Ryan Riffs: The Premier League

It’s been a while since I ventured into ‘Ryan Riffs’ territory, but I’m back, and we’re venturing into even more new territory with this venture. This, I’m hoping, will be the first of many articles diving into British Premier League soccer, among other soccer. So, let’s do it.

Traditionally, the Premier League has been a hierarchy, with a certain few teams running a monopoly at the top of the table with only a brief interruption from a random club here and there. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool have been the traditional big boys in the British schoolyard. Usually, you would pick one of those teams, and 100% of the time you would be right.

Then, along came Manchester City.

Man City Title Win
Photo by Getty Images

In 2011-12, the Citizens became the first club outside the ‘Big Four’ listed above to win the Premier League title since 1994. The very same season, Tottenham broke into the top 4, and a chain of chaos was set in motion capped off by Leicester City winning the Prem this past season.

The Foxes were listed at 5000-1 in the oddsmakers book before the season, but they took those odds rode them all the way to the most improbable title run in the history of sports. Leicester City confirmed, last season, what everyone now knows; the Premier League will be absolute chaos.

Leicester City Title Win
Photo by Getty Images

Seriously, any number of 6 teams have a legitimate shot to win the title, with clubs like West Ham and Everton having an outside shot. Never before have traditionally bottom feeding clubs been able to look themselves in the mirror and say, “Hey, we actually have a shot.” It’s beautifully hectic and impossible to predict.

So, now that we’re on the same page – ha ha ha, writing puns….please love me – let’s get into my Premier League thoughts, just two weeks into the season.

……….

Manchester United are back. Following their 2012-13 title win, United have fallen down the table, eventually finishing outside of Champions League contention for the first time since 1995 – along with Chelsea, coincidentally. But, unfortunately, the empire of Old Trafford is back, and in a big way.

Last season, United were a mess of a team. Full of underachieving attackers, old, slow midfielders, a shoddy defense, and a whack-job of a manager, it’s pretty amazing that they even were able to end the season in 5th.

United has addressed all of those concerns during this offseason in astounding ways, and they are as dangerous as ever. Beginning with the signing of manager Jose Mourinho to helm the team, you could make the argument that Man U replaced the incompetent Louis Van Gall with the most brilliant manager in the world – I prefer Pep Guardiola, but that’s a different argument for a different time. And Mourinho immediately went to work hauling in droves of talent.

Mourinho’s first signing was designed to address the Red Devils’ poor 2015-16 defense, and what a signing it was. Eric Bailly has come in and immediately impressed, with some calling him “the perfect Mourinho defender.” Needless to say, Jose really likes him, and he has certainly contributed during the early part of the season.

Next up was the casual entrance of one, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And when I say casual, I mean not at all. In typical Zlatan fashion, he made a grand entrance to Old Trafford and brought all of his traditional style and flair. So far, Ibra has scored 3 Premier League goals in his first two games, as well as the winning goal in the Community Shield final. Not too shabby.

Mourinho’s cap to the summer was literally the biggest transfer of all time; Paul Pogba. The former United academy star turned Juventus star returned home to the tune of just over $118 million, breaking the world record transfer fee held by Real Madrid for Gareth Bale. Pogba returned to the club that brought him up and, in the eyes of many, catapulted Manchester United to the assumed top of the Premier League’s predicted final standings.

So, in short, United needed better defense, a creative midfielder, a proven scorer, and a capable manager. What they got was Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba – only the most creative midfielder I’ve ever seen – Zlatan freaking Ibrahimovic and Jose Mourinho. Yeah, I’d say the Red Devils are back to being the football powerhouse we all know them as.

Zlatan and Pogba
Photo courtesy of Zlatan’s Instagram, God bless that man.

So far, United has beaten Bournemouth and Southampton by a combined tally of 5-1, with their next fixture being another away game against upstarts Hull City – we’ll get into them soon.

They will presumably squash Hull and now have 3 dominant Premier League wins to open the Mourinho era. But don’t get too excited, the first major test – and boy, what a test it is – for the new look Red Devils comes in the Manchester Darby at Old Trafford on September 10th. What a clash that should be.

……….

And speaking of the early season Manchester Darby, that game is between the two clear Premier League title favorites. As wide open as I made things sound in my opening riff, the signing of Pogba to United and the impending signing of Claudio Bravo to Manchester City – combined with the new arrival of John Stones – have separated these two from the rest of the pack.

Chelsea have looked good so far, with Antonio Conte’s defensive structure making them look very hard to crack combined with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa’s early season brilliance. But Chelsea just don’t seem to have the extra gear of talent that United and City can press out onto the field on a consistent basis.

The same goes for Liverpool, who’s opening fixture with Arsenal was a brilliant offensive display that coincided with Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane announcing their arrival with authority, but their offensive arsenal – we’ll get to them in just a second – is limited, and they can’t defend for their lives. Jurgen Klopp’s bunch will be fun to watch, but don’t count on them finishing atop the table.

And Arsenal, what do we even say about them. Another silent summer of Arsene Wenger apparently forgetting that his defense is absolute trash and not making any transfers. That has resulted in a confusing 0-1-1 start, including a thrilling 4-3 loss to Liverpool that exposed every defensive fault you could ever think of, and a 0-0 draw with Tottenham that showed every offensive flaw you could ever think of.

Arsenal, as much as their seemingly star studded roster would have you believe, is not a serious title threat. In fact, they are legitimately in danger of finishing outside of a Europa League spot.

Yeah, this is a strange time in football.

Because I feel inclined to touch on the reigning runner ups, Tottenham aren’t title contenders either. As exciting as their offensive talent seemed last season – with Harry Kane’s 25 goal season and Dele Alli’s breakout – Tottenham’s lack of consistency and inexperience will doom them. The top 4 is not in their future, but they should still be a fun offensive club. When Spurs and Liverpool face off? Tune in.

All of that was basically a really long way of me undermining my entire first riff on how unpredictable the Premier League is. Manchester City and Manchester United have separated themselves as legitimate title favorites.

I talked about United at length, and City’s depth and offensive firepower are incredible. Between Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Nolito, Kelechi Iheanacho, David Silva and a suddenly remarkable Raheem Sterling, City can and will put up lots of scoring this season.

Man City Squad
Photo courtesy of BBC

The question has always been defense.

New manager Pep Guardiola’s late pre-season addition of John Stones has seemed to fix some of those questions, with Stones playing a very sturdy fullback position. And, to boot, it is expected that former Barcelona #1 Claudio Bravo will join the team on a transfer tomorrow.

If that happens, it would be a huge boost as one could argue that Bravo is the ‘sweeper keeper’ in Europe – an aspect that Guardiola relies on, and is the thing that is resulting in Joe Hart’s saddening and impending exit.

September 10th will be the first day that really gives us an idea of what the Premier League landscape will look like, with the top two title contenders facing off at Old Trafford in a power shifting matchup that will have a lot of eyes on it.

Regardless of the result of that one match, it should be a wild Prem season. Buckle up.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Advertisements
Ryan Riffs: The Premier League

Ryan Riffs: The Incredible Longevity of Kobe Bryant

Let me take you back to a different world for a second. Twenty years ago, for those deficient at math, was 1995, and as I teased above, the world was a very different place.

The most popular song of the year was ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ by Coolio. The most popular movies were Toy Story and Braveheart. Mel Gibson was still wildly popular and wholesome, and the members of One Direction were still wearing diapers.

Now, why am I bringing up the year 1995? Because it was the year a young kid by the name of Kobe Bryant made his NBA debut straight out of Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

Wednesday night, Bryant completed his return from a scary shoulder injury to make his 2015 season debut and become the first player in NBA history to play 20 consecutive seasons with the same franchise.

I just want you guys to let that number sink in for a second. Twenty years going to work for the same employer is pretty remarkable in and of itself; but particularly in the NBA, where rosters are small and extremely competitive, money is king, and even Michael Jordan couldn’t stay with one team his whole career.

Kobe Bryant has been playing basketball at the professional level for longer than I’ve been alive. In fact, the team his Lakers played Wednesday night had two starters – Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns – who weren’t even born yet when Kobe made his debut.

And when we start diving into the legacy of Kobe Bryant, one thing really stands out to me.

There are few athletes in the world that are commonly identifiable just by their first name. LeBron James and Tiger Woods immediately come to mind, but their names aren’t nearly as universally recognizable as the name, ‘Kobe’.

