Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

USA Soccer To Play Here September 6

Getting a game that counts has always bee on the “to do” list for the city of Jacksonville when it comes to USA Soccer and that will happen for the first time in 2016. Mayor Lenny Curry as well as sports executives from the Jaguars, the Armada and SMG will make the announcement tomorrow morning.

As part of the World Cup qualifying, Jacksonville will host the game on September 6th between the USA and Trinidad and Tobago. It’s the final game of semi-final qualifying and could have huge implications regarding who has a chance to play at the World Cup in Russia in 2018.

In their last two appearances in “friendlies” at the stadium Team USA has attracted over 44,000 against Scotland in 2012 and over 53,000 vs. Nigeria two years later. One of the roadblocks to hosting an official qualifier is distance from the corners of the pitch to the stands, not enough to satisfy international soccer specifications. That will be one of the issues addressed at tomorrow’s press conference.

For the first time in more than 30 years, USA lost to Guatemala last week 2-0 to put the red, white and blue’s chances to qualify at risk. They’ll have a chance to get back on track in the second game of that match tomorrow night in Columbus, OH.

A rich soccer history, dating back to the Tea Men of the NASL in the early ’80’s has allowed Jacksonville to host Team USA as a training base in the ’90’s, recent friendlies and the return of the NASL with the Armada last year.

Tomorrow’s announcement is scheduled at 10AM at the stadium.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

When Watching Tony Kornheiser, Buyer Beware

You might remember before Super Bowl XXXIX here in Jacksonville, then-Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser wrote a scathing review of Jacksonville as the host city. Since Channel 4 at the time was also owned by the Post, I invited Kornheiser to come on the air and explain his distaste for the city. He declined, but the higher-ups in Jacksonville and D.C. got involved and he was on our air the next day, via telephone, during our 6 o’clock news.

Having gone to high school and college in DC, I had read Kornheiser in the Post for years and always found his take pretty interesting. He once published a compilation of his columns and called it “Pumping Irony.” Nonetheless, I was interested to talk to him to find out why he was taking shots at my hometown.

Starting the live interview with a couple of basic questions, it became apparent to me during his answers that he really didn’t know what he was talking about.

“You’ve never been here!” I blurted out in the middle of one of his nonsensical answers.

“Well, I’ve been to the orange juice stand on 95,” he deadpanned.

“Are you at least coming to the game?” I asked.

“I’m sending (Michael) Wilbon to let him handle it,” was his answer.

After exposing the article as a farce, if not a fraudulent attempt at humor, Kornheiser spent the next couple of days on his radio show in DC ripping me, my high school and (short) college athletic career and it eventually went away.

When he was on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Committee, I used to sit by Mike Wilbon as he and Tony’s “hallway conversations” at the Post eventually led to their current show on ESPN, “PTI.” I don’t agree with much of what Wilbon writes, and we had that conversation several times. But I found him engaging and funny and always opinionated about what Kornheiser had to say.

“It’s about stirring it up,” he said as we left one meeting.

On Wednesday night’s edition of PTI, Kornheiser took the occasion to deride Jacksonville again, saying, tongue in cheek, that the league’s foray in to China was just an opportunity for “Jacksonville to play somewhere in a stadium that doesn’t have half of the seats covered with tarps.”

It’s an old story that’s never been true, but again trotted out by an entertainer who hasn’t done his homework and is just leaning on a perception rather than reality. We know why the stadium was built to the size it is, and by the way, just about every stadium built in the time since Jacksonville was awarded the franchise is in the 65-68,000 seat range.

That’s about the right size for any NFL team.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Khan Still Moving Forward

Over his career before and as the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shad Khan hasn’t been impressed by talk. Action and results are what he’s looking for and gives his employees the tools to be successful. That’s why this week at the NFL Meetings in Boca Raton, Khan heard the positive talk about the Jaguars arrow “pointing up” but was quick to point out: “We haven’t won a game yet.”

Much of the amazement from those around the league is their perception of the patience Khan has shown in the three years with Dave Caldwell as the GM and Gus Bradley as head coach. Khan doesn’t see it as being patient. He sees a process.

“To me, I can see the big picture being close to it,” he explained. “We want to make sure we’re communicating to the fans that they understand what’s going on. They look at it regrettably that it’s something we’ve got to go through to help something that’s sustainable and winning for the long-term.”

Now in his fifth year as an owner in the league, Khan has studied the culture of the NFL and is an active participant in shaping the leagu’es image and future.

“You know the people, you know the agenda and I know what the Jaguars, what we need to do and where we can contribute. So definitely. It’s different in a good way,” he said of his learning process since buying the Jaguars

“This is very much a democratic organization. If your voice is not being heard, it’s up to you. That’s never been an issue for the Jaguars or any other team.”

