadcast - he seemed to know half the people we ran into at Ladd-Peebles Stadium - and I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. I'm sure it was not perfect -- I know there were a few name hiccups, and I'm still adjusting to football play-by-play -- but I enjoyed the whole thing just as much as I hoped, and I can't wait to work on more college football games this fall.

My next one is Troy against Louisiana-Lafayette next Saturday, also here in Alabama, and I can only hope the ending lives up to today's.

30 August 2012

Why you should watch: the most exciting players in Saturday's UTSA-South Alabama game

If you know nothing about UTSA and South Alabama’s college football teams, you’re probably not as interested as I am in a post breaking down the game, matchup by matchup.

So here’s a primer on some players I’m excited to see on Saturday – if you tune in, I think you’ll enjoy watching them too.

1. Kam Jones, WR, UTSA #1
5-11, 190 lbs, redshirt sophomore from Edna HS in southeast Texas
This is the guy you need to locate before the snap on every UTSA play. You’ll see him wide, in the slot, in the backfield, and even taking a direct snap once in a while. Quick and a great broken-field runner, he led the Roadrunners with 881 all-purpose yards last year after setting the tone for the season by returning the opening kickoff 37 yards and across midfield.

2. Jake Johnson, LB, South Alabama #42
6-1, 240 lbs, fifth-year senior from Stafford HS in Fredericksburg, Va.
Played at Virginia Tech 2008-09.
This guy plays like an animal. A weightroom fanatic who says his favorite NFL player is Jared Allen, he finds a way to be everywhere on defense from the center of South Alabama's 3-4 scheme. The play that stands out in my mind came against UTSA last year, when Johnson showed blitz up the middle, read the snap count perfectly, and got to the quarterback before the tailback did, forcing a fumble in the process. Not somebody you want to get hit by.

3. Eric Soza, QB, UTSA #8
6-0, 200 lbs, redshirt junior from Beeville Jones HS in southeast Texas
Redshirted at Texas State 2009.
As a Rice alumnus, I have a special fondness for the option, and Soza runs a terrific one. I appreciate a quarterback who can wait until the last second to pitch the ball, then absorb a big hit and get right back up, and Soza does it time and again. His backfield movement and ballhandling is very deceptive, and he’s not bad through the air.

4. Tyrell Pearson, CB, South Alabama #9
5-8, 150 lbs, junior from Greenville HS in South Carolina
Played at Mesa Comm. Coll. In Arizona 2010-11.
This guy basically got himself a Division I scholarship based off of a highlight tape that looked like an action movie, so that’s impressive to begin with. Described as a pure ballhawk, everybody who’s seen him says, “You’re going to love watching this guy play,” and I don’t doubt it.

5. Triston Wade, S, UTSA #14
5-11, 170 lbs, sophomore from Tyler John Tyler HS in east Texas
This is a guy starting at safety as a true sophomore even after committing at least seven personal-foul penalties last year and being ejected from a game! It’s because he is a huge hitter, forcing five turnovers last year and separating numerous other receivers from the ball. If he can control himself and his timing, expect to see some big plays.

6. Demetre Baker, RB, South Alabama #33
6-1, 210 lbs, sophomore from Orange Park HS in Florida
You see a lot of skill players who were track and field stars in high school, but how many of them were stars in the shot put and discus? Baker is a bruising running back who also happens to be the South Alabama school record holder in the shot put. I’m looking forward to watching him run, but I bet UTSA isn’t – Baker scored the game-winning touchdown in double overtime last year.

Saturday afternoon's game will kick off at 2 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN3 and WatchESPN. Follow @jtyardley for more coverage before and after the game.

28 August 2012

Common experience: UTSA, South Alabama share common threads

Weather permitting, South Alabama and UTSA will play their inaugural games as NCAA FBS teams, albeit transitional ones, on Thursday night Saturday afternoon. Weather permitting, I’ll call the game on ESPN3 alongside former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic. Fortune permitting, we’ll get a game as competitive as these teams played last year.

Yes, it is the first game at the FBS level for both teams, two of the four transitional FBS teams in 2012, along with Texas State and UMass. But UTSA and South Alabama met last year when both were competing as FCS independents, with the Jaguars winning at the Alamodome in double overtime. (Check out the highlights.) While there are plenty of differences in terms of Xs and Os (and I plan to look at some later in the week) and in terms of the path both teams took to prepare for an FBS schedule, they share any number of attributes and common storylines.

This game has been a long time coming for just about everybody on both teams: UTSA spent a full season just practicing in 2010, while South Alabama spent two years beating up on prep and lower-division schools in 2009-10. Last year, playing as independent FCS teams, both groups always had one eye on this year and this game. There’s going to be a lot of emotion attached to the first game at the FBS level, so in that sense, the teams come in on equal footing.