Photo by Andrew Bernstein for the LA Times
Photo by Andrew Bernstein for the LA Times

Every little kid that dreams of playing in the NBA has visions of himself as Kobe Bryant at some point or another. ‘Kobe’ has just become a term that is synonymous with tireless work ethic and basketball greatness. And now, I think we should add another word to that list; loyalty.

For all the faults he does have, Kobe Bryant’s fierce loyalty should be revered and looked up to by kids everywhere. Many athletes talk about how loyal they are or how much loyalty matters to them, but none of them can really identify with it on the level Kobe can.

There has never, in 20 years, ever been serious talk of Kobe playing a single game in a jersey that didn’t say, ‘Lakers’ on the front of it. Kobe has remained true to the team that brought him into the league and gave him a chance, he has remained loyal to the hand that feeds him, and that is to be greatly admired.

So again, for all his faults and all his mistakes, Kobe Bryant is a truly special athlete that we have had the great pleasure of enjoying for these past 20 years; and one that will be remembered for far more than just the next 20 years.

…………

Following another brilliant performance at home last night by Jake Allen, the Blues goalie debate rages on. Elliott or Allen? The grizzled and proven vet or the young, talented up and comer?

Following a rough start to the season in which he gave up 3 goals in each of his first 3 starts, Allen has backed up a 27 save shutout over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night with a 23-24 performance in a win against Anaheim last night.

Meanwhile, Brian Elliott hasn’t looked particularly sterling either, sporting a mediocre 2.18 GAA and having been bailed out by a terrific offense so far this season. But with injuries to Paul Stastny, Jaden Schwartz and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Blues’ offense has significantly – and expectedly – slowed in the recent days.

So which goalie does Ken Hitchcock roll with as the primary guy in the coming weeks? Or does he even bother ‘naming’ a #1 goalie and just keeps splitting playing time like he has been?

For my two cents, Allen is the starter and the Blues need to push all their chips to the center of the table on him. He’s younger, more confident, more athletic, and, for my money, won the job down last season’s stretch run and into the playoffs.

Being an elite goalie is as much about confidence as it is about skill level. And over the course of the past 4 or 5 years, the Blues have so poorly treated Brian Elliott that I can’t help but feel his confidence is totally shot and he can never be the borderline elite goalie he once was in St. Louis.

Having Allen, and now Pheonix Copley waiting in the wings, allows the Blues to make Elliott expendable, and I think they owe it to him to give him a fresh start somewhere where he can be the de facto starter.

So put all your chips to the middle of the table with Jake Allen, give him the vote of confidence, and look to deal Elliott to a team in desperate need of good goaltending.

Allen celebrates with forward Vladimir Tarasenko after defeating the Anaheim Ducks Thursday night. Photo by Scott Rovak
Allen celebrates with forward Vladimir Tarasenko after defeating the Anaheim Ducks Thursday night. Photo by Scott Rovak

Offer him to Edmonton, a team in desperate need of a franchise goalie, and see if you can pry away a guy like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who could use a fresh start and might thrive in St. Louis.

Stop trying to please everyone with the goalie situation, there are going to be hurt feelings either way, so you might as well got a solid player back in return for them. Jake Allen should be the guy, see what Brian Elliott can fetch on the open market, and let bygones be bygones. Please and thank you.

…………..

I’ll get into this in greater detail later, but does the NSAC make sense to anyone?

Yesterday, the Nevada State Athletic Commission handed down a two year suspension to Rousimar Palhares for his repeated eye gouges and for not letting go of a submission during his welterweight title fight against Jake Shields at WSOF 22. Palhares has a history of not letting go of submissions, and being a really dirty fighter, so this suspension seems just and Palhares can deal with it.

But, where my questions come in is that this suspension comes about a month after the NSAC handed down a 5 year suspension to Nick Diaz. 5 years?! Holy crap what did he do, kill someone? 5 years is a seriously long suspension.

Nick Diaz got a 5 year suspension for testing positive for marijuana. MARIJUANA, the thing that is now legal where Nick Diaz smoked it.

