The World Cup’s knockout stage begins Saturday, with both matchups pitting South American teams against each other. Lose and they’re gone.Brazil vs. Chile 12 p.m. EDTColombia vs. Uruguay 4 p.m. EDTIN BRIEFSee our World Cup predictions for the latest probabilities.IN DEPTHUruguay must face Colombia without striker Luis Suárez, who has been suspended nine games for eating a little Italian (defender Giorgio Chiellini) during Uruguay’s 1-0 victory over Italy on Tuesday. That’s good news for Colombian players who don’t care to be sampled like beef jerky, but bad news for Uruguay, which has proven itself to be more effective with Suárez than without him.Suárez’s teammates missed him when sat out Uruguay’s June 14 Group D match against Costa Rica because of tenderness from a knee operation three weeks earlier. Although Uruguay possessed the ball 56 percent of the time, it managed just nine shots (compared to Costa Rica’s 13), with only three on target. Without Suárez, Uruguay couldn’t finish and lost 3-1.Contrast that to Uruguay’s 2-1 victory over England on June 19. With Suárez in the lineup, the Uruguayans possessed the ball only 37 percent of the time but made the most of their opportunities: Suárez took Uruguay’s only two shots on frame and converted on both. He didn’t score when the team edged Italy 1-0, but he took a good bite out of the Italians’ concentration, and the Uruguayans scored soon after.The Colombians are led by attacking midfielder James Rodríguez, who has three goals and two assists in the tournament. Our World Cup predictive model gives Colombia a 69 percent chance of beating Uruguay.Saturday’s other match pits host Brazil, which won twice and drew once in Group A play, against Chile, which went 2-1 in Group B. ESPN’s Soccer Power Index rates Brazil as the best team in the world, and our model gives it a 41 percent chance of winning the tournament. We give it a 82 percent chance of beating Chile.OFF THE PITCHBrazil and Chile aren’t neighbors, but that hasn’t stopped them from forming close ties, both historically and in the modern day. After winning their independence from Portugal and Spain, respectively, in the early-19th century, their relations began with mutual support in separate conflicts with Argentina. More recently, the two countries signed bilateral agreements in education, culture and research — and that was before Chilean President Michelle Bachelet was re-elected and promised to put more focus on the nation’s relationship with Brazil. But what does that mean for these countries’ trade?According to data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity, the cooperation translates. In 2012, Brazil sent $9.59 billion worth of exports to Chile, but without a focus on one particular product. The biggest share was crude petroleum, at about 26 percent, but public passenger vehicles, bovine meat, footwear, glues and chocolate all had significant shares as well. Flowing in the opposite direction was $8.33 billion worth of Chilean goods. Their breakdown is a little more imbalanced, with cooper making up 55 percent of exports, but the remaining products are well-distributed, with things such as fresh fish, fertilizers, wine and car parts all comprising comparable fractions of exports to Brazil. — Hayley MunguiaFURTHER READINGWhom Do You Root For When Your Team Gets Knocked Out of the World Cup?The U.S.’s Odds of Beating Belgium And Every Other World Cup OpponentThe Germans Are Young, in Their Prime, And Really, Really Good
Rakeem Cato15.8 Brett Hundley39.8 Sean Mannion9.1 Grant Hedrick10.1 Blake Sims9.7 Marcus Mariota64.1 Connor Halliday2.7 The model did not explicitly take into account the sexual assault allegation made against Winston or his off-field transgressions — although those were likely baked into the scout grades, which were a part of the model.Out of the 67 players evaluated in the 2012 to 2015 draft classes, Mariota was the most efficient rusher on a per-play basis. Excluding sacks, he averaged 9.8 yards per rush attempt in his college career and gained a first down on 41 percent of those plays. Winston, on the other hand, ranked 29th in per-play rushing efficiency and gained a first down on 24 percent of his carries.Mariota and Winston are each projected to be above-average quarterbacks in their first four years in the league, but they are far from the elite level that the model projected for Luck (79.2 projected QBR) when he came out of college. Their four-year projections are closer to the expectations for Robert Griffin III entering the 2012 draft.After Mariota and Winston, Brett Hundley is expected to be the third-best quarterback in the class, but there is a clear gap between the top two QBs and the rest of the prospects. Like Mariota, Hundley is athletic and ranks in the top 10 in per-play rushing. Other models look favorably upon Hundley, making many believe he could be the sleeper of the 2015 draft class.The rest of the 2015 QB class is expected to perform at the level of replacement level QBs.6Defined as a player with a QBR of 25 or lower.No one model can perfectly predict NFL quarterback success, but looking at what numbers have mattered in the past tells us that we will be lucky to have three players come out of this draft class who will have long-term NFL success. Cody Fajardo12.0 Jameis Winston60.8 Anthony Boone10.2 Shane Carden8.3 Bryce Petty24.5 We’ve heard the debate for so long that its edges have nearly gone dull: Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota? Who should go first?If there were a formula for how to choose a No. 1 quarterback in the NFL draft, Tom Brady would have gone No. 1 overall and JaMarcus Russell would have been lucky to be selected 199th. This stuff is hard, especially when you consider the stakes. Missing on a first-round quarterback can set a franchise back for years. Because of the “boom or bust” nature of the position, selecting a quarterback, particularly in the first round, is riskier than selecting a player in any other position.What, then, to do about Winston versus Mariota