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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

#FinalFour Kicks Off
The #FIFAWWC enters the semi-final stage



The action really picked up last weekend when the 8 best female football nations in the world battled it out on the crisp green pitch across Canada.  While the inaugural Round of 16 seemed to be a bit of a bust, the quarterfinals brought back some the drama, heartache, excitement and intensity sports fans across the world were yearning for during the tournament.

Continuing with the #TwineTime tradition, let's trade some quick penalty kicks to summarize what happened since we last got together:

Wide Miss: The FIFA draw.  Ok this has nothing to do with the action on the field but I feel like FIFA kind of hand picked this Final 4.  When the seeding of the top teams was announced, and assuming no upsets would occur (which they didn't), these four teams were destined to be here.  3 of the top 4 teams in the world are here.  We knew we would lose a top 3 team with #1 Germany and #3 France matching up in the quarterfinal.  This really was advantage England, disadvantage France.  Being the higher seeded team and winning the group was a disadvantage for Les bleues.  England wound up with the easier path.  Sure they had to beat the home nation Canadians, but rather take on Canada than the high-octane Germans right?  With #5 ranked Sweden drawn also against Germany due to their group stage placement with the US, the draw was England's to win...and the Three Lionesses did not disappoint.  This again is not a miss because of these teams and how they played, it is more a miss at the pre-tournament seeding handed down by FIFA. #corruption

Top Shelf Goal: Suspense!  The much anticipated quarterfinal battle between Germany and France did not disappoint.  Finally we saw an equal battle on the field with both teams playing great and neither able to really capitalize.  A 1-1 draw may look a bit boring but the action on the field was quite enjoyable to watch actually.  And then enter penalty kick time!  Exactly what fans have been dying to see this entire event.  5 rounds of penalty kicks was exciting.  Ok sure, watching everyone always score is a bit annoying because it is the misses and saves that really add tension to a penalty kick battle.  But when Lavogez could not convert the do or die goal, the expression of relief on Germany and the anguish of defeat on France said everything.  I cannot do it justice just trying to write about it.  Watch the penalty kicks for yourself HERE

Into The Crowd Miss: Cana-D'Oh!  Everything was set up perfect.  Canada drawn into a possible semi-final showdown with defending champions Japan, on home soil, on Canada Day!!  What more could every sports fan in the Great White North want in July?  All that stood in the way of the dream match up (for organizers and ticket sellers in Edmonton especially) was England.  In a three minute span in the first half, the entire country deflated, let out a huge gasp and hearts sank.  The dream of a possible miracle run for Canada was dashed and their tournament came to an end on June 27.  No medal possibility at home.  All credit to the Canadian national team but this one will sting.  They could have won this match.  For the remainder of the game they pressed hard but could not find the back of the net.  Growing frustrated with missed opportunities and some interesting substitutions in the second half spelled the end of the #CanadaRED.  Credit to England for the victory, they took advantage of Canada errors early and held on.  But this will still be considered a missed opportunity for the Maple Leaf.  Perhaps being the home nation is becoming more a crutch than an advantage.  Canada's exit marks the third straight Women's World Cup where the host nation was eliminated in the quarterfinal stage.  Take note France...you are up next in 2019.

Low Right Goal: The Favorites.  #1 Germany.  #2 USA.  #4 Japan.  The teams expected to be here are here.  Yes the draw may have helped but at the end of the day you still have to play the games and win the games.  These three teams have done so and continue to show why they are the best in the world.  Germany and USA already have 2 titles each, both seeking that leading third.  Japan are the defending champions looking to repeat.  All three teams have played a different type of game to get here but all three have looked impressive heading into their semi-finals matches.  The big #1 vs. #2 rivalry match will take centre stage of course but more on that below.  It is hard to believe any other nation in the world will be able to knock these three teams down a notch in the upcoming years...except maybe....

Down The Pipe Goal: The Underdog?  Welcome to your first Final Four England.  A team many, #TwineTime included, perhaps overlooked heading into this tournament.  The Three Lionesses have roared loud though and appear ready to take the big stage in front of the world.  Heading into a high pressure situation battling Canada at BC Place seemed daunting but rather than play defensively and wait to see what happens, England went full throttle on Canada from the opening whistle.  They got the quick error, received some mental hiccups and BOOM!  England did what they needed to do, outplay the Canadians, attack hard and fast and silence the home crowd.  Let's remember this is the #6 ranked team in the world too.  Perhaps we need to start considering them a real shot at winning this event.  How many predicted Japan to win in Germany 4 years ago?  Could England be the 2015 version?

So when we add up our quarterfinal round penalty kicks, it appears we can call this a win 3-2.  Another close battle but this playoff round really elevated the game back to the world class competition we all expected.  Sure Canada losing will deflate some ticket sales domestically but the impact of the team's playoff run, coupled with the other outstanding games played, will only help grow the sport internationally.  Let's hope this continues for the remainder of this tournament.

Speaking of, let's get to the #TwineTime predictions for the #FinalFour:

SEMIFINALS

Germany #GER vs. USA #USA

The epic battle continues for Germany.  After escaping a heated contest with European rivals France, they now enter the danger zone against World Cup rivals USA.  You could not find two football super powers with more tradition than these two.  Both have competed in all 7 FIFA Women's World Cups.  Both have two titles to show.  The USA has made the semifinal round in every single Women's World Cup and have never finished lower than third.  These teams have a rich history and are certainly no stranger to one another.  They have met three previous occasions with the USA winning the early bouts (5-2, 1991 and 3-2, 1999).  But it is that last encounter that still stings in the hearts of the Stars and Stripes.  The 3-0 domination win by the German's at the World Cup in 2003 (held in the USA) set the tone for the German future.  It was that semifinal win that catapulted the German's to their first Women's World Cup title and began their rise to #1 in the world.  Can the USA extract some revenge from 12 years ago?  Germany enter this match having scored the most goals of this tournament with 20.  The USA enter having allowed the fewest, only 1 and that was in their opening game vs. Australia.  Hope Solo could become the story of this entire tournament should the USA continue to win.  Kicked off the team in the past and almost an afterthought in USA football, Solo has rediscovered the magic that made her legacy.  She has now gone 423 minutes without conceding a goal, a new national record.  Solo will have to continue this stellar play though to fend off the German attack.

#TwineTime pick:  #GER 2 - #USA 1 (a.e.t.)

Japan #JPN vs. England #ENG

These two teams have some similarities in the paths taken to get here.  Both teams seem quite happy with the more low-scoring, close game affairs.  England have played, and won, four straight 2-1 games.  Japan have claimed five-straight one goal victories.  Basically, assume a close contest right to the final whistle.  England's Lucy Bronze provided the knock-out punch for Canada and will look to do the same vs. the defending champs.  The combination of Bronze, Jodie Taylor and Karen Carney present a challenge for Japan defenders.  England will have a quite different problem trying to slow down the Japanese.  Japan comes out hard in the first half and plays a strong defensive game for the second half.  Oddly enough, all of Japan's goals throughout this tournament have been scored by a different player.  How do you best defend a team full of scoring threats?  England will need to find a way.  An advantage for England could be their recent record against Japan.  In their past three encounters, England have managed 2 draws and 1 win, 2-0 group stage at Germany 2011.  England had a similar advantage record vs. Canada and look how well that worked.  Japan, on the other hand, are the defending champions and fresh off their first Asian title.  If Japan can pull off this victory, it will be their third straight international finals appearance, having won the Women's World Cup in Germany (2011) and the silver medal finish at the London 2012 Summer Olympics.  Hmmm perhaps we even see a London rematch in the final here with Japan vs. USA?

#TwineTime pick:  #JPN 1 - #ENG 0

If you are in Montreal tonight or Edmonton tomorrow, I recommend heading down and checking out one of these great semifinal matches.  The experience of being in a stadium during a FIFA Women's World Cup match is remarkable and one for the memory books.  As always, feel free to share your thoughts on my predictions but, most importantly, enjoy the action on the pitch.

HAPPY CANADA DAY AS WELL!!!

Monday, 29 June 2015

Time to Scream for Strawberries & Cream
Wimbledon 2015 is ready to go




The grass is watered, the dress code has been enforced, the cream is chilling and the strawberries have been picked....it must be Wimbledon!  It is crazy to think we are already at the 3rd Grand Slam of the tennis season, time flies when you are having fun I suppose.  The tradition of Wimbledon is unmatched by the other three slams and players either really love to play here (see RFed) or absolutely hate the grass court season (see most Spanish players).  Before I reveal my #TwineTime predictions, here is a quick overview of who should win, who could win and who could surprise us all.  The dark horse picks have to be players unseeded who may not be a threat to win the championship (although perhaps they could) but more a player who could take down a few top names and wreck the draw for many.

The Favorites

Novak Djokovic (#1) - The top player in the world enters Wimbledon off a huge disappointment from the French Open.  Losing the final to Stan "The Man" Wawrinka had to sting a bit with Novak looking to complete the career grand slam.  Novak's game suits the grass though and he should recover quite nicely.  He is the defending champion after all.  He has a tricky opening match with the big German Phil Kohlschreiber and then he could find himself facing 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt in round two.  But, realistically, the draw gods shined down on him as he should see little hiccups until the semi-final.

