Nuclear Wessel: Put up your nukes, it’s time to fight in the EPL

nuclearDana Wessel works at Go963 FM in Minneapolis and formerly worked at Enterprise Rent-A-Car under their excellent corporate structure where *they* gave *him* the tools to be his own boss.

Lets get Nuclear!

Before we get to the weekend preview, I want to give a shout to the Vikings for putting on a cool event for soccer fans last Sunday at Brits in Minneapolis. The Vikings treated everyone to free beer, breakfast buffet, t-shirts and pint glasses. Thanks, Zygi! This was part of their continued interest in getting an MLS franchise to play in the new Vikings stadium. I have been very open on social media that I prefer the other group lands a team, but I have to give the Vikings credit for putting on a fun event. VP Lester Bagley even came — although I didn’t see him move more than a few feet from the door. Don’t be shy, Lester! Us soccer folk are good people!

Alright, it’s a lopsided slate of matches this weekend with all of the meat worth sinking your teeth into coming on Sunday. Great triple-header, though. And definitely worth getting up early for.

Onto the matches!

 

No. 1: Liverpool vs Manchester City at Anfield

When: Sunday at 6:00AM on NBC Sports Network

Last year: This was the match where Liverpool fans believed they won their first Premier League trophy. They beat City 3-2 after blowing a 2-0 goal lead but finding a winner from Philippe Coutinho in the 78th minute. They controlled their own destiny with four matches to go but lost to Chelsea, blew a 3-goal lead at Palace and finished two points behind City. One of the biggest crotch-shots in recent sports history.

Set those alarm clocks! Earrrrrly start for this one. If 6:00am freaks you out, sleep in a bit later. I talked to Shane the manager over at Brits and he says they are showing the match on tape-delay at 7:30 with doors opening at 7:15. As always, the Liverpool fans will be out in force at Brits.

Everyone, including Wessel de Nuclear, wrote Liverpool off months ago. Thought it would be a one-and-done for them returning to Champions League and not another sustained run of top-four finishes their supporters were dreaming of. Now they haven’t lost in their last 10 league matches and sit two points out of third place.

They’ll welcome a City team with renewed confidence in their bid for the title after picking up two points on Chelsea by embarrassing Newcastle 5-0 last Saturday. A win over Liverpool would cut their deficit to two points against Chelsea and put all the pressure on the Blues to win the game-in-hand they’ll have due to the League Cup final on Sunday.

This one has the stench of a draw lingering all over it but a win for either side is important enough that hopefully we see that back-and-forth frantic action we all love and crave.

No. 2: Arsenal vs Everton at Emirates Stadium

When: Sunday at  8:05AM on NBC Sports Network

Last year: These two played to a 1-1 draw last December at Emirates Stadium with both goals coming after the 80th minute. You might not believe this (just kidding, you should absolutely believe this), Arsenal blew the 1-0 lead.

Arsenal sit alone in the race for the third place trophy with 48 points. They might have just cinched the thing up already had it not been for losses to other top-four contenders Southampton and Tottenham in the last month.

Everton continue to embarrass the idiots like myself who made them their sneaky pick to finish in a Champions League spot. Tim Howard continues to look like the kid that gets thrown in to play goalie that doesn’t want to in a U-12 match instead of the Captain America he was last summer vs Belgium. The man is entitled to a rough season but it just makes me sad to watch whenever they are on TV.

Arsenal suffered a horrible 3-1 loss to Monaco at home in the first leg of the Round of 16 in Champions League. They have now been outscored 12-2 in their last four Round of 16 first leg matches. Oof. It appears to be another one-and-done for Arsenal in the knockout round.

They will be the favorites to take three points against Everton, but it is fair to wonder what kind of effect the Monaco match will have the rest of the way. Arsene Wenger has always done a great (and underappreciated) job keeping Arsenal in the top four. They haven’t finished better than third since 2005 but they have always kept their head above Champions League water- sometimes by margins as small as the zipper on Wenger’s sleeping bag jacket. But maybe this — one of the most competitive races in recent memory — is when they finally slip up. Then the Gunner fans that called for Wenger’s head during the years of top-four finishes and Champions League will really have something to whine about.