this Thursday? Build a model, of course. This year, ESPN’s Production Analytics crew created a QB model to help teams reduce the risk of drafting the wrong quarterback. Like all models, this one had a few outliers, but it would have predicted that Andrew Luck would be the top QB in the last three draft classes, that Russell Wilson would be far better than his third-round grade, and that first-rounders Brandon Weeden and EJ Manuel would be below-average quarterbacks — and of course that’s without using those years of data to fit the model.1The model is based on 122 quarterbacks from the 2005 to 2011 NFL drafts. The model’s opinion on this year’s top two: Mariota — not Winston — is the top prospect.The goal of the model is to predict a player’s Total Quarterback Rating over his first four years in the league, which is generally the length of his rookie contract. The main inputs into the projections were a player’s college stats (adjusted for defenses faced),2Expected points added (EPA), the backbone of QBR and many other NFL models, was used to measure quarterback success in college. We adjusted for opposing defenses faced to measure a QB’s success in college, and EPA/play was used as an output to project QBR. Because of small sample sizes, stabilization techniques were also applied to obtain less volatile measures of success. combine/physical measurements, scout grades and play-type frequencies in college. After determining which factors mattered most,3To do this, we used a censored regression, using Bayesian information criteria as the variable selection criteria. Prospects that never played in the NFL or players that performed worse than replacement level were left censored. the model projected a player’s NFL success in four categories — on passing plays, on running plays, how many sacks he’s likely to take, and how many penalties he’s likely to incur — over his first four seasons. These play-type projections and how often each play is expected to occur4A random forest model was used to project NFL play-type frequencies using the same set of predictor variables from the censored regression. Only players that had at least 300 NFL action plays were used to fit this model. were combined to produce the QBR projections.Not surprisingly, scout grades5Mel Kiper and Scouts Inc. were used for the grades. were the most significant predictor of quarterback success. Scouts have the luxury of knowing things that aren’t completely captured in college stats, and they generally do a good job measuring a quarterback’s passing capabilities. Where the scouts fall short, however, is their evaluation of efficient rushing quarterbacks.The model found that players who were effective rushers were generally undervalued by scouts. That does not mean that every player who runs for 1,000 yards in college will be a good NFL quarterback; rather, the quarterbacks who are efficient runners have an ability to extend drives that serves them well in the NFL. For example, Luck ran for 150 yards in his final college season but was one of the more effective college rushers, converting a first down on 39 percent of his rushes (excluding sacks). Once in the NFL, Luck has been one of the best scramblers in the league and was the most efficient rushing quarterback in 2013.The added rushing component is also a major reason that Wilson was projected to be one of the top quarterbacks in his class (47.3 projected QBR) but only the eighth-best quarterback by Scouts Inc.Winston had a better Scouts Inc. grade, but Mariota’s better rushing stats and combine tests helped him beat out Winston in the model’s approach. Garrett Grayson17.0 Brandon Bridge5.3 PLAYERFOUR-YEAR PROJECTED TOTAL QBR Taylor Heinicke8.8
Starting running back Ray Graham of the Pittsburgh Panthers along with wide receiver Devin Street and defensive back Lafayette Pitts have been charged with simple assault and conspiracy in connection to an Oct. 21 incident involving three other students, but will play Saturday against No. 4 Notre Dame.All three players deny any involvement in the incident.According to the complaint filed with police, Karl Olsheski, Diana Olsheski, and Samantha Mitchell were walking in Oakland neighborhood of the university, when the three Pitt football players walked into their path from the opposite direction at 12:30 a.m.Karl Olsheski reported to police that Graham confronted him by saying, “What’s up?” followed by a racial slur. Olsheski said he attempted to walk away but that Street and Graham blocked his way and Pitts kept him from retreating to avoid the confrontation.After being cornered by the three players, Olsheski said Street hit him one time across the left side of his head.Graham, Street and Pitts were later recognized by the three students in police photo lineups. The alleged victims did not recognize all three players, but was at least pointed out once. Street was the most obvious, who pointed out by Mitchell after taking a class on vampires together.The athletes have not been arrested, but a preliminary hearing for the charges has been set for Jan. 9 at the Pittsburgh Municipal Court. They received this information for summonses sent through the mail.E.J. Borghetti, the school spokesman, released a statement saying the players have offered to speak with police and give their account but have not been questioned or received any court documents on the matter.“We take matters of player discipline very seriously and will continue to cooperate with any investigation,” Borghetti said. “However, we will not, and hope others will not, rush to judgment on these misdemeanor allegations. All three players will remain active members of our program while we gain more clarity on this situation.”Graham is the leading rusher for the Panthers’ with 622 years and seven touchdowns. Street is the leading receiver and top kick-return man with 50 catches for 695 yards and four touchdowns.All three players will allow the legal system to take its’ course, while they attempt to hand the Fighting Irish their first loss of the season Saturday.
