By Tessa Jackson
If I seem a little distracted this week it’s because I’m writing this week’s article from Las Vegas. That’s right, I’m in the land of gambling and I am off to a terrible start! I’m already 0-2 betting on the NBA conference finals on Monday and Tuesday. I bet on both the favorites, the Suns and the Bucks, and they both got their butts kicked. The Bucks played the Hawks last night (Tuesday) and my first instinct was to bet on the Hawks (+7) again, but the news came out that their star player, Trae Young (whose name I misspelled last week) was out with an injury.
So I switched my bet to the Bucks; it kinda felt like a trap and it turns out it was! I say that because the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (triple-checked the spelling on this one) hyperextended his knee in the third quarter. But let’s be real, the Bucks were losing long before that. The Antetokounmpo injury sealed their fate, however, and put the rest of the series in question for the Bucks.
With the way the Hawks were playing last night, it’s looking more likely that I’ll get my wish of a Hawks vs. Suns Finals. Bogdan Bogdanović, who you may remember I wrote about being traded from the Sacramento Kings, was absolutely amazing and is probably not missing the Kings at all right now. Tonight I hope to break my losing streak by betting on the Suns again, the Clippers won’t be so lucky this time!
Wimbledon is on now through July 12. The early stages of the tournament have seen a slew of unforunate injuries caused by slippery conditions on the grass courts. My favorite, Serena Williams, who was vying for her 24th Grand Slam title, was forced to retire after only six games in her First Round match after aggravating a hamstring injury. Roger Federer’s opponent, Adrian Mannarino, was also forced out due to injury when he was leading the match two sets to one.
The All England Club defended their court conditions, stating that “The preparation of the grass courts has been to exactly the same meticulous standard as in previous years. Each grass court is checked by the Grand Slam Supervisors, Referee’s Office and Grounds team ahead of play commencing, and on both days of the Fortnight they have been happy with the conditions and cleared the courts for play.”
Williams’ opponent Aliaksandra Sasnovich was also affected by the conditions, saying that because of the slick court, she didn’t run to retrieve wide-angled shots like she normally would. Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam tournament that still uses grass courts, which are considered traditional; the French Open features clay courts, and the U.S. Open and the Australian Open made the switch to hard courts in 1975 and 1988. But I guess it’s normal for the courts to be slippery for the first few matches of the tournament, and they are supposed to firm up as play continues. I’m so sad for Williams, and hope she recovers and that we don’t see any more injuries in tennis or basketball this week.
An Introduction to the United Soccer League, the Must-See “Minor League” of U.S. Soccer
By Jonas Shladovsky
The United Soccer League (USL) is a rapid-growing and lucrative project, planting the seeds for the development of premier fan cultures and talented young players in cities/regions previously untouched by United States professional soccer. I have never committedly followed soccer in the United States, however, the youth and ardor of the USL have enticed me to learn more about the league.
The USL comprises three constituent divisions: the USL Championship, USL League One and USL League Two, which respectively form the second, third and fourth tier of US pro soccer (League Two is semi-pro). The league has grown from 15 teams competing in one second-tier division in 2011 to 127 teams, including expansion teams, Major League Soccer (first tier) reserve teams, and former members of now-defunct lower-level professional leagues, competing across three divisions. Across all tiers, 34 US states and 3 Canadian provinces are represented, and the USL Championship alone features clubs in 23 cities without a Major League Soccer team.
Undoubtedly, USL teams in these areas are bearing life to some sleeping hotbeds of soccer fanaticism. I have watched clips of entire stadiums chanting away their vocal cords under a sea of smoke bombs at New Mexico United (Albuquerque) and Phoenix Rising games, two Championship clubs founded in the last decade. On the ESPN+ stream of Sacramento Republic FC’s recent encounter versus Phoenix, chants led by Republic supporters’ group The Tower Bridge Battalion were matching the noise produced by the mic’d up commentators. These cities have finally been given teams of their own to rally behind, and the resulting euphoria is creating special atmospheres.
The USL is not only bringing new opportunities to fans but is also doing so for players in cities/regions who now have academy systems affiliated with USL teams. The USL divisions are youthful––in the 2021 season, the average of all Championship players is 24.8, and the average for League One players is just 23.1! The creation of new professional pipelines, coupled with the exploding popularity of youth soccer in the States, is the perfect storm for strengthening the U.S. Soccer talent pool and creating competitive lower-level pro leagues starring young prospects hungry to make it to Major League Soccer and beyond.
This summer I will be keeping an eye on the USL, focusing particularly on Championship sides Sacramento Republic FC and the newly-founded Oakland Roots. I’ll be reporting on their games and expect to learn something about their fan communities in the process. I am finally discarding the snobbiness of an avid European club soccer follower, and am turning my attention to a league that is crucial for the development of the beautiful game stateside.
All Championship and League One games are streamed on ESPN+ (subscription is $6/month, $60/year). Select Championship games are also aired live on ESPN2.
