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Even Zeus Was Impressed

Gold medals are a pretty cool thing to accumulate and make space for on the shelf and every collection has to start with that first piece.

Or race.

Michael Phelps, competing in the 400m Individual Medley (as seen above) at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, started his gold medal legacy. And with a world record, no less. That’s just crazy impressive. The greatest swimmer in the sport’s history, by every modern standard and measure, has been dominating in the pool and with casual sports fans alike for a dozen years. Perhaps the most surreal reality, however, is that Michael Phelps isn’t finished in Rio.

His pursuit for gold continues.

Simply put: Michael Phelps is defining his own Gold Rush era with his stellar performances spanning the past few summer Olympics.

The Rolling Michael Phelps Gold Medal Count: 22.

21/20 Vision

Champions are always focused in one direction.

Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps defeated his ready room rival Chad le Clos in the 200m butterfly tonight in the Rio Olympics. The photo above perfectly encapsulates this week’s 1 v 1 battle between Mr. Phelps and Mr. le Clos. The latter was animated against the former before the semifinal race yesterday and the final tonight, which saw the former winning both races.

For clarity’s sake: Michael Phelps swam faster than┬áChad le Clos in the semifinal and final races, which ultimately translated to Mr. Phelps winning gold. Chad le Clos may have won the unofficial dance-off between the two, but Michael Phelps officially won his 20th gold medal.

Not his 20th medal, but his 20th Olympic gold medal.

And Chad le Clos didn’t even reach the medal podium for the 200m butterfly. You could say his antics led to a Fool’s Gold performance.

P.S. Update: Michael Phelps and the 4 x 200m relay team from the United States just won a gold medal.

The Rolling Michael Phelps Gold Medal Count: 21.

The Relentless Journey of a Champion

There are multitudinous differences between Major League Soccer (MLS) and the prominent European leagues. Speed, style, talent, history, fan culture and culture in general, scheduling for the season and club priorities, to only name a few. The latter provides a fascinating insight into one of the core distinctions between the soccer/footballing mentality of the best clubs from these two land masses separated by the massive Atlantic Ocean.

Exhibit A: Bayern Munich.

On Tuesday, February 12th, Bayern Munich lined-up against Hamburger SV in a German Cup quarterfinal match. FC Hollywood has been dominant to say the least this season (again) and a victory could have been secured with a bevy of bench players (though all are borderline world-class). But did Pep Guardiola pursue such a lackadaisical strategy? No. Why? Because he’s a championship coach and he doesn’t accept anything less than a championship effort.

The starting lineup for Bayern Munich looked like one a fan or analyst would and should come to expect for a top Bundesliga or Champions League clash. The result? A 5-nil drubbing by Guardiola’s men.

It was a championship statement by a championship team.

Next Wednesday will see Bayern Munich travel to Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal for a UEFA Champions League clash. With a weekend Bundesliga match to play a few days prior, the Bavarians should again enter the opening kickoff with a familiar, confident rhythm from all players and coaches.

Time will tell if remaining on 4th and 5th gear will pay off for Guardiola & Co.

Exhibit B: The Columbus Crew (as just one MLS example).

Conversely, the Columbus Crew has, on numerous occasions, chosen to rest a few of its top players for MLS games only. This has, sadly, resulted in unexpected losses in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup by a less talented opponent from an inferior American league or by an MLS team they should have defeated.

2012: The Crew 1-2 Dayton Dutch Lions in Columbus Crew Stadium.

For the Crew, it seems like the mindset is that the Open Cup is nice, but it’s not as prestigious as the MLS Cup. And perhaps this is a big problem. Why? Because championship teams want to win championships. All of them. Period. No excuses. If the coach wants to get more players quality time on the pitch, then a more suitable strategy may be to mix them in as substitutes and even starters (1 or 2 in a game here and there) throughout the MLS season. In other words, the team dynamic should not be an A-Team and a B-Team, but rather one team that can rotate players from the bench/reserves without much disruption in the style of play for the individual and team as a whole. This could help alleviate some of the exhaustion during extremely hot summer conditions in Texas or a busy week or two straight of competition without missing much of a beat in quality or achieving positive results.

This post is not an effort to necessarily hail Bayern Munich and Europe and criticize the Columbus Crew and MLS, but to shine a bright light on the reality of how a championship team is built, how it evolves and then how it capitalizes on every opportunity for glory. The Crew won MLS Cup in 2008, but that comprehensive drive for achieving all titles each season seems to be lacking and it seems to be contagious among its fellow MLS teams.