In scouting the teams, similarities also jumped out at three positions, providing three pairs of players to watch and focus on as we count down to the 2012 college football season:

1. Ubiquitous linebackers
Both teams’ defenses are led by take-charge players who seem to be everywhere on the field, yet they come at it in different ways. South Alabama senior Jake Johnson played two years at Virginia Tech, admits he got into weightlifting while watching professional wrestling as a kid, and plays with the savage power you would expect from a guy whose favorite NFL player is Jared Allen. His head coach, Joey Jones, calls him “a player I think will play in the NFL.” 'Nough said. On the other side, UTSA’s defensive soul starts with the less-heralded Steven Kurfehs (pronounced KERR-fis), a Division II transfer and Division I walk-on who earned a scholarship after that 2010 practice season. He proceeded to lead the Roadrunners in tackles through seven games last year before missing two games due to injury, although he was suspended for the final game of the year for a violation of team rules. A former safety, his speed and energy propel him from sideline to sideline, and head coach Larry Coker said he can play anywhere in Division I. Both teams have other excellent linebackers as well – Brandon Reeves for UTSA, Clifton Crews and Enrique Williams for South Alabama – but Johnson and Kurfehs are the guys who set the tone.

2. Eloquent centers
Each side sees its offense anchored by a true student-athlete at center. South Alabama’s Trey Clark has already graduated with a degree in exercise science (he is currently enrolled in a master’s program) and is the only Jaguar on the offensive side to start all 27 of the program’s games, dating back to 2009. UTSA sophomore Nate Leonard graduated third in his high-school class of more than 400 and readily employs appropriate metaphors when describing his search for Division I football in a must-read debut blog for the Huffington Post website. Snap counts should be in good hands with this duo.

3. Resilient kickers
Both South Alabama’s Michel Chapuseaux (pronounced Michael CHAP-uh-sew) and UTSA’s Sean Ianno (eye-AH-no), the latter from Pflugerville High School (where game sequences from ‘Friday Night Lights’ were filmed), played mostly soccer in high school, adding kicking duties in their junior and senior years, respectively. Yet they have already had to deal with plenty of adversity in their short football careers. In last year's meeting between the teams, Ianno lined up a 26-yard attempt for the win on the game's final play, only to see it blocked; Chapuseaux missed a field goal in the 2010 opener and has not attempted a competitive field goal since. Although both will surely say they have moved on, there will be a little extra pressure on each kick Thursday night this Saturday.

Weather permitting, of course.

Saturday afternoon's game will kick off at 2 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN3 and WatchESPN. Follow @jtyardley for more coverage before and after the game.

24 August 2012

One more post on HGPs: 2012 freshmen

In writing about men's college soccer, which kicks off tonight, it's usually best to stay away from freshmen until after they've played a few games. Some guys come in with a reputation and live up to it, but it's hard to predict, coaches don't like to talk about it, etc.

So when writing about MLS home-grown players in college soccer, both the Top Drawer Soccer team and myself, when compiling our lists of top prospects, have mostly stayed away from freshmen.

Because more information is better, however, I'm going to present a list of notable MLS-protected freshmen in college this season without making evaluations. Here is one college freshman from each MLS team (except Montreal) that I have heard of with good reason. I'm not saying these are the best players or that they will one day be a professional, merely that I have heard of each one for his soccer ability. Here they are, presented in alphabetical order by MLS team:

Chicago Fire - FW Andrew Oliver, Indiana, 5-8, 160
Chivas USA - DF Brendan Hines-Ike, Creighton, 6-1, 170
Columbus Crew - DF Andrew Souders, Akron, 5-11, 165
Colorado Rapids - MF Dillon Serna, Akron, 5-7, 135
D.C. United - FW Luis Rendon, Duke, 5-10, 160
FC Dallas - DF Mikey Ambrose, Maryland, 5-9, 155
Houston Dynamo - DF Bradley Bourgeois, Tulsa, 5-11, 190
Sporting Kansas City - FW Nate Opperman, Evansville, 6-0, 170
LA Galaxy - MF Grady Howe, UCLA, 5-10, 155
New England Revolution - DF Mitchell Taintor, Rutgers, 6-2, 175
New York Red Bulls - FW Brandon Allen, Georgetown, 6-0, 180
Philadelphia Union - FW Darius Madison, Virginia, 5-8, 160
Portland Timbers - MF Mikhail Doholis*, Oregon State, 5-10, 160
Real Salt Lake - MF Cole Nagy, UCLA, 5-8, 160
Seattle Sounders - MF Aaron Kovar, Stanford, 5-10, 155
San Jose Earthquakes - GK Kendall McIntosh, Santa Clara, 5-11, 160
Toronto FC - FW Omari Morris, Akron, 5-4, 145
Vancouver Whitecaps - MF Ben McKendry, New Mexico, 5-11, 150

* like many players with ties to Portland at this point, there are questions about the home-grown eligibility of Doholis