Sports 6-24: The Enthralling NBA and a Buzzer-Beating Dunk
By Tessa Jackson
It’s Conference Finals time in the NBA and it’s been an exciting couple of weeks. The Suns have been very lucky thus far that they have not experienced any injuries, unlike many other Western Conference heavyweights riddled by injury. That is until Chris Paul tested positive for COVID-19 last Thursday. This came as a complete shock to everyone and Paul is a huge part of the Suns team. But the Suns have been able to hold their own while waiting for Paul to return. They won Game 1 on Sunday; after 13 ties and 20 lead changes and neither team ever leading by more than 10. Tuesday night, Game 2, the Phoenix Suns started out dominant but the Los Angeles Clippers kept the score very close the entire game. It was the last minute of the game where things really got interesting. There were four lead changes within the last 32 seconds of the game. With only eight seconds left, the Clipper’s Paul George missed not one, but two very important free throws that would have put them up by three (see what I mean about those free throws? They can really change the outcome of a game.)
Then with only .8 seconds left, the Suns down by one, Jae Crowder inbounded the ball beautifully right next the the basket to Deandre Ayton for a dunk! Let me tell you, it was amazing. It goes to show you the game is not over until it’s over. I don’t believe the Suns are going to sweep the Clippers, but I’m really rooting for them to make it to the Finals. I would love nothing more than to see an Atlanta Hawks vs Phoenix Suns Finals. Wednesday will have been the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals, I’ve got the Hawks +7 which seemed to me like a huge spread for a finals game. You will know by the time you read this whether I made the right call or not!
I read some other very exciting basketball news this morning. The NBA announced it will have new rules to limit foul calls on “non-basketball moves.” What is a non-basketball move, you ask? It’s when a player leans against a defender at an abnormal angle when shooting, kicks his leg out at an abnormal angle while shooting, or veers abruptly off his path into a defender. You may have heard me complain about the Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden and the way that he plays basketball; he is the most fouled player in the NBA. And while the strategy of drawing fouls might win you the game, it makes basketball not as fun to watch. I don’t want to watch Harden shoot 20 free throws, that is just not fun.
Apparently I am not the only one that feels this way, and I am so happy that the league is addressing this problem. Under the new rules, which will take effect during this year’s Summer League, those actions I stated earlier will result in an offensive foul. It is going to be interesting to see how the players respond to this change, and it’s definitely not just Harden who plays that way; the Atlanta Hawk’s Trae Young has also been known to draw a lot of fouls.
I’m sorry, I’ve spent all my time writing about basketball and I’ve run out of room. But you know, during playoffs it’s hard for a basketball fan to focus on anything else.
Sports 6-17: A European Affair: French Open and the European Championship
By Tessa Jackson
Because I’ve been playing tennis lately, I decided it would be fun to watch some tennis. The French Open was last week and I ended up watching an amazing semifinal men’s singles match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. I checked the odds before the match, Nadal was the favorite at -275. Everything I read said Nadal is the “king of clay,” he had won the French Open (which is played on clay) 13 times, the most wins in any one slam event by a male. Nadal had won 36 straight sets in the French Open since 2019, until he lost a set to Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinals just the day before. The last time that Djokovic met Nadal in the French Open Nadal best him in six straight sets. Now don’t read this wrong, Djokovic is no slacker. He has held the number one ranking longer than any player in history. Before the match, Djokovic was 29-28 against Nadal, but 7-19 on clay. It is safe to say that clay is not Djokovic’s thing. I decided the safe bet was to take Djokovic to win one set, just one, at -250 (so remember, you would have to bet 250 to win 100.) I was nervous when Nadal started hot, he won the first five games. But Djokovic came back and Nadal only won the first set 6-3. Djokovic would call this “one of the top three matches that I ever played in my entire career—considering quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has had so much success and has been the dominant force in the last 15-plus year. And the atmosphere, which was completely electric.” If I was only going to watch one tennis match in the last year, it looks like I picked the right one! Djokovic won the next three sets; the fourth set went to a tie breaker. Djokovic ended up beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final in six sets after starting down two sets, to win his second Grand Slam of the year and the 19th in his career.
I also checked out a little bit of the European Football Championship (soccer.) I ended up getting lucky watching the last minutes of the Hungary vs. Portugal game. The score was 0-0 until Portugal scored a goal at 84 minutes, then at 87 minutes…then again at 92 minutes. Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal scored the last two goals making him the leading scorer in the Championship’s history, the oldest player to score two or more goals in a European Championship match, and leaving him just three goals short of tying the leading scorer in the history of international men’s football. It was an exciting eight minutes, that’s for sure.
I’ve also been watching a ton of basketball. We’ve got the Conference Semifinals going on right now; only the Phoenix Suns won their series against the Denver Nuggets in four games. The other three series’ have been really close, and a slew of big injuries have made things a lot more interesting. I’ll be rooting for the Bucks to beat the Nets this Thursday in Game 6!