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A healthy, loaded roster could push FC Dallas to the top

There is a growing trend that at least one local team’s season last year was faulted solely on injuries and the belief that everything will be better with everyone healthy. But while many are making that claim toward the Texas Rangers, it probably applies better to the soccer team that will begin its season in Frisco tomorrow.

Yes, FC Dallas did make the playoffs for the first time in three years, but there still might be a sense that things could have been better. Take away a two-month stretch in late spring when Mauro Diaz and Michel were out of action, and Dallas might have been a contender for the Supporters’ Shield, or at least a better seed that could have helped them in the MLS Cup playoffs.

But that year is behind them, and the club at Toyota Stadium has all the tools in place to make a serious run at that Cup, especially since Landon Donovan’s retirement has left the LA Galaxy as no longer the perennial threat it has looked like for years and MLS even more wide open than before.

Could Oscar Pareja’s club be the one to punch through the door? With Diaz, Michel, Fabian Castillo, Blas Perez, David Texeria and last season’s Rookie of the Year Tesho Akindele, the club has as many weapons on offense as anyone in MLS.

It gives Pareja a lot of flexibility to his lineup as who to mix and match on any given day. For a club playing in the hot summer heat of North Texas, especially when they will be competing in the US Open Cup as well as the MLS season, that type of depth is invaluable as Pareja can rest certain players for a particular game.

That isn’t to say the club was willing to rest on its laurels. Despite having a great goalkeeping prospect in Raul Fernandez, they believed they could get even better in the nets. So they scooped up Dan Kennedy from the currently defunct Chivas USA in the dispersal draft to play alongside Chris Seitz.

It might have looked like Kennedy’s future in Dallas would be uncertain given how loyal he he’d been to Chivas USA to the end. But the club and MLS came to terms on a contract extension, with Kennedy replying via Twitter: “Excited to get to work with my new teammates and the staff @FCDallas, and looking forward to making a new home in a great city w great fans”

That’s a good sign for FCD, as they are getting one of the flashiest keepers in the game. One of the few spots worth watching throughout Chivas USA’s struggles was seeing the spectacular saves Kennedy was capable of.

But an even better sign is that he may not need to make as many great saves as he did with his previous team. That’s because here he’ll be behind one of the sturdiest defenses in the league. Led by Zach Lloyd, and Matt Hedges, FCD’s back line could be an absolute brick wall at times that simply did not allow any attacker to get past them, forcing clubs to take low-percentage shots that the goalies could handle with ease.

It all adds up to one of the most complete clubs in North American soccer. And it could be the start of very good things when FC Dallas opens play against San Jose Saturday night at Toyota Stadium.

D-League needs to be used better for the players’ sake

Myck Kabongo, we hardly knew you.

If you missed the former Texas Longhorns star’s tour with the Texas Legends, few could blame you. It lasted all of five days and two games averaging six points before he was waived by the Legends. (By contrast, William Buford, who was taken in the same player pool, remains in Frisco, averaging 7.5 points per game.)

Kabongo’s fall from grace could be used as yet another example of athletes, particularly within basketball, who sadly fall victim to their own hype and see a promising career derailed because of it. At one time thought to be a first-round pick, he declared for the draft in 2013 following a sophomore season in Austin that saw him suspended for the first 23 games of that season for his contact with agent Rich Paul. A 14.6 scoring average in 11 games that year for the Longhorns was not enough to get him drafted, and he currently remains in limbo with no NBA experience (he was with the Miami Heat’s Summer League team and then signed with San Antonio before being cut in 2013) and stops in three D-League teams.

Chris Douglas-Roberts is another example who’s tumultuous path included a stop in Frisco. He was a second-round pick of the New Jersey Nets in 2008 after playing just one year at the University of Memphis. But Roberts is another currently unemployed player after he was traded from the Clippers to Boston and waived by the Celtics three days later. (Given how much the Celtics are desperately stocking up on young talent, that says something.)

Currently, Roberts’ six-year pro career has his best NBA season at just 9.8 points in 67 games with the 2009-10 Nets. He averaged 18.7 points for the Legends in 2013 before Charlotte signed him, praised by head coach Steve Clifford for his “toughness and experience,” but averaging 6.9 points for the Bobcats didn’t lead to much else, as he wasn’t re-signed and only averaged 1.6 points for the Clippers this season.