No. 1: Chelsea vs Tottenham at Wembley Stadium in the League Cup Final

When: Sunday at  10:00AM on beIN Sports

Last time: Chelsea and Spurs last met in a Cup Final in 2008. Spurs hoisted the trophy after Spurs went up 2-1 late in added time and Chelsea couldn’t equalize. The last time they met in an FA Cup semi-final? 2012 when Chelsea won 5-1. What does that have to do with anything? Nothing, really. I just wanted to type it.

The League Cup is an odd thing. Of the four trophies an English side can win each year, it is by far the least significant. Top Premier League teams field mostly youth sides in the early going to get bench players some run. Nobody — fans, players, managers — really sheds a tear if they get knocked out. But if your team keeps winning, you get to a point where everyone just sorta says We came this far, might as well win the thing.

This year’s final is spicier than usual and actually appeals to neutrals for the first time in a while. Does anyone remember when Swansea City beat Bradford 5-0 a few years back? Does anyone even remember who played in the final last year? I’ll be honest, I had to look it up. City beat Sunderland 3-1. Woo!

The Chelsea/Spurs London rivalry is certainly not as big as it’s Spurs/Arsenal counterpart but it is still juicy. It had been very one-sided for years before Spurs poured some gasoline on the fire to renew things with a 5-3 win on New Year’s Day — their first win over Chelsea since 2010.

A trophy, 100,000 pounds (no idea how to do the cool pound sign on a keyboard) and a spot in Europa League are all on the line. But none of that really matters to either side all that much.

What’s really on the line here is pride and the thrill of defeating your rival at Wembley. Spurs catch a break with Nemanja Matic being suspended for pushing a man who tried to end his career last Saturday against Burnley. Matic is a key cog to this Chelsea squad and, somehow, underrated by folks who point to Chelsea’s big knockers when talking about the team’s success. But the Blues have quality replacements so don’t go inscribing Tottenham on the cup yet. Also, it’s a final. You never really know with these things.

Alright, everyone. Talk more next week. Only 11 matches to go. Keep your socks taped and your oranges sliced.

Law professor says Judge Doty messed up Adrian Peterson case

petersonRoger I. Abrams, a law professor writing for Huffington Post, takes quite a bit of issue with Judge David Doty’s ruling in Federal Court on Thursday that reversed — at least temporarily, until the NFL appealed later in the day — Adrian Peterson’s suspension.

Per his piece:

Here is where Judge Doty went wrong. He overturned the decision based on his own view of what (arbitrator Harold) Henderson should have done. Henderson, Judge Doty said, should have followed the “law of the shop” as Doty saw that law.

Furthermore, Abrams writes:

There are more problems with Judge Doty’s decision. He criticizes Mr. Henderson’s failure to apply the “well-recognized bar against retroactivity.” Where exactly in the collective bargaining agreement is this “well-recognized bar?” Once again, the Judge applies his own personal view, marching down the wrong path.

That said, Abrams concedes that the result of the ruling might be the correct one:

The irony of Judge Doty’s decision is that the outcome he ultimately reached might be correct but for the wrong reasons. The decision by Mr. Henderson was not that of an arbitrator. It was a management decision taken pursuant to the grant of power under the collective bargaining agreement.

But Abrams concludes that the NFL should win its appeal. Long story short: Peterson is right back where he started and figures, at least in the opinion of one legal expert, to stay there.

Friday (Impressive responses from Gophers, Wild) edition: Wha’ Happened?

squirrelWednesday was one of those all-too-rare feel-good days in Minnesota sports, with Kevin Garnett not just coming back and playing with the Wolves but also helping them win by 20 in front of a raucous Target Center crowd.

Thursday, then, had the feeling of a classic letdown. We’re not used to having nice things around here, so with the Wild at Nashville … the Gophers men’s basketball team at Michigan State … and the Gophers men’s hockey team at home against Michigan State … well, one win out of three would have been the expectation.

Instead, improbably, it was a clean Minnesota sweep — with all three teams providing impressive responses to adversity in their own ways.

