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Doyle: The Copa America is Explosive in Soccer and Politics



We value sports a lot. Every country does. National and local anxieties played out by proxy through team supports and individual sporting achievement. Brilliant distraction with a benign purpose – it grants respite from the everyday reality, from the horrific and the banal.

Most coverage of sports is predictably direct. It’s about winners and losers, rivalries, tactics that succeed or go awry. Or about heroes and bums – narratives of personal triumph or failure. Sports coverage rarely strays outside the arena of the competition itself. When it does, it tends toward irony and indirection, is unreflective of the larger cultural context and instinctively puts the best face on things. Connecting with reality is someone else’s job.

Well, say hello to the Copa America Centenario, which has more meaning, and explosive soccer, than any tournament in ages. And boy is it entangled with a larger political and cultural context. In our Anglo- and Euro-centric way in Canada there’s huge attention for the Euro 2016 championship in France. Not so much for the Copa. (All the matches are in Spanish-only on Univision Canada, a channel most people have never heard of. It is free through June, thank heavens.) But the Copa merits close attention.

The tournament now under way in the United States is the oldest international soccer tournament in the world, the South America championship, basically. And it is being held in the United States because, well, it’s the 100th anniversary of the first such tournament and, well, there is actually a lot of interest in soccer, of the South American variety, in the United States. And because it’s the 100th anniversary some countries from Central America and the Caribbean have been invited. The United States, as hosts, is competing fiercely, too.

In the context of contemporary U.S. politics, the existence of the Copa America Centenario, with 15 countries from Latin America and the Caribbean, plus the United States, playing in massive stadiums in 10 U.S. cities, is simply bizarre. It’s a retort to the xenophobia stirred up by Donald Trump and his supporters. It’s a statement that Latinos and Hispanics are firmly established across the United States in vast numbers. The tournament is for them and American soccer fans.

It is also a laugh in the face of Trump’s famous declaration about the need to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. “We are having people coming in through the border that are not people that we want.”

And this: “They’re coming from South America. These are total killers. These are not the nice, sweet little people that you think. We have no protection.”

They have actually been coming, in reality, from South America in the tens of thousands to cheer on Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Ecuador and other countries. Such is the ludicrous gap between Trump’s xenophobia and reality that a sports channel in Argentina is using Trump’s speeches to promote the Copa America.

To catch you up, the Centenario is now at the quarter-final stage. Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, United States and Venezuela are the eight countries that have qualified to the knockout round. On Thursday, it’s United States vs. Ecuador in Seattle. On Friday in East Rutherford, N.J., it’s Colombia vs. Peru. On Saturday, it’s Argentina vs. Venezuela in Foxborough, Mass., and in Santa Clara, Calif., it’s Mexico vs. Chile.

Brazil, a favourite to win it even without striker Neymar playing, crashed out already. Coach Dunga has been fired, too. This is the usual cycle with Brazil. A disastrous World Cup, which it hosted, was followed by recriminations and the usual suggestion that Brazil needed to play more aggressively. Dunga returned to pursue that, and failed.

We’re now at the business end of the tournament and the Chile against Mexico game looks juicy. Chile, the holders of the Copa, has been in sizzling form. Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez scored twice, one goal a classic, in a 4-2 victory over Panama. In that match Panama did better than against Argentina. That match had Lionel Messi coming on as a substitute and scoring a hat trick in 19 minutes during a 5-0 win.

Mexico is now tipped by many to win this Copa. It topped a tough group – Uruguay, Jamaica and Venezuela and did it in style. Its only weakness is in allowing set-piece goals. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio now has a 9-0-1 record in charge. It avoided meeting Argentina in the quarter-finals and now that could be the final itself.

It matters a lot for Mexico, this Copa played in the United States. There’s a torque of indignation driving this team in a country where so many insults have been flung at it. And, crucially, average attendance at Mexico games has been 67,082, most of them hollering Mexican-Americans who are stirred by resentment into a frenzy.

If Mexico wins the Copa in the United States, the street scenes in some cities will be the loudest answer to his insults that Trump (and his followers) has received.

The recent mass murder in Orlando has also seeped into the Copa. There is a rising disgust with the use of the word “puto” chanted as an insult by Mexican fans and by other Spanish-speaking supporters. It can mean “coward” or idiot but it is widely used, too, as a homophobic slur. Erasing it would be as big an achievement as Mexico winning the Copa.

The United States is the dark horse in all if this. After an opening-night 0-2 loss to Colombia, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team grew in stature and confidence with a 4-0 dismissal of Costa Rica and nervy but solid 1-0 win over Paraguay.

The U.S. team beat Ecuador 1-0 in a friendly last month and is likely to win again. There is growing interest in the Copa and support for the American team is deep and strong. Just as soccer – that most foreign of sports to many Americans – is becoming deep and strong across the United States, uniting multiple communities.

And it’s more than a distraction – its meaning reaches deep into the turmoil of U.S. politics.

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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