Friday, January 17, 2014

Who is the Most Important Wildcat? An Introduction to the Importance Index

When assessing the individuals on a team, we often discuss who the best player is on that team. Another, perhaps related question, is who the most important player is on that team. I was pondering over that second question when I thought of one way to solve this. Here is what I came up with:

The team you are wanting to assess just finished a game against some opponent. You have no information about the game other than who the two teams are. You are asked to guess who won the game, but before you do, you are allowed to look at one player's stat line. Which player do you pick? The player you would pick would seem to be the most important player, as their stats most relevantly show whether or not the team won.


That is a relatively imprecise notion of importance, so I wanted to try my hand at creating a rudimentary metric for defining importance. The discussion that I had begun with had been about basketball, so I started with looking at it for that sport. Here is my first crack at it.


Importance Index: the correlation coefficient between the point differential in a game and the number of points scored by an individual in that game. 


Before assessing the merits of it, let's look at the stat in action. We will look at the men's basketball team for my beloved Kansas State Wildcats. Before running the numbers, my first thought was that I would pick either Shane Southwell's or Thomas Gipson's stat line in order to predict the result. Let us see what the numbers said. 


M. FosterT. GipsonS. SouthwellN. WilliamsDJ Johnson
-0.033305617-0.0025595290.491312263-0.0443699490.243060373
O. LawrenceW. SpradlingW. IwunduN. JohnsonJ. Thomas
0.101570967-0.1300663230.0741263450.084532404-0.763105637

Ok. So, that's a lot of numbers after the decimal. I like them, but I know they are obnoxious. Here are the list of the top three most important players according to this Importance Index:


  1. Shane Southwell (0.491)
  2. DJ Johnson (0.243)
  3. Omari Lawrence (0.102)
My intuition about Southwell seems to be correct, but not so much with the one about Gipson. Jevon Thomas' numbers are skewed badly, because he has only played in 6 games so far and his highest score game (9 points) was at Allen Fieldhouse, where the Cats lost by 26. I was surprised a bit by the fact that Foster's and Gipson's numbers came up negative. It might just be noise or it might be that their importance to Wildcat victories are shown more by their other numbers, namely Gipson's rebounds. (I ran the index with just that; it came out to 0.299.)

It's a relatively simple statistic, which has its benefits and drawbacks. I think it captures the intuition behind that idea of picking one player's stat line in order to predict how a team did. What you are looking for is whose stat line best correlates with a team winning. This could easily be done with rebounds, assists, steals, or any other statistic under the sky. My thought is that there needs to be some way to add together all of a player's contribution without simply adding points, rebounds, and assists. These might want to be weighted to some extent. I'm still working through this, but I think there is something here. I'd be interested in any input. 


This whole discussion began when talking to my future co-host of the Sneaky Fast Sports Show, Amar. Look out for us being on Wildcat 91.9 through the spring semester. This theme will certainly come up on the show. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Falling for Die Schwarzgelb

"SANTANA! ... SANTANA! ... SANTANA!"

Tears were streaming down my red face as I screamed the last name of my new hero at the top of my lungs. I collapsed onto my coach, a heaving pile of emotion pondering over a single question: how in the world did I end up here?

-----

I have always been a bit of a sports nut. As a kid, I had entire depth charts of NFL teams memorized. Were you curious who the backup fullback was for the Jacksonville Jaguars was? Of course not! But, I could tell you. American Football is my first and greatest love. The magic of the gridiron pulled me towards the sports world in general. No matter how much the Chiefs and Royals tried to warn me away, I fell in love with KC sports.

Soccer was nowhere to be found in my sporting world until the 2010 World Cup. I had glanced at a couple of the games from the 2006 World Cup, but I honestly can't recall anything from those games. 2010 was my first real venture into the sport. It was that emotional injury time winner from Donovan against Algeria that left a seed of the beautiful game in my heart.

-----

It took about 5 months for that seed to really begin to blossom. College football was winding down and I needed something to fill my Saturdays. I thought to myself, "I loved that crazy World Cup. Why don't I watch some more of this soccer stuff?" And, boy, did I watch.

It came as a bit of a blur at first. I can be an incredibly obsessive person when it comes to my hobbies. I wasn't going to be content with just catching the weekly EPL match and knowing about the Big 4 in England. I needed to know if Rotherham United was going to be promoted this year into League One. I needed to know who the next Croatian superstar was to come out of Dinamo Zagreb. Most importantly, I needed to know everything that I needed to know about my home league, MLS, but it was out of season, so I had to look elsewhere.