One place where Khan has led the way is the league’s international expansion. A renewed commitment to London was important to the Jaguars according to Khan, to continue the sustainability in Jacksonville. While he doesn’t expect the Jaguars to be involved in some of the other International series games, he does find it a bit amusing that after his success in London, other teams are lining up. Even the Steelers are looking to play a home game in Mexico.

“Well I think for us, we’ve got a commitment in London. Certainly, I’m delighted. I think it’s the right thing to do,” the Jaguars owner noted. ‘I find this refreshing that this time, three years ago when we were talking about London, it seemed like a crazy idea. Now playing in Mexico, China and Brazil, all of those are very real possibilities. I think it’s great for the league.”

Nearly one-fifth of the Jaguars revenue is derived from their game in London including ticket sales and sponsorships. So its no surprise Khan has staked a claim to the UK’s biggest city.

“Our commitment is London for many, many reasons and I think they’ve been articulated before to supplement what we’re doing in Jacksonville. What’s interesting is there are a lot of volunteers now to play these games which I think is really healthy and awesome. There’s a huge amount of interest.”

Although the Jaguars commitment to London is to play as the home team, don’t be surprised if the team stays either in London or somewhere in Europe in the coming years to play as the visitor. Since they’re already there, staying and playing a second game makes sense. This year’s game is October 2nd against the Colts, the first time the Jaguars will host a division game at Wembley. Next year Khan and Texans owner Bob McNair would like to see their two teams tangle overseas. Revealing that the plans for the South End Zone Amphitheater and practice facility are now finalized, Khan expects construction to begin soon. He said bids are out and a contractor should be selected in the next few days. While he’s looking at completing the project quickly, he added he’s not sure it’ll be finished before the 2016 football season but will be done in stages so the contractor will be able to work on it during the season without disrupting the stadium.

One project that will be done is the revamping of the two club sections. With the new contract in place for the Florida/Georgia game, Khan noted that they’d be tailored to each team.

“You’ll find it interesting that these clubs, that really resonated with Florida and Georgia. How the clubs are done, we’re going to team one for one team and the other one – it’s basically a lot of electronic. A lot of it is you basically hit a switch and they get differentiated areas, premium areas for some of their big supporters.”

While the proposed Shipyards project is still on the drawing board pending the environmental and land changes that need to be fixed, the Jaguars owner said there’s land both east and west of the Shipyards that he’ll be concentrating on while the other is sorted out.

Either way, his mantra of “Moving Forward” stays in place.

“Everything we’re doing at the stadium, we’re looking at it from a Jaguars viewpoint but also Jacksonville. I think that’s very important that we get more events to the city and football, as well as sports, could be one of the engines of growth – economic growth.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Dave Caldwell’s Jaguars Vision

Following and tracking what Jaguars General Manager Dave Caldwell has said from his first day on the job, he hasn’t wavered. Caldwell is measured in his dealings with the media but honest when he can be. That’s why 2016 will be a bit of a litmus test for what he’s done in the four years he’s been on the job and, if they stay healthy, a validation of his philosophy regarding rebuilding the Jaguars.

Noting that “left tackle, quarterback and pass rusher” where the building blocks of a franchise, Caldwell drafted Luke Joeckel, Blake Bortles and Donte Fowler in consecutive years. While his 2013 draft hasn’t produced the stars he had hoped for, both Caldwell and the Jaguars coaching staff hope the free-agent additions in 2016 will help Joeckel and Safety Jonathan Cyprien reach their full potential. If it’s there.

That’s why the signing of OT Kelvin Beachum, as second-tier and under the radar as it was, could be the lynchpin to everything Caldwell has done to this point. Beachum was a starter in Pittsburgh and would have been considered as one of the premier offensive free agents of the 2016 class had he not torn his ACL last year and missed the final 11 games.

“He’s just a very good technician, very good pass protector,” Caldwell said at the owners meeting this week in Boca Raton. “Great kid, very intelligent and I think his skill set in terms of athleticism, being able to pass protect the speed rushers on the outside.”

As soon as he signed with the Jaguars, Beachum started working with the team’s doctors and trainers to get ready for 2016. Caldwell expects him to be ready sometime in training camp to compete for a spot up front, pushing Joeckel for the left tackle job.

“They’re going to compete and that’s been the central theme of our team since Gus got here, is competition,” Caldwell noted. “Wherever we can find somebody to come in and compete at a reasonable rate, we’ll do that no matter what the position is.”

