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Year In Review

Defector’s Favorite Sports Moments Of 2021

Photo by AFP via Getty Images

These are the sports moments from 2021 that the staff of Defector enjoyed.

Alisson’s Goal Against West Brom

So many things had to go hilariously, tragically wrong for Liverpool to be in a situation where they needed a game-winning, season-saving goal from Alisson. Everton goalie Jordan Pickford had to truck through Virgil van Dijk and knock out the best defensive Pool Boy for the year. The coronavirus had to put further pressure on the reigning Premier League champions: physically, with tighter schedules, and financially, with tighter budgets that stopped Liverpool from reloading its depth. Most immediately, West Brom had to take the lead early on May 16, 2021 and hang on for 80 minutes, even after Liverpool equalized in the 33rd minute.

All of those things combined to set the table for a 95th-minute corner from Trent Alexander-Arnold, with a simple yet nearly unbearable task at hand: Score and grab three points, or miss out on the Champions League, a brutal setback that could have stalled out Liverpool’s project under Jürgen Klopp, which to date resulted in a Champions League title and the elusive Premier League championship. As is the case on late corners where a goal is a necessity, Alisson, Liverpool’s wonderful and idiosyncratic goalie, made his way into the West Brom box, probably hoping to serve more as a decoy than a target.

That’s not what happened, though. West Brom refused to be decoyed by a damn goalie, so Alisson was open, just on the edge of the six-yard box. The delivery from Alexander-Arnold was as good as most of his crosses are, but it’s the finish that deserves the most praise. Even if Alisson were a seasoned striker, the pinpoint header across the goal to the far post would be tricky to lay in just as he does. That he’s a goalie doing it, in that context and situation, makes it the best moment of one of the most bizarre Liverpool seasons in recent memory, a goal that helped them stay alive in the race for the top four, a race they would somehow finish successfully in third place. Given how little sports were able to lift my spirits in 2021, Alisson’s first Premier League goal is easily the best sports moment of the year for me, and one that I won’t forget in a year that I don’t want to remember. – Luis Paez-Pumar

Miguel Cabrera’s Opening Day Home Run

A major storyline of my early part of 2021 was that I briefly had a (relatively very chill) form of cancer in me, and I needed to have surgery to get it out. I got lucky in a lot of different ways, but I was especially fortunate that the day after my operation happened to be the Detroit Tigers’ season opener, and so I would have a perfect companion for an afternoon spent laying on a couch while trying to aggravate my abdomen area as little as possible.

I was not optimistic at all about the Tigers this season, having watched them post a sub-.400 record in each of the last four years while making no efforts at short-term improvements. But Opening Day is its own entity. Even though the Tigers were an extreme long shot to play a role in the playoff chase, a team at rock bottom still has, at worst, around a 30 percent chance of winning any given game. I could live with those odds, and I loved the idea of at least starting off on a high note, so I grabbed some pretzels and tuned in.

During a snowy first inning with low visibility, Miguel Cabrera’s first at-bat provided a fantastic omen for a better-than-expected season from both the team and their most famous player. On an outside fastball with the count 1-1, Cabrera sent the ball on a perilously cold journey over the opposite-field fence for the 488th dinger of his career. That in itself was a wonderful and memorable post-op gift, but the ludicrousness that lifted it to the level of inclusion in this list is that Miggy, unaware of the ball’s landing spot, slid into second believing he had hit a double, and had to be told by an umpire to travel the rest of the way. I cannot stress enough how much it hurt like shit to laugh in those first days of recovery. But in this moment, it was worth it. – Lauren Theisen

Simone Biles Withdraws

The 2020 Olympics postponement meant I’d been looking forward to watching Simone Biles in the Olympics again for five whole years. I tuned in to all of her pre-Olympic events and even went to see her compete in the Olympic trials. It was incredible to see her compete live, and looking back now, she was already showing signs of what was to come at that event in June. She had a bobble on bars and then fell off the balance beam on the last day of competition. Her emotions were on full display for the crowd in St. Louis, and she sat wiping away tears of frustration as her coach taped up her ankle before her final rotation, floor exercise. But then she soared through the air on her uniquely impossible tumbling passes, and everything felt OK again. It felt like she would win the all-around gold and lead the U.S. to team gold, as everyone expected her to, and then she’d sail off into a nice retirement until making a surprise comeback for Paris 2024.