YEARORIGINAL PICKKEY PLAYER*PLAYER WIN SHARES WITH KNICKSPLAYER STILL WITH KNICKS? When the Knicks actually make picks, they tend to draft pretty well. They’ve made 12 first-round selections since 2001, and many of them, including Nenê and Kristaps Porzingis, have turned out to be pretty good or even great picks. But the Knicks traded a lot of those guys away and got relatively little in return.Holding onto picks before the draft is one step out of this downward spiral for the Knicks. Holding onto them after will be another. In the meantime, a little bit of luck with the pingpong balls at tonight’s lottery won’t hurt.Check out our latest NBA predictions. PICK TRADED FOR … 20167Andrea Bargnani**2 200118Glen Rice6 Let that sink in for a moment. Over the past 16 years, the only teams with worse average draft position than the Knicks were the Spurs, Mavericks, Heat, Lakers and Pacers. These are all successful teams that generally picked late because they were good at basketball. Not surprisingly, the Knicks own the largest average discrepancy between where they should have picked in the draft and where they actually picked.Bad lottery luck has played a part. Since winning the Ewing sweepstakes in 1985, the Knicks haven’t moved up a single draft spot via the lottery — that is, when they’ve been one of the teams in the lottery, the drawing hasn’t led to them picking any earlier than they would have if draft order were determined by record alone. They fell four spots in 1986, three in 1987,5This knocked New York out of the top three, which, under the terms of a previous trade agreement, enabled Seattle to swap first-rounders with the Knicks and draft Scottie Pippen. one in 2008 and two in 2015. The only other time a pick that would have belonged to the Knicks landed among the top three in the lottery, New York had given Chicago the rights to that spot under the terms of the Eddy Curry trade. (The Bulls selected LaMarcus Aldridge second overall in 2006.)And that’s really the bigger problem. Most of the damage the Knicks have suffered was self-inflicted. In the 16 drafts since the infamous Ewing-to-Seattle deal in 2000, the team has worsened its own position eight times by either trading away the rights to its top pick or allowing another team to swap first-round spots.6This includes drafts in which the Knicks still picked in the first round but the terms of a deal caused them to pick later than they would have otherwise. Houston had the option to swap 2011 first-round picks with the Knicks via the Tracy McGrady deal but did not do so, so that is not included. In five cases, the pick New York gave up became a lottery spot, including the pick the Bulls used to draft Aldridge in 2006. And even when the Knicks hang onto their first-round pick until draft night, they can still manage to lose it: In 2002, they drafted Nenê with a lottery pick, then traded him away that same night for Antonio McDyess, who delivered the Knicks 0.6 win shares over 18 games before being packaged for Stephon Marbury.7Nenê, meanwhile, has produced 69.3 regular-season win shares over 15 seasons.The Nenê trade isn’t the exception, either. For the most part, all this wheeling and dealing has left New York no better off than they were when they started. Update (May 16, 9:20 p.m.): After the NBA draft lottery Tuesday night, the Knicks are now slated to pick eighth; they would have gotten the seventh pick if draft order were decided by record alone.When the NBA holds its annual draft lottery tonight, the New York Knicks will have a 5.3 percent chance of winning the top pick in next month’s draft and an 18.3 percent chance of landing in the top three. Their fans will be keeping their fingers crossed for a little good news — for once.Since trading franchise icon Patrick Ewing before the 2000-01 season, the Knicks have won one playoff series and amassed the league’s third-worst regular-season record.1Through the 2016-17 season. Coming into this season, the Knicks had the 4th-worst regular-season record since 2000-01. Fans of dreadful teams can usually cling to the likelihood of high draft picks and the hope for the future they bring. But the Knicks have managed to bungle that too.I compared teams’ regular-season performance2In terms of average regular-season rank at season’s end, which is the primary basis for determining draft order. For the first four seasons of my analysis, the NBA had 29 teams. I adjusted those ranks to 30-team equivalents. I adjusted for ties too; if two teams were tied for the 5th-best record, for example, I assigned both a rank of 5.5. These adjustments help normalize rankings. to their average position in the drafts following each of the 16 seasons from 2000-01 through 2015-16.3Based on which team officially made each selection on draft night. Team averages include drafts in which they had no first-round picks, either because of trades or violations. I captured franchise history according to official records, so the Hornets’ 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons belong to Charlotte, not New Orleans. I assigned the 2002 draft to New Orleans. As a result, Charlotte has 14 seasons and 14 drafts from the 2000-01 season through the 2016 draft, while New Orleans has 14 seasons and 15 drafts. All other teams have 16 seasons and 16 drafts. In general, good teams should have bad picks and bad teams should have good picks. That’s how the system’s designed, after all. If your team stinks, at least you have a shot at the best players in the draft.As one of the worst teams in the NBA since 2000-01,4In terms of average rank at the end of the regular season, the Knicks were worst in the NBA from 2000-01 through 2016-17 and 3rd-worst from 2000-01 through 2015-16. (As noted, ranks are adjusted for ties and number of teams.) the Knicks should have had one of the best average draft positions. Instead, New York’s front office fumbled its way to the 6th-worst average in the league, combining on-court ineptitude with draft-night hopelessness. 201412Carmelo Anthony44✓ 20079Eddy Curry9 20027Antonio McDyess1 200416Stephon Marbury28 20062Eddy Curry9 *All trades involved multiple players.**The Knicks gave Denver the right to swap 2016 first-round picks in the Anthony trade. They traded away the pick entirely in the Bargnani trade.Source: Basketball-reference.com The Knicks have stunk at trading first-round draft picks since 2001 201216Tracy McGrady0 20109Stephon Marbury28