After soaking up all the EPL that I could muster, I knew I needed to venture into some other leagues around the world. Enter the Bundesliga. It seemed the logical choice. The German national team was one of my favorite to watch at the World Cup and Muller and Klose were the only names I knew before venturing into the world of soccer on my own. Heck, my family even has German heritage. Why not try and tap into that a bit? It helped that ESPN3 were streaming a couple matches every week. Without that, I might not have gotten to where I am now.


The first two things I learned about the Bundesliga were this:
1. Muller and Klose played for Bayern Munich.
2. Don't become a fan of Bayern Munich. In fact, you should probably hate them.

I nodded approvingly and accepted that Bayern were not to become my team. After watching a couple of their matches and reading plenty about them, I was glad I didn't. The whole ethos of the team just was not appealing.

-----

One of my first memories of watching the Bundesliga involves a lot of confused questions. Who puts a goat on their team logo? Are Cologne and Köln supposed to be the same place? Why do we have different names for the city? Why is that coach running around like a madman in his tracksuit? Why do I love watching this team so much?

The commentator said that there had been a feisty international match prior to this club match. Turkey had played Germany and Lukas Podolski, who played for this goat team, had gotten into a bit of a scrap with Nuri Şahin, who played for this yellow and black team. Şahin's team just seemed to ooze controlled chaos and passion, and all of it seemed to unconsciously tug at my heart.

When this Podolski fellow scored late in the game to tie it up, I felt a bit crushed. Again: more questions. Why did I care? It's a soccer game on the other side of the world. I've never cared about soccer here, much less in Eur---then, suddenly, Şahin scored a winner.

He sprinted away with joy, aiming at a single person. As he hit the midfield line he slid on his knees in front of Podolski, wagging a single finger. Suddenly, the goalkeeper was up there with him, screaming and yelling in defense of his teammate.

And, I found myself doing the same.

-----

I soon discovered that this was Borussia Dortmund. BVB. Ballspielverien Borussia. Champions League winners in 1997. Die Schwarzgelb. I soaked up all the information that I could about the team. The history is rich; the players are legendary; the club is important. More than all of that, the fans are incredible.

I tuned in the next week to see the massive Yellow Wall in action. As Antônio da Silva scored a free kick equalizer in stoppage time right in front of the heaving mass of humanity, everything went crazy. I couldn't believe the insanity that was going on around the field. The seed that Şahin had planted with his goal against Cologne was being watered by da Silva and the glorious Südtribüne.

The sprinkling became a downpour as I began to connect with more Dortmund fans around the world, mainly through Twitter. The love and passion that they showed for this club was intoxicating and it pulled me in. As I got pulled closer, they welcomed me with open arms. No snobby complaints about Americans who knew nothing about the game; no disdain about a new fan finding his first love. It was welcoming and passionate. There was no way out for me.  

When I started watching the Bundesliga, I figured I would probably pick a team for me to support. I'm typically a very logical analyzer when it comes to all sorts of problems. I had planned to read all I could, discover the pros and cons of each team and pick the one that would fit the best for me. It had to be a team that I could reliably trust wouldn't collapse in the near future; they needed to have some sort of a youth system; etc. I had a whole list of criteria to measure these clubs by in order to make my decision.

Borussia Dortmund threw all of that out the window. The club punched a whole through the spreadsheet and grabbed straight for my heart and refused to let go. Suddenly, sports, especially, soccer, became a romantic endeavor. A game full of passion and desire. Full on energy and love. And a massive family that called the Westfalenstadion home.

-----

The first game that I remember watching as a self-identified Dortmund fan was the derby against Schalke. I have grown up around some intense rivalries here. The Chiefs-Raiders in the NFL can be pretty rough and tumble. Missouri and Kansas played out some of the most passionate games I've ever seen on the football field and the basketball court. This was on a different level. The build-up was incredible and the songs that rang out all game long were ear-crushingly loud. The game ended up being less Dortmund v Schalke and more Dortmund v Neuer. Neuer played like a man possessed and managed to draw against a team with 10 more players. The sting I felt was the same sting that I feel when the Chiefs would suffer a big loss. I knew they had me. It's one thing to rejoice when they rejoice; it's another to mourn when they mourn.

There was not to be much mourning, though. My nerves built up like mad before the match in Munich. When Şahin scored the 2-1 and Hummels the 3-1, I was in ecstacy. What a team this was. Even the Mullers and Kloses that I had heard all about in the summer couldn't stop them!

-----

Over the next couple years, Borrusia Dortmund did every thing they could to turn me into an emotional wreck on a weekly basis. And, I loved it. Şahin and Dedê left and I felt sick. Dortmund crushed Hamburg to open the following season and I cheered as loud as I could while in my cubicle at work. Then they lost to Hoffenheim and I got all sickly again. Then, in October, the team decided that they didn't feel like losing anymore. Every game was a roller coaster ride. The Champions League was crushing, but fun.