So it was the biggest shock of the sports year when Biles power-walked off of the Ariake arena floor alongside the team doctor, and withdrew from the rest of the competition after a scary error on vault in the team final. It took me the next two hours of the team final to understand exactly what had just happened, because it was so unthinkable. This was supposed to be Biles’s Olympic games, but her withdrawal was even more important than her participation because it started an overdue conversation about the relationship between mental health and physical health, and the suffocating pressure of being the kind of athlete the world has never seen before. A documentary series about Biles, released during the leadup to the Olympics, was titled Simone Vs. Herself, a nod to the fact that no other gymnast can challenge Biles, and she is her only competitor. That title turned out to be a little too on the nose. It’s a battle that many of us can relate to, and her bravery in choosing to protect Simone and her own health over the heavy Olympic expectations for herself is my favorite sports moment of the year. – Kalyn Kahler

The Coyotes Get Evicted

We know how real estate and landlord-tenant relationship make your hearts race. Hell, Comrade McKinney has made a career of it, every other Saturday like atomic clockwork. Thus, my favorite sports moment of the year was the city functionary from Glendale, Ariz. telling those persistent, deadbeat Arizona Coyotes to vacate their building by Dec. 20 and fuck right off to Mesa, Yuma, Alamagordo, or Area 51 for all he cared.

The Coyotes have never had agreeable and stable ownership since they beat feet out of Winnipeg, and Alex Meruelo is the newest and richest of them all, but he still has a bad case of dolphin arms when it comes to paying his taxes. So the city, which has been at swords and shields with the team for years, finally said, No pay, no play, and bring your own cardboard boxes for the desk clean-outs because we’re done with you.

This is a rare instance of a city saying an empty arena is better than one crammed with arrogant grifters, and because the Coyotes paid up a couple of days later while blaming their own tedious functionary with not putting the stamp on the envelope or some equally toadlike explanation, it was a rare civic win. I mean, this will come up again in the coming months because taxes, like impetigo, are a common annoyance, and I believe Meruelo’s allegedly incompetent accounts department employee will be called in to perform the same “but I know I mailed it” sleight-of-hand when the taxes are due again, and the city will have to make another splashy gesture, only this time we hope they follow through and say with greater conviction and purpose, “You’re a street hockey team now, you bastards.” I mean, they’re dead last in the league on ice, so how does dry land make that worse? Besides, they’re probably going to end up playing in Houston soon enough, and the debts and taxes they intend not to pay are lower than those in Arizona. See? You say you want uplifting tales of human struggle and endurance, but you actually want to see deserving people put out on the curb. Happy holidays. – Ray Ratto

The Nations League Final

It’s tricky to pick out the exact moment this past summer’s U.S.-Mexico Nations League final evolved from a soccer game into, well, something uglier and more transcendent. Was it when Diego Lainez checked in the game? Was it when U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen got injured and had to be replaced by Ethan Horvath? Or was it in the first minute, when Mexico scored right after the game kicked off? Whatever the impetus, the final of this fake tournament, played with an almost complete lack of finesse or beauty from either side, reached the truly special level of competitiveness and intensity that only the very best soccer matches hit, all before some of the most outrageous nonsense you’ll see on a soccer field happened.

As for the soccer of it all: The Nations League is some silly bullshit CONCACAF tournament designed to keep everyone in the hemisphere from getting enough rest, though both teams took is reasonably seriously and played strong lineups. For a young, talented USMNT cohort about to leap into World Cup qualifying for the first time, the game offered a serious test with arguable stakes. For Mexico, it offered another chance to humiliate a U.S. team that saw itself as inexorably on the rise. The good thing about a rivalry game is that the baseline entertainment value is baked in, since this game offered a paltry amount of recognizably competent soccer. This game was a mud fight. VAR played a serious supporting role, and Mexico’s manager Tata Martino earned a red card. The U.S. scored its first two goals off set pieces, Mexico scored in the first minute because of a Mark McKenzie boo-boo, and only Lainez could provide some actual quality with his go-ahead goal late in the second half. What filled in all the gaps was anxious, imprecise soccer played by 22 men too tired to produce beauty but too motivated not to lunge and wheeze and fight to win.