Diaz is obviously just as confused as the rest of us. Photo by Joshua Hedges
Diaz is obviously just as confused as the rest of us. Photo by Joshua Hedges

I, along with the rest of the MMA community, was absolutely dumbfounded that the NSAC could do this. There was a White House petition made, fighters publicly refusing to fight in Nevada, and even UFC President Dana White called the suspension “so jarring.”

Without going into complete details, smoking weed is virtually harmless. There were no marijuana related deaths in 2014 and I have never in my life heard of marijuana fueled violent acts. Marijuana and MMA just have no connection and aren’t dangerous whatsoever.

Meanwhile, Palhares is deliberately attempting to hurt people, and has in the past. What Palhares is doing in MMA is worthy of a long suspension, and he has gotten his justice.

Palhares held onto an ankle lock on Jake Shields after the referee had told him to stop. Photo by Joshua Hedges
Palhares held onto an ankle lock on Jake Shields after the referee had told him to stop. Photo by Joshua Hedges

But 5 years and a $150,000 fine to Diaz vs 2 years and community service for Palhares just makes absolutely no sense.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my rant on the NSAC, but for now I just ask them to take a long, hard look in the mirror and realize what they’ve done; because it literally makes no sense to anyone and has the look of a vigilante group more than a governing body for sporting events in Nevada.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

           

Editor’s note: I apologize for my absence yesterday. At the end of the day I am still a high school student with a lot of other responsibilities, and unfortunately my homework and college applications have to take precedence over my outside writing. So I apologize for my absence yesterday and I will try to be better at balancing my work in the future. Thank you for your unwavering support of me because you are truly the reason that I write. Thank you always for reading me.

Ryan Riffs: The Incredible Longevity of Kobe Bryant

Ryan Riffs: How Seth Russell’s Injury Affects the College Football Playoff

Back in August, as the college football season was starting, I set my College Football Playoff field to Ohio State, TCU, LSU and Baylor, (yes, I had two Big 12 teams don’t judge me). I had Ohio State winning it all, and felt pretty confident in that prediction.

Fast forward about three weeks of Ohio State struggling and Baylor dominating and my National Champion pick had switched over to Baylor. An breathtakingly dominant offense combined with a more than adequate defense, and Baylor had me sold.

Photo for Associated Press
Photo for Associated Press

Entering week 7 my pick hadn’t changed. Baylor’s offense looked dominant once again in the first half against Iowa State before I turned the channel away to focus my attention on a more exciting game. Well, while I turned away something happened that is going to change my National Championship again.

First off, I want to wish Seth Russell a quick and speedy recovery from a scary neck injury that will keep him out for the rest of the 2015 season. His health is the thing that matters most and I wish him all the best in his recovery.

The unfortunate hit that put Seth Russell out for the season (pt. 1). Photo by Ron Aydelotte for Waco Tribune
The unfortunate hit that put Seth Russell out for the season (pt. 1). Photo by Ron Aydelotte for Waco Tribune
The unfortunate hit that put Seth Russell out for the season (pt. 2). Photo by Ashley Landis for Associated Press
The unfortunate hit that put Seth Russell out for the season (pt. 2). Photo by Ashley Landis for Associated Press

But holy smokes does it shake up the Playoff picture.

Baylor’s offense has been just stupid good so far with Russell, averaging 686 yards and 61.1 points per game. That is absolute insanity and you couldn’t even put up those type of numbers in a video game because you’d get too bored with scoring so much.

Russell has been leading the charge, throwing for 2,109 yards with 26(!) touchdowns to only 6 interceptions, and adding 402 yards and 6 more touchdowns on the ground. He’s up at the top with Leonard Fournette in the Heisman picture and is just insanely talented.

Without him? No one knows what to expect from the Baylor offense.

Art Briles insists that the team is “in good hands” with back up Jared Stidham, but consider me skeptical. The Baylor offense has always relied on really good quarterback play – read: Robert Griffin III, Bryce Petty, Nick Florence – and without Russell I don’t know what kind of team Baylor will be.

Baylor has looked way better than TCU so far this season, but does Russell’s injury open the door up for TCU to snatch up the Big 12 and secure a spot in the playoff barring another bad loss? Can Oklahoma State possibly even slip in and surprise some people?

Russell’s injury completely shuffles up the Big 12 picture, as well as the Playoff picture, and now I have to make a pick a new national champion. So who is it? Stay tuned.

………….