Kabongo and Douglas-Roberts thus join numerous projected NBA prospects that bring about one question: Would things have been different in a system where you know you start for a development team before moving to the big league instead of going there being an immediate sign that you can’t cut it in the NBA?

Basketball prep stars have made it clear that they really don’t want to play in college, having been convinced they’re being cheated by only getting a free ride to an education in exchange for the NCAA and school’s chance at making millions of dollars off their games. So they play one year expecting to declare for the draft after that. And that’s their right and choice. It’s pretty much still their best choice now so long as the NBA has its age rule of needing to be one year removed from high school – which I have advocated against for years.

The problem remains that, even with the D-League in existence, the NBA continues to force the NCAA to be its real de facto development league while continuing the culture that most prospects should enter the draft expecting to play in the big league immediately.

So with more people turning pro while still very green, the chance of a player turning out like Greg Oden or Kabongo is still more likely that turning out like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. And even if the player eventually does become an All-Star caliber player, chances are it’s going to be longer into his career than it used to be.

Consider: From 1979 to 1999, 14 number one draft picks averaged at least 18 points per game in their rookie seasons, including nine that averaged at least 20. Three others – James Worthy, Brad Daugherty and Chris Webber – went on to appear in at least five All-Star Games; Worthy was the only one of those to average less than 15 in his first season. Six of those 17 players are already in the Hall of Fame, with at least Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Webber and Allen Iverson likely to join them. Of those 17, only Magic Johnson, Iverson and Elton Brand entered the draft before their junior years in college. (Joe Smith turned pro after his sophomore year; he averaged 15.3 points his rookie year and never made an All-Star Game)

But since 2001, the year Kwame Brown became the first high schooler to be taken first, no number one pick has been taken with more than two years college experience; Blake Griffin is the only player to be taken first with more than one. Nine of those 14 top picks averaged less than 15 points in their rookie seasons, including four that failed to average double figures, bottoming out last year when Anthony Bennett’s 4.2 was the lowest rookie scoring average for a number one pick since 1948.

Simply put, the majority of players simply are not ready, they do not have the seasoning, the maturity or the realization of just how tougher the game is at that level just one year or less removed from high school.

How much more different could it be if draft picks weren’t expected to go straight to the NBA, at least if they were only a year or two removed from high school? If a player, instead of playing one year of college ball and then getting his fat thrown into the fire, instead could turn pro right out of high school but instead started by playing two to three years with a professional development team, coached by a staff that understood part of its job was to prepare players for the NBA as opposed to NBA coaches who need to worry about immediate success and nothing else, it’s not unreasonable to think the turnaround of top picks having immediate returns could return to what it once was.

Developing players in the minors works in baseball. It works in hockey. There’s no reason it can’t work in basketball.

There are, fortunately, those who want it to change. Donnie Nelson, owner of the Legends in addition to being the Mavericks, says the D-League is gradually working toward eventually having one separate affiliate for every NBA team. Currently, the D-League needs 12 more teams to make that dream a reality.

But more will need to change. Teams and owners have to rein themselves in and understand they can’t expect draft picks that turn pro so early to be NBA ready immediately.

It can start as soon as now with one general manager having the courage to say his first-round pick will play for his team’s D-League affiliate first, even if that player was taken number one. The league should seriously consider removing it’s current age restriction rule and replacing it with a (temporary) rule saying players can turn pro out of high school but must play at least two years for a D-League team first.

The NBA can’t expect college teams to fully develop players for them anymore; they need to start doing it themselves. And then maybe we’ll start seeing more Duncans and Shaqs than Kabongos and Douglas-Roberts’.

Mavs pursuit of Stoudamire – big risk for chance at big reward

It’s said that you can never have too much talent. But what happens when does chemistry taking a back seat to talent turn out to be a bad thing?

For several weeks, it was believed that current free agent Jermaine O’Neal was the Mavs’ big target. But now, with the weeks winding down and New York’s Amar’e Stoudamire suddenly available, Dallas has changed plans. Stoudamire joining the Mavs is reportedly all but a done deal, needing only to wait until the forward officially clears waivers at 4 pm CT on Wednesday.