Finally, in my dorm room in Prague, I made an absolute fool of myself as I watched die Schwarzgelb smack Bayern around and take the DFB-Pokal by winning 5-2.

-----

I did get to visit the Westfalenstadion last summer. I wasn't able to go to a match, but just being there was tremondous. The museum was full of amazing snipets of the huge history of Borussia Dortmund. I also managed to spend a boatload of money on a Leitner jersey (HE BETTER COME GOOD), a scarf, and some other nik-nacks.

-----

As the 2012-13 season rolled around, discussion began that Dortmund were going to focus on the Champions League, the biggest club competition in the world. As the draw came out, I was filled with a mix of dread and excitement. I was dreading the thought of bowing out in Europe again, but the prospect of putting ourselves up against the best in the world was thrilling.

The group stages ended up being all thrilling. The boys played out of their skin on those midweek nights and made the champions of Spain, England, and Holland look like lesser teams.

The Champions League knockout rounds brought a new sort of nervousness that I didn't think possible. As I sat in front of my television for the second leg of the tie against Malaga, I pondered the worst and hoped for the best. If we went out here, the whole season would be tinged with disappointment. Malaga's early goal was crushing, but Lewandowski's equalizer was a sublime work of art that lead to me sprinting around my house with glee.

As the game went later, and we needed a goal, I felt myself getting more and more emotional. If we didn't score soon, we would be in trouble. Worse, if they managed to snag a go--Then. Eliseu scored. Late. Like, really late. Like, "we need a miralce or this whole Champions League thing is done" late.

I had been used to losing and had felt some pain and anguish because of it, but this was the first time that I began to cry over a sports game. I slumped into my couch and began sobbing. I tried to dry my tears with my scarf, but they kept on coming. I tried to tell myself that there was still plenty of time, but I didn't really believe it. As I looked on the faces of the players, I noticed something. They did believe it.

As Reus slammed in the first goal of extra time, I thought only one thing: "Don't mess with me right now. Don't tease me like this." I screamed and begged for a winner. I wanted nothing more in the world. As the ball came into the box, and bounced around on the line, I felt like everything just stopped. Then, Santana was running away with the biggest grin on his face. The ball was in the net! The Südtribüne, oh! the Südtribüne, was going absolutely bonkers and I just couldn't handle it. My body couldn't take it. I collapsed onto my knees and just began sobbing, this time, tears of joy. I stood up as I heard Norbert Dickel, oh! Nobby, you beautiful man, you, accounce the goal. As he reached then end he yelled, "FELIPE!" and I answered, "SANTANA!"

"FELIPE!"

"SANTANA!"

"FELIPE!"

"SANTANA!!!"

The screaming was muffled my the mucus and tears that were filling my face, but I couldn't care in the slightest. I was just reveling in the most amazing sporting moment I had ever witnessed and I didn't want to do anything else. It took about 15 minutes for me to finally begin to settle down even a little bit. I spent the next hours just blaring Borussia Dortmund songs from my room and smiling like a mad fool. Like Jurgen Klopp.

-----

I had started writing this under the inane presumption that I could keep this short and sweet. There was no way I could. There is just too much that I could write about this club, its fans, its players, its coach, its staff, its everything. Ultimately, though, I want to say thank you. Firstly, to Zorc, Watzke, Klopp and all the people who helped make these last couple years so magical and will continue to do so. But, ultimately, I want to thank all the amazing fans of Borussia Dortmund. Those who I've only seen on television have given me a glimpse into the passion and drive for their club that is simply unparalled. Those who I have had the extreme fortune to meet and talk to, I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart, especially those of you from Dortmund. You have every right to keep this beautiful club for yourself and to push the rest of us away. You have everything you could want in a football club without us, yet you still welcome us in with open and loving arms. It's incredible and I love and thank all of you for doing that. All I can do is try to do the same for you. Come watch some Sporting Kansas City with me!

Looking back, I never thought a soccer game would bring me to tears. Even more, I never thought that writing a blog post about soccer would do the same. But, that's Borussia Dortmund. And, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The 2012 Home Run Derby


"Please tell me he didn't just say that."

I knew he had, but I really didn't want the moment to be ruined by such crassness. Mark Trumbo had just obliterated some poor sap of a baseball. The white speck flew farther and farther into left field, until it came to a sudden halt as it collided with the towering "Royals Hall of Fame" sign.

"Now, THAT is a Trum-bomb!" screamed the on-field hype-man/MC/sponser-dropper.

