On a cold, damp night at BMO Field, 18,000 eternally disappointed TFC fans may have witnessed the last of their team’s playoff hopes wash away in the rain that swept in incessantly off Lake Ontario.
But why? With opponent Houston Dynamos down to 10 men after a red card early in the second half, TFC should by rights have had every advantage in pressing for a win. Instead, star striker Jermain Defoe led a parade of futility by missing a penalty on the play that saw the Houston defender kicked out. Defoe on this night seemed cursed: in the first half he’d missed by six inches on a drive from 10 meters out; and in the dying minutes he skied a perfectly good chance miles over the bar. No excuse – a striker of his reputation & pay packet should not be missing these chances.
Michael Bradley ran well and passed effectively; Jackson was tricky and elusive up front. But no goals. And Houston’s Giles Barnes gave the Reds’ defence fits all night – in fact, almost every orange run was followed by a dangerous chance.
TFC’s interim coach Greg Vanney says “we have to be perfect from now on.” Sadly, this team looks a long way from a squad that can play perfect soccer, even if a playoff berth hangs in the balance.
As the 2014-15 season gets underway, we turn to the respected writers at The Hockey News for their picks as the Top 10 Best Players in the World. Below are their rankings and write-ups; read the full article here:
1. SIDNEY CROSBY | PITTSBURGH | C | LY: 1
It’s pretty difficult to go against the guy who won the MVP award in voting by the players and media last season and won the scoring championship by 17 points. Crosby only had two goals in 19 Olympic and playoff games, but an injured wrist undoubtedly contributed to that.
2. DREW DOUGHTY | LOS ANGELES | D | LY: 10
The best player for the best team in the Olympics and the best player for the best team in the playoffs rockets up our list. The Kings have had internal meetings about Doughty and have determined there isn’t a player in the NHL for whom they would trade him.
3. JONATHAN TOEWS | CHICAGO | C | LY: 6
The only thing keeping Toews from best player in the world status is the offensive numbers to go with his all-around level of excellence at both ends of the ice. He’s the best leader in the game today, and if there’s one player you don’t worry about when it comes to giving him a long-term deal, it’s Toews.
4. STEVEN STAMKOS | TAMPA BAY | C | LY: 3
Had Stamkos not broken his leg, there’s a good chance he would have won his third Rocket Richard Trophy. He was on pace for 68 goals prior to his injury in November. Even with missing half of 2013-14, Stamkos has 210 goals in his past five seasons, seven more than anyone else.
5. ANZE KOPITAR | LOS ANGELES | C | LY: 22
None other than Wayne Gretzky himself said during the playoffs that Kopitar is the third-best player in the world. We don’t completely agree, but he’s certainly not far off. Kopitar epitomizes the big center ice man who has become synonymous with success in the Western Conference.
6. RYAN GETZLAF | ANAHEIM | C | LY: 33
After putting up the equivalent of a 91-point season in 2012-13, Getzlaf faced the challenge of proving he could remain among the league’s offensive elite. He succeeded with flying colors. Unlike a lot of other stars, he doesn’t feast on the power play. No player scored more points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play than Getzlaf.
7. JOHN TAVARES | NY ISLANDERS | C | LY: 5
If Tavares hadn’t been injured during the Olympics, he likely would have finished second in NHL scoring with 90-plus points. That probably would have made him a Hart Trophy finalist for a second straight season. Any success the New York Islanders have in the next decade will be dependent upon how far Tavares can lead them.
8. PATRICE BERGERON | BOSTON | C | LY: 9
The winner of two of the past three Selke Trophies put up a 30-goal season to go with his defensive excellence in 2013-14. And he’s the undisputed best player in the league in two very key areas: puck possession and faceoffs. The analytics crowd loves this guy for very good reason.
9. CLAUDE GIROUX | PHILADELPHIA | C | LY: 16
Two summers ago he suffered a mysterious injury while golfing, and he had an off-ice setback (to say the least) this past summer. But we’re concerned with what players do on the ice, and Giroux is arguably the most creative and deceiving set-up man in the NHL today. He might have been the best player in the league in the last 60 games of 2013-14.
10. DUNCAN KEITH | CHICAGO | D | LY: 14
You look at Keith and wonder how this undersized, skinny guy gets it done. But he wins Norris trophies because he plays both ends of the ice with equal aplomb and logs big minutes, particularly in the playoffs. There might not be a better pure skater from the back end in the NHL today.
Perceptive words today from Toronto sports journalist James Mirtle (@mirtle), writing in The Globe and Mail on the Maple Leafs’ first day at training camp.
Watching an NHL camp up close is fascinating. You quickly realize the extremely high skill level of even the “weakest” participants, as AHL journeymen playing for their next one-year minor league deal are only marginally less talented than those who make the roster.
It’s a fine line, and sorting out who’s on either side of it happens pretty quickly.
A fine line indeed. We’ve often noted on this blog how subtle and nuanced that difference is – the difference between being an NHL first-liner or a career minor-leaguer, between making a top European soccer club or languishing somewhere in Latin America or the MLS, between playing on Center Court at Flushing Meadows or not qualifying for the tournament because you’re mired in the mid-300s in world rankings. Or even between being a top professional and having a good game / tournament / season and having one of those miserable “invisible” episodes that occasionally befall even the best.
If you’ve ever laced up the skates for fun with borderline NHLers, rallied with formerly ranked junior tennis players, or enjoyed a kickaround with a good one-time university soccer player, you’ll have seen firsthand the “extremely high skill level” of these talented, focused athletes who somehow weren’t quite good enough for successful professional careers in their chosen sport. Maybe it was the raw talent, maybe the drive, maybe the circumstances…but seeing up close how much better the top leagues’ rejects are than even the best recreational players is instructive, impressive, and intimidating all at once.
In the end, it’s the mutability of that line between the best and those who aspire toward it that keeps the strivers striving. A lucky break here or there, a chance on the top line during practice, a strong showing in an exhibition game, or even a trade can be the catalyst that elevates a journeyman into the spotlight. It’s happened before and it will surely happen again this season with the Leafs.
Occasional Maple Leaf Korbinian Holzer: will he stick with the NHL club this year?
Imagine… instead of, or in addition to Angel di Maria, these three – surely among the top half-dozen players on the planet in 2014 – had moved to Old Trafford. This was the coup that Manchester United apparently tried to engineer during the summer spending spree recently concluded.
But it’s a sign of United’s faded glory that despite the doubtless generosity of the offers, all three players opted to stay with Bayern Munich. Bayern manager Pep Guardiola confirmed that his team’s stars were not interested in the overtures from the Premier League club. An article in The Independent details how Bayern, like other Bundesliga clubs, is managing to hold onto top players despite a much lower outlay of cash than their Premier League counterparts.
Could it be that international soccer, long perceived as perhaps the most mercenary of all major sports, is entering a new era of loyalty between players and clubs? The revelation about Robben, Schweinsteiger, and Muller points to this, as does the mostly unchanging rosters of top La Liga clubs.
The story is different in the Premiership – but there, United are mired in 9th with just 5 points from 4 games, despite a 2014 transfer window of unmatched profligacy. It seems that recently, not even the world’s deepest pockets can buy a berth in the Champions League.