Serena Williams (#1) - The top player on the WTA remains Serena and we all know that when Serena is at her best, she is unstoppable.  Serena has half of the calendar Grand Slam already under her belt, winning the Australian Open and French Open.  She is a 5-time Wimbledon champ but has hit a small slump by her standards.  Her last triumph at the All England Club came way back in 2012.  Her draw is favorable, although a possible 4th Round match up with sister Venus is intriguing and a quarterfinal draw against perhaps old rival Victoria Azarenka could add drama to her quest for the title.  If she does succeed, she will complete the Serena Slam once again by holding all 4 slams at titles at the same time, just not in the same calendar year.

Watch Out For

Andy Murray (#3) - The 28 year old Scot enters The Championships fresh off a Queen's Club title and has the added advantage of Jonas Bjorkman in his box as a coach.  Murray rises to the occasion playing at his "home" grand slam and seems to actually thrive off the pressure.  The 2013 champ will want to do better than his quarterfinal appearance a year ago.  Luckily he finds himself on the opposite side of the draw to his main rival Djokovic.  A possible quarterfinal match with Nadal and a semifinal versus the Federer/Berdych survivor could derail his championship hopes though.  The early rounds are light but it will get tricky as he advances.  If he can make the final, Djokovic or not on the other side of the net, I would not bet against him.

Petra Kvitova (#2) - The defending ladies champ is up to #2 in the world and, being seeded #2 here, avoids Serena until the final.  Consider that already a win for her.  There has been concern over her health, withdrawing from a tune-up event because of an illness, but I think Petra will put all of that doubt to rest in her opening match on Tuesday.  If you follow her on twitter you will see she seems quite healthy and ready to defend.  The knock of Kvitova has always been her up and down play, she can beat the best but suffers some uncharacteristic losses to players she should easily beat.  She is a two-time champion here though (2011,2014) and owns a health 27-5 record all-time on the green grass.  I wouldn't be surprised if we see a repeat champion here.

The Dark Horse

Borna Coric (#40) - The 18-year old Croatian is becoming the talk of the men's tennis world.  Remember when players like Dimitrov and Raonic were fresh out of juniors and starting to take the tour by storm?  Well enter Coric, his time is now!  He reached the second round of the US Open last year, winning his first grand slam match.  Last month in Paris he advanced one round further, making a young career best 3rd round showing.  Just think, back in 2013, Borna was winning the Junior Men's US Open and now he is ranked in the top 40 in the world.  That is quite the climb!  He has a victory already over Rafa Nadal (2014, Basel) and Andy Murray (2015, Dubai).  Ok sure both of those are hard court events but still, impressive victories over major champions.  His draw is tricky, facing the 2013 RFed killer Stakhovsky in the opening round and possibly 25-seed Seppi in round 2.  If he can survive both of those matches, which is not out of the question, he would draw Murray in the third round.  It might be too much to see an upset there but a strong showing this week could propel Coric into the top 32 in the world over the summer, meaning a seed at the US Open in August.  Side note on why I also love Coric, he and #TwineTime share birthdays (only a FEW years apart mind you)!  Gotta cheer for a fellow Scorpio :)

Kristina Mladenovic (#37) - "Kiki" has been the player on the rise this year.  She reached her first career WTA final at Strasbourg, repeated her 3rd round appearance at the French Open and stunned seeded players Genie Bouchard (again!) and Simona Halep en route to a semi-final appearance at the tune-up Aegon Classic event in Birmingham.  Mladenovic is a perfect example of a player who has used her experience and success in doubles into a new career on the singles tour as well (see Sam Stosur).  She was a women's doubles finalist last year (with current partner Hungarian Timea Babos) and won the mixed doubles title in 2014 (with Canadian doubles legend Daniel Nestor).  Her draw should see her be a favorite early on until a possible third round encounter with Vika.  If Azarenka is not in top form or is caught looking ahead in the draw, the upset could happen.  Survive Azarenka and "Kiki" could find herself in her first career grand slam quarterfinal vs. Serena. 


MEN

Fourth Round

(1) Novak Djokovic def. (14) Kevin Anderson
(9) Marin Cilic def. (5) Kei Nishikori
(4) Stan Wawrinka def. (16) David Goffin
(7) Milos Raonic def. (11) Grigor Dimitrov
(10) Rafa Nadal def. Vasek Pospisil
(3) Andy Murray def. (23) Ivo Karlovic
(6) Tomas Berdych def. (12) Gilles Simon
(2) Roger Federer def. (15) Feliciano Lopez

Quarterfinals

(1) Djokovic def. (9) Cilic
(7) Raonic def. (4) Wawrinka
(3) Murray def. (10) Nadal
(2) Federer def. (6) Berdych

Semifinals

(1) Djokovic def. (7) Raonic
(3) Murray def. (2) Federer

MEN'S SINGLES CHAMPIONSHIP:  (3) Andy Murray def. (1) Novak Djokovic in 4 sets - Something about Murray this year, entering his favorite grand slam, that makes it very difficult for me to bet against him.  As is often the case, #TwineTime can be completely wrong here but I just cannot see the Djoker pulling out this championship.  Call it too much pressure or being newly married or a new father or whatever but I feel this really is Murray's event to lose.  Honestly, I even see Novak losing to Federer if they were to meet.  Andy wants this title back and after the recent disappointment losses to Djokovic, time to get back on track, gain the confidence, beat the best and retake your Wimbledon title!

MEN'S DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIP:  (2) Ivan Dodig / Marcelo Melo def. (4) Jean-Julien Rojer / Horia Tecau

WOMEN

Fourth Round

(1) Serena Williams def. (16) Venus Williams
(23) Victoria Azarenka def. (30) Belinda Bencic
(4) Maria Sharapova def. (14) Andrea Petkovic
(6) Lucie Safarova def. (11) Karolina Pliskova
(10) Angelique Kerber def. (31) Camila Giorgi
(18) Sabine Lisicki def. (3) Simona Halep
(21) Madison Keyes def. (8) Ekaterina Makarova
(2) Petra Kvitova def. (13) Aggie Radwanska

Quarterfinals

(1) S. Williams def. (23) Azarenka
(4) Sharapova def. (6) Safarova
(18) Lisicki def. (10) Kerber
(2) Kvitova def. (21) Keyes

Semifinals

(4) Sharapova def. (1) S. Williams
(18) Lisicki def. (2) Kvitova

WOMEN'S SINGLES CHAMPIONSHIP: (4) Maria Sharapova def. (18) Sabine Lisicki - Going with a huge upset here.  First, picking Maria to beat Serena in a slam semi is almost unheard of.  Serena OWNS Sharapova at slams so this would be a massive upset if it were to happen.  I like Sharapova though.  Her serve is going to be her weak spot of course but she returns well and, when her focus and drive is on point, she can beat any player in the world.  Remember Sharapova won her first grand slam here in 2004....but that was 11 years ago.  Time to turn the clock back a bit and rediscover her grass court glory.  The other big shocker of my pick is her projected opponent, Lisicki.  Lisicki has the big power serve and game to also knock off anyone on tour.  Let's also remember she is a former finalist (2013).  Recently she set a new record for most aces served in a match, 27, in a battle with Bencic in Birmingham.  If she finds that serving rhythm, doesn't matter who you face, an ace beats you every time.  Plus Lisicki has a relatively easy draw until the semifinal.  Don't be surprised if the big German is contesting for the championship once again.

WOMEN'S DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIP:  (1) Martina Hingis / Sania Mirza def. (4) Timea Babos / Kristina Mladenovic


All right ball boys and girls, there you have it.  A #TwineTime preview of what to expect over the next two weeks as well as predictions on how I foresee the tournament unfolding.  Share you thoughts, agree or disagree, on here or engage me in a conversation on twitter

Also, hopefully some of you signed up to participate in the Talk About Tennis Wimbledon Suicide Pool.  I join the suicide pool for all the majors (username: CanuckRaonic).  It is a fun way to participate and elevates your interest in the event.  I will be tweeting out my daily picks for as long as I remain alive...


Friday, 26 June 2015

#FIFAWWC Reached Elite 8 Stage
The quarterfinals kick off this weekend



Ok so the inaugural Round of 16 at the FIFA Women's World Cup proved to be a bit anti-climatic.  For the most part, chalk reigned supreme.  Thank you Australia, apologies to Brazil, for providing at least one upset last weekend.

Let's continue our penalty kick shout-out summary of the last round:

Low & Wide: Chalk Talk.  Chalk results may be great for organizers but for fans of the sport and growing of the sport, these kind of results can be harmful.  People like seeing upsets.  People want to see new countries challenge the top nations.  Now, being fair, the results will probably (hopefully) showcase some top notch quarterfinal matches but I still wanted to see some upsets.  Who didn't want to see a dynamic, fun loving team like Cameroon continue on?

Bottom Corner Goal: Top Associations Reign Supreme.  Look at our quarterfinal teams and which associations they represent.  The top 3 associations are still fighting for a championship: UEFA, CONCACAF & AFC.  UEFA and AFC lead the way with 3 teams remaining.  UEFA seems to have the lowest odds of all the confederations here to advance though with two nations facing one another and the third battling the host country.  AFC will have the same issue with 2 teams battling one another and the third facing a huge uphill battle against a co-favorite.  CONCACAF has only 2 teams left but don't be surprised to see them be the last association standing.  Both teams are favorites in their quarterfinal matches and could find themselves battling out for the title.  AFC has 3 teams left but only the defending champs are favorites to advance.  Overall results so far show AFC leading the way (3/5), CONCACAF close behind (2/4) and UEFA next (3/8).