I don’t talk about the NBA much because I think their product is a bit of an insult to basketball. It’s just dunks and three pointers and there’s barely any quality defense played. But for the first time in at least 10 years, I can honestly say I’m excited for the NBA season to begin.

In the past, the NBA’s been predictable. It’s been LeBron and Kobe and Durant and some boring team – like the Heat or the Lakers or the Spurs or something – was basically guaranteed to win the championship. But this year? This year is different.

The NBA had some refreshing variety in the 2014-15 season, and it actually pulled me in as a fan. Instead of all of the typical mundane things I talked about above, the league was fairly unpredictable.

The Warriors were the best team around, Anthony Davis emerged as an MVP candidate, James Harden played exceptional basketball, Kevin Durant wasn’t even the best player on his own team, the Hawks and the Raptors were two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and a Derrick Rose-less Bulls team actually thrived. The NBA was actually exciting.

The Warriors won their first title since 1975 and have a good chance of repeating in 2016. Photo by Getty Images
The Warriors won their first title since 1975 and have a good chance of repeating in 2016. Photo by Getty Images

And this year? I really have no idea what’s going to happen. The Cavaliers might finally win a title, the MVP is a total crapshoot, there’s a good crop of exciting rookies, and young upstart teams – like the Timberwolves – have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs this year.

Unpredictability is the spice of life, and the NBA has it in spades this year. Hopefully the league can deliver on the promised excitement, but suffice it to say I’ll be paying close attention this year for the first time in as long as I can remember, and that’s a new and exciting endeavor for me.

…………..

After having my heart ripped straight out of my chest for the fourth consecutive year last April, I’m really trying to keep my emotions about the St. Louis Blues in check this season.

Every year I tell myself that “this team is different this year, and this is gonna be the year they finally do it.” And every year I’m sorely disappointed. So this year I’m just trying to enjoy what the Bluenote puts out on the ice and not get too emotionally attached.

But I’ll be damned if I’m not incredibly impressed with the team already this year.

For years the Blues have been an extremely disciplined defensive team with not a lot of offensive flair. You had to really enjoy the grit and grind of hockey to enjoy watching the Blues play. But with Vladimir Tarasenko putting on a breathtaking show every night and the emergence of Robby Fabbri, the Blues have a lot of excitement and flash now.

The Tarasenk-show in full effect. Photo by Chris Lee for St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The Tarasenk-show in full effect. Photo by Chris Lee for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

They have guys that excite a fan base, that can sell tickets. Every night I find myself looking forward to watching the Blues, because with the Tarasenk-show and Fabbri doing their thing every night, you never know what could happen.

Robby Fabbri reacts after scoring the game winning goal against the Oilers on opening night. Photo by Scott Rovak for Getty Images
Robby Fabbri reacts after scoring the game winning goal against the Oilers on opening night. Photo by Scott Rovak for Getty Images

And on top of that, the team has weathered a crazy storm of injuries beautifully so far. Kevin Shattenkirk, Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund and Paul Stastny have all bitten the injury bug so far, which has been absolutely brutal to watch.

But seeing guys like Colton Parayko and Scottie Upshall step up their games to fill in those voids has been amazing. The team hasn’t really missed a beat without 4 of their best players, and that’s a testament to the outstanding depth and mentality this team has.

It’s okay to be excited about the Blues, because oh my gosh they are so fun to watch, but don’t be sold yet. When mid-May rolls around and these Blues are still playing, that’s the time to believe.

But like I said about the Rams the other day, enjoy what the Blues have going. Tarasenko is a once in a lifetime talent who would be considered the best player in the NHL if he didn’t play in St. Louis. And Fabbri has a chance to be that special as well.

There was a long period of Blues futility, where winning hockey was as foreign to the city of St. Louis as winning football is nowadays. But these days are not those days, and winning hockey is customary and expected. Don’t take it for granted and enjoy this team while they’re good.

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat for Getty Images
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat for Getty Images

The Blues are a unique gift, featuring an owner that actually cares about his fan base – very deeply so – and an on-ice product that’s on par with any team in the league. So watch it, enjoy it, wear your blue proudly, but make them earn your belief and respect in April and May.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

Ryan Riffs: How Seth Russell’s Injury Affects the College Football Playoff