4Kurt Warner2008ARIPHI✓212875.027940145.7 In the 2016 postseason thus far, Ryan has a passer rating of 132.6, the third-highest that any conference-champion QB has carried into the Super Bowl,2Minimum 30 pass attempts trailing only Joe Montana in 1989 (142.5) and Tony Eason in 1985 (135.6). It’s not unusual for unheralded quarterbacks to go on hot streaks — Flacco had a 117.2 passer rating in the 2012 playoffs — but Ryan’s previous regular-season résumé is stronger, particularly after he produced one of the NFL’s all-time great passing seasons in 2016.In Ryan’s last NFC championship game (itself a stellar, 396-yard performance against San Francisco in 2013), he had already shown some of the progress he’d made under center. Early-career Ryan had a tendency to make too many throws that were safe but ultimately harmless, resulting in high completion percentages but low yards-per-attempt averages and anemic third-down conversion numbers. By the time he faced San Francisco, Ryan was more confident throwing the ball deep, leading to more air yards per throw and more big plays. How Matt Ryan’s playoff passing evolved 2Mark Rypien1991WASDET✓121770.622820152.2 Related: Hot Takedown 2011WCNYG4.98.20.00.022.08.32.0 5Troy Aikman1993DALSF✓141877.817720144.7 Going into Sunday’s NFC championship, the Atlanta Falcons — and, by extension, their MVP front-runner QB Matt Ryan — were losing the battle for media attention to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.But on Sunday, Ryan forced the football world to take notice; the Falcons walloped the Packers 44-21 and punched a ticket to Houston for Super Bowl LI. It was just the latest piece of evidence that Ryan’s astonishing regular-season statistics weren’t empty numbers that would evaporate in the playoffs. Instead, Ryan is performing less like, say, Joe Flacco or Eli Manning — QBs who punctuated otherwise average careers with stellar postseason bursts — and more like one of the game’s best starters (which, incidentally, Ryan has been over the NFL’s past decade or so.)Against Green Bay, Ryan painted a QB masterpiece. He conducted the Falcons’ offense with ruthless efficiency, scoring six touchdowns and a field goal on nine drives. He also completed 27 of his 38 passes (71 percent) for 392 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions, tallying the 15th-best completion percentage, fourth-most yards and sixth-best passer rating (139.4) in a conference championship game.1Going back to the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Not even Tom Brady, who notched a 127.5 passer rating against Pittsburgh later Sunday, could match Ryan. Best conference championship games by passer rating, 1970-2016 8Dan Marino1984MIAPIT✓213265.642141135.4 2016DIVSEA✓22.214.171.124.051.413.06.7 10C. Kaepernick2012SFATL✓162176.223310127.7 “Year” represents the season for which the championship was played.Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group 2012DIVSEA✓126.96.36.199.745.710.42.7 3Billy Kilmer1972WASDAL✓141877.819420148.6 2016LCGB✓10.38.810.50.057.914.57.4 2010DIVGB6.49.03.46.931.09.32.5 Minimum 14 passing attempts. “Year” represents the season for which the championship was played.Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com, ESPN 2008WCARI5.08.15.0%5.0%35.0%7.73.1 6Matt Ryan2016ATLGB✓273871.139240139.4 YEARROUNDOPPWON?YDSAIR YDTDINT1STDYDSYAC 11Tom Brady2016NEPIT✓324276.238430127.5 9Tom Brady2004NEPIT✓142166.720720130.5 7Joe Montana1988SFCHI✓172763.028830136.0 1Jim Plunkett1980OAKSD✓141877.826120155.8 PER ATTEMPTPER COMPLETION 2012LCSF9.4188.8.131.520.013.22.1 But this year, Ryan has been showcasing the full mastery of his arsenal, and an extremely talented group of skill-position teammates has also helped. Ryan’s average pass has traveled fewer yards through the air than in 2012, but he’s making up for it (and then some) by completing a higher percentage of his passes, and getting more than twice as many yards per completion from receivers sprinting with the ball after catching it. As a group, Ryan’s receivers ran for 199 yards after the catch on Sunday, the sixth most any team had in a playoff game since 2006.32006 is the first year for which ESPN’s Stats & Information Group has yards-after-catch data. And while Julio Jones had 180 receiving yards by himself, tied for fourth most in conference championship history, he was also just one of eight different targets among whom Ryan distributed the ball. PLAYERYEARTMOPPWON?CMPATTCMP%YDSTDINTRATE Wait, Are The 76ers Good Now? When Ryan’s improvement as a passer combined with a better supporting cast around him, the result was one of the deadliest regular-season offenses in NFL history — a trend that’s only becoming clearer with each successive Falcons playoff victory.Ryan isn’t going to get more attention than Brady before the Super Bowl, but his brilliant season (and postseason) has finally earned him the attention of even casual football fans. Moreover, he’s earned that recognition as one of the game’s best for an extended stretch of time — not merely as a flash in the pan.