Over the Net: Offense struggles.  Entering the knockout round, fans were excited about the offensive talent we have seen so far in this tournament.  We start the Round of 16 and the offense seemed to stutter.  Ok Germany came through with 4 goals vs. Sweden and France dominated South Korea with 3 goals but every other game lacked some offensive punch.  Perhaps teams were playing it a bit safe being the playoff round, which is understandable, but to win you need to score.  Sure I enjoy the one-goal close games but 1-0 games are not exciting enough.  Let's see those goals ladies!

Down the Pipe Goal: Die Nationalelf.  The National Eleven continue to roll and if they were considered co-favorites entering the tournament, you would be hard pressed not to name them the solo favorites now.  The complete domination they showed in their R16 match with Sweden was something to take notice of.  Germany cracked home 4 goals against a very good Sweden team.  Yes, we knew Sweden would have some defensive struggles but for Germany to completely dominate them is something to take notice of.  Remember this is the same Sweden team that held USA to a nil draw in the group stage.  The quarterfinal match with France could be considered a championship final.  Can Germany continue to dominate?

If we count up the #TwineTime penalty kicks for the Round of 16, it appears we are at a stand-off.  2 goals and 2 saves.  The games were enjoyable, the results were ok.  Comme ci comme ca. 

#TwineTime posted a moderate 5-3 record for the R16 matches.  I guess I leaned too heavy on the hope of upset nations Cameroon and Netherlands shocking the world.  Oops, oh well.  Let's hope for a bit better result this stage.  Onto the quarterfinals....

QUARTERFINALS

Germany #GER vs. France #FRA

The big match of the quarterfinals and the one all footie fans should be aching to watch.  Both teams blew out their R16 opponents.  This is also a match of two teams ranked within the top three in the world.  Top ranked Germany and 3rd ranked France would have rather seen one another in the semi-final but when FIFA pre-seeded the teams into their groups ahead of the draw, everyone knew this was the expected quarterfinal game so here we are.  Germany has won this title twice.  France has beaten Germany the past 3 matches they have played.  This game is a total toss-up.

#TwineTime pick:  #GER 3 - #FRA 2 (a.e.t.)

USA #USA vs. China #CHN

The Stars and Stripes versus The Steel Roses.  This is a match up with historical feeling.  These two nations met in the 1999 championship final with the USA walking away with their second title after a penalty kick win.  This was also the last time the USA won this event.  Since 1999, the USA has remained one of the top nations in the world, currently sitting #2 in the world.  China has seen an opposite effect, dipping in the rankings (#16) since and trying to reclaim the glory of the past.  On paper this seems like a one-sided affair.  I would be shocked to see an upset happen here....don't bet the house on it.

#TwineTime pick:  #USA 2 - #CHN 0

Australia #AUS vs. Japan #JPN

The defending champs put on a clinic in the R16 game against the Netherlands.  Leading into the match, many people (#TwineTime included) felt Japan had perhaps been coasting in the group stage matches and did not look ready to defend their title.  Enter playoff mode!  The defending champs dominated from start to finish and look poised to keep the title with the "Queens of Asia".  Japan entered the World Cup claiming their first AFC Championship in 2014 and have the know all to turn it up when it matters most.  Enter The Matildas.  Australia has now reached the quarterfinal phase in their past three World Cup appearances.  The problem for them is advancing past the Elite 8.  If they can play quick and fast like they did against Brazil, Australia could shock the world once again.  These teams are very familiar with one another.  Japan did win the 2014 Asia Cup but who did they play in the final?  Australia!

#TwineTime pick:  #JPN 2 - #AUS 1

Canada #CAN vs. England #ENG

The host nation enters as the lower ranked team, #8 compared to England's #6, but have to be considered the favorites.  The offense still seems to be struggling, picking up only 1 goal in the R16 win vs. Switzerland.  But when your defense is shutting down your opposition and Erin McLeod in goal is becoming the #McLeodWall, what do you really have to complain about?  England is not the offensive juggernaut compared to other teams still playing, an advantage for the Canadians I think.  The Three Lionesses came away with a spirited 2-1 victory over Norway last round and will look to minimize the home fan noise in BC Place.  This will be England's third straight appearance in the quarterfinal round but, similar to Australia above, getting over the Elite 8 hump and into the Final 4 has been a struggle.  These teams are quite familiar with one another, having just played in the Cyprus Cup final in March with England pulling off the 1-0 win.  In fact England also beat the Canadians in the 2014 Cyprus Cup group stage.  They have the confidence and know they can win...but can they do it with 50,000+ fans cheering against them?  Expect another low scoring affair in this match as Canada tries to reach the Final 4 for the first time since 2003.  Worth noting, if Canada can pull off this win they will advance to the semifinal to be played on Canada Day in Edmonton.  How cool would that be?

#TwineTime pick:  #CAN 1 - #ENG 0

Alright footie fans, there you have it.  A quick review of the inaugural Round of 16 at the FIFA Women's World Cup and a preview of the quarterfinal action this upcoming weekend.  If you are in Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal or Ottawa, a few tickets are still available.  I HIGHLY recommend getting out to the action.  I will be in Edmonton tomorrow for the Japan - Australia game.  Feel free to say hi if you are there or hit me up on twitter.



Our Balls Are Bigger
The 2015 Canadian Football League season begins


It seems like only a few weeks ago we watched in shock at how the end of the 2014 Canadian Football League (CFL) season came to a close.  The Calgary Stampeders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats battled it out in BC Place on November 30 in a game Calgary entered as the heavy favorite.  With less than a minute remaining with a narrow 20-16 Calgary lead, Taylor Reed's name became a Jeopardy answer in Canadian sports history.  With Hamilton's Brandon Banks returning a Calgary punt for the potential game winning touchdown for the underdog Tiger-Cats, Reed was called for an illegal block negating the run back.  Hamilton would fail to advance the ball and Calgary escaped with the 102nd Grey Cup.  What a way to end the season!  How can 2015 follow that?

Here are a few story lines worth watching as the 2015 season gets underway in Montreal with the host Als entertaining the "no we aren't an expansion team anymore...seriously" Ottawa Redblacks:

  • 1st Down: West Is Best - The running story of 2014 was the complete domination within the Western conference.  The combined total wins of all 4 teams out East (28) was 1 more than the total wins from the 2 Alberta teams (27) alone.  Even look at the last place team in the West, Winnipeg.  The Bombers finished a mediocre 7-11, 8 games out of first place.  Had Winnipeg still been in the East, they would have been only 2 games out of first.  The East did not even have a team finish above .500 last year with Hamilton and Montreal tying for the top of the division with 9-9 records.  Expect a similar result this season.  Should the parity between the two divisions even out a bit more, sure.  Will the West still dominate, of course.  Out West, a 10 win season may barely get you a playoff spot (ignoring the cross-over of course).  Out East, a 10 win season probably wins you the division.  With defending champion Calgary being the favorites for a repeat, provincial rivals Edmonton looking like a serious threat and Saskatchewan and B.C. both looking like a dark horse candidates (heck even Winnipeg has improved), I would not bet against another West team taking home the Grey Cup in Winnipeg in November.
  • 2nd Down:  Red black...and Blue? - 2014 was a tough welcome back party for Ottawa fans.  In fact, most of the season must have felt like the nerdy kid who showed up to the cool kids high school party not fully understanding his invite was a joke against him.  Averaging an embarrassing 15 points per game in 18 games can only mean this team has one way to go, up!  Expansion seasons are always difficult for any team, regardless of the league and the sport.  While Ottawa was banged and beaten all season, and not just from injuries, I don't expect a similar result this season.  With Toronto and Montreal lacking quarterback leaders to start the season (Ricky Ray inured in Toronto and Montreal not having a proven winner), the time is now for the Redblacks to be opportunistic.  Hamilton should be the class of the field out East and, similar to last year, the West will probably nab the 3rd playoff spot with the cross-over.  However, Ottawa has a very realistic shot at fighting for the second spot and a home playoff game.  I also think the league needs to see this incarnation of football in Ottawa become a success.  After numerous failed attempts in the past, another dropped ball here would really damage the sport and the league.  As a fan of CFL success, I want to see Ottawa contend for the playoff spot all season.
  • 3rd Down:  History Repeating? - Did you know the Calgary Stampeders have won the Grey Cup 7 times but have never been able to repeat?  In fact, the follow-up season to the two most recent Grey Cup wins for the Stamps (2008, 2001) saw the same team (Montreal) win the cup (2009, 2002).  Should this mean we might want to start lining up the parade route in Montreal this year?  Not so fast.  Last year, Calgary did also successfully end a recent 3-year championship run for the host city of the Grey Cup.  BC (2011), Toronto (2012) and Saskatchewan (2013) won the Grey Cup in their home cities in front of their own fans (of which #TwineTime attended each of these games).  Last year, BC failed to advance to the Grey Cup and a new champion, a non-home town champion, was crowned.  Can Winnipeg get this recent trend back on track this year?  Can Calgary finally win back-to-back Grey Cups?  Will Montreal continue the ominous follow-up Stampeders Grey Cup celebration win?  Or how about this: the last time Calgary beat Hamilton in the Grey Cup (1998, Winnipeg), the following year saw Hamilton get revenge and beat Calgary for the championship (1999, BC).  Even more creepy, look at those two host cities.  The same cities listed as last year's and this year's host, order switched.  Could a sports almanac alone be able to predict the outcome of this season?
Just a few small interesting Grey Cup facts for you: Toronto has the most Grey Cup championships with 16 while Edmonton and Winnipeg have the most appearances with 24.  Saskatchewan has the worst Grey Cup game winning percentage (21%) with only 4 wins in 19 appearances.  The trophy itself has had a tough life as well, having been broken many times, stolen a few times, held for ransom once and even survived a building fire.  And you wonder why the CFL used the slogan "Our Balls Are Bigger"?  Ok, it is debatable on the actuality of our balls (footballs...stop with your mind the gutter here people) being bigger compared to NFL balls, but look at how tough our trophy is?  You must be packing some giant gonads to survive all of that in your 103-year history!!