The Wild was center-of-the-sun hot coming out of the All-Star break, but a bad home loss to Edmonton threatened to undo some of that good work and potentially start a cold stretch the team can ill afford. Playing at NHL-leading Nashville did not figure to be the antidote to stop the bleeding, but in a strange way maybe it was the perfect opponent. Whereas another soft opponent at home wouldn’t have forced the Wild to focus like it did Thursday, Nashville gets everyone’s attention. The Wild gave a classic road performance in dispatching the Predators and reaffirming that it is a legitimate threat to not just make the playoffs but do damage once there.

The Gophers men’s basketball team is at the point of its season where you learn about character. Minnesota was 5-10 in the Big Ten going into East Lansing, where the Gophers hadn’t won since 1997. This season, through a combination of some poor luck, some close losses, some bad chemistry and some underachieving, hasn’t met anyone’s expectations. It would have been very easy for the Gophers to sleepwalk through a 15-point loss. That, frankly, is what we expected. Instead, of course, they pulled out an overtime victory that while probably too little, too late when it comes to the NCAA tournament, at least shows the team has not quit on second-year coach Richard Pitino.

The Gophers men’s hockey team, meanwhile, fell behind 3-0 at home to Michigan State in a game it could ill-afford to lose … only to come storming back for a 5-3 victory to keep pace in the Big Ten (and more importantly avoid a damaging loss in the PairWise Rankings).

It’s hard to know, really, what to make of all these positive developments heaped atop the KG game on Wednesday. The pessimistic Minnesota sports fan would fear a massive comeuppance over the weekend.

Maybe we should just make like a cliche and take this one game at a time?

TFD: First LeBron, then KG, and now Michael Beasley is going home

beasKevin Garnett quipped at his re-introductory news conference in Minneapolis that if LeBron could go home, why couldn’t he.

Well, we have another NBA homecoming. Michael Beasley, who has been dominating China like a modern day Genghis Khan — and who was acquired by the Wolves under the reign of David Kahn — is going back to Miami.

Beasley has reportedly signed a 10-day contract with the Heat, making this his third stint with the team. He was drafted No. 2 overall by Miami in 2008, then came to Minnesota in 2010, signed with Phoenix in 2012, was waived in 2013 and signed with the Heat … and has spent this season playing in China, where he averaged 28.6 points and 10.4 rebounds (while scoring 59 points in the All-Star Game).

That output, combined with Chris Bosh’s serious medical condition, convinced the Heat to bust open another box of Skittles and try Beasley again.

He had some great moments with the Wolves and a lot of not-so-great-moments. We’ll never forget the time he rubbed Anthony Tolliver’s knee instead of his own knee.

We’ll also never forget the time we had commenter Dan write this guest post from his estate sale.

Guess what we’re trying to say here is it’s good to have Beas back in the NBA.

Meet the Wolves fan who danced shirtless with ‘Welcome Home KG” written on his chest

jigglyboyI talked to John Sweeney by phone on Thursday morning, and my first question was intended more as an introductory pleasantry than an invitation to be hilarious.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Oh,” he said. “Just trying to balance being a theater owner, a dad and an idiot.”

Wednesday was like a lot of other days for Sweeney, right up until the point that he ripped off his shirt at Kevin Garnett’s welcome home game at Target Center to reveal a special message for KG. But even that was something Sweeney —  an improv comedian and co-owner of the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre in Minneapolis — has done before.

Sweeney first pulled the shirtless act back in the Wolves’ heyday in 2003-04, riling up the crowd at a few games, including one in the playoffs against Denver. A Star Tribune writer dubbed him “Jiggly Boy,” and it stuck. Does he mind that name?

“I’m fine with that name,” Sweeney said. “I’m the youngest of 8 from a Irish Catholic farm family, so I’ve been called a lot worse.”

He was in cahoots 11 years ago with the Wolves’ game ops folks, and he said they texted him again a few days ago with a simple question: “KG is coming back. What about Jiggly?”

The difference now is that Sweeney has two impressionable sons, ages 11 (William) and 9 (Michael), and both were at the game with him. But he couldn’t resist.

“We had a good philosophical discussion on the car ride home about when it’s appropriate to take your shirt off,” Sweeney said.

In this case, the timing was perfect. An overflow crowd was already amped up for the return of Garnett, and the sight of the 49-year-old Sweeney dancing shirtless turned the dial up a notch. Even KG couldn’t help but look and smile.

“It might say more about the Minnesota culture than you think. We’re OK getting a little bit more than appropriately excited as long as someone does it first,” Sweeney said. “When KG gave me the smile and the wave, it got a little crazy in there.”

Alas, we should not get too used to seeing Sweeney’s routine. It’s reserved for special occasions, and Wednesday was about as good as it’s been around Target Center in a long time.

“I think it was a (one-time) special appearance,” he said. “Maybe it’s me being a comedic snob, but you don’t want too much of a good thing. I think it’s really fun to see a 49-year-old fat guy dance a couple times, but there’s a tipping point where it goes from funny to ‘sit down.'”

Thursday (KG: A love affair rekindled) edition: Wha’ Happened?

kggame1) I didn’t go to last night’s Wolves game. I have my reasons: some are practical, some are professional, and some are just plain weird.

From a practical standpoint, it just didn’t fit into my week. With a small baby at home, sleep is a treasured friend and a rare commodity, and I pretty much knew if I went that I would go out afterwards and that the rest of my week could very well be shot. Lame? Yes. I’m lame.

From a professional standpoint, I’ve found that sometimes when I’m at a live event, I forget to focus on the actual game. As much as it would have added to the understanding of the night and KG’s return, from an atmosphere standpoint, to be there … I really wanted to focus on the basketball and try to take the emotion out of it. So I watched on TV, as free of distractions as possible. I didn’t even tweet during the game!

And from a weird standpoint, there was probably a part of me that feared it would be a train wreck and didn’t want to see 20,000 Minnesotans let down. We deserve nice things. It, of course, started like a train wreck … but the total sum of the evening was far from that. It was glorious. Maybe I’ll kick myself 20 years from now for not being there. But in a weird way, I’m more interested in being at KG’s next game than I was in being there last night.

2) It was just one game. A skidding Washington team was the perfect opponent. The Wolves were already improving thanks to their return to health. But if you’ve watched enough bad Minnesota basketball in the past decade — and you know I have — then you know this and need to believe this: the Wolves haven’t played defense like that since KG left.

That’s hyperbole, I’m sure, since you could pick out some game in the last eight years where the numbers say their defense was better. But in the broader sense, they have not played D like that since Garnett left: closing out on shooters, communicating on screens, contesting every shot … these are fundamental things, but they have so often been missing.

When KG blocked a corner 3 to end the first half, keeping the game tied 42-42 … it sounds ridiculous and hard to measure, but it was just a reminder of what good basketball looks like. A 38-year-old KG is a better, more valuable basketball player than a 26-year-old Thad Young — particularly on a team that has been missing these fundamentals for so long. I’m very serious about this.

3) I would like to see KG play forever. That is not practical. Short of that, I’d like to see him for the rest of this year and then one more year — as long as his body is willing and able. Part of it is that I love the symmetry of No. 21 playing 21 seasons. Again, I’m weird.

More of it is that a handful of weeks of this will be a building block, but it won’t be enough. Next year, with the team the Wolves are building, could really start to emerge — not in the sense of contention, mind you, but in the sense of seeing the blueprint start to take shape. It would almost be like KG’s rookie year (26 wins) and his second year (40 wins).

Garnett should be here to shepherd that and to contribute to that. He should get a proper going away around the NBA for an amazing career. And then he should retire in peace, learning from Brett Favre’s 2010 season and Jim Thome’s 2011 season that one year of magic — assuming next year is what I think it could be — does not qualify you for a second year of magic.

For now, though, let’s live in the moment. Last night was a game nobody thought would ever happen — not even KG himself. It was more than nostalgia. It was an honest homecoming, the rekindling of a love affair. And it was beautiful.