2010-1133.7%36.1%20.3% 2015-1626.528.126.6 Messi’s share These personnel issues show up clearly in the stat sheet. Where once Barcelona was among the highest-pressing teams in the world, now the Blaugrana don’t force turnovers up the field at the same rate. Barcelona’s defensive numbers have still declined as its midfielders have lost range — and the team’s more conservative approach could only slow the decline, not prevent it entirely.This defensive weakness offers Liverpool its primary tactical opportunity. If Jurgen Klopp’s side can pull Barcelona into a transition game and open up midfield, there will be advantageous matchups to exploit. If Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane can find themselves running in space, Rakitic and Busquets are unlikely to slow them down.But such a transition game has a downside for Liverpool. And that’s Messi. If Liverpool seeks to exploit the weaknesses of Barcelona’s defense and create transition opportunities, that will give Messi room to operate. As he has shifted from a right-sided forward to a pure central playmaker, Messi has had to work in tighter spaces, often deeper on the pitch. 2014-1528.031.426.2 Data from La Liga and Champions League matchesSource: Opta Sports 2014-1555.527.3 2013-1427.131.819.5 2011-1230.036.121.5 Barca is even more dependent on MessiThe share of Barcelona’s production attributed to Lionel Messi, adjusted for playing time, 2010-2019 2012-1332.037.419.5 2016-1751.830.7 2018-19*47.242.0 2018-1934.741.333.6 2012-1349.632.6 In some ways, Liverpool’s task on Wednesday while facing Barcelona in the Champions League semifinal is simple. All the Reds likely have to do to reach a second consecutive European final is contain Lionel Messi, the greatest soccer player of all time.In past seasons, such a description might have been oversimplifying. Back when Xavi and Andres Iniesta roamed midfield for Barcelona, the pair’s game control and precision passing could dominate matches. More recently, when Neymar and a younger Luis Suarez joined Messi in the forward line, the interchanging of this three-headed monster was the core problem for opponents to solve. Today, the superstar supporting cast at Camp Nou is largely gone or aged out of its prime. But the astounding thing about Messi is that at age 31, he is still good enough to carry a team on his back very nearly to the top of the Soccer Power Index rankings, not to mention to an easy league title and a Copa del Rey final. Now he has the chance to bring the club a sixth Champions League title.From 2010-11 through 2013-14, when Barcelona was either managed by Pep Guardiola or still functioning mostly in his systems, Messi was a forward. He operated in the “false nine” role he made famous and ran up incredible goal-scoring and assist production, while ball progression responsibilities fell as much to him as to great midfielders like Xavi and Iniesta. The team changed in 2014-15, when Luis Enrique took over, Suarez arrived as an elite center forward and Xavi fell out of the rotation. Messi switched to a role on the right and became the team’s primary ball progressor, while Suarez and Neymar helped share the goal-scoring load.Today, increasingly, Messi just does it all. He is the lone true ball progression engine, and he’s creating an even higher percentage of his team’s goals and chances than he did at his peak, according to data from analytics firm Opta Sports. 2017-1830.732.428.1 2011-1255.425.8 2010-1156.0%25.0 *Adjusted for 38-match seasonData from La Liga matchesSource: Opta Sports 2013-1452.430.5 SeasonPressing RateExpected Goals Allowed 2016-1729.431.423.9 seasonExpected Goals + AssistsGoals + AssistsProgressive Passes + Runs 2015-1653.133.6 Messi receives the ball more often now in the back half of the pitch and the center. These are areas that normally Liverpool would expect to have at least two if not all three of its central midfielders covering. In a transition game, however, Messi might have more space to work and find passes either to Suarez or perhaps an onrushing fullback.1Jordi Alba has been Barcelona’s top attacking outlet since the departure of Neymar.The other option for Liverpool, if that seems too much of a risk, would be not to open up the throttle and play in transition but to sit deeper and look for less frequent counterattacking opportunities. This would deny Messi space to find passes. Of course, this would be nothing new. Barcelona has often faced opponents who sat deep and denied space. What has changed, however, is Barcelona’s approach. Where once Barca would patiently hold the ball forever until it unlocked an opponent, now Messi has started gunning. In the past two seasons, Messi has attempted 121 open-play shots from outside the box as well as 108 direct free kicks. In the two seasons prior, 2015-16 and 2016-17, he attempted just 83 open-play shots from outside the box and 87 direct free kicks. Messi has increased his production outside the penalty area from eight goals per season to 10.5 per season. Barca’s defense isn’t the sameBarcelona’s pressing rate and expected goals allowed by season 2017-1847.838.5 The main reason that Barcelona is increasingly a one-man team is that the other players are not as great anymore. Luis Suarez at 32 isn’t the dynamic center forward he used to be. Neymar, Xavi and Iniesta are gone. Sergio Busquets, 30, and Ivan Rakitic, 31, cannot cover ground in midfield like they used to. The result is a team that is less able to supplement the attack either with forward runs or with an aggressive high press to cause turnovers because the midfield needs to be more stable and defensive. Early in the season, Barcelona was playing more aggressive midfield tactics and was rewarded with a string of goals conceded. Manager Ernesto Valverde has since pulled back the press, which prevented a disaster but has left Messi carrying the team. This increase in production