How will the 2015 CFL season shake down?  #TwineTime offers up predictions....

Projected Final Regular Season Standings

WEST DIVISION

*1. Calgary Stampeders
*2. Edmonton Eskimos
*3. B.C. Lions
*4. Saskatchewan Roughriders
5. Winnipeg Blue Bombers

EAST DIVISION

*1. Hamilton Tiger-Cats
*2. Ottawa Redblacks
3. Toronto Argonauts
4. Montreal Alouettes

PLAYOFFS

Division Semi-finals

West:  Edmonton over B.C.  
East:  Saskatchewan (from the cross-over) over Ottawa

Division Finals

West:  Calgary over Edmonton
East:  Hamilton over Saskatchewan

103rd GREY CUP CHAMPIONSHIP:  Calgary Stampeders over Hamilton Tiger-Cats - Calgary brings back the top two players in the league, Bo Levi Mitchell and Jon Cornish, and should be a force all season (barring no unexpected injuries of course).  Calgary will be challenged out West mainly from provincial rivals Edmonton.  If the Stamps can continue the Alberta domination (Stamps won the season series last year 4-0), they should have home field advantage for the playoffs.  Hamilton should run away with the Eastern title but could see a surprise challenge in the East final from an unlikely source out West, Saskatchewan.  I am almost tempted to pick a crazy Calgary vs Saskatchewan championship game but, at the end of the day, I still feel like Hamilton will be the better team.  Plus playing the division final at home will be a huge advantage for them (see last season).  After the way last year's championship game ended, let's be honest sports fans, we want to see this rematch.  These two teams will kick off their season against one another in Calgary on Friday night, why not see them end the season again as well in Winnipeg on a cold November evening.  But once again, the better team on paper and on the field should...SHOULD...be the defending champs.  The ponies ride off into the sunset with their first ever successful repeat championship!

So get out your watermelon caps, cow bells, horns and face paint.....time to get loud across the country and further prove why our balls are bigger!  I fully plan to attend as many games as possible this season and, maybe just maybe, we will see #TwineTime make a return appearance to the Grey Cup festivities.  The CFL season is under way.....

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Hello Contenders, Au Revoir Pretenders
#FIFAWWC Enters the Knockout Stage



Canada opened up it's football pitches to the world two weeks ago and the action has lived up to the hype. The past two weeks have seen 24 of the top teams around the globe compete and battle it out in the group stage.  There have been some highlights, some low points and plenty of outstanding action.  Now the field has been gently trimmed from 24 to 16 and the Knockout Stage begins.  To put it simple, bring your A game every game or it could be your last!

Before we enter into the #TwineTime picks for the playoffs, let's take a quick look back at the hit and misses of the past two weeks, via penalty kicks:

Top Shelf Goal: Goals, goals and more goals.  If you are a fan who hates seeing those 0-0 linescores, you should have been quite happy with this world cup so far.  In the 36 games played in the group stage, only twice did we see the dreaded double nil final score.  Unfortunately one came from home side Canada vs. New Zealand mind you (the other being the pivotal USA vs. Sweden heavyweight fight).  But nonetheless, there have been lots of goals to cheer for in the remaining 34 matches. We even saw double digits twice but more on that below.

Wide Right Miss:  Blowouts!  On day two, top ranked Germany shell shocked newbie Ivory Coast 10-0 and the collective sports world let out a loud moan in displeasure.  As much as we enjoy seeing goals, at this level nobody wants to see massive blowouts like this.  You felt for Les elephants as this was their first step onto the international scene and this is how they were welcomed.  Fast forward 5 days and we see a similar result, this time involving two debuting nations.  Switzerland throttled Ecuador 10-1.  This was also Ecuador's second straight one-sided defeat, having lost their opener to yet again another new nation, Cameroon, 6-0.  These types of blowouts show just how far the sport still needs to come for better parity across the globe.

Low Left Goal:  Growing the sport.  I am a huge fan of expanding the field to 24 teams.  Considering the first Women's World Cup had only 12 teams, this is a huge step up.  Sure, as noted above, there are still some one-sided contests going on but how can you grow the sport in countries around the world without granting them the opportunity and experience to play with the top nations at a high-level event?  While the blowouts can be seen as a negative for the sport, it is also a long-term positive.  The continents of Africa and South America (minus Brazil) still have a way to go to catch up with Europe and North America but the gap is closing.  Look at Cameroon, qualifying for the Round of 16 and having a very realistic shot at the quarterfinals.  I would say in 8 years from now, don't be surprised to see the sport continue to grow and for the format to match the men's world cup with 32 teams competing.

Goalie Save:  Host Nation Struggles.  Ok this might be a bit dramatic but Team Canada hasn't looked their best in the group stage matches.  Winning the group scoring only 2 goals sets a new record for lowest goals ever scored at a World Cup by a group winner.  The offense just has not found the rhythm yet and the defense at times has looked a bit weak.  Could this be just the added pressure of playing at home?  Perhaps.  Could this also be the team just playing and reacting to how their opponents played them? More than likely I would say.  China and New Zealand did not really go full press on the Canadians and the Dutch, the team I thought had the most explosive offense in the group, held back and played safe knowing a loss would surely eliminate them.  When they needed the tying goal late in the game, they found it with ease.  I wouldn't jump off the deep end and say all hope is lost for the host nation but I also wouldn't tell Team Canada supporters from coast to coast to not be a bit concerned. 

Down The Pipe Gggooaaallll: Favorites March On.  The top teams entering the tournament (Germany, USA, France, Canada, Japan, Brazil) all did exactly what we expected.  They won their groups and look poised for a playoff run.  Ok, sure France was upset by Columbia and Canada/USA/Germany settled for draws in games they probably should have won but yet here they are, all group stage winners.  None of these teams have really looked like perennial powerhouse teams and I would not say any team has been more impressive than any other.  But the major factor being the teams expected to win did so.  Sure Sweden and England may have a higher world ranking but they also found themselves in pools with teams in the top 3 in the world.  Somebody had to win the group and the favorites all did so.  How they progress forward though is another question.  Are any of the teams ready to take it to the next level and go from threat to champion?

So if we add up the Group Stage penalty kicks, we have 3 goals and 2 saves.  Chalk up a win so far for #Canada2015 I would say....although it was a narrow win.  I would expect the play on the pitch to be revved up though starting with a Round of 16 game between China and Cameroon in Edmonton (a game #TwineTime will be attending).  Speaking of the knockout stage, let's get to the #TwineTime picks shall we?

ROUND OF 16

China #CHN vs. Cameroon #CMR

Talk about a contrast of styles to kick off the knockout stage.  A stellar defense, China, versus an explosive offense, Cameroon.  Which prevails?  China has already shown they can stop world class scorers in holding off Canada for most of their opening round game but a late slip up cost them that game and they cannot afford the same here.  Cameroon is led by the fan favorite star of the opening round, Gaëlle Enganamouit. She already has 3 goals, albeit all in that opening game dismantling of Ecuador.  Can the freshman outclass the experiences seniors?  This would be a huge boost to CAF if Cameroon can pull the upset....which I think will happen.

#TwineTime pick:  #CAM 2 - #CHN 1 

USA #USA vs. Columbia #COL

Columbia provided the only real upset in the opening round, shocking the heavily favored French in Moncton.  However, with a chance to win the group and avoid this match, they faltered in losing to England and going from possible Group Stage winners to 3rd place lucky advancers.  Was the France win more a slight on how the French prepared or is Columbia for real?  If they are, here is there chance to prove it!  The Americans advanced from the Group of Death relatively unscathed and seem ready for a long playoff run to reclaim a title they have not held since 1999.  I think the dream ends for Cinderella in Edmonton.

#TwineTime pick:  #USA 4 - #COL 0

Germany #GER vs. #Sweden #SWE

Yikes....what a match we have here.  And what a game to open the Knockout Stage of this tournament.  This could easily be a championship final...not a Round of 16 game.  We have #1 Germany vs. #5 Sweden.  Think of this, one of the top 5 teams in the world will not be in the quarterfinals.  Sweden really has only themselves to blame though.  They struggled in the Group of Death with USA, Australia and Nigeria.  Coming away with 3 draws is not how you want to enter the knockout stage.  This team needs to figure out how to win...and quick.  They blew a 2 goal lead vs. Nigeria and had to fight back to tie Australia just to advance.  Sure they played the US strong, holding them to a scoreless draw, but they need to find ways to finish off their matches.  Germany is not going to surrender the early leads and have the ability to score and score often.  The Germans found the back of the net 15 times in their 3 games and only conceded 1 goal.  Ok, yes, they were beating up on debut nations Thailand and Ivory Coast and sure they did only come away with a tie in their one actual challenge game vs. Norway, but the point being this team can score and enter the playoffs with confidence.  These ladies want their World Cup championship back.  Anja Mittag leads the tournament with 4 goals scored and will look to add to that number.  Does Sweden coach Pia Sundhage have something up her sleeve to shock the world?

