Saturday, July 29, 2006

Saturday Nite SportsTalk: 1) MLS at the All-Star Break – This evening, I watched D.C. United blow a late lead to Real Salt Lake…an incredible, unexpected result. RSL actually looked the more dangerous side throughout the game. The Comcast DC announcers (Dave Johnson – if you listened to the World Cup on XM, you were introduced to the voice of DC sports – I believe Johnson is at his best doing soccer) didn’t even consider the possibility, but I thought Josh Gros was offsides, as he ran on to a long ball from Christian Gomez – and then set-up the first goal, by sliding the ball across to the wide-open Jaime Moreno. The Bolivian-born DC striker had the entire goal to shoot at, after RSL goalie, Scott Garlick, came out to challenge Gros. All-Star goalie Troy Perkins (a mortgage broker trainee in his day job), came up big for United, though RSL helped him out for most of the night, with their inability to finish great chances.

I am impressed with the very enthusiastic crowd in Salt Lake – as vocal as any I’ve heard here, but the real story was the sudden and shocking end to the fantastic run that D.C. United was on…with Real Salt Lake converting two penalty kicks in the closing minutes (89th minute and the final minute of stoppage time). United had only lost once this year, and has scored in every game. United had this game in hand, until the very end of the game, when second-half substitute John Wilson did a Paul Bunyan imitation, chopping down RSL players like dead trees.

The first penalty was a bit of a dive, and the second one, coming at the end of stoppage time, probably should not have been given at the penalty spot. Although Wilson clearly fouled the RSL player in the box, the RSL player was running away from goal, chasing after the ball he had just passed off. Not every foul in the box has to be a penalty shot, and this seemed to be the rare circumstance when a free kick in the box would have been more appropriate.

But that’s soccer, no? RSL has to be thrilled to get the win after having given away their last two games in stoppage time themselves. And it’s a stunning result, with United losing to the league’s worst squad. I was already writing my post about D.C. United winning to extend their 14-game unbeaten streak, before the sudden turn of events. The biggest surprise of all, though, was that United was badly outplayed all night long.

Right now, I'm looking forward to a return to form, when I see United up close for a U.S. Open Cup match on Tuesday night at the 4,00o seat Soccerplex in Germantown, Maryland. Then, on Saturday, it's United against the best club in the world, Chelsea. OK, it's really the MLS All-Star team against Chelsea, but United has seven players on the all-star squad. And, yes, I know, Chelsea has to win the Champions League before one can fairly claim they are the best team in the world. Face facts, though, Chelsea's bench would probably win the Premier League title. They are virtually a global all-star team -- with the depth of talent that George Steinbrenner wishes he could duplicate for the Yankees in baseball.

2) Baseball – MLB – [Trading Deadline Special] Looking specifically at my teams, the Mets and Nationals. One team may be the biggest buyer in the trading deadline market, while the other is surely the biggest seller. Still, there is question whether either team will or should deal. The Mets don’t need to add much – certainly not a mediocre starting pitcher, like the Nats’ own Livan Hernandez. If the Mets can get their hands on a star like Barry Zito, it would be hard for them to resist, even though he will be a free agent at season’s end.

The Nationals are looking to get younger in anticipation of their new stadium opening in 2008. Realistically, their season is already lost, and next year is not looking much better. The Mets will almost certainly dominate the division next year, too. Any challenges will come either from the Braves, who do have a lot of good hitters, or the Florida Marlins who have quietly put together the kind of young, highly talented pitching staff that the Nats covet.

So, the Nats are trying to acquire pitching prospects, and hope to deal either one or two of their veteran starters, or hitting sensation, Alfonso Soriano. Nats fans have really grown fond of Soriano, despite the early boos he heard while looking completely lost in left field. Since acquiring Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez, the Nats have finally put together a pretty solid batting order…and the best part is their line-up is probably one of the youngest in baseball. Soriano is the veteran at 30 years of age…and he is the engine that makes the offense go.

Although Soriano is almost certain to be traded, it is hard to imagine that the Nats could get fair value for him – it would make more sense to try to sign him at the end of the season. If they were to lose him, they would still get 2 first-round draft picks. Still, as good as Soriano has been this year – right now, he is swinging the hottest bat in the sport, and he has really grown as a left fielder (of course, he had nowhere to go but up in that regard) – Nats GM Jim Bowden believes he can practically auction off Soriano and watch the price go through the roof. Nats fans will be sad to see him go, because he could have been the centerpiece of the rebuilding effort. It was a brilliant deal to bring him in, and it seems like a waste to let him go. The Nats were moving in the right direction, sweeping a six-game homestand. Their poor performance in L.A. has probably sealed Soriano’s fate.

Bowden knows the team is desperate for pitching, although he has dealt three of their top four relievers in the last several weeks. So, Soriano will go to the team that comes through with the prospects the Nats need. Perhaps, the Nats will be able to sign Soriano in the off-season, despite trading him. This seems like wishful thinking.

If they trade Soriano, the Nats maybe able to put together a decent outfield, if Alex Escobar can get and stay healthy, but their offense will sorely miss the big hitter they will spend years trying to replace. And the team, which has looked much better lately, will struggle mightily the rest of the year. As Manager Frank Robinson said: "We'd be in an ugly last place."-- Manager Frank Robinson, on where the team would be without LF Alfonso Soriano.

No matter what the Nats get in exchange for Soriano, they will need to jump into the free agent market in a big way to get immediate pitching help. If they do deal Soriano, they’ll have to start looking for a big bat, too. They caught lightning in a bottle this year with Soriano, but they're not going to get that lucky again, with someone else (lightning doesn't strike twice in the same spot).

I know conventional wisdom and logic dictates the Nats trade Soriano. It’s just striking while the iron is hot. He’s surely at his peak right now, and his market value is, too. This logic would absolutely impel trading Soriano, if the Nats were Pittsburgh or Kansas City. But D.C. is the 12th biggest market. If the Nats can put a contender on the field for 2008, the stadium will be packed to the rafters. However, if the Nats trade Soriano, it’s hard to imagine that they can put together a serious contender in two years.

Here’s one vote for rolling the dice and going against conventional wisdom. Hold on to Soriano. Every indication is he would sign with the Nats, if they showed him that kind of love. If they can sign Soriano, he’ll be worth a lot more to the team than the prospects the Nats might get for dealing him now.

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