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Things On My Sports Mind - June 24

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The Goal that saved the United States, Mike Modano's future, and the question of sports clutter.

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I wrote 2,275 words on Tuesday night for my weekly column here at SBNation Dallas. And then, things changed on Wednesday morning. So, with that in mind, let me offer you another few hundred at the very top. And then, starting with the Mike Modano stuff, you will find the originally intended content. That will also explain how World Cup stuff is covered twice. I would apologize to you for too much soccer talk in my column if I was truly sorry. But, I am not. The World Cup has been that good.


I hope you didn’t miss the moment. 

By that, I mean, I hope you have been following the entire generation of U.S. Soccer. The moment, was merely a moment. But the story is really over a decade in the making. 

You see, France 1998 was a very humiliating time for U.S. Soccer. We were beaten badly and dismissed as the 32nd best team in a 32 team field. It was clear that while we were now clearly better than our neighbors in Canada and Guatemala, we were not close to being a consistent threat to play with the big boys in the World Cup. 

I hope you saw Landon Donovan back in 2000 play in the Summer Olympics and debut with the senior national team as such a young teenager. 

I hope you woke up at 3:30 in the morning in 2002 to watch our boys upset Portugal and then ultimately knock our rivals, Mexico, out in the knockout stage. It was wonderful.

I also hope you were excited and then devastated by the 2006 World Cup. We obviously did not finish the Bruce Arena era properly. One goal scored?  No wins?  Surely we were way better than 2006 showed. What happened to the promise of Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley?  And who was this new star from Texas, Clint Dempsey?

I hope you have followed the legacy of the US goalkeepers. From Meola to Keller to Friedel to Howard. Somehow, we grow goalies like few other countries. If only we could find defenders of the same quality.

I hope you have followed the World Cup qualifiers. All of those amazingly rewarding and gutting nights in El Salvador, Honduras, Chicago, and Salt Lake City. And then another trip to Azteca Stadium where we took the lead last summer, only to concede to the Mexicans in the final moments.

I hope you know about the Davies and Gooch injuries that we thought might derail our train. I hope you know about 5-0 in the Gold Cup Final. I hope you know about the Confederations Cup dream run last summer that started with that miracle against Egypt. I hope you know about the coach’s son who might be the real heart beat of the team.

If you know about all of this, then you fully comprehend why those 11 seconds on Wednesday morning brought tears to our eyes. You understand, and maybe you were right there with us. 

This was not about beating Algeria. This was about Bob Bradley’s job. And Landon Donovan’s legacy. And US Soccer’s reputation. For the first time since 1930, the United States put out a soccer team that could win it’s group in the World Cup. For the first time, the U.S. gained a result in the final game of group play. 

So, if you are not sure why people are going on and on about the 11 seconds that it took the ball to go from Tim Howard to Landon to Jozy to Clint and back to Landon and into the net, please know this:  It was about the decade-long journey. And it cannot be fully explained in an easy sound bite. 

The dream may come to a screeching halt very soon, but we will always have the pride of these last three matches. The fact is we are not ready to win a World Cup as a nation. But, we have come so far. And you should not miss the rest of the journey.

Mike Modano Vs. The Stars

I must be honest; there are times on a given sports issue where bias seems to take over a bit. I think any journalist who claims that bias does not affect them is delusional or dishonest. Every last one of us has likes and dislikes in every facet of our life – and this forms are bias. We can fight it, and claim we call it like we see it; but, even then, the desire (even if it is subliminal) to cut someone slack or to crack down harder on another is always there.

That entire pretext brings us to the top story on my mind today:  The case of Mike Modano vs the Dallas Stars. I hoped for months that a showdown was not going to ensue this summer, but son-of-a-gun, it appears here for all to consider.

So, Mike Modano, the obvious generational face of the franchise (and perhaps eternal face of the franchise) is near the end of his career. In fact, some would argue that the time has already come where it is not necessarily a given that he is an obvious choice to be in the line-up 82 nights a year. I don’t agree, but it is can at least be argued that if Brad Richards is your best center and Mike Ribera is your second best, and Jamie Benn might be your best sooner than you think – well then Mike Modena makes little sense as a fourth-line center who is supposed to be there to add physical strength and grit. In theory, he can provide someone fine play as a top 6 forward who gets PP time and plays with skill guys, but the fact is that the Stars greatest strength is his position. 