#TwineTime pick:  #GER 1 - #SWE 1 (Germany wins in PK)

France #FRA vs. South Korea #KOR

The 2019 Women's World Cup hosts, France, would love nothing more than to go home with the title of Champions and Upcoming Hosts.  France was the receiver of an upset loss in the group stage but rebounded quite nicely from that loss in their 5-0 beat down of Mexico to win the group.  Is their path to the championship easier as a result, debatable I would say, but here they are.  South Korea looked lackluster in their opening two games, losing to Brazil and tying Costa Rica.  The #TwineTime pick to advance out of their group though came through when it mattered most and picked up their first ever win at the Women's World Cup, knocking off newbie Spain 2-1 to close the group.  I am not so sure they have the magic to pull the upset against Les Bleues though.

#TwineTime pick:  #FRA 3 - #KOR 0

Brazil #BRA vs. Australia #AUS

It's the Samba versus the Matildas in Moncton.  The crowd in the Atlantic is in for quite a match actually.  This should be one of the more offensive games in this round as both nations love to drive for the net and can score goals.  Brazil rolled through their group not conceding a single goal along the way, the only team in the tournament so far to post all shutouts. Australia is quite different than South Korea, Spain and Costa Rica mind you.  The Matildas actually can score.  This is a fast team, as shown in their group play.  They were paired in the Group of Death with USA, Sweden and Nigeria and survived as the second place team.  They scored 4 goals in their 3 games so they will challenge the Brazil defense.  The difference maker here is Australia also conceded 4 goals in 3 games.  If they want to make their third straight quarterfinal, they are going to have to tighten up that defense...which will be a challenge against the Samba nation.

#TwineTime pick:  #BRA 3 - #AUS 2  

Japan #JPN vs. Netherlands #NED

The defending champs have been flying a bit under the radar in the opening round.  Sure they went a perfect 3-0 in their group but considering they were paired with 3 debut nations, I think many expected a more dominant result.  They squeaked out 1 goal wins in all three games and, usually due to finding the net early in each contest, seemed quite content to just sit back and play a defensive game to get the wins.  I don't think that strategy is going to help them repeat though, and could have them going home early against the first-time #TeamOranje.  The Netherlands suffered high's and low's in their group stage, recording their first ever win in their first ever match against New Zealand only to fall flat against China and then push hard for the tie against Canada.  One has to think the group stage will be considered one of missed opportunities for the Dutch, who could have easily won the group rather than find themselves sitting in third.  The Netherlands were the #TwineTime dark horse team to cause a ripple effect in the draw, time to prove me correct ladies.

#TwineTime pick:  #NED 2 - #JPN 1 

Norway #NOR vs. England #ENG

Is there any match up in the Round of 16 generating less buzz than this one?  Maybe because this is one of those weird group stage runner-up vs runner-up battles?  Maybe a lack of big names on both sides?  I am not quite sure what it is but of all 8 games taking place over the next few days, this one seems to have little interest to many footie fans outside of Oslo or London.  Let's not get the facts wrong though, these are both very good teams.  England is ranked #6 in the world and Norway sits at #11.  The Lionesses rebounded from a tough opening loss to France with back-to-back 2-1 wins over Mexico and Columbia to slot themselves into this game.  Norway also scored big wins against Thailand and Ivory Coast but really had the world take notice in their perfectly executed 1-1 draw with Germany.  They only lost out on winning the group due to goal differential (tough to overcome Germany's 10-0 win).  England is a team on the rise, Norway is a team trying to recapture their glory (they are a former winner remember in 1995).

#TwineTime pick:  #NOR 1 - #ENG 1 (Norway wins in PK)   

Canada #CAN vs. Switzerland #SUI

It's the battle of Red and White versus.....Red and White!  The host nation against the up and coming Europeans.  This is going to be an intriguing match. The Swiss looked very good in their first world cup group stage, dominating Ecuador and suffering closely fought back-to-back 2-1 losses to Japan and Cameroon.  Switzerland will be lead by Ramona Bachmann, who already has 3 goals this tournament.  We know they are fast and can score but they also showed they are able to neutralize a top offensive team like Japan.  Canada will need to turn it up a notch to avoid an early exit on home soil.  To do so, the offense will need to come alive.  The Swiss will give them chances to run down the pitch and have opportunity to score, the question is can players like Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt and Joelle Filigno take advantage?  Both teams play a similar style and format so this should be a close and competitive game.  The difference maker could be the crowd in BC Place.  If Canada can get them fired up in the first half, they could ride that momentum to a quarterfinal berth.

#TwineTime pick:  #CAN 2 - #SUI 0

There are my Round of 16 predictions footie fans and pitch predictors.  I hope, if you live in Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa or Moncton, you head down and take in some of the action over the next few days.  Support the nations competing, whether they are your home nation or not, and continue to showcase the hospitality, sportsmanship and love of the game we Canadians are known for.  In addition, I welcome the fans from around the globe who have come to Canada to support their nations and support the continued growth of female football.  I can only hope you, as visitors, have enjoyed your time spent so far and continue to enjoy for as long as you stay with us.  #Welcome  #Enjoy



Thursday, 11 June 2015

Canada Welcomes The Footie World
#FIFAWWC kicks off across the country



The pitch debate has raged on over the past year.  Talk of players refusing to play, qualified nations contemplating withdrawing their national teams and the on-going conversation of gender equality in sport reigned supreme over the soccer world for the past 15 months or so.  But all the negativity, all the questions, all the frustration was put on the backburner last weekend.  The 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup kicked off on a beautiful day in Edmonton, Alberta.  Over 52,000 fans packed Commonwealth Stadium (#TwineTime included as a member of #TeamMedia) decked out in #CanadaRED and rang in the month long event.

Before we dive into 2015, for those unfamiliar with the FIFA Women's World Cup, here is your quick fix on FYI's:

  • The inaugural tournament, titled the Women's World Championship, was held in 1991 in China.  Team USA was victorious besting Norway 2-1.  Interestingly enough, this initial event took place 61 years AFTER the inaugural FIFA Men's World Cup.  How is that for gender equality?  Yikes!
  • There have been 6 Women's World Cup tournaments.  China (2001, 2007) and the USA (1999, 2003) have hosted the event twice.  The USA (2001, 1999) and Germany (2003, 2007) are the only teams to win multiple titles.  Other winners include Norway (1995) and Japan (2011).  Will we see a new champion crowned this year?
  • 2015 will mark the first year of the new format.  A record 24 nations will be competing in Canada.  In comparison, only 12 teams competed in 1991 at the inaugural event, showing how much this sport is growing internationally.  Also a first, similar to the men's world cup, this year will see the addition of the Round of 16 playoff round.  This should be a huge hit with fans as it means more games and, perhaps, more upsets?
  • The USA holds two distinct records heading into Canada 2015.  They are the only host nation to win on home soil (1999) and they are the only nation to make the podium in every tournament (2 wins, 1 runner-up, 3 3rd place finishes).  Can they continue this trend north of the border?
  • 2 players participating in the 2015 tournament will be playing in their sixth (6!!) Women's World Cup event: Formiga (BRA) and Homare Sawa (JPN).  This record spans 20 years!  Formiga is currently 37 years old and holds the record as being the oldest goal scorer in women's football history.
  • The Lucky 7: There will be seven nations competing in their seventh Women's World Cup (qualified for every tournament)  Those seven nations include: Japan, Germany, USA, Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Nigeria
  • The 8-Ball:  There will also be eight nations competing at their very first Women's World Cup in Canada.  Some of the nations on this list may surprise sports fans as the men's program has been quite successful in a few of these places.  The eight nations include: Spain, Netherlands, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Thailand, Costa Rica and Ecuador
Edmonton hosted the Opening Ceremonies on Saturday June 6 with Team Canada battling Team China.  Over the span of 3 more days, opening group games took place across the country in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton.  Those who took in the games were treated to some outstanding action.  Whether it be late game heroics (see Christine Sinclair and Team Canada), dominating blowouts (poor Ivory Coast) or surprising upsets (here comes Cameroon), sports fans alike had something to cheer for.

As Match Day #2 kicks off today, #TwineTime wanted to provide some helpful information on who realistically has a shot to lift the cup, who can challenge for the podium and who could cause a few surprises.

The Favorites

Germany (#1 FIFA Ranking) - The Germans enter 2015 as the top ranked team in the world but probably still feel the sting of 2011.  After back-to-back World Cup titles, the Germans went into 2011 looking to three-peat...on home soil!!  Everything seemed prime for history in the making.  And history happened all right....Germany was upset in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Japan.  This followed with sitting out the 2012 Olympics because they failed to qualify.  The storied program looked a bit bleak for a few years.  Enter 2013 and another European Championship, here come the Germans once again!  They already opened this tournament with a massive 10-0 win over newcomers Ivory Coast.  The Germans have the ability to score at will and have strong defenders in the backfield, meaning most of the possession time should have them on offense.  They have a relative easy group with Norway, Ivory Coast and Thailand.  They should find themselves on top of the group but could see a difficult challenge await them in the quarterfinals with France.  Canadian turf seemed welcoming to Germany at last year's FIFA U20 Women's World Cup...Germany took home the title.  Can they turn red and white into victory black, red and yellow? 