For the media’s part, not all competitions are viewed through the same lens of importance as the MLS Cup. There are some legitimate reasons for that. However, soccer coverage in the United States is still limited. Yes, that’s a disappointing fact, but it’s getting better. Regardless, the MLS season is not just about the MLS Cup. While it is the best title and the crown jewel of the league, it’s not the only title (Supporters’ Shield, U.S. Open Cup & CONCACAF Champions League).

There is an intense sense of urgency in Munich right now (as there was last year as well) where any single loss or instances of complacency in motivation or effort is felt, scrutinized and immediately corrected from within.

The best tend to do that.

Acclaim Through Addition

Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola.

These two football coaches have and do pace the sidelines with their own brand of suave, seriousness, calmness, intention and ingenious planning. Heynckes and Guardiola are different men from different countries with different styles and strategy, but are perfectly united by the same ambition and records of epic proportions, past and present.

But what precisely defines a global footballing/soccer champion in the modern era?

This is a fascinating, complex question to ponder, specifically regarding the perception of European football when compared to soccer in the United States. In Major League Soccer (MLS), the four championships/trophies competed for each season are perceived more so as individual conquests than as an all-or-nothing pursuit. It is not unusual for one team to win the Supporters’ Shield and another team to win the MLS Cup. Is it peculiar for one club to hoist the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup trophy, but not the CONCACAF Champions League trophy? No.

Winning the Supporters’ Shield for the most points in the regular season and the MLS Cup is a tremendous achievement (6 times/TBD 18 years), but it is not the expected protocol. As a result, it is greatly celebrated when this occurs. In Europe, though, a legendary feat consists of winning at least three to four trophies, depending on certain qualifications for certain clubs. This could involve the German Cup, the Spanish Super Cup, the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup, etc. Then, of course, there is the UEFA Champions League. For Europeans and fans around the world, this is their “grandaddy of them all” for club football/soccer.

Remaining in Europe, specifically Munich, Germany, the journey for another record-breaking season is well under way. The pressure is palpable. Fortunately for Guardiola and his men, the 2013/2014 campaign has been victorious with the injection of new formations and style of play. It even bears a striking resemblance to the 2012/2013 club in the standings.

14 games into the 34-game Bundesliga season, Bayern Munich (under Guardiola) is 12-2-0 (W-D-L) with 38 points and a positive goal differential of 25. At the conclusion of the 2012/2013 campaign, Bayern Munich (guided by Heynckes) had earned 91 points from a 29-4-1 record with an insane positive goal differential of 80. A quick calculation postulates a realistic replication of Bundesliga glory for Hollywood FC, considering the fact the team is playing more comfortably and confidently under its new management and head coach with each victory in all of its competitions, most notably the Champions League.

And the latter part of the last paragraph is the key phrase: “…in all competitions.” It seems like, in today’s football/soccer universe, that winning a top league in the world is not complete unless there is a sweeping of all competitions. There exists little oxygen for a league champion or champion of a single tournament to receive the appropriate congratulations and acclaim, unless it’s a one-in-a-million league or tournament kind of run.

In Europe, the requirements (not preferences) for true greatness are the league title, the country’s home tournament/Cup, their version of a Super Cup and the UEFA Champions League. This formula is structured on addition, not +/-. Is this fair? That’s debatable. However, while the standards are extraordinary, the opportunities are equally extraordinary. That’s a reality that’s not all bad for one magnificently unforgettable campaign.

One record-breaking/amazing/storybook/legendary season can elevate a club to eternal glory and prominence of epic proportions. Imagine if this happens two years in a row…or more. But make no mistake about it, it is extremely difficult to achieve such success in a season. The results on (and off) the field need to resemble virtual perfection.

Will Bayern Munich, through the leadership of Pep Guardiola, cap another unforgettable season with arms full of trophies?

That is still several months away from being determined and the challenges looming ahead are undeniably massive and treacherous. However, if they can continue to show an improving expertise in moving 11 men in wonderfully successful fashion and synchronization, then adding a few more prestigious titles to their shelves will seem academic.

Champions do tend to make the extraordinary look easy.

And it’s only at this point when the simple addition of multiple trophies becomes proof of something epic.