I scanned over the whole of the Kauffman Stadium diamond below me. I knew he was down there. He had to be. He was there earlier. Surely, he can't run! I muttered under my breath and between the spittle, "Say Trum-bomb one more time! Just one more time. Say it. Say it! SAY IT!" like it was the nickname I had been called through all of my formative years and now that I've finally hit my growth spurt, I think I can fight the whole world; I've just needed an excuse.1

With cheese pouring from his ears, Mr. Hype-man provided the excuse after a lull of smashes. "Come on, KC! He's needs some motivation for some more Trum-bombs!" Before his teeth could even close to make that terrible "s" sound, my mind cut to me leaping with a terrible roar, causing all the onlookers encircling our duel to gasp simultaneously. Each punch was dedicated to some terrible pain he had inflicted upon me this evening. "This is for trying to get me to yell 2 hours before the derby! And, this is for saying 'State Farm' every 5 seconds!" And, then completing it with a "trum-bomb" of my own straight to the nose, followed by nervously explaining that this was his fault; he knew what would happen if he used THAT word.

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The carnival style mad-man who refused to allow a moment's silence during the whole Home Run Derby was sadly fitting. He seemed to personify the whole joke that is the All-Star weekend. Except, he was in on the joke.

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Before the derby started, the official guy-who-yells-really-loud-between-the-innings-at-games-to-keep-everyone-entertained tried to do a simple interview with Robinson Cano. What I got from the interview was, "BOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Kauffman was already filling up and it seemed that the whole crowd was booing as loud as ever at the man. And, whenever the booing died down, the guy-who-yells, etc. would say something like, "booing is a sign of appreciation" or "we love having you here," which would instantly ratchet the boos back up.

For those who don't know, Robinson Cano had promised that he would pick one of the hometown Royals to be in the Home Run Derby. Fans were incredibly excited, and with Billy Butler selected to the All-Star Game, Royals fans waited anxiously to see the man banging dingers at the derby. But, he wasn't picked. Cano offered no explanation other than ceaselessly repeating that the decision was really hard. After a large amount of vitriol began heading Cano's way, there were rumors he would drop out to let Butler take his spot. When asked about it, he said he wouldn't do that, because he wanted to win. All this rubbed the local fans the wrong way.

The big New Yorker had come in promising big things, but had instead slapped us across the face and pretended he didn't care in the slightest.

When the batting order went up on the 105 foot tall Crown-topped screen, Cano's name was listed last. The anticipation built for what I knew would be a memorable moment.

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When I say it is the most fun I have ever had at Kauffman Stadium, I'm not kidding. My fondest memory of Kauffman prior was a walk-off home run from Ken Harvey in the 11th inning.3 Yes. I said Ken Harvey. During that exhiliratingly cruel 2003 season, the Royals were, well, royalty within the city. It finally seemed fun to be a Royals fan, rather than just an investment in the hope of future fun. But, when Cano came up to bat, the Royals community stood together again and created an even more beautiful moment.  

Every sharply fouled ball was met with a roar of ironic cheers. It felt almost like an English Premier League match. We were the Manchester United supporters behind the goal and Cano played the role of Fernando Torres missing the gaping goal. Justice had been meted out. The big New Yorker had strode in KC and collapsed under the midwest lights. Decades of angst and flyover-country jabs suddenly seemed worth all the trouble.

As Cano, sulked from home plate with zero home runs to a standing ovation, for a few brief--but oh-so-wondrous--moments the crowd noise drowned out what that hidden hype man was trying to scream.


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1 The high schools depicted on the silver screen have always seemed like some strange foreign world compared to any of my high school experiences, but the fact that some version of this line comes up so often puzzles me more than any of the other oddities that Hollywood high schools seem to have come up with. Perhaps, my upper middle class2 high school missed out on all the fun.

2 Upper-middle class. Not upper class. Not middle class. I'm neither obnoxiously posh nor distigustingly average. I'm the perfect happy medium. Or, so we're told.
-

3 That was Harvey's 2nd hit of the game. Other multi-hit Royals that day: Michael Tucker, Raul Ibanez and Angel Berroa. The homer took us to a 12-3 record and filled a whole city with the sort of hope that we all knew would crush our souls in just a couple short months, but we hadn't tasted it for so long, so on we screamed, "nosotros creemos!" We believe.
-

Monday, February 27, 2012

Adapting to the Old World

Time is obnoxious. When we need a lot of it, it suddenly makes itself scarce. When we need it to go by quickly, it crawls slowly along, as if wading through a pool of molasses that is slowly being filled with Quik-rete. The worst part of it is that it does both of these things simultaneously. Hours drag on while years fly by. A single day can seem like an epic struggle that spanned the eons. Yet, when you lay down that evening, you can remember graduating high school as if it was yesterday. Time crawls and sprints simultaneously.

It's as maddening as it is intriguing. As terrible as it is wonderful.

The National Museum and some statue at Václavské Náměsti
Which is why it feels so strange, yet so normal that I have already been in Prague for over two weeks. 

What a wonderful couple weeks it has been! For the first few days that I was here, I slowly figured my way around the gorgeous city of Prague. With the 3 month public transportation pass, I've been able to take the myriad of subway, tram, and bus lines around the city. Using public transportation to get around to, well, everywhere is one of the bigger changes. The city here is beautiful, as you all have probably heard. Look at the pictures; you'll get the idea. That's not the exciting stuff to write about.

Classes have been excellent so far. Economic Integration of Central Europe to the EU only has 6 of us in it, but seems really interesting. Basic Czech should help me get around town better. Economic Transition is a perfect class to take here in a former Soviet republic. And, Development Economics is taught my an American and looks to be my favorite of all the classes after one week.

But, that's still not the exciting stuff.

The exciting part is studying myself as I spend more and more time away from all of my usual habits and people. One of the first things I've found is that being an American abroad is very boring. Everyone has met an American. Americans are everywhere. We're usual. To compound the problem, many people have already visited America. I can't even tell them about the exciting stuff, because they've all seen it already! Even worse: I don't even have my own language that I can use to make fun of everyone else with my compatriots. 

I've also discovered that I don't remember any notable "first times." I can't really recall my first day in high school. Or my first day alone at K-State. Or my first time driving or riding a bike. Or my first time doing basically anything that I figure most people would note. That's a good thing, though. It comes to the fact that I seem to adapt really quickly to new situations. Which seems odd, considering how easily I tend to get stuck in a rut. I've found that I freak out more if someone is sitting in the seat that I've been used to sitting in than when I'm flown halfway around the world and told to survive without knowing the native language, anyone there or how best to get around. It's hard for my wagon to make small turns, because I'm so far down in the rut, but pull me out and plant me onto a completely different road and I cut deep new ruts without batting an eye.

I also have an adventurous streak in me that I typically try to beat the life out of back home, but here in Europe has been able to gasp for air between blows long enough to get me to try walking into random restaurants, try wandering into new areas, and--it's greatest achievement so far--get me to travel to Vienna almost completely on a whim.

My view of the match against Dukla Prague
That was to go see my second European football match. The first was here in Prague as Dukla Prague hosted my local club, so the speak, FK Viktoria Žižkov. The match went about as I expected. Dukla Prague went up 3-0 after 15 minutes and comfortably held on for the remaining 75 minutes to see off the miserable bottom-feeders. What I wasn't expecting was for nearly 50 Schalke fans to be attending the game after seeing their beloved club draw Czech club, FC Viktoria Plzeň, the Thursday prior. That wouldn't be worth noting without the minor detail that I was wearing my beloved Borussia Dortmund stocking cap.

I knew the rivalry between Dortmund and Schalke was a heated one. I could deal with that. I've lived in the midst of a KU/MU rivalry that has seen some emotional moments, but there's something about soccer that takes rivalries to the next level. At halftime, a calm Schalke fan came up to me while pointing at my hat, simply saying, "no, no, no" in an almost worried tone, as if he just felt bad for me that I would choose to support such a club. After a short talk, he informed me of the large number of Schalke fans present. 

For the rest of the match, I noticed unkind glances from individuals all around me who were wearing Schalke blue. A few even started the throw words--German words--at me. I could only catch the parts where they would say "BVB," short for Ballspielverein Borussia Dortmund. The rest was unintelligible to me, but the tone was obvious. It wasn't happy. Much more hateful. For the first time, I had become a bit rattled by the fact that I didn't speak the native tongue of those around me and the native tongue wasn't Czech! All in all, though, it wasn't all the miserable. If anything, it just made me that much more excited for BVB's next victory over the miserable blue beasts. 