USA (#2) - Always the favorites in any female football tournament and this will be no exception.  Heading into Canada 2015 most odds makers dubbed the Americans the strong favorites to win the title.  They have finished in the top three in every World Cup.  They are two-time champions.  They have the most name recognized players on their team.  And, for the most part, have garnished the most media attention across the sport for years.  They have strong leadership up front and consistency in net.  Defense may be the weakest part of their overall game but when your defense stacks up better than 95% of the teams competing, how big of a weakness is it really?  The catch with the Americans is seeing if they can end the drought.  They are suffering a long lay off between tournament wins with their last World Cup title coming 12 years ago (2003).  They are placed in the perennial Group of Death (D with Sweden, Nigeria and Australia) so if they can come out of that on top, they should be primed for another long run. They stuttered a bit in the opening half of their first game vs. Australia but found their rhythm at the end to pick up the pivotal 3 points.  They can't come out slow in their next game vs. Sweden though.

Who To Watch Out For

France (#3) - The French are playing in only their third World Cup (2003, 2011).  While they failed to survive the Group Stage in their debut, 2011 saw them finish in fourth place.  Combine that with the fourth place finish at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games and this team has quietly become a team to watch out for.  Many are picking France as title contenders. Their pool isn't too daunting, with England, Mexico and Columbia.  They already knocked off England in their opening match so they should have the easy road to finish top of the group, meaning a likely worst-case quarterfinal result.  Expect lots of close matches when Les Bleues are on the pitch.  This team can score but also gives up the goals...usually resulting in some shoot out matches.  Get ready for the big game June 26 in Montreal when they should play Germany in the quarterfinals.  This will feel like a championship final.

Canada (#8) - The Canadians are playing their sixth straight Women's World Cup and the first on home soil.  Pressure on this team will be HUGE.  With their previous best finish being fourth place (2003), they will want to do better in front of the loud red and white fans.  Canada will also want to quickly forget the embarrassment of 2011 in Germany, where they managed to score only 1 goal in losing all 3 games.  Being eliminated in the Group Stage is not an option on home field though.  China pushed them in the opening game, playing strong defense and being supported by outstanding goaltending.  However, in almost scripted Hollywood-style, the face of women's soccer Christine Sinclair scored the game winning penalty kick at the end to send Canada into a frenzy.  Their pool is not simple though with games vs. New Zealand and Netherlands to follow.  In fact, of all the pools at the 2015 World Cup, Group A sees the most parity with all 4 teams ranking between 8 (Canada) and 17 (New Zealand).  If they can ride the momentum of the opening win, couple in the adrenaline from the home town fans and build off the success of winning a four nations pre-world cup tournament, the #CanadaRED army may find themselves cheering on a team to victory July 5 in Vancouver.

The Dark Horse

Netherlands (#12) - Heellloooo #TeamOranje!! It still seems weird to mention this will be the Dutch's first-ever Women's World Cup appearance.  With all the success this nation has on the men's side, you would think it would be the same with the women's program.  The Lionesses did not qualify for any major international tournament until the 2009 European Championships.  They rolled into Finland and made their presence known to the world, coming away with a surprising third place finish.  Since 2009, this team continues to rise on the world stage.  They have a very even group to help see them progress to the Round of 16.  Once there, I would not want to see them on the other side of the pitch.  They should find themselves battling Canada for first place in the group to close the group stage on June 15.  Even if they finish second, I wouldn't be surprised to see them match up with the Americans in the quarterfinals.  If you are new to women's soccer, you may want to start falling in love with the color of orange, you could be seeing a lot of it over the next few weeks.

Now that I have highlighted a few teams to keep your keen footie eye on, let's go through my picks for the Group Stage.  The opening match day results had no effect on my predictions as the games went pretty much as expected I would say.

GROUP STAGE

Group A

1. *Canada (#8)
2. *Netherlands (#12)
3. *China (#16)
4. New Zealand (#17)

Group B

1. *Germany (#1)
2. *Norway (#11)
3.  Ivory Coast (#67)
4.  Thailand (#29)

Group C

1. *Japan (#4)
2.  *Cameroon (#53)
3.  *Switzerland (#19)
4.  Ecuador (#48)

Group D

1.  *USA (#2)
2.  *Sweden (#5)
3.  *Nigeria (#33)
4.  Australia (#10)

Group E

1.  *Brazil (#7)
2.  *South Korea (#18)
3.  *Spain (#14)
4.  Costa Rica (#37)

Group F

1.  *France (#3)
2.  *England (#6)
3.  Mexico (#25)
4.  Columbia (#28)

There you have footie fans and ball headers, the #TwineTime opening preview for the 2015 Women's World Cup.  If you are in Canada and have the opportunity to attend any of the games across the country, I highly recommend you do so.  Last weekend was AMAZING and a sporting experience I will never forget.  Feel free to share your comments with me here or on twitter.  I will be back with a Group Stage summary and a preview of the Round of 16 before the playoffs begin on June 20 (when I will actually be back in Edmonton to watch the game).

Enjoy.....

Friday, 5 June 2015

#SuperRegionals Is Super Fun Baseball
The #RoadToOmaha is almost complete


A tournament that began with 64 teams just under a week ago finds itself down to the #Sweet16 and the Super Regionals.  The NCAA Division I baseball tournament is a crazy one and, if you followed along with the action last weekend, you would have seem some intense games, some blowouts, some #SC10 plays and plenty of the long ball!  In fact, in the opening weekend alone we saw 105 home runs hit, compared to last year's ENTIRE tournament seeing only 74.  Pitchers are getting rocked hard so far.  Will this trend continue and will we continue to see high scoring and/or blowout games in the next round? 

In the preview blog (found HERE as a memory refresher), #TwineTime mentioned a few key points to pay attention to in the opening weekend.  Some were spot on, some were way off base.  Let's take a look back at the weekend that was before previewing what to expect during the Super Regionals:

  1. The #1 Curse Lives On:  As mentioned, no team wants to enter this tournament seeded at the top.  This year UCLA continued the trend, being upset at home in the regional final vs. Maryland.  The Terps looked like a World Series contender throughout the regional and took 2 of 3 vs the Bruins.  The curse lives on for another season...
  2. SEC Dominates/PAC-12 Flounders:  The SEC entered the weekend with the best shot at continuing their winning ways and they did not disappoint.  Overall the SEC went 17-5 and have 5 teams competing in the Super Regionals.  And, since none of them will play one another, we could see 5 of the 8 teams in Omaha represent the league.  On the flip (or should we say flop) side of the coin is the PAC-12.  Usually always in the running for Omaha, the PAC-12 will be sitting these Super Regionals on the bench, with a dismal 10-12 record and everyone eliminated.
  3. Upsets You Say? Oh yes please:  #TwineTime made note of a few teams that could rock the status quo and of the 4 teams names, both Virginia and Louisiana-Lafayette proved me right.  Ok, Oregon and Pepperdine may have lost but the Waves did make the regional final, falling to Cal-State Fullerton.  But the big story on the upset front is VCU.  The #4 seeded Rams dominated Dallas Baptist and Oregon State in the opening two games and rebounded from a loss to Dallas Baptist in the regional final to take the winner take all final game.  In doing so, the Rams become only the fifth #4 seed to ever win a regional.  Remember Fresno State though in 2008?  They were a #4 and look how that ended!
  4. ACC A-OK?:  Ok let's not get too excited about them quite yet but the ACC did survive the opening weekend with an impressive 15-7 record and still have 4 teams remaining in the race to Omaha.  Florida State, Louisville and Miami all were impressive in their regional victories.  Virginia, a #3 seed, also proved to be a nice upset story with their wins over USC and San Diego State.  Could the ACC nab their 1st College World Series title this year?
Overall we see 7 of our 8 national seeds still playing for a spot at the College World Series.  Throw in a few #3 regional seeds, a surprise #4 seed and some intriguing rivalry match ups will all culminate in an exciting weekend of college baseball action.  Overall, #TwineTime accurately predicted the regional winners in 10 of the 16 regionals.  Not too bad I would say.  In fact, in 5 of those correct regionals, I correctly predicted both the winner and finalist.  Let's see if I can continue my winning ways this weekend.

Let's get to the Super Regional predictions, remembering for this round it is a simple best 2 out of 3 knockout format:

Charlottesville Super Regional

(3) Maryland vs (3) Virginia

The DMV reigns supreme in this match up.  Last year's runner-up Virginia seems back on track for another shot at the championship.  As I noted in the preview, Cal State Bakersfield was a weak #1 seed and, as expected, went 0-2 and was eliminated at home early.  Virginia pounced on the opportunity and went 3-0, culminated in an exciting 14-10 11 inning final win over USC.  Virginia will wear the hosting duties this weekend and having the home town fans supporting them could be the extra motivation for the Cavs.