What is interesting to note here is also the fact that the Stars have said that they want to be way tougher to play against down the middle of the ice. That is to mean that even though they have great talent down the middle, they are not exactly the type to physically dominate you. Richards is full of talent but far more offensively minded. Ribeiro is as finesse a center as there is in his own end, and Modano was never too far from being in the Lady Byng hunt himself. Benn, meanwhile, is trying to figure out the position for the first time in his life – but at the NHL level. Imagine his learning curve. And I haven’t even mentioned Tom Wandell.

Again, this all says that Modano might not be a fit.

But, how do you slam the door on your icon?  In a public opinion poll, it is clear that Stars fans would side with Modano in any battle between the two sides. But, Joe Nieuwendyk isn’t here to make you feel warm and fuzzy. He is here to attempt to dazzle you with a winning team.

He is also here to not live in the vortex of 1999 where the Stanley Cup memory is this franchise’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. It brings a legacy to build upon, but it also keeps people in a time machine of memories, causing them to want to reassemble that team again. But, you cannot go back to 1999 no matter how bad you want to.

So, enter my bias. I love everything that Mike Modano stands for. I love the fact that he is as down to earth as a millionaire athlete that is married to celebrity wife can be. I love the fact that he has shown class at every turn and played his rear end off. 

But, I also appreciate this franchise’s desire to move on. At least, I assume that Nieuwendyk is looking to move on  He cut the cords with Marty Turco last month, and now I am thinking he is planning the same with Modano. Thanks for the memories, but now we are moving along. Could Modano help the team this year?  Sure. But, will he be a regular contributor for the next contending Stars’ team?  Doubtful.

They want to forge a new identity. So how do they sell this?

They don’t. If they want to move on, they will lose the PR battle at the moment of truth, but then you and I will tune in and wonder if they are any good. If they are, then we will forget the summer that they said goodbye to Turco and Modano. If they are not any good, then the streak grows to three years of no playoffs. 

Bottom line:  this is not a good team. For us to argue hard that they should keep it together is asinine. I am not saying Modano is the problem, of course. But, I cannot with a clean conscience ask Nieuwendyk to rebuild the team – but he has to keep Turco, Modano, and Jere Lehtinen, too. Where do we draw the line on Modano?  For those of us who would love to see him again next season, I would have to wonder if you would endorse an arrangement where Mike can play as long as he wants?  What if he wants to play two or three more years?  What if he wants to play long after he becomes a very marginal NHL player? 

I love Mike. I really do. But, given the obstacles facing the Stars already, (Read: Hicks, Tom) I don’t think it makes any sense for us to put parameters on how Joe figures these problems out.

He already has no money to accomplish this mission ($45m). If he can take '09-'10 salaries from Turco ($6m), Modano ($3.5m), and Jere ($2.5m) and use that $12m on younger, newer players, then maybe he has a chance. You cannot possibly be serious about asking him to use 27 percent of that tiny payroll on players from the past and still ask him to build something out of nothing.

Now, maybe I am reading this all wrong. Maybe Joe is trading Ribeiro this weekend, and Mike is his #3 center. I doubt it, but maybe. 

It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.

Too Much Sports?  

I took my wife on a 15-year anniversary trip last week to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. Now, being married to me for 15 years is surely not a treat for my high-school sweetheart, but since she made it this far, I thought four days on the ocean in one of the most beautiful places on earth would be a reasonable milestone reward for her.

Part of the plan, of course, is that since rarely an hour goes by without a sports thought racing through my head, that maybe, just maybe this trip could be mostly sports free. In fairness to me, when I planned the trip 60 days ago, the prospect of missing this weekend didn’t seem like that big a deal.

At least, not until we found out that we were facing a Game 7 in the NBA Finals on Thursday night. And let’s not forget a whole weekend of US Open Golf. But, since my wife has known me since I was 5 years old, and since we have been "together" since 1989, she could tell that twitch I had during dinner on the ocean on Thursday night. She had no problem assisting me in finding a rare television in Mexico that had that Game 7 on, and we watched that fourth quarter together (the way any girl wants to celebrate on her vacation). It was very romantic.

