It was an extraordinary moment. A regular-season, midsummer soccer game, nothing to distinguish it except for the five goals put up on the scoreboard by the home team, three of them off the gifted toe of Didier Drogba.
The opposition, the Philadelphia Union, hadn’t put up much of a fight in a 5-1 loss — but the fans at Saputo Stadium didn’t mind one bit that on Drogba’s last two goals, there wasn’t a Philadelphia defender in the same area code. For long minutes after the game ended, they were on their feet, cheering, clapping, screaming, drumming, expressing their affection for the Impact in any way they could. If anyone at all left early to beat the traffic, it wasn’t obvious.
If you had just returned from a long trip to Mars and you stumbled on this scene, you would have sworn that the Impact had just won the MLS championship, if not the World Cup. Some fans always stay in their seats after Canadiens games and Alouettes games, especially big wins, but this wasn’t a few pockets of fans here and there — it was everyone.
True, the Impact have had trouble scoring and winning at home, so the fan reaction was part relief as well as downright adoration for Drogba and Ignacio Piatti, the twin towers who were the architects of this triumph.
Let the Canadiens fans spend their time screaming at each other over the P.K. Subban trade. Let Alouettes fans light more candles in the vain hope that Bob Wetenhall will finally see the light and realize that Jim Popp can’t coach.
The Impact and their fans are in the throes of a love-in. It took a while, no doubt longer than Joey Saputo would have liked, but when you see fans react the way the Impact fans did Saturday night, you know you’ve got it going on.
Speaking of Popp: By now that fact should be as obvious as a 330-pound offensive lineman.
It’s like Popp himself was saying last week: the real fans know what’s going on. Yes, they do. I hear from them every day. They’re unhappy and they don’t care who knows it.
In his many incarnations as head coach, some of them going back to the days when he had teams that Don Matthews and Marc Trestman would turn into champions, Popp has (according to my sidekick Zeke Herbowsky) a regular-season record of 20-28 and a playoff record of 1-4. That’s 21-32 overall, and that will not get you a ticket into the Hall of Fame.
And yet Popp keeps returning to the sidelines, like a bad tuna-fish sandwich that you just can’t keep down.
After the Impact game Saturday, I watched the Edmonton Eskimos and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. When I first turned to the game, it was Edmonton 31, Hamilton 6 — but when the camera cut to the Ti-Cats sideline, there was no doubt who was in charge. Kent Austin was running things.
In the second half, young Hamilton quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, with Austin calling plays from the sidelines, completed 23 straight passes — a CFL record. The Tiger-Cats came all the way back and won the game, 37-31.
Now try to imagine Popp directing that kind of comeback from the Alouettes sidelines. It wouldn’t happen. It won’t happen, because Popp isn’t a coach. He has none of that aura that clings to the good ones, from Marv Levy to Matthews to Trestman. He’s a GM — a capable one — but he is to coaching what Donald Trump is to brain surgery.
A bad team is one thing. A bad team that doesn’t score and is about as entertaining as C-SPAN is something else.
We’ll see how it goes when the Als make their appearance on Monday Night Football against the Argos — but the injuries aside, this team appears to have little life and less direction. And if you don’t blame the GM/head coach for that, who else ya gonna blame?
Strike 3 on the IOC: Mighty Casey has struck out. The International Olympic Committee, given an opportunity to knock one over the fence and put the dopers on the run, has swung mightily — and caught nothing but air.
In the museum of bad decisions, the IOC’s verdict deserves its own wing. It could hardly have been more cowardly. IOC president Thomas Bach could have decided to let the Russians compete, which would have been the wrong decision but would at least have shown some courage. Or he could have followed through, done the right thing and booted Russia out of the Rio Olympics for systematic, state-sponsored doping.
Instead, Bach passed the buck to the individual sports federations, meaning that some Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in Brazil while others are banned and the chance to strike a powerful blow on behalf of clean athletes is now lost forever.
I can’t say it better than Montreal’s own Dick Pound. The IOC’s decision, Pound said immediately, revealed there “was zero tolerance for doping, unless it’s Russia. The IOC had a huge opportunity to make a statement. It’s been squandered.”
When we spoke Friday, it was pretty clear that Pound saw this coming. “If this was Canada,” he said, “we would have been gone a long time ago.”
But it isn’t. It’s Russia, home of the biggest state-sponsored doping system the world has ever seen. In the Russian context, that means Putin-sponsored doping, because no one in that benighted nation sneezes without permission from Vladimir Putin, czar of all the Russias.
Thanks to Bach and the IOC, Putin and his henchmen got away with it. It’s one of the most sickening events in the history of the Olympic Games, and it comes at the worst possible time: on the eve of a Rio Olympics already sent reeling by everything from economic crisis to the Zika virus to dismembered bodies washing up on the beach.
Appropriate, because the IOC has dismembered the body of the anti-doping movement, just in time for the consequences to wash up on the beach in Rio.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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