TFD: Bill Simmons has kind things to say about Andrew Wiggins, how the Wolves fleeced Cleveland

sadwigginsBill Simmons’ NBA Trade Value column remains a must-read, and this year he has some very kind things to say about Andrew Wiggins and the Wolves’ acquisition of the now-20-year-old:

Whenever I finally write The Book of Basketball 2.0: A Shameless Excuse to Regurgitate Material That You’ve Already Read for More Money, you know that I’m blowing out the “What If?” chapter and adding “What if new Cleveland GM LeBron James had just been patient and waited a few months to make sure Wiggins wasn’t his short-term Scottie Pippen and long-term Perimeter Stud In Waiting before flipping such a monster asset for Kevin Love when that deal would have still been sitting there in January?” Only the ranking remains in question. I love Wiggins. He’s a sure thing.

Simmons knows a lot about basketball — maybe not as much as he thinks he knows, but a lot. It’s nice to know he feels the same way about the Wiggins/Love trade as a lot of us in Minnesota do.

Mid-day talker: Ranking Minnesota’s 13 superstars since Kirby Puckett retired

kgflipKevin Garnett is back. You already knew that. So is Torii Hunter. Adrian Peterson could be on the way out.

Those three things got us thinking about a list of the superstars who have played in Minnesota since I’ve been an adult — more or less, since Kirby Puckett’s final regular-season game in 1995.

It’s unscientific, but it’s thought out. Patrick Reusse was consulted. There are 13 in all, and they are measured both by their on-field impact and how they resonated with fans.

1) Kevin Garnett: For the combination of longevity (12 years the first time), greatness (MVP award, a top-10 player in the league for many years) and the intangible of being the face of the franchise, nobody tops KG. Some came close, but nobody tops him.

2) Randy Moss: Rookie Randy is about as crazy as it gets for sports fan mania here, and his entire (first) seven-year run was electric.

3) Adrian Peterson: I thought he had a great chance to wind up at No. 1 on this list someday. Now, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

4) Joe Mauer: Say what you want about the rise and fall of Mauer, but the St. Paul kid still has a mighty imprint on the state. Oh, and he also has three batting titles and an MVP award (with the chance to write a better ending and move up this list with some improved seasons in 2015 and beyond).

5) Lindsay Whalen: She galvanized the state with the Gophers women’s basketball team’s Final Four run in 2004. And she brought pro women’s basketball to prominence in Minnesota, helping the Lynx to two WNBA titles. She embodies exactly how the vast majority of Minnesotans want an athlete to play: with charisma, grit, selflessness and modest flash.

T-6)  Brett Favre/Bobby Jackson: I lumped these two together because their tenures were remarkably similar: both had two seasons (sure, Jackson played with the Wolves for a bit, but let’s stick with the Gophers here). One of those years was irrelevant. And one of those years was among the best Minnesota has seen in the past 20 years — Favre with the Vikings in 2009 and Jackson with the Gophers’ Final Four run in 1996-97.

8) Johan Santana: He didn’t quite resonate with fans the way other superstars have, but his greatness (two Cy Young Awards) constantly had fans in awe of his ability.

9) Torii Hunter: When someone asks, “Who was the identity of the Twins when they turned it around in the 2000s,” Hunter is the name and face that comes to mind. The stats weren’t other-worldly, but the flashy glove, improved hitting and affable smile won him many fans.

10) Zach Parise: Another athlete who still has time to move up this list. Like Whalen, Parise embodies how we want our star athletes to play.

11) Justin Morneau: Averaged 30 HR and 118 RBI per year from 2006 to 2009 and won an MVP award. His reception at Target Field for the Home Run Derby left no doubt about how fans feel about him.

12) Maya Moore: The 2014 WNBA MVP’s best years are still ahead of her, which is a scary proposition.

13) Kevin Love: He’s not at the bottom as a cheap shot. Love’s ability is not in question, and his numbers say he was a star. But he accomplished less, team-wise, than any other Minnesota superstar of this era. It wasn’t all his fault, and he made sure we knew it.

Wednesday (Explaining Derrick Rose in Minnesota terms) edition: Wha’ Happened?

roseThe Chicago Bulls went 62-20 in 2010-11, making it to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the Heat. The unquestioned catalyst and leader of the team was Derrick Rose, who averaged 25 ppg and won the NBA MVP Award in just his third season and at the tender age of 23.