counts, but it is not spectacular. Messi has managed to be just as dangerous a ball progressor while letting it fly more frequently. But the risk Messi poses against a set defense, firing from long range, is probably one that an opponent can accept. While Messi is more dangerous shooting the ball than just about anyone else in soccer, his increased distance shooting has led to only a couple more goals over a long season. This isn’t a strategy to beat Messi — such a thing does not exist. But on balance, the statistical record suggests that even the greatest of all time has not turned gunning from 20 yards into a killer attacking plan.Barcelona is Lionel Messi at this point, and game-planning to stop Barcelona is now as simple as figuring out how to stop Messi. Which has, of course, never been simple. But with less expansive passers behind him and less explosive forwards ahead, he has never had fewer weapons among his teammates. Liverpool can either play a more risky strategy of exploiting Barcelona’s now-shaky defense or a more conservative strategy that looks to force Messi into shooting from range. Both strategies could easily be defeated by Messi finding space in transition or driving home a great shot from distance. But on balance, Liverpool is probably better off with the latter risk than letting Messi get free on the break.Check out our latest soccer predictions.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta prepares to address team at a media timeout against Purdue on Jan. 1, 2017 at the Jerome Schottenstein Center. OSU lost 76-75. Credit: Giustino Bovenzi | Lantern Senior ReporterThey said it all offseason. The eight returning members of the Ohio State men’s basketball team that were on the 2015-16 roster said they didn’t want that taste again. That taste of missing out on the NCAA tournament for just the second time in coach Thad Matta’s tenure, then losing in the second round of the National Invitational Tournament. Now they’re at a juncture.The Buckeyes sit at 10-5 overall, 0-2 in the Big Ten, an 0-3 record against the Associated Press Top 25 and a loss to low mid-major Florida Atlantic who is 4-9 with two wins against non-Division I opponents. To make matters worse, OSU will have to play the rest of the season without arguably the team’s best all-around player, junior forward Keita Bates-Diop.Still, it gets worse.The Buckeyes are staring at the very real possibility of dropping to 0-5 to start league play with matchups at Minnesota, at No. 13 Wisconsin and Michigan State. The last time OSU started the Big Ten season with five losses was 1997-98 when the Scarlet and Gray finished 8-22.“That’s why you take it one game at a time, “ Matta said. “I know when the schedule came out, I looked at it and said, ‘Uh oh.’ By the same token, we got to get ourselves ready to go in Minneapolis and obviously Minnesota is playing great basketball right now.”Richard Pitino’s Golden Gophers are the darling of the Big Ten this season. After beating a solid Northwestern team on the road on Thursday night, Minnesota will welcome the Buckeyes into Williams Arena on Sunday night at 14-2 and 2-1 in the Big Ten.Following OSU’s 76-75 loss to Purdue on Thursday, several players were not shy about showing emotion on the court or in the postgame press conference. Junior forward Jae’Sean Tate and senior forward Marc Loving were holding back tears as they tried to put a finger on why they keep coming up short in games that can totally change the complexion of the season.Last season, OSU had a signature win against Kentucky before conference play, but then waited too long to capture its next one against another top-10 opponent in Iowa just two games before the Big Ten tournament. In 2016-17, OSU has lost to No. 6 Virginia by two, No. 20 Virginia by two and were even within arms reach against No. 2 UCLA. Any one of those games, including a five-point loss at Illinois on New Year’s Day, and the Buckeyes wouldn’t be in the conundrum they currently find themselves.“Nobody in the Big Ten is going to go undefeated because it’s such a tough conference,” Tate said. “We just have to turn this train around.”OSU didn’t look impressive in several of its nonconference games earlier in the year, which is another piece to the puzzle Matta and the players are still trying to solve 15 games into the season. After a two-point win against UNC Asheville on Dec. 22, Matta said that his team didn’t know how to handle adversity.On Thursday against Purdue, Tate and OSU’s leading rebounder, redshirt junior center Trevor Thompson, sat the remaining three minutes and 37 seconds of the half in foul trouble and Purdue went on a 9-0 run. The Buckeyes were down by as much as 10, but battled back with a 12-2 run to tie the game at 55. Each time Purdue went on a run, OSU came back with a run of its own to have a chance to win at the end.Loving and Tate each took accountability after the game for a few plays that they individually could have executed better that might have changed the scope of the game. For now, the Buckeyes have to make due with what they are — a team that needs to perform at its best without one of its top players in one of the nation’s toughest conferences.“Accountability is one of the greatest attributes an individual can have,” Matta said. “We have to be accountable. Coaches have to be accountable, players have to be accountable. It is what it is and guys are going to have to man down, man up.”Matta equated the loss of Bates-Diop to when all-around star David Lighty broke his foot in the 2008-09 season and a sophomore by the name of Evan Turner became the conference’s leading scorer, propelling OSU into the conference championship game and the NCAA tournament. Will Matta get that same out-of-nowhere performance? Probably not, but someone or several guys will need to step up if OSU is to remain relevant in the Big Ten and the eyes of the committee.