However, there was one thing that we never imagined would be the sports highlight of the trip. It was earlier that day at lunch. An innocent pursuit of Fish Tacos on Thursday at the Cabo Marina resulted in us finding an outdoor dining area in the shade with a place that bragged as having "the best fish tacos in Cabo". And you know something?  They were very tasty.

But what really happened next was something special. The place started coming alive because on the two televisions at the restaurant, Mexico was playing France in the World Cup. And if you have never experienced a World Cup Match in a country that truly cares about he result, then I must say you are missing an experience that is singular.

The place was on edge for the entire afternoon. People stopped doing what they were doing. Nobody minded the service being a bit slow because the cooks, the wait staff, the customers, and the people passing by at the marina were too distracted with the fate of their beloved Mexican National team. As a friend of the United States national team, I have often felt that "El Tri" is our enemy (and they are), but for once day, I greatly appreciated my Mexican neighbors and joined their ranks as I was swept away in this amazing experience. 

You would look down the marina to other places that were having the same experience. You would see that the non-stop vendors had actually stopped. Traffic had stopped. Radios blared the game. Every television was on the same channel. And every man, woman, boy, and girl was personally invested in the outcome.  

Mexico beat France that day, and for the rest of the weekend, when I wanted to work on my Spanish, I simply brought up the result to any person I saw, and it brought a huge smile to their face.

Why did I want to share this with you this week?  Well, as a person that has spent my entire life immersed in sports, I often have deep thoughts about how we do things in the USA and how other countries are different. This is not some sermon on why soccer is great, because I realize that people often feel about soccer like they do about religion. They think what they think, and if you try too hard to change their mind they are likely to hold a grudge.

Therefore, I am not here to sell you on soccer. I am here to wonder what the USA sports fan would be like if we put all of our energy into one sport and one team. All they care about is soccer. Seriously. Almost every person I spoke to don’t really have a second favorite sport. It is soccer. Soccer. And, more soccer. Same in England, where I visit periodically, and find their sports section in the newspaper to be roughly 90 percent soccer.

Meanwhile, in the USA, we have football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, auto racing, and a dozen other sports. We have a full plate, and every person I know follows three or four sports fairly closely. In one sense, it gives us something to do at all times. In another sense, we have lost the meaning of being a die-hard fan.

If the Cowboys get eliminated from the playoffs in Minnesota, we are quick to move on because the Mavericks have a game tomorrow, and they are in first place!  If the Mavericks get bounced from the playoffs, no problem! – the Rangers are just getting going. And when the Rangers run into a wall in the summer/autumn, the Cowboys are there again to pick up the torch and run. We do not mourn the death of another sports season very long before we latch on to our next "favorite sport".

This allows for a few things:  Constant sports stimulation and No period of sports mourning.

The first element is awesome, the second is unfortunate. You see part of being as obsessed about your team as Mexico is about their team is that this is all they care about. If they lose in this World Cup (and they will), they will want a coach fired and changes to be made and they will stew about this sad result for months and maybe even years. Yes, they also love their club teams, but cheering for Mexico is the ultimate.

Meanwhile, we love our teams – but they compete for our heart. I run into so many people who love the Longhorns or Aggies or Sooners or Red Raiders or Bears or Horned Frogs, AND then the Cowboys, Mavericks and Rangers. They love them all, and the order is based on which one has the best chance of winning it all right now. Deep down inside they likely have a true love (usually the Cowboys), but they now split their heart four or five different ways. 

To achieve full sports happiness, they would have to pull off an amazing year where all four or five favorite teams won their respective titles at the same time!  A completely impossible dream. Meanwhile, it would seem almost impossible to fully feel the depths of despair felt by the one-sport people. Our allegiances are spread too many directions. We are sports polygamists. We chop our love in five directions. There is no way that you can feel the love, joy, despair, or defeat the same way when your heart is split five ways.

Listen, I love the USA sports scene. It has made me a fine living and It has made me obsessed with sports every day of the year – and every year of my life. But, for a moment last week, I looked around Mexico and wondered how different everything would be if we all only cared about, say the NFL or MLB. What if every other sport vanished?  How would that change your obsession level over every Cowboys win or loss?  Every signing and every morsel of news?  It would be insane. And when the season ended, it would be like a relative died. You would mourn for months. You would truly know what being a die-hard is all about.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.