Chicago and Rose seemed primed for years of greatness, with an NBA title (or more than one) a very reasonable and attainable goal. What has happened since is a tale of sports cruelty that those of us in Minnesota probably can’t fully comprehend.

Rose tore his left ACL during the first game of the first round of the 2011-12 playoffs after another great regular season. The Bulls, who went 50-16 in the lockout-shortened regular-season, lost their opening playoff series to Philadelphia (yes, before the 76ers committed full-time to tanking they were pretty decent).

Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season; the Bulls won 45 games without him, but again came up short in the playoffs. He came back for the 2013-14 season, but he ended up playing just 10 games because of season-ending torn meniscus in his right knee. The Bulls still won 48 games, but they lost in the first round of the playoffs.

This year, Rose came back again and had the Bulls looking like a contender. They are 36-21 … but now, again, they will be without Rose for the rest of the year because of more damage to his right meniscus. The Bulls will probably again make the playoffs, and probably again make a quick exit.

If so, that will be four consecutive seasons derailed by an injuries to the same superstar — not just a great player, but an MVP when fully healthy. We’ve tried to fathom that and put it into Minnesota sports terms, but there really isn’t any comparison.

For all the bad luck Minnesota teams have had (self-inflicted and otherwise), their star players have been remarkably durable during good times.

Kevin Garnett in his first go-round with the Wolves was an iron man. Randy Moss missed just three games in seven seasons with the Vikings in his first go-round. Johan Santana averaged 228 innings pitched from 2004-07, his prime with the Twins. Justin Morneau, pre-concussion, was extremely durable — averaging 151 games played from 2005-09. Even Joe Mauer, who has the reputation for missing games, averaged 576 plate appearances per year from 2005-10.

Adrian Peterson? He missed just seven games in his first seven seasons and famously came back from a shredded knee to destroy teams in 2012. Even Percy Harvin, for all his problems, only missed three games in his first three seasons with Minnesota and was never to blame for derailing an entire season with an injury. The Lynx, during their run of prominence the past four seasons, have been gifted with generally good healthy among their top players.

We really only have one-season “what-ifs” here when it comes to injuries. What if Sam Cassell hadn’t hurt his back in the 2004 NBA playoffs. Could the Wolves have won an NBA title? What if Francisco Liriano had stayed healthy in 2006 — could the Twins have done some major damage in the playoffs? What if Morneau hadn’t been injured in 2010? Would the Twins have gone further in the playoffs? (Granted, that was more than a one-year issue, but even a fully healthy Morneau couldn’t have stopped the slide from 2011-present). What if Brett Favre’s ankle wasn’t 50 shades of purple after an illegal hit from the Saints in the 2009 NFC title game? Would he have run for yards instead of throwing an INT in the closing moments of regulation?

But imagine having a star player, with a very good supporting cast around him, getting hurt year after year after year after year. Imagine KG, Moss or Peterson in their primes, leading championship contenders … only to have each year end in shambles because of an injury.

That’s the cruelty in Chicago right now.

Gophers women’s basketball a No. 7 seed in latest NCAA bracket projection

zahuiThe Gophers women’s basketball teams’ mid-year swoon, which included four losses in five games to drop their Big Ten record to 6-5, has given way to a torrid stretch as Minnesota heads down the stretch run of its regular season.

The Gophers have won five consecutive games — scoring at least 85 points in every victory (and allowing at least 77 in every game, too) — to sit at 11-5 in conference play, tied for third in the standings.

As a result, Minnesota has moved up in the NCAA tournament bracket projections as well. The Gophers were still teetering a week ago as a No. 10 seed in ESPN’s projections; this week, after big wins over Iowa and Michigan, they’re a much firmer No. 7 seed.

With two more games to go — at likely NCAA tourney teams Nebraska and Iowa — Minnesota figures to be locked into the NCAA field.

The big question now is whether the Gophers can finish in the top four in the Big Ten and make their conference tournament path easier. That will be difficult considering their two tough road games to finish the year, but the Gophers have also shown all year that — in spite of losing Rachel Banham — they can’t be counted out.