Any boost to the Mavs frontcourt to take pressure off Tyson Chandler has to be viewed by many as a welcome addition. But is it too late in the year to be making such a move, and will this just prove to be even more of a challenge for Rick Carlisle to get this roster to mesh?

The big thing to remember here is that basketball is a lot more different than baseball or any other sport where late-season additions are more common. With only five players on the court at a time, chemistry and cohesion are as important as anywhere else, and disrupting that chemistry with more and moor new players can backfire greatly.

I keep looking back to 2010, when the Mavs shook up their roster at the trade deadline, trading Josh Howard and Drew Gooden to Washington for Caron Butler, Brendan Heywood and DeShawn Stevenson. While they still cruised their way to the Southwest Division championship, the lack of chemistry had to play a part in them getting embarrassingly bounced from the playoffs in the first round by San Antonio.

This was why I was glad that The Mavs grabbed Rajon Rondo earlier in the season – to give more time for such a needed adjustment process. Granted, that process has now been delayed greatly by Rondo’s broken orbital bone still keeping him out of action with the team still hoping surgery is not the needed option, since that could likely mean Rondo would be done for the year by now, and then you can pretty much kiss this season goodbye.

These worries are not set in stone, especially since there have been exceptions. After all, the Rockets shook things up 20 years ago when they grabbed Clyde Drexler from Portland and his combination with former Phi Slamma Jamma teammate Hakeem Olajuwon drove Houston to a second straight championship.

And at least the Mavs are adding just one player instead of changing up so many other components like they did five years ago.

Hopefully won’t result in a similar end, because a presence like Stoudamire can greatly benefit the Mavs – if they can get everything to work in time.

EDIT: Since this article’s posting it has been reported that Rajon Rondo is expected to start on Thursday against Oklahoma City.

Could Charlie Strong and Texas change football for the better?

Many of you are probably aware that I have been very critical of the game of football and the type of people/athletes that the game attracts. I’ve been pretty subtle about it, but yeah, it’s there.

I’ve never denied the possibility that football can be a game that encourages discipline, hard work and structure while being an enjoyable event. The problem is that it can be either that or a game of chaos and extreme brutality that encourages barbarism on and off the field, and recent years has shown much more of the latter occurring. Critics of mine can point out that bad eggs are present in all sports and walks of life, but that still can’t erase the fact that such individuals are coming out of the game of football much more frequently and with little to no outrage about it from the public.

But maybe, just maybe, that attitude could be on the verge of changing.

If there is a silver lining in seeing the horrific abuse that Ray Rice laid on Janay Palmer, it’s that it might have snapped enough people out of their state of denial and realized that abusive violence committed by football players (and yes, on a smaller scale, athletes in general) is a serious problem that not enough has been done about. Numerous other sports leagues like the NHL have cracked down on such actions, and done so without bungling it like Roger Goodell did with Rice.

But if there’s one event that might be a true sign of that, it would be standout Maryland high school quarterback Kai Locksley flipping his commitment at near the last moment and deciding to go to the University of Texas instead of Florida State.

The knock on Charlie Strong when Texas hired him was that he was too old-fashioned and hard. His tough, discipline-driven style could never win over kids in a world were recruits can get helicopter rides to campus from recruiters – add that to the list of complaints the spoiled boosters of the Whiny Orange have with Strong.

Well, so much for that theory. Texas signed a top 10 recruiting class last week, highlighted by linebackers Mailk Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler as well as the number one tight end according to ESPN, Devonaire Clarington.

But Locksley was the one Texas fans have to be jumping for joy over, seeing him as the solution the Horns need at quarterback after enduing the past season with Tyrone Swoopes. But it’s not just the fact that Strong landed this particular kid but where he poached him from where the change in football’s culture may lie.

I remember one of my Twitter followers saying that Strong’s best weapon in recruiting is “you win over the parent, you win the kid.” I think it’s safe to suggest that this was the case with Locksley, with Strong convincing his parents that Texas would be a much better place for their kid.

You can’t tell me that the horror stories coming out of Florida State, where not only was Jameis Winston accused of rape and stealing crab legs, but there has been a laundry list of incidents where FSU players committed heinous acts and the Tallahassee police simply looked the other way, started drawing concerns from the parents of talented but impressionable high school athletes.