Maryland was perhaps a bit more quiet in how they went about their business but they pulled off the upset of the opening weekend in eliminating the top seeded UCLA Bruins in Los Angeles.  The Terps did suffer a loss to UCLA in the opening game of the regional final but rebounded nicely later in the day to advance.  The 3-1 record could actually be a blessing in disguise.  Maryland has already faced an elimination game and HUGE pressure playing on the road vs a national top seed.  Virginia may be the host team but I don't think that will cause the Terps to hide in their shells.  Maryland has also never made it to Omaha.

#TwineTime pick:  Maryland over Virginia - 3 games

Fayetteville Super Regional

(1) Missouri State vs. (2) Arkansas

The top seed in their regional and #8 national seed Bears from Missouri State are the team many did not expect to be here.  There was plenty of rumblings about them even nabbing the final national seed but they did silenced their critics last weekend.  They demolished Canisius 14-1 in their opening game and then beat a very good Iowa team in back to back games to go 3-0 on the weekend.  If you are a fan of mid-major teams that are REALLY REALLY good, this is the team you will want to cheer for.  The only setback could be, due to scheduling conflicts, Missouri State will be on the road for this series.  Missouri State has only been in the College World Series once before, in 2003.

Arkansas also went 3-0 last weekend in Stillwater, knocking off Oral Roberts, Oklahoma State and St. John's in the regional final.  The Hogs will be looking to get back to the Omaha for the first time since 2012.  Arkansas is an offensive-led team that can pile on the runs.  Remember this is an SEC team so expect big plays and high scoring.  If they can solve the strong pitching from the Bears early and rattle the bullpen, the Hogs should be able to pull of the victories.

#TwineTime pick:  Missouri State over Arkansas - 3 games

Gainsville Super Regional

(1) Florida vs. (1) Florida State

We could not have asked for a better Super Regional than state rivals Florida vs. Florida State.  The SEC vs. ACC.  The Gators enter as the #4 national seed and will have home field advantage in this series.  Florida dominated Florida A&M, South Florida and Florida Atlantic in their regional pod, including their opening game 19-0 win over Florida A&M.  In fact, the Gators outclassed their competition by an overall score of 29-3.  They are playing perhaps the best of any team in the nation right now and the opportunity to eliminate their state rivals should just add fuel to an already burning fire.

Florida State, on the flip side, is trying to get back to Omaha and finally bring the college world series title to the ACC.  The Seminoles struggled in their home regional.  As I mentioned in my preview, Florida State often enters this tournament with a ton of confidence and expectations only to fall short.  If not for a walk off dinger in their 5- 4 (10 innings) opening game win over #4 Mercer, who knows if they would even be here.  The College of Charleston gave them all they could handle in two games but the Seminoles prevailed in closely contested 3-2 and 3-1 games.  While Florida State did go 3-0 on the weekend, they are going to need to find their bats if they want to stay with the Gators this weekend....especially on the road. 

Both teams have not been to Omaha since 2012, one will end that drought while continuing the disappointment for their rival.  Also remember, Florida State has 21 (21!!) CWS appearances and Florida has 8 CWS appearances....but neither have a title to show for it.

#TwineTime pick:  Florida over Florida State - 2 games

Coral Gables Super Regional

(1) Miami vs. (4) VCU

Speaking of the ACC, perhaps the best chance at an ACC team in Omaha comes from the Miami Hurricanes.  Miami has won the College World Series 4 times (1982, 1985, 1999, 2001) but have been unable to find their way back to Omaha since 2008.  This could be their year though.  Miami is the #5 national seed and looked very good in the opening regional, winning games vs. Florida International and Columbia.  Sure they suffered a shock 3-0 defeat to Columbia to open the regional final but look how they rebounded from that loss....with a 21-3 domination game!  The Hurricanes had their backs against the wall in an elimination game vs an upstart upset team and completely owned them.  That bit of confidence, added in with playing at home, will be tough for any team to handle.

Enter the underdog VCU Rams.  Better known for their results on the hard court during #MarchMadness, the VCU baseball team is starting to be the mid-major to watch.  Looking for their 1st ever appearance in Omaha, the Rams have a stellar bullpen supported by outstanding defense in the field.  During their regional, they only conceded 6 runs in 4 games.  They will need to rely on that bullpen and play in the field vs an offensive minded Miami team.  Keep the Hurricanes offense in check and keep the games close and the Rams have a shot at the upset.  This team has won 14 of their past 15 games and will look to continue that streak in Coral Gables.

#TwineTime pick:  Miami over VCU - 3 games

Baton Rouge Super Regional

(1) LSU vs. (3) Lousiana-Lafayette

The "Crawfish Brawl" as it is being dubbed finds two high powered teams from the state of Louisiana trying to make it to Omaha.

The Tigers from LSU enter as the #2 national seed and, with the Bruins bowing out, the highest seed remaining.  Does this make them the favorite to take home the trophy?  Based on their play in the regional, I wouldn't bet too hard against them.  LSU had no trouble with Lehigh or UNC-Wilmington, outscoring their opposition 14 - 3 en route to a perfect 3-0 weekend.  They enter the super regional match up off back to back shut out 2-0 win over Wilmington as well.  The offense can score when needed and the bullpen can shut down the opponents bats at the same time.  This is a dangerous team!  LSU has won more CWS championships (6) than any other team, with their most recent being in 2009.  Having missed out on Omaha last year, the Tigers will be looking to return to their holy land.

But welcome the Ragin' Cajuns from Louisiana-Lafayette.  As many expected, myself included, this was the class of the Houston regional.  I think the #3 seed was a bit of an oversight from the committee...these guys were heavily underseeded.  The Cajuns also went 3-0 on the weekend defeating Rice twice and the home town sandwiched in between.  Similar to LSU, ULL has tremendous defense in the field and rarely gives up the big plays.  The problem I see is whether they can solved the arms of LSU's top pitchers enough to generate the runs needed to win 2 games.  If they can continue the strong play in the field and find a rhythm at the plate, we could see an upset here.  ULL has only made it to 1 College World Series (2000) but would love their second appearance to come from knocking off a state rival.

#TwineTime pick:  LSU over Louisiana-Lafayette - 2 games

Fort Worth Super Regional

(1) TCU vs. (1) Texas A&M

Check your heart rate TCU fans....still beating?  Has it slowed down yet?  What a comeback from the Horned Frogs this past weekend.  On literally the cliff of defeat at the hands of NC State, TCU battled back from a 7-run (7!!) deficit to win the tie breaker game 9-8 in 10 innings.  To say Lupton Stadium was electric at the end of this game would be an understatement.  This team never gave up and battled back to get here.  That kind of tenacity, grit and hunger for a championship can only help them as they continue towards Omaha and, perhaps, a CWS title.  It wasn't pretty last weekend (they played 5 games in 3 days) but hey they won and here they are right?  TCU still has one of the strongest pitching teams in the nation and should win at least one game on that advantage alone.  TCU will also feed off the experience of being in Omaha last year.  They want to go back and revenge the result (1-2).  Playing at home again will only be an added bonus in this state rivalry series.

The Aggies took a similar path to this super regional.  While they dominated their opening game vs. Texas Southern, they struggled in their second game loss to California.  Being lucky enough to defeat Coastal Carolina, this team had to battle through a Golden Bears team twice to make it here.  A tough 12-inning victory followed by a close 3-1 game brings the Aggies to TCU and a shot at Omaha.  The Aggies will be battle tested but this time they need to play on the road, which could be a difference maker.  However, if we look at last year's results, only 6 of the 8 super regional hosts ended up winning...could Texas A&M be one of those visitor upset teams this year?

#TwineTime pick:  TCU over Texas A&M - 3 games

Louisville Super Regional

(1) Louisville vs. (1) Cal State Fullerton

The Cardinals seem to be the best shot at bringing a CWS title to the ACC.  They are the #3 national seed and had little trouble in their regional.  Outscoring their opposition 24-9, the Cardinals seem poised for a break out this year.  Michigan had two chances to solve the Louisville pitching but could not do enough to make a game of it.  Having the luxury of playing the super regional at home should also benefit the Cardinals.  There has not been much talk about Louisville entering this tournament but I think the under the radar approach could suit this team quite well.  The Cards are fighting for the 3rd consecutive trip to Omaha and this season don't be surprised to see them in Omaha and competing for this championship.

Ok Titans fans, I owe you an apology.  I really did not have much faith in your boys last weekend but you proved me wrong.  Going a perfect 3-0 and outscoring your opposition 22-6 is a sure fire way to get yourself noticed.  In fact, the defense on this team improved as the weekend went on, conceding runs of 3, 2 and 1 in order.  If Fullerton is to have a shot on the road this weekend they will need to keep those hot bats swinging and aim for the fences.  Can the Titans completely shut down the Cards?  Probably not...especially when you are relying on freshmen pitchers.  Can the Titans go swing for swing with Louisville to give themselves a chance?  They sure can...and this will be their key to success.  In the early 2000's, Fullerton was almost a staple in Omaha making the CWS 6 times in the first 10 years (including a title win in 2004).  Unfortunately they have not been back since 2009.  I'm not so sure 2015 will be the year to end that drought.

#TwineTime pick:  Louisville over Cal State Fullerton - 2 games

Champaign Super Regional

(1) Illinois vs. (1) Vanderbilt

It's weird, Illinois is the #6 national seed yet probably the underdog in this series and the least likely of the 2 Big 10 schools (Maryland being the other) to have a shot at making the CWS.  I mentioned Louisville flying under the radar well then the Illini must be completely grounded on the interest level.  Little conversation has revolved around this team but here they are playing at home with a shot at making their 1st ever CWS appearance.  The Illini should not be taken for granted just because they may not be considered a baseball hot bed.  They quietly went about their business last weekend, going 3-0 and outscoring Ohio, Notre Dame and Wright State 21-7.  Pitching is going to be the key for the Illini.  They are going to have not only match the runs on the board but outpitch a quality team to advance.  They will have the home crowd fan base behind them so that could help propel this team.  If they can limit the big hits and big run innings, they have a shot.

The defending champions entered the tournament as an after thought title contender.  After last weekend's action at home, they might just be considered one of the favorites to win not only this weekend (even on the road) but repeat as champions.  The 'Dores lit up their competition last weekend, going undefeated and scoring 36 runs in the process (giving up only 5).  Ok, that did include a 21-0 romp over Radford in the regional final but still.  Add in the fact their bullpen ran up 39 strike outs in 3 games and you can see how dangerous this team really is.  If Vandy can keep that momentum going, I am not sure Illinois (or perhaps anyone) can stop them.

#TwineTime pick:  Vanderbilt over Illinois - 2 games

Alright baggers and line drivers, those are the #TwineTime picks to advance to the College World Series.  If my predictions hold up, be prepared to welcome Maryland, Missouri State, Florida, Miami, LSU, TCU, Louisville and Vanderbilt to Omaha.  Of course I could be completely wrong and none of these teams will be there....but somehow I doubt that will happen.  Follow along with the action on ESPN if you are fortunate enough to get some of the games on TV (not in Canada unfortunately).


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Lord Stanley Has Arrived
The NHL enters the final phase of the 2014-2015 season


It is the moment all of us hockey fans have been waiting for...The Stanley Cup Finals!!  Who would have thought at the beginning of the season we would be seeing these two teams battle for the cup.  Many might have accurately predicted one but most probably did not predict the other.  Even when the playoff bracket was finalized, I doubt many saw this championship match up.  I can say though #TwineTime did, from the beginning, pick one of these teams to be here....and not the one you expect.

The conference championship round sure lived up to the hype.  Two back and forth series, a multitude of high suspense overtime games, hard hits, sick goals and we saw both series go the distance.  Really, what more could we as fans ask for?  Well, maybe for a repeat performance in the finals.

#TwineTime went .500 on the conference finals, accurately predicting a Bolts win but falling just short with the Ducks.  Overall, my record sits at a respectable 9-5 record.  Time to put it all on the table though, weigh the factors, look over the stats and make my Stanley Cup prediction.

Here we go puck heads...

STANLEY CUP FINAL

Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning vs Western Conference Champion Chicago Blackhawks

Let's take a look at our Eastern Conference champs first.  The Tampa Bay Lightning were a trendy upset pick when the playoffs started, many thought they would do well but little expected them to weather the storm of Price and King Henrik to get here.  Let me boast a bit here, I actually did predict the Lightning to be in this position.  Ok so I may have had them playing St. Louis in the final but still.  Tampa Bay is led by young dynamo Tyler Johnson.  Johnson leads the playoff scoring race heading into the finals and if you haven't seen some of his highlight goals you need to do a YouTube search.  21 points and 4 game winners make Johnson a man to watch.  But let's not undervalue the cast of names Tampa brings to the table.  Remember Steven Stamkos?  At the beginning of the playoffs perhaps yes you did forget about him but not lately.  Stamkos has stepped up his game as the Lightning progressed through the playoffs and that should concern Chicago.  If he is only starting to really roll now, what does that mean he has saved for the finals?  Add in the offensive talent of Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, Lightning will strike!  Kucherov has been a key impact player during these playoffs, tallying up 19 points in 20 games.  Tampa may only be averaging 2.75 goals per game in the playoffs but let's consider who they have had to beat between the pipes.  I think it is safe to say they have faced and conquered stronger goalies than who they will see in the finals....and knowing they already beat the best will provide huge confidence to these snipers.

The knock on Tampa will be playoff experience.  None of their top players have much of it to speak of.  Stamkos was around for the 2011 cup run (losing the Eastern Final to Boston) but one man cannot lead an entire team alone.  This is where you will really see the impact Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle have made since joining the team.  Stralman and Boyle have the memories of a cup final loss from last year with the Rangers still fresh in their minds.  They can bring that experience and that motivation into the dressing room and help mentor the young guys around them.  Yes high levels of testosterone and energy can be a positive but too much of both can hurt you as well.  Finding the nice balance between the two and keeping the lockerroom in check will be where Stralman, Boyle and Stamkos leadership can shine.

What about Ben Bishop you ask?  Well, what can I say about him?  Perfect at times, scary at others.  Two shut outs in pivotal games on the road in the conference finals is a huge strength for Bishop.  Allowing 5 goals in 3 games is a cause for concern.  So which Bishop shows up for the finals?  The difference maker really is looking at how Bishop has played in elimination games.  He looked great against Detroit in the opening round to avoid the upset and stepped up against the Rangers to get his team here.  If the series is on the line, Bishop seems to be the man you want between the pipes in the playoffs.  A .920 save percentage and 3 shut outs in the playoffs seems like pretty good numbers overall to me.

The West was won by the Chicago Blackhawks, as many expected.  And rightfully so...this will be the third finals appearance for Chicago in 6 years.  How did those previous appearances go?  Well, they ended up winning the cup of course.  Recent history alone would say the 'Hawks are strong favorites to win this season as well.  They have the experience, the history, the tradition....they are creating a mini-dynasty.  In fact, the past 3 seasons they have made it to at least the conference finals.  This team has played A LOT of hockey the past few seasons and seem poised to continue.

A huge storyline in this final will be centered on current Blackhawks player, and former Lightning, Brad Richards.  This will be a career homecoming for Richards as he began his career with Tampa Bay and led them to their only Stanley Cup Championship in 2004.  And how good was he back then?  Oh only the playoff MVP!  Tampa fans loved him...let's see what reaction Richards gets this time around though.  Considering he was with the club for 8 seasons, you have to hope the reception will be at least lukewarm....if not welcoming.

Ok so what does Chicago bring to the finals?  Oh just an offensive juggernaut assault from Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, the list goes on and on.  Toews and Kane lead the way with 20 and 19 playoff points in only 17 games played.  When you are averaging multiple points every game, you are a wrecking crew.  From the blue line,  Keith has been instrumental in setting up the big goals at the right time, having 16 assists in 17 playoff games.  All of this adds up to one impressive onslaught of offensive power.  Tampa Bay, and more specifically Ben Bishop, will have their hands full trying to shut down this offense game in and game out.

I noted above the up and down playoff's Bishop is having between the pipes for the Bolts, I can probably write a similar line here for Corey Crawford.  A 9-4 record in the 14 playoff games he has played with a .919 save percentage and 3 shut outs of his own are above average numbers and they are on par with his competition.  The biggest cause for concern will be the goals against with Crawford averaging 2.56, compared to Bishop's 2.15.  But, similar noting to Tampa playing strong 'tenders in their series victories, Chicago has met strong offensive teams in the playoffs.  Both Nashville and Anaheim were able to light the lamp for a few games, pressuring Crawford and chasing him from the net.  The only reason Crawford's GAA is as low as it is would be because Minnesota basically did nothing offensively against the 'Hawks.  If Crawford can find his footing early in the series and take away the home ice advantage for the Lightning, Chicago's chances of winning another cup will go up dramatically.  If Crawford struggles in the opening games on the road, we could see Scott Darling make his Stanley Cup finals debut.

So after gathering all the facts and analyzing all the data, #TwineTime is ready to give it's final prediction.  The 'Hawks have the playoff experience and All-Star lineup to dominate any team.  Toews and Kane seem focused on winning another cup and this could be their last chance at establishing themselves as a dynasty with the West getting stronger every season.  Chicago has a strong D but I think the Lightning offense can solve them.  Crawford can be good and he can be horrible.  With the Lightning already having the confidence they can beat the best goalies in the league and knowing Crawford can struggle, they should be able to pounce on him and steal a few wins on this alone.  I expect a back and forth series, similar to what we saw in the conference finals but in the end I like the upset.  Plus, let's be honest Canadian hockey fans, deep down you want to see Steve Yzerman win another Stanley Cup.  Stevie Y already has one cup as an executive (2008, Detroit) but this would be his first championship as General Manager.  How cool would it be to see Yzerman on the ice with the cup held overhead one more time!!

#TwineTime Stanley Cup Champion Pick:  Tampa Bay Lightning over Chicago Blackhawks - 7 games

Conn Smyth Pick:  Tyler Johnson - Tampa Bay Lightning

There you have it my puck heads and grinders.  Sticking true to my prediction at the start of the playoffs and hoping to see Lord Stanley back soaking up the rays on a beach in Florida (oh my what has the world come to when the state of Florida has more cups in recent years than all of Canada).  Interesting side note though for those indifferent on this series, and an attempt to get you on my side, if Tampa wins they will have successfully faced and knocked off 4 Original 6 teams to grab the cup.  They are already the 1st to face 4 Original 6 teams in the playoffs...might as well make it a perfect 4 for 4!  Enjoy the pinnacle of sports...the Stanley Cup Finals!!