Back to Vienna: I had managed to get in contact with someone who lives in Vienna who was planning on going to the match and could use someone to tag along. Perfect! I booked the train ticket. Hopped on a train at 10:45 AM in Prague and showed up in Vienna a few hours later. After meeting at the train station, we grabbed some food and headed to the stadium for the 300th Vienna derby between Rapid Wien and Austria Wien. To put that in perspective, only one other football fixture has been played more in Europe: Rangers vs Celtic in Scotland. This is a rough-and-tumble, intense rivalry. It was technically a home game for Rapid Wien, who my guide supported, but the match was played at a neutral field after Rapid Wien stormed the pitch at the last game. In protest of being forced away from their home, the Rapid fans generally stayed quiet and didn't provide quite the atmosphere they usually would. The Austria fans tried to fill the void, but it wasn't quite as intense as it could have been. The match reflected the flatness of the crowd, as it slowly petered out to a 0-0 draw. Not a great match, but it was my first big European match and I loved it!
The Austria Vienna ultras supporting their club

I headed back to the train station after the match and arrived back in Prague around 3:00 AM. 

The most surprising thing I've discovered about myself here is that I seem to actually be Asian. I didn't even know! My roommate is from South Korea. And near my room lives 2 Thai girls, another South Korean, a couple people from Taiwan and a few from Hong Kong. A few nights ago, a few of them made some fantastic Asian food that I ate with actual chopsticks. It was so exciting! Although I spent most of my time slowly destroying pieces of seaweed while trying to make simple rolls with them, I did manage to get most of it to my mouth without too much hassle. I even tried some of the spicy stuff. I'm really going crazy!

In future weeks, I hope to be able to attend more football matches. On the top of my list is my treks to my two Meccas: Craven Cottage in West London to see Fulham and Westfalenstadion in Dortmund to see Borussia Dortmund. Outside of that, I have plans to visit Krakow, Dresden, and Vienna through organized trips with the buddy system here. 

The best plan of all, though, is taking place the weekend of April 1st. I will be traveling to Bologna, Italy to meet up with my good friend and fellow Wildcat, Eduardo Alvarado. The highlight of the trip will be traveling to see local basketball club, CS Bologna, take on Angelico Biella. One of the key players for the away side is one JACOB PULLEN. I case you forgot how to read there (which, if so, that can't be healthy; you ought to get that checked out; randomly forgetting how to read means something neurologically is off; I would imagine those flashes are long, though, and you've probably missed all this anyways; shame), I'll repeat that. JACOB PULLEN.

We're planning on going to see him play, to use such an underwhelming word to describe the fluid motion Mr. Pullen is engaging in, and are probably going to walk up to him with our Kansas State wear proudly shown. He'll be taken aback by his hometown fans and want to grab dinner with us. We'll dine at a nice Italian restaurant with JACOB PULLEN and then just hang out with him. We've got it all planned out. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Traveling to the Old World

The farthest I have ever been from home on my own was the summer of 2010. I attended Mises University in Auburn, Alabama (682 miles from my hometown) for a week. Presently, I sit high above the Atlantic Ocean hurtling at 660 miles per hour in a small tube on my way to Prague (4931 miles from my hometown) to spend 21 weeks studying at the University of Economics. This is new ground for me; according to the numbers, this is exactly 28.23 times more anxiety-inducing for everyone involved. 

Of course that's utter nonsense, as emotions can't be quantified (note 1),but it gives a little bit of perspective on the how outside of my normal happenings this is. 

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The voice told me that Dallas-Fort Worth airport is the 3rd busiest airport in the world. It seemed an incredible statement as I looked around the somewhat barren terminal, but having been to the most busiest (Atlanta) and being disappointed by the lack of some inkling of violent chaos caused by so many people trying to get to so many places from one launching point, I figured it could be true. The voice did have one way to back its claim; get on the tram. I stepped on at Terminal C and was whizzed around the airport at incredible speeds that helped put it all into perspective. This is a massive place with a lot of people. I finally got to Terminal D, found my gate, and snuck in a meal at Popeyes, which I had been craving for something on a week now. A good omen.

Of course, with the international flight, we are offered dinner. As the flight attendant walked towards me with the massive rolling "tank o' frozen meals," I decided I would kindly reject the meal, as I was completely full. 

30 minutes later: I had completed my duty as an American and eaten everything that was placed on my tray. Well, I didn't finish one thing: the salad. Seemed more patriotic. The meal was surprisingly delicious, as well. I got the vegetable pasta in the hope that Julia Louis-Dreyfuss would appear next to me. It didn't work. As soon as the tray was put before me, I knew I had made the right decision. Next to some crackers sat a small wedge of gourmet cheese. I remembered eating these on plane trips of old to Toronto and Orlando. It was a tiny sliver of my childhood hope all wrapped in tin foil and ready to caress my mouth. 

I had never been so disappointed in my life. I'm pretty sure they had sprayed cheese whiz out of a bottle into tin foil, before covering it in toilet water and spreading a nice layer of "Santa-Claus-isn't-real" childhood killing pus on top just so they could sit back and watch me cry while I ate. This was "Larry Johnson's second season as a Chief" level of disappointment mixed with a "watching the Republican debates" level of anger. A bad omen.