This dynamic produced a thunderhead of anxiety that finally broke in the extra time, when Christian Pulisic stepped up to the penalty spot. Pulisic, who had just won the Champions League one week earlier, had looked tired all game long, yet he stared down Memo Ochoa and buried that bad boy. The U.S. team lost its collective shit as Pulisic doffed his jersey and sprinted to the corner to shhh Mexico’s fans, which earned his team a torrent of piss and other fluids (Gio Reyna got brained by a full beer.)

For a U.S. team long on promise yet short on results, this felt like the moment they transformed from a group of players from a bunch of European squads into a capital-T Team. Baptized by seething away fans, gathered around their superstar, defiant, the USMNT cherished the win they grunted and fought for. Except it was not that easy, and the game reached somehow even more preposterous highs when the U.S. surrendered a penalty of their own late in the second period of extra time. A lengthy review sent Andres Guardado to the spot, yet Ethan Horvath slammed the door on him, sending Guardado to his knees immediately after letting the shot rip. Guardado’s pain and Pulisic’s euphoria were made so much more acute by the disgusting game, which featured 15 minutes of extra-time injury time because players kept fighting and fans kept hurling objects onto the field. Somehow, the game ended, and the USMNT walked off the field a changed team.  – Patrick Redford

Diana Taurasi Breaks A Door After Losing In The WNBA Finals

Complaining about Diana Taurasi’s poor sportsmanship has always sounded to me like complaining that Darth Vader uses the force choke. Duh! The villainy is the point. No WNBA player inspires more pearl-clutching; no WNBA player relishes the role more. (Though Liz Cambage, it should be said, tries her best.) When women’s basketball site The Next reported that Taurasi had broken the door of the visiting locker room by “slamming the door multiple times” after losing the WNBA Finals in Chicago this October, some fans called it classless and unbecoming of one of the sport’s best players. I just enjoyed Doorgate for what it was: a window into the brain of a hyper-competitive freak, and the sort of funny, gossipy color we don’t get enough of in women’s sports reporting. Plus, it led to my other favorite sports moment of the year: the Chicago Sky bringing the damaged door to their championship celebration. – Maitreyi Anantharaman

Kyle Beach Comes Forward

What stuck with me from sports this year wasn’t anything that happened on the field, or court, or rink. Those games felt different, like pleasant distractions, but I couldn’t take inspiration from them. The players appeared to me as they are: workers doing a job for money, trying their best to do well, hoping they didn’t get injured or infected with COVID-19.

Instead, what has lingered in my mind is Kyle Beach’s Oct. 27 interview with Rick Westhead on TSN. Beach is a hockey journeyman, whose resúmé includes stops at the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, WHL’s Everett Silvertips, and EBEL’s Graz 99ers. But until Oct. 27, hockey fans only knew him as John Doe, a young IceHogs player who said in a lawsuit that he had been sexually assaulted in 2010 by Brad Aldrich, the former video coach for Chicago’s NHL team. Beach, at first, did not report it himself for all the reasons people who are sexually assaulted do not report: He felt alone. His job was threatened. He thought there was nothing he could do about it. But rumors spread around the team. As player Nick Boynton would later tell reporters, “Everybody fucking knew about it.”

One person, skating coach Paul Vincent, heard about it, talked to Beach, then told team leadership. The response from team leadership was what sports fans have come to expect: Everyone was worried about the Stanley Cup run, and said they’d deal with it later. Later meant after the team won, after Aldrich’s name was inscribed on hockey’s most beloved trophy, after Aldrich made an unwanted sexual advance on an intern, according to a later investigation. Aldrich left the team, eventually. Years later, he would plead guilty to criminal sexual conduct involving a high school hockey player.

It was the conviction that spurred Beach’s lawsuit, which in turn started Westhead’s rigorous reporting that then instigated the investigation that laid bare Chicago’s myriad failings. Joel Quenneville resigned from his coaching job with the Florida Panthers. Chicago GM and president Stan Bowman resigned. Aldrich’s name was covered up on the Cup. But through it all, Beach remained anonymous until this interview.

It’s more than 25 minutes long. In it, Beach walks through what happened, the team’s failures, trying to bury this memory so he could chase his hockey dream, then deciding to come forward. But the moment that stops me, every time I watch the interview, is when Westhead asks Beach what it felt like watching Aldrich stay with the team, get a championship ring, and celebrate.

“It made me feel like nothing. It made me feel like I didn’t exist. It made me feel that I wasn’t important,” Beach said. “And it made me feel like he was in the right, and I was wrong.”

This can be one of the most difficult parts to explain about any traumatic event, the sudden sense that it was your fault, that nobody will believe you, that you just need to get over it. Even in my own life, in far less horrifying circumstances, I have felt that instinct click on in my brain. Shut up. Get over it. Move on. This is always followed by further calculus: If I say something, who will find out? What will the blowback be? Can I handle that? These are questions with no good answers. Every path chosen is littered with traps, wracked with guilt.

This is usually something we mention in passing in stories about abuse. Journalists focus on the facts of what happened, the facts of what was investigated, the facts of what those in power do and do not do, say and do not say, promise and then fail to deliver. How horrible that nobody took it seriously, everybody says. But I cannot escape the haunting familiarity of Beach recalling that feeling of nothingness, that sense of utter worthlessness that is the point of harassment and abuse. It puts you in your place. It makes you feel like nothing. They like to say that sports can inspire us to follow our dreams but, in Beach’s interview, I see something much more urgent. – Diana Moskovitz

Fans Protest The Super League

Sometimes, it’s hard for me to believe that so many people who call themselves sports fans actually care that much about sports. Spend nearly a decade as a professional sports blogger, as I have (yikes), and it’s pretty easy to become convinced that a lot of people get into sports not because of any appreciation they have for athletic feats or a desire for community, but because they enjoy being drafted into their own low-stakes culture war.

Does the guy who responds to every LeBron James highlight with “Steph better” do so because he actually loves Steph Curry and the Warriors, or because he enjoys being annoying online? Do the adults who root for both the Yankees and the Cowboys really care about either team, or do they just like reminding people that they learned to be assholes at a very young age? There’s absolutely no chance that the freaks who are still yelling about Sam Hinkie are in it for any other reason than wanting to feel righteous and superior to others.

In my darker moments, I sometimes think that maybe this is all sports fandom is: a tool that isn’t meant for anything other than poking other people in the eye. But then the Super League came along, and for a few beautiful days I was reminded what sports are really for, that there are sports fans out there who actually care about the right things.

It was no surprise that fans of teams who were not attempting to join the Super League were angry enough to protest in the streets, but what I did not expect was for fans of the teams that were about to ensconce themselves in a higher and more lucrative tier of competition to be just as angry. For a Chelsea fan, for example, the Super League meant that their team would not only become far richer and more influential than it already is, but also more or less immune to ever losing its status as a super club. How easy would it have been for all those lads in blue to have immediately seized on their team’s elevated status as a victory? To have spent the day after the league was announced boasting online and calling West Ham fans “broke blokes” (I don’t really know how British people talk shit)? But they didn’t do that! They saw the Super League for what it was—not just a cynical ploy engineered by some of the worst guys in the world, but an attack on the very spirit of competition that makes sports worth watching—and they went out in the streets to protest. It was an incredible thing to see: fans lined up in solidarity, demanding that their favorite teams relinquish money and power and a blessed future in favor of preserving a form of competition that actually means something. – Tom Ley

Penn State And Illinois Play The Worst Overtime Game In History

Bad NFL games are depressing in a very specific way. You’re watching the best football players in the world—some of whom even work for your favorite team—get bogged down in a rock fight punctuated with long stretches of inexplicably shitty coaching. Bad NFL football is like a hangover accelerant. It makes you sleepy, achy, and angry. And with no available outlet for that anger.

The Big Ten, alone among Power Five conferences, does its very best to replicate the energy of shitty NFL football. It’s one of many, many reasons to despise the Big Ten. But once in a while, I come across a Big Ten game so breathtakingly awful that it transcends the Big Ten. And space. And time. And all known material phenomenon, really. Penn State-Illinois, for me, was that game. It’s the greatest shitty football game I’ve ever watched: tied 10-10 at the end of regulation and ending 20-18 after NINE overtimes, without a single official touchdown scored in those overtimes. In fact, the third through seventh overtimes featured no scoring of any kind.