Would you want to send your kid to an atmosphere like that?

It looks like Locksley’s parents did not. And when Strong came knocking on their door to offer a much different environment, the choice became obvious.

Texas was right there with Florida State for years, especially in the final years of Mack Brown’s term as coach. Players making headlines for the wrong reasons in the weeks leading up to bowl season were too common an occurrence for the program. Brown had always been known as someone who would coddle his players, but it was clear by the end that the inmates were running the asylum.

But things appear to be changing in Austin, with not just the new coach but a new athletics director and a new president on the way. If Steve Patterson will back his football coach and start telling the likes of Red McCombs to stay out of their business, the change could be complete.

It’s a new culture the Orangebloods should embrace. Brown’s practice of spoiling his players had to be a factor in his teams always underperforming for the talent they had. By contrast, Gary Patterson has built a tough winning program against the odds through strong discipline while still having the backs of his players. If Texas infuses that type of atmosphere in addition to the talent they can draw on the name alone, they could be the greatest force in college football.

There is how football could be used to make boys into better men – using the games intensity to focus them and learn the lessons of structure and boundaries, both on and off the field. It’s a practice that has been slipping away over the years in favor of a culture of chaos and unbridled brutality, and the results have been way too many stories on SportsCenter involving police reports.

Football needs such a shot in the arm, because with more and more stories like Rice and Winston and Aaron Hernandez along with a growing concern regarding concussions, more and more parents are showing concern over whether their kids should play that sport when there are plenty of other athletic options available. It’s a bigger problem than a lot of die-hard fans like Daniel Flynn want to admit, and something has to change if you want your beloved sport to endure.

Is it too soon to say things are definitely going to turn around? Perhaps.

But if the viewing public never forgets the horrors committed by people like Ray Race and are willing to embrace more people like Charlie Strong, maybe even this cranky, snarky sports fan and writer will find little to complain about regarding the game.

Social media making college recruiting even crazier

The internet has brought many benefits to society, but there have been detriments as well, especially in the realm of social media. People post and share anything, and it’s nigh impossible to figure out what among it is actually true. I actually began a new web show ridiculing fake news stories because of this.

This is very much the case in sports as well. Any and all rumors will get sprawled all over Facebook and Twitter, fact checking be damned.

That has proven apparent as National Signing Day has drawn closer, and it appears that recruits everywhere are taking to one of the most infamous online practices: Trolling.

There have likely been multiple types of issues, but perhaps the most infamous of late has been that of Allen’s Kyler Murray, the supposed commit to Texas A&M. That is, until a few weeks back when he posted on Twitter an image of a University of Texas jersey. This came just after his friend DaMarkus Lodge had done the same.

Naturally, everyone pounced on this and went into a frenzy. Aggies on fan forums began roasting the five-star Murray for betraying them, claiming how A&M was losing recruits because the athletes were too “weak” to handle the SEC.

And… it all pretty much amounted to nothing, as just a few days ago, Murray sent another Tweet reading “Following my heart… #GigEm.”

It should be noted that the allure of another college may not even be the greatest threat toward Murray’s chances of actually playing in College Station, as USA Today recently reported that many baseball scouts believe he may have an even brighter future in that sport; it may very well depend on how much money the pro baseball leagues are willing to throw at him.

And it looks like Texas didn’t come up empty-handed in this, as reports are now saying that four-star quarterback Kai Locksley has switched his commitment from Florida State to come to Austin.

But ultimately, this is what happened: Kyler Murray punk’d you all. Did what he did get you all talking about him? Mission accomplished, then. He never had to make such a change, but he got his name back in the headlines for a few more days, stroking his own ego.

All of this is why I have been reluctant to talk too much about recruiting in the past few days and make a huge fuss about who has announced where and what school and what player has reportedly flip flopped. This has always been a part of the recruiting season, but it’s only going to get worse thanks to social media. And it’s going to be another one of those lessons that people never learn.

More than ever, this is why it has to be re-affirmed that “commitments” to college are all unofficial until the moment the recruits sign that letter of intent, which will start happening today. Only then will we actually know who is going where.

In the meantime, the recruits, a lot more savvy with the Internet than many of the writers covering them, will find new ways with the technology to troll them. And the writers will fall for it and keep feeding the athletes’ egos.