I did eat all the cheese, though. I'm not a Communist.

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For days leading up to me leaving, I had been panicking about the possibility of me panicking while traveling to Europe. All this panicking was not healthy, but the panicking about future panicking turned out to be warranted as I was panicking about making my flight to Prague. The flight from Dallas to London had been delayed, causing us not to land until around 10:20 AM local time. Boarding time for my flight to Prague: 10:15 AM. The captain had told those who are not getting on connecting flights to let those with connecting flights out first. So, of course, everywhere ignored that and stood up. There were 80 people between me and my flight that I had to catch -5 minutes ago. 

Thankfully, the people at American Airlines knew about the mix-up and had a new ticket for me sitting outside the gate for a slightly later flight. Panic level: much lower.

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Panic mode: reengaged! My Czech buddy, Lucie Kalousková, was to be meeting me in Prague at 2:00 PM, but I was now going to be arriving 5:35 PM. Gah! To the pay phone! I punch the behemoth of a number and try to hold onto the phone with my now gushing palms. It didn't help that instead of a nice, classic ring, I got a dull, low-pitched "boop." Each one sounded more like the footstep of a T-Rex coming to destroy Heathrow than a desperate phone call. 

The phone was no use. To the internet! I ripped my laptop from my backpack and wearily connected to Boingo, which doesn't sound anything like a Wifi hotspot finger, but sure enough, I finally was connected. Shot a message to Lucie and felt my pulse slow to a more healthy rate as I slumped down on the bench amongst the huddled masses waiting for their plane out of this dismal place.

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After taking every piece of public transportation conceivable with the fantastic help of Lucie and Matěj, I had arrived at Jarov III F, my dormitory. It is nothing too fancy, but it has all the things that I need. The following day Lucie and I went around to complete all the various tasks that needed doing: exchanged American dollars for Czech crowns, checked in with the immigration office, got my university ID card, set up Wifi at the dorms, got a tram and subway pass for 3 months. I'm getting all settled into the town and have gotten more accustomed to getting around it. Next week is orientation week and the following week is when classes start. For now, I'm just spending time seeing Prague. Between the dorms and school is the home stadium for FK Viktoria Žižkov. They are currently sitting well at the bottom of the Czech Gambrinus Liga. As far as I can tell, Dukla Prague come into town, so to speak, this weekend. Hopefully, I'll be back with pictures and tales for hopefully an exciting, but, more likely, a quite dire soccer match.

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1) I always found it odd when I was asked to rank a pain on a scale of 1-10. Who made this scale? What is a 1? Is 1 no pain? Or is 5 no pain and 1 pleasure? How many people have actually felt a 10 pain? Or a 1 pleasure? More importantly, has the asker felt this range of pains? What if I've just lived in a bubble for all my life and that feeling after eating Taco Bell is a 8.7 on my scale, but barely registers on yours? You're going to be rushing me to the hospital with a bad case of Grade D meat.

Friday, August 12, 2011

2011-2012 Premier League Season Preview


The streets of English cities are being set ablaze in anticipation of the upcoming Premier League season. A mass panic hit the masses and they realized that their 36" televisions were simply too small to hold in the glory that is the Greatest League in the World™. They needed that 42" and it just so happened that the store around the corner had plenty in supply.

At least, this story makes just as much sense as the other ones I've heard to describe the motives of the mobs.

But this is no sociological study, this is a look-ahead to the much-loved/hated English/Barclay's Premier League. So, let's get to it!

At the top of the table, competition for the top spot and the Champions League qualifications is going to be rough. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur look to be the ones duking it out to be able to finish in the top 4, but then, if they miss that to adeptly dodge that dreaded 5th place spot and qualification to the annoingly much-maligned Europa League.

Right now, Manchester United looks set to defend their league title and to put even more space between them and Liverpool. At the refreshingly exciting Community Shield, in which United created one of their trademark comebacks, it seemed that United was stepping right back into stride. They have been wise with their purchases, bringing in Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea, and have kept all the pieces of their title-winning team. Their noisy neighbors, Manchester City, looked decidely disjointed during the Manchester Derby. It's sounds clichéd, but there is an important nugget of truth in the fact that United play as a team, whereas City seem to be a collection of individuals thrown out onto the field. Beyond that, the harder part for City is going to be dealing with their foray into the world of Champions League football. United, Arsenal and Chelsea have played this balancing act between domestic and European play for years; City have not. For City to pose a legitimate challenge, Mancini will need to keep this Frankenstein squad happy and playing together. The addition of Sergio Aguero will be a big boost to the team's hopes, as the young Argentine looks like he could be even better than Tevez.