Growing up, former Ohio State men’s ice hockey senior goalie Cal Heeter often dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League. On Tuesday, that dream was closer to becoming a reality when Heeter agreed to terms of a contract with the Philadelphia Flyers. “I think that’s everyone’s dream who’s ever played hockey at a competitive level — to one day make it to the NHL,” Heeter told The Lantern Wednesday. Philadelphia had been eyeing Heeter as a prospect for the past few years. “They had scouts at some of our games this year,” Heeter said. “They’ve been following me in previous years as well. I had known that they had interest for a while now, it was just a matter of time before we figured it all out at the end.” OSU ended its season last weekend, getting swept in a best-of-three series by Notre Dame in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. It was just a matter of days until Heeter received the contract offer he accepted from the Flyers, which he confirmed to The Lantern in a Tuesday email. Chris Pryor, director of hockey operations for the Flyers, said given the lack of goaltending depth in the organization, Heeter will have a chance to make an impact in Philadelphia. “We think (Heeter’s) got a lot of potential … we’re extremely high on him,” Pryor said. “He’s got a great opportunity in our organization. We think he’s got a bright future.” A two-year starter in net for the Buckeyes, Heeter is third in program history in save percentage (.915) and goals-against average (2.58), eighth in saves (2428) and ninth in wins (39). Heeter said other NHL teams expressed interest in signing him following his career at OSU. The potential to succeed within the Flyers’ organization made them stand out from other suitors. “At the end it came down to which team I felt would blend me into having the greatest opportunity to be where I wanted to be next year — playing in the minor leagues in the NHL and having the opportunity to play well and move up from there,” Heeter said. Heeter said he had envisioned himself playing professional hockey early in his OSU career. “To be playing at such a great school and for such a great program, I realized that maybe one day it (was) possible for me to graduate from here and move on and make it to the next level,” he said. “It’s been a long process and I had to work a lot at every level to move on and get to the next one.” Heeter’s coach said the goaltender’s growth on and off the ice is the reason he will be playing professionally. “I think it comes down to one thing — maturity,” OSU coach Mark Osiecki said. “I think he has grown as both a person and a player and I think it comes right down to that.” He will have to continue to improve in order to play well within the Flyers’ organization. “Every day, I’m out there working as hard as I can, making sure that I am consistent and as good as I can be,” Heeter said. “At the next level, every player is that much better, so there is hardly any room for mistakes.” Osiecki accepted the coaching position at OSU before Heeter’s junior season, and with his staff, made a huge impact on the goalie’s career, Heeter said. “I can’t give enough credit to the new coaching staff,” Heeter said. “They’ve done so much for me personally. You can’t measure the amount of effort and energy they’re putting in to make this one of the best hockey programs in all of college hockey.” Heeter will attend class at OSU during Spring Quarter and graduate after. Following graduation, he said he will spend some time in Columbus before returning to his home in St. Louis, Mo. Then, he will be off to the Flyers’ training camp in September. The Flyers have two minor league teams, the Adirondack Phantoms of the American Hockey League and the Greenville Road Warriors of the East Coast Hockey League. Heeter said he expects to be playing for one of those teams next fall. While he has never been to Philadelphia, Heeter said he is looking forward to one day playing in the sports-centric city. “The fan base there is absolutely incredible and I know that they’re second to none as far as the fans go, so I think that is going to be great as well,” he said. Pryor said he expects Flyers fans to appreciate Heeter’s personality and dedication to the sport. “All those things come into play,” Pryor said. “He’s got a bright future ahead of him. Obviously, it’s going to come down to Cal, but we know he’s got a great work ethic and a great attitude. We think it’s a great fit.” The Flyers are 37-21-7 and in third-place in the Atlantic Division, as well as fifth-place in the Eastern Conference.