As focused as the fans are on Joeckel’s failings, the team thinks he has a “very high ceiling.” Former Jaguar Tony Boselli, a Hall of Fame semi-finalist is perhaps Joeckel’s biggest supporter. “He has great footwork, was injured his first year and all he did was rehab,” Boselli has said on numerous occasions. “He’ll be alright.”

What’s interesting is that Caldwell is willing to create some competition with his own draft picks and free agents. He’s not letting his ego get in the way. If a guy isn’t cutting it, he won’t hold on and hurt the team. That’s something unique in the “I’m the smartest guy in the room,” mentality of NFL GM’s.

Offering Prince Amukamara a one-year deal was part of Caldwell’s 2016 plan but if Prince wasn’t interested in one year, Caldwell was prepared to move on.

“He’s a guy that we’ve normally shied away from in terms of the injury history but his injuries haven’t been reoccurring,” Caldwell said, pointing to the research they did on Amukamara while he was with the Giants. “They’ve all been different injuries at points in time of his career; kind of a little freakish to some degree. He just feels like it’s a prove-it deal for him and he’s motivated to play well and the risk for us wasn’t a high risk for a one-year deal.”

So going into his fourth draft as the decision maker, Caldwell isn’t focused on his “left tackle, quarterback, pass rusher” mantra. Instead, he believes with the current players on the roster, including the 2016 free agents, everything is on the table with the Jaguars fifth pick in the draft.

“I think at number five, we can be very flexible. If there are opportunities to trade back, we could do that. If there are opportunities to trade up, we could do that or just select a player at that point.”

That’ll be a different spot for Caldwell and fun for us to watch.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Bradley: Stay to the Plan

At the NFL’s Annual Meeting in Boca Raton, the Jaguars were everybody’s “sleeper pick” to make some noise in the AFC South and contend for a post season berth. But long suffering Jaguars fans probably only heard one phrase uttered by Head Coach Gus Bradley at the annual AFC Coaches Breakfast: “Five year plan.”

Wait. Wasn’t it three, then four and now five? To their credit, the Jaguars brass has never mentioned a number when it came to years to rebuild but now five? Does Owner Shad Khan know that’s the number?

“I’m sure if you talk to Shad, I don’t know if he would say its patience,” Bradley said in front of the assembled media at the breakfast. “I just think he feels like this is the way we’re going to do it. This is the way. We took a big undertaking and we’ve all been on the same page since we’ve started. I think it’s been tremendous support. He’s also a guy that, like Dave, has tremendous expectations. As we build this and get these players in here, that’s part of it. I think we feel like those expectations from day one, but we’ve been very strict to stay to the plan”

There are parts of the plan that never really made sense. Daryl Smith, Montel Owens and several other players the Jaguars parted ways with would have fit just fine into a rebuilding plan. But the new leadership seemed determined to start from scratch. Nobody’s ever done that. Usually it’s rebuild around a veteran QB or bring in a rookie QB on a veteran team. The Jaguars started from scratch on both sides of the equation.

It’s pretty obvious the expectations are high this year, starting with Khan. Asked what “better” translates to, he said, “Better than 5-11.”

That’s why the spending in free agency was saved for this year, putting some veteran faces with the young developing players.

“One of the things in free agency, you’re looking to have flexibility in the draft,” Bradley explained. ” I think it has allowed us to do that. You’d like to go into the draft thinking that you can truly take best available. The player that is best when we pick. I think that’s what free agency has done for us. We have some needs still. We have some areas that we need to concentrate on, but it has allowed us to do that.”

By signing Malik Jackson, arguably the best defensive free agent available, the Jaguars have addressed their biggest pressing need: pass rush. Jackson plays in the interior of the defensive line, similar to Sen’Derrick Marks who’s coming back from injury. They hope to have both of them on the field, often playing together.

“I think for us, if it’s up to us, we’re not going to have a lot of really good players standing on the sidelines. We have to get them on the field. That’s the challenge for us: to get those guys on the field at the same time.”

Adding Tashaun Gipson at safety will make Jonathan Cyprien better and allow him to play closer to the line of scrimmage according to Bradley. He expects James Sample to be a part of the plan as well.

He’s more of a ball hawk.,” Bradley said of Gipson. “That’s what we were looking for. We wanted a guy that can get the ball. He’s shown that with what, 14 interceptions over three years. More of a ball-hawk type free safety.”

While Bradley is a defensive coach, his eyes lit up most when he talked about Chris Ivory. “A violent, violent runner,” is how he described the free agent acquisition from the Jets. He expects Ivory and TJ Yeldon to be the perfect complement at running back.

“It’s a good complement. Nowadays, the ideal is to have two backs. I think there was a game last year that T.J. played over 70 snaps and we just felt like if we changed that up a little bit and give defenses a different style of runner, that’s always important.”