Arsenal will be putting their best foot forward to tackle the might of United, but the hardest part is that even with the season a matter of hours away, no one knows whose foot that will be. The transfer sagas surrounding Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have become as laughable as they are tiresome. At this point it seems that it might be coming to an end with Wenger finally capitulating to their departure. The loss will be a tough one for the Gunners. Juan Mata looks to be coming in to try and fill that gap, but Arsenal's play is based on the whole team playing as one. When I run this way, you run that way. It takes time to build that sort of connection. Nasri and Fabregas had put that time in; the newcomers will not have. After an embarrasing couple of days at the Emirates Cup, it seems that Arsenal might be just starting with their end-of-the-season collapse rather than building up the hopes of all their fans. How benevolent.

Amongst the overwhelming sea of player transfers, the biggest move of the season might be the acquisition of Andre Villas-Boas from Porto by Chelsea. Roman Abramovich seems to believe that this is the man that will take their storied team to the Champions League glory that they rightly deserve simply because they are Chelsea. That is: he'll believe up until Chelsea don't win the Champions League. Next! The Blues might find that the Essien's absence due to injury could hurt them, but new singings Romelu Lukaku and Oriel Romeu look highly promising. Combined with the return of Daniel Sturridge from a loan spell at Bolton, Villas-Boas will not be lacking in attacking options. They should still finish firmly in the top 4, but United will be just out of their reach. Don't count them out, though. Even after a poor run of form in mid-season, they managed to make up a 18-point gap pull within a single win over United of taking the title.

Read the rest of the article on The Pursuit of Victory here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fulham FC: We're All Going On a European Tour

While a "season preview" might be a misnomer given that the season has already started for Fulham FC, I've yet to find a word that means "a look forward at the future of something that has already started but has really just begun so that the look forward is still relatively profitable." Or at least as profitable as any of these look-aheads are.

The Premier League season begins this Saturday, barring the riots spilling over onto the grounds at Craven Cottage as the angry masses yank the biggest statue they can find from the ground (please don't be Johnny Haynes!) and chuck it into the nearby Thames. Actually, that might be worth postponing the first game. No matter, though; let's focus on the important stuff, which is obviously not the overwrought violence, but football!

Fulham are venturing back into Europe looking for a little more of the magic from two years back, when the Whites ran all the way to the final, taking scalps from the likes of Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and Hamburg. This European adventure is a tad bit longer, beginning in the First Qualifying Round with all the minnows. Before we look forward to what Fulham can accomplish this year, we need to look back at what has been a surprisingly tumultous summer at the Cottage that has settled down into calmer waters.

It began with the sudden departure of Mark Hughes. The man, who did a proper job with the club during his year-long tenure, declared that he was off to bigger and better things. He was bigger and more ambitious that this small team (who had managed a European final and has finished consistently well in the top league in the world) and was off to bigger and better things. If you thought it was perplexing when that big, ambitious dream lay at Villa Park, imagine how strange it is to find that his final ambitions lie simply on his own couch. How daring! How bold!

It was no problem for Al-Fayed, who simply went out and found the man who he originally wanted instead of Hughes, the affable Martin Jol. Jol came in seeming to be everything that we wanted out of Hughes. He was excited to be here. He was dedicated to the club and didn't just want to use us as a stepping stone to greater things (or to watch those greater things on TV). Looking back, Hughes' departure might be one of the best moves Fulham has made. That's not to say that Hughes did a poor job; he did great job of keeping Fulham completely out of the relegation scrap by the last month of the season even after being plagued with injuries, namely to Bobby Zamora. Jol was the man that was the first choice after Hodgson left and it only seems fitting that he get his chance.

Jol has stated that his policy in the transfer market has been to look for good youth talents. Looking at it now, it is hard to judge how his signings will turn out. Only time can tell on that. Hungarian goalkeeper, Csaba Somogyi, impressed Jol when he went on trial at Ajax. He has only signed a one year deal and looks to serve as an emergency netminder with Mark Schwarzer starting and Neil Etheridge deputizing. Czech midfielder, Marcel Gecov, impressed enough at the European U21 Championships to get named to the team of the tournament to get a signing at Fulham. Jol's other youth signing, thus far, is 2009 U-17 World Cup champion, Pajtim Kasami, a midfielder, who was signed from Palermo. Promising 19-year old defender, Dan Burn from Darlington, along with Everton youth product, Tom Donegan, who defeated the Whites in the Academy League Final, were brought in before Jol and both look like potential first-teamers who could make a good impact. 



Read the rest of the article on The Pursuit of Victory here.