Junior forward Ryan Dzingel (18) prepares to shoot the puck during a game against Michigan State Jan. 11 at the Schottenstein Center. The teams tied, 1-1.Credit: Kelly Roderick / For The LanternJunior forward Ryan Dzingel isn’t the most vocal player on Ohio State’s men’s hockey team, but that doesn’t stop him from being a leader.“He is a quiet leader. How he plays the game is how he leads,” associate head coach Brett Larson said.That leadership has seen Dzingel nominated for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given to the best collegiate hockey player in the country. The award is currently in the fan voting process to narrow the nominees down to 10, at which point a board will then finalize three nominees and announce the winner at the Frozen Four in April.“It’s not easy balancing all the most important things in my life. Faith, family and friends are the most important things in my life and always will be. I feel that if those three things are in place, school and hockey will follow. Takes hard work but all student-athletes find a way to get it done,” Dzingel said in an email.Dzingel said his biggest role models are his parents. He describes his mom as sweet and caring and said he “would like to be half the person she is.”As for his dad, who battled through cancer this past year, Dzingel said, “I could not be more proud to call him my role model/father.”The junior forward from Wheaton, Ill., joined the Buckeyes in 2011 as part of a class Dzingel described as “special.”“We knew three years ago coming in that we had a special junior class, and we were given a lot of opportunity and responsibility right away. There is a lot of talent, leadership, and hard-working guys in (this) group, which has helped us a lot. I’m proud to be a part of it.” Dzingel said.Dzingel is averaging 1.36 points per game, which leads the Big Ten and ties for 16th-best in the country. He also leads the Buckeyes in goals with 14 and is tied for the lead in assists with 16.“He continually puts a lot of effort into improving his shot. On and off the ice, he is always working on it,” Larson said. “The more shots he takes, the more goals, so I think that work ethic — working on that one area of his game — is really starting to pay off for him.”Dzingel attributes his success to shooting the puck more but also credits his teammates. He said he feels the Buckeyes can be successful if they can correct a couple mistakes.“We have a lot of guys who have bought into the team comes first (mentality). It’s a little bit cliche but we have got a good group of character people who believe in the team,” Larson said.The next puck drop is set for 7:05 p.m. Friday at the Schottenstein Center when the Buckeyes take on Penn State.
Sophomore forward Claudia Kepler (24) skates near the ice during a game against Mercyhurst on Nov. 11 at the OSU Ice Rink. OSU lost, 3-0.Credit: Jon McAllister / Asst. photo editorThe defensive-minded Ohio State women’s hockey team is preparing for an attacking style of play from No. 8 Minnesota Duluth in a weekend series.OSU coach Nate Handrahan said the two teams have different approaches to the game and that’s what makes the matchup interesting.“I see them as a team that’s going to get up the ice and they are going to try and throw anything in the kitchen sink at you offensively,” Handrahan said. “I think that our base of our game is on playing solid, consistent defense to allow our offense to create. So I think its ying and yang a little bit as far as programs.”Sophomore forward Claudia Kepler said she agrees with her coach that the teams are different. She said Minnesota Duluth might have the skill, but OSU has the speed.“We have a lot of speed in our front end as well as our defense, something that will benefit us in the game,” Kepler said.In the past three seasons, OSU (8-7-1, 5-6-1) has faced Minnesota Duluth (11-5-2, 6-5-1) in Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff games.The last time the Buckeyes met the Bulldogs was in the first round of WCHA playoffs at the end of last season. OSU lost the series after dropping two of three games.“It’s been a rivalry that we’ve had over the years because we see them so much in playoffs,” Handrahan said. “They play a very up-tempo game, a five-player game and we have to be alert and on our toes.”For this weekend against Minnesota Duluth, Handrahan said he has worked a lot with his lines to find which combination of players can make an impact on the ice.“You need three players that play well, and you need three players that play well together. If we can have three lines of scoring, that makes us difficult for anybody to play against,” he said.Senior forward Kayla Sullivan said her team has prepared to play the Bulldogs a little differently than they normally prepare to play a team.“We’ve done a lot more video than normal, mainly because they like to use a lot of set plays,” Sullivan said. “We also have a good competition going on between us. They like to play a little risky. These are usually chippy but fun games. They bring out the best in both teams.”In the Buckeyes’ most recent game against Robert Morris, Sullivan led her team scoring two goals and having one assist against the Eagles. Sullivan looks to carry that momentum onto the ice for the series this weekend.“Last game I got on the scoreboard a little more than I normally do. I had a fun game,” Sullivan said. “I just want to take that loose energy and bring that and hopefully I can continue that momentum.”Handrahan said he considers Sullivan and the rest of his seniors to be leaders on the team.“You can only go as far as your seniors allow you to go. That doesn’t mean every senior is playing a premier role but every role is premier,” Handrahan said. “They are doing a great job of keeping the team in the right frame of mind to make sure we are prepared for every game.”The Buckeyes have nearly reached the halfway point in their season and Handrahan said he’s happy with where his team is.“I think we’ve progressed. We are playing a pretty good style from a five-on-five perspective,” Handrahan said. “Starting to see lines solidify a little bit creating chemistry with one another and I think that has presented itself in scoring situations as well.”As far as the teams’ record this season, Kepler said there are a few games she would like back from earlier this season.“I know we had a few games in the past we wish we would’ve won but we’ve learned from them,” Kepler said. “Going into next semester I think we will have more confidence and going in knowing that any team can win.”The Buckeyes are set to take to the OSU Ice Rink against the Bulldogs on Friday and Saturday. The faceoff is scheduled for 6:07 p.m. for both games.