And this was college overtime, mind you. College overtime is explicitly designed for teams to score, and score often. They even revamped the format so that, beginning with the third overtime, teams must run a single two-point conversion attempt before the other team does likewise. Many of you discovered this rule tweak only when Alabama edged out Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

But I was introduced to its wonders in this game, wherein Penn State and Illinois got to the third overtime and collectively failed TEN STRAIGHT TIMES to gain three yards on a single play. These players wanted to score. They wanted to score so, so fucking badly. And I wanted them to. I went from my usual hate-watching of the Big Ten to begging God to let one of these teams, preferably Illinois, put this game out of its enthralling misery. Neither of them could. It was like watching a corpse attempt to walk. I was transfixed. I put everything else going on in my house on hold—dinner, walking the dog, speaking to my family—to see if either of these teams would score, if they would trade goal-line failures until the sun died. When they traded successful(!) two-pointers in the eighth frame, this game became a Beckett play.

And then Illinois won. I can’t believe they scored the only conversion of that final period. I can’t believe anyone scored ever again after this game. These teams made football look so fucking hard. 10/10, would watch again. – Drew Magary

Horse Innocent

My favorite sports moment of the year was not only one of the most memorable scenes from the Tokyo Olympics, but also an inspiring act of resistance, even rebellion. A member of the Olympics’ literal underclass bucking the status quo and refusing to jump when their boss said how high. A worker, saddled with irresponsible owners, mounting a protest.

That’s right, I’m talking about Saint Boy, the hero horse who simply refused to do some hurdles in the show jumping portion of the modern pentathlon, thereby bunching the collective britches of the horse world and beyond. First, people were upset that Saint Boy’s supposedly rude antics had cost his rider, Germany’s Annika Schleu, who performed well in the other four events, a medal. How unfair that the modern pentathlon randomly assigns riders strange horses, especially bad ones like Saint Boy! Then reconsideration: Why do these horses get blamed for doing poorly, but not credited when they do well? They’re the ones actually jumping over huge obstacles with strangers on their backs. But the strangers are the ones getting the medals. As my coworker Barry also pointed out, it’s dumb to mix horse sports and people sports in one big event in the first place. He asked: “If you can’t make the horse do the jumps—if the horse only does the jumps if it wants to—what are you even doing up there? What skill is involved? Are you not just the world’s biggest frauds, exposed for everyone to see by the horses who do the actual work?”

Other horse experts came forward to explain that what initially scanned as Saint Boy being a scamp was actually a case of “rider error.” As Olympic medalist Samantha Murray said on BBC, “You need to be very decisive with what you’re going to do when you’re riding. So in the moments when she was crying and panicking, I understand why she was like that, but you just wish she would have let her reins loose a bit and rode more with her leg.” And if that wasn’t enough, in the middle of Schleu’s nightmare round, her trainer punched poor Saint Boy in the butt! (The trainer was kicked out of the Olympics.) At this point, it became clear that Saint Boy was not at fault and I felt comfortable issuing a verdict: Horse Innocent!

And with regards to reforming the modern pentathlon’s exploitative show jumping event, I still think pferdemädchen would be an amazing replacement. – Laura Wagner

Marquise Brown Scores A Late TD

My fantasy football team was awful this year. This is a trend. I used to be a professional fantasy football analyst—not really, SI.com just paid me around $100-$150 for a weekly feature about who you should pick up—and my teams were generally pretty good. I was in six leagues and I generally was pretty happy with my performance, even if I didn’t win the title. Now those six leagues are down to one, a dynasty league with high school friends. I won the title in 2015. I had a stab at a repeat the next year but failed. Since then, I’ve pretty much been terrible.

I was 2-2 going into Week 4. Maybe I’d turned it around. I was staring at 2-3, though, going into Monday night. I was down 172.96 – 99.64. The Ravens were losing to the Colts 22-3 in the second half. Well, I got my miracle. The two players I had left were Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews. Brown caught a TD. Andrews caught two—and a pair of two-point conversions to tie the game and send it into overtime. As the Ravens moved down the field, they got close enough that I probably needed a touchdown to win. Somehow, I got it. The Brown touchdown that gave the Ravens the win also gave me the win, 177.84 – 172.96. I jumped around my living room when Brown caught the TD. It was the first time I’d been excited about fantasy in years. Everyone on our email chain was screaming—well, as much as you can scream in an email.

Of course, I lost my next six games. I had my moment. Next year I’ll return to relevance. I think. – Dan McQuade

Big Boat

This whole year has been a big fog of chaos in my mind. Who won the Stanley Cup? I can’t remember. When did the Nationals win the World Series? A million years ago? Even this very important event, which I was certain had taken place last year, was hard for me to keep track of. The important event I’m talking about is when Big Boat got stuck.

But Kelsey, you may be saying, boats aren’t athletes. This boat wasn’t even competing in an organized sport. First off, rude. Second off, open your little mind! Everything can be a sport if you believe! Supermarket Sweep is a sport again, and that’s just knowing where things should be in a grocery store. You’re telling me you saw better defense this year on any team in any conference than a single boat blocking an entire major canal for days on end all by itself? No you didn’t! You’re lying!

The good ship Ever Given smashed itself into the side of the Suez Canal in March and didn’t move for six days! It fucked up global shipping for months! It gained, overnight, millions of fans around the world! They sent in little tugboats to try and move it. They sent in medium tugboats to try and move it. They sent in the biggest tugboats they had, to no avail. The Ever Given played every defense and won! No problem! For six days, it put on a clinic. Heavy machinery? You wish! Excavators? How cute! Man as a species was powerless against the Ever Given. Could we have maybe blown it up? Sure. You could also light a stadium on fire so you don’t have to play your opponent. That doesn’t mean you won.

The only offense, in the end, that could defeat the Ever Given was the moon. THE FUCKING MOON. No better defense in the world. I salute you, Big Boat. – Kelsey McKinney

Urban Meyer Gets Fired

In 2021 my favorite sports moment, by miles, was the midweek firing of Urban Meyer. Meyer represents so much of what is rotten in American football culture. For that matter, for fine-tuning himself for maximum appeal at the key tiers of the authoritarian stack, in order to stay relevant and overpaid in middle management despite having exhausted his arsenal of tactical innovations quite literally four jobs ago, Meyer makes a decent stand-in for a lot of what is wrong with corporate America. He’s a hypocrite of mythological proportions, and a bully, and a chicken-shit who scapegoats underlings when his preferred managerial style of staring off vacantly but masculinely while things happen around him fails to yield much by way of tangible results. He’s image-savvy enough to present as Christian and a Moral Man and a Principled Leader for the rubes, when mostly his actions are guided by entitlement and motivated by greed. He sucks, very much.

It’s not enough that he was simply fired. He’s a shitty, disengaged football coach whose concept of the job ends at The Underlings Will Respect Me By God. The NFL lacks the hysterical imbalances and systems of exploitation that make it possible for such a coach to really thrive the way Meyer did and will again at the college level—to its credit, the NFL generally knows what to do with a head coach who sucks at coaching football. Meyer was always going to be fired. The vast majority of NFL head coaches eventually are. Most NFL firings are handled delicately, so that the team can make it narrowly about on-field results, and the coach can then turn around and subtly blame those on-field results on the available talent or the scope of the needed turnaround or the impatience of ownership or whatever. Even Todd Haley, who was fired by the Chiefs mid-season and who everyone hated because he’s an incredible asshole, was canned the Monday after a painful loss, allowing both parties to describe it as normal NFL shit.

Not here! Meyer was fired late on a damn Wednesday night, timed so awkwardly that his confused coaches had to run a scheduled team meeting when Meyer simply … wasn’t there all of a sudden. There’s no reframing this: Jaguars owner Shad Khan, eating a huge plateful of shit, had no choice but to bemoan the “regrettable” failure of Meyer—Khan’s world-historically ill-advised first-choice candidate—to regain the “trust and respect” that he’d spectacularly exploded over his hilariously brief tenure. Khan gave Doug Marrone and Gus Bradley four years to lose and lose and lose, in the hopes that they might someday discover winning. Meyer was Khan’s dream hire—under any other circumstances he would’ve had an all-time long leash. This rare-for-NFL-gigs level of job security is almost certainly a major part of why Meyer took the job in the first place. Now he’s got a Wednesday night firing and a public admonishment from ownership pinned to his résumé for all time! There’s no hiding from a Wednesday night firing, and the escalating professional disaster it implies: Meyer will have to wear this self-dealt humiliation in a way that guys like him virtually never do. It rules! – Chris Thompson

Connor McDavid Dangles The Rangers Straight To Hell

Greatness in hockey tends to be accumulative. The nature of the game—crowded ice, high overall skill level, multiple moving parts required to score, etc.—is such that the NHL’s best will not often appear to be the NHL’s best on any single given play: A slightly more accurate shot or subtracted millisecond of reflex is not generally noticeable in the isolate. Alexander Ovechkin may score from the left circle on a night where a dozen other players across the league do the same. You can’t usually point to an Ovechkin goal from there as a demonstration of his greatness; you must point to the hundreds of near-identical goals he has scored from that spot.

But every once in a while a great player scores a goal that’s greatness is immediate and obvious even without any context beyond itself. Such was Connor McDavid skating into the teeth of four Rangers defenders and making them all look slow and silly and traffic cone-y in less time than it took the watcher’s brain to even process what it was seeing. This was McDavid’s superior speed and stickhandling and reflexes and mind writ large in a single sequence, a master doing masterwork faster than it could be observed by the viewer, and faster than it could be countered by several professional hockey players. McDavid’s greatness usually only manifests itself in the long run, a series of advantages gradually piling up on his side of the ledger. This was not that. This was the rare play so great that it might simply be impossible for any player less great to have accomplished.

And then, two weeks later, he more or less did it again. – Barry Petchesky

England Blows It In The Euros

The trouble with anything good happening for England’s national soccer team is the same thing that has always prevented me from being able to pick a Premier League team to root for: When any English soccer team wins, there will be English soccer fans happy about it. It’s inevitable. Pretty much every week of the year, half of the English soccer teams win, meaning pretty much every week half of the English soccer fans have something to celebrate. When the England national team wins, they all get something to celebrate. I can’t prevent this, but also I simply cannot countenance it. It may not have my sanction.

Mercifully, most of the air of scandal has blown away by now from England’s delicious meltdown and collapse against Italy in the Euro 2020 final. (Like everything else that happened more than like three weeks ago in these dilated apocalypse times, it feels like it happened 10,000 years ago. But, yes: The Euro 2020 final did indeed happen in July of 2021.) Sending young Bukayo Saka out last in the penalty-kick shootout was a choice nobody would’ve thought to criticize if the previous two in England’s lineup, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, hadn’t blown theirs; he needn’t have participated at all if they’d simply knocked their attempts in. If manager Gareth Southgate committed any baffling and inexcusable error, it was leaving those two on the bench until the absolute final moments of extra time, assuring neither of them could be either physically or mentally warmed up for the moment.

Who cares! What animated that scandalized response in the first place was the anglophone world’s dopey and by-now incredibly ahistorical conviction that soccer glory rightfully belongs to England, that when it visits somebody else—particularly when it does so at England’s humiliating and hilarious expense, in Wembley Stadium, in front of the royal family!—it can only have been by mistake. That the manager must be spoken to about this. Forget the scandal. It’s a spot of mud on what’s otherwise a diamond: a fun, adventuresome, valiant Italian side booting England into hell, and delivering the universal English misery no Premier League outcome ever could. I’ll treasure it forever! – Albert Burneko

Taylor Heinicke’s Dive

After news broke that Taylor Heinicke was among the stout stable of Washington Football Team players who’d tested positive for COVID-19, I searched for and found a video clip of Heinicke diving for the end zone in the third quarter of a playoff game in January. I watched the play on loop for several minutes. Good god. If goosebumps were a symptom of COVID-19, I’d be quarantining myself right now.

Nothing in 2021 thrilled me more than Heinicke’s great leap forward. I had watched the playoff game against the Buccaneers live on TV with my sons and remember being touched even as it happened. What a play! What an effort! I know I tried to turn The Dive into a teachable moment, to tell my kids something about how special it was to get to see a guy go after something as completely as Heinicke went for that pylon. I’m sure whatever I said wasn’t said well, but, well, hopefully The Dive spoke for itself.

This makes two years in a row where my favorite sports moment was a WFT play. Like everybody in the D.C. market, where fealty for the burgundy and gold once came as easy as breathing, my relationship with the team hit the skids some years ago. But COVID-19 brought us back together. Every week last season and again this year, me and my two sons and a longtime buddy who also grew up worshiping the team would get together for WFT games. I looked forward to these viewing parties more than I would have believed was possible a couple years ago. I’m sure I’ve lent these gatherings some of their importance because, well: What else are we gonna do with the world shut down but watch football?

But it helped that Ron Rivera’s squad was as easy to root for as any in the Dan Snyder era. They haven’t won a whole lot, but last season were still enough to take the crappy NFC East. Before recently looking up Heinicke’s heroics again, I’d forgotten some of the backstory that made me yell so loud for him that day in January. After goofball Dwayne Haskins imploded early in the year as everybody knew he would and Alex Smith got hurt again at season’s end as everybody knew he would, the next man up was somebody nobody knew anything about. Heinicke was a no-pedigree guy from a middling college getting a shot to start his first game for Washington, and that debut happened to come in the playoffs against the greatest quarterback to ever play the game and future Super Bowl champs.

And hell if he didn’t make the most of it. WFT didn’t end up winning. But Heinicke’s play, combined with how much watching the team I grew up with with people I hold dear means to me these days, has me betting that my memory of that loss to Tampa Bay will remain as fond and sturdy as my memories of any of the many postseason W’s from the franchise’s glory days. Thanks, Taylor.

I’m going to go watch The Dive again now. – Dave McKenna

Teens Take Over The U.S. Open

It’s strange to think about hitting a funk with entertainment, but this was my year of tennis funk. It was often on in the background, but where I used to stare at a first-round match at a 250 event scratching out incoherent notes for future blogs, I mostly sat there inert. My connection to sports has always been sustained by the actual flight of the ball, but this year I felt finally deadened by the discourse, as an anti-vaxxer chased a Golden Slam, and the youngest superstar was folded into a tedious culture war. What better syringe to the heart could I have asked for than this vital, resuscitating U.S. Open, which flung a handful of prodigies into public view—not just women’s champion Emma Raducanu, who’d debuted at Wimbledon earlier that summer, but also fellow finalist Leylah Fernandez, and men’s quarterfinalist Carlos Alcaraz. It was that first Friday of the Open in particular that brought my pulse back.

In the afternoon, Alcaraz, 18 years old and long whispered about as a Rafa successor, cast off his cocoon of what-ifs and unfurled into the real thing, in real time. All of a sudden you look over and there’s a terrifying Spaniard, all balance, fluidity, pace, and anger. Even after taking a spill and blowing the fourth set 6-0, Alcaraz closed out the fifth, with the crowd fully in his pocket. Tsitsipas, who has beaten the three greatest players in his sport, had new superlatives: “I’ve never seen someone hit the ball so hard,” and “I’ve never seen someone play such a good fifth set, honestly.” A few hours later the 18-year-old Fernandez dispatched another No. 3 seed: the defending champ, Naomi Osaka. Over those three sets she had me wondering if I’d ever seen a faster person, or if this was indeed a person and not just an uncommonly large Canadian hummingbird flitting corner to corner to redirect the ball wherever she pleased, and doing it even better whenever the scoreboard was most dire. The upsets kept coming for Fernandez, all the way to the final, but this was her signature win. For Tsitsipas and Osaka, themselves glamorous and popular young stars, here was a bracing reminder that there’s always someone younger and hungrier sneaking up on you.

Arrival is the most intoxicating phrase of an athletic career. It’s the pure illumination of talent, well before expectations and their shadow—disappointment—can darken the court. Arrival is when we get to see people who can’t buy a beer figure it all out: how to contain an internal emotional hurricane, how to solve the tactical puzzle of a veteran foe, even how to physically carry yourself across this vast stage, as they A/B-tested endearingly awkward chest thumps and fist pumps amid the unfamiliar roar of thousands. Alcaraz and Fernandez seemed curiously, alarmingly prepared for all that, and they were lucky that this Open, unlike the last, had a crowd to receive their genius. And I felt lucky, for the first time in a while, to bear witness. – Giri Nathan