Now that we’ve had about 24 hours to collect ourselves after yesterday’s win-but-loss against Liverpool in the semifinals of the Champions League, things are a bit more lucid. Sure, Roma was on the short end of some horrific officiating, but Roma dug their own grave in the first leg, and the only reason we protested so vociferously last night was simply because Roma clawed their way back, nearly erasing a three-goal aggregate deficit to force extra time on the Olimpico. And sure, some jackass on ESPN claims Roma are a poor team, but the Giallorossi not only won their group and then made Lionel Messi look like a gelding, but they raked in €100 million in the process.
Things for our beloved club are indeed looking up, so don’t let anyone say otherwise, but the question we’re asking today (somewhat awkwardly) is...how up?
While we’ve derided and chided the club for their “project” many, many, many times, this was the first year in which we can safely say they’ve taken a definitive step towards progress. The recovery under Luciano Spalletti was nothing short of miraculous, but given the friction (or at least the difference of opinion) between Spalletti and James Pallotta, that record breaking season was always bound to be a one off affair.
And while we’ve hurled many arrows Eusebio Di Francesco’s way, as we discussed this morning, he’s had a transformative effect on the club’s psyche. Despite all the trials and travails this season, they never really shrank from the moment in the Champions League, and while we can’t exactly quantify who or what caused that change in mentality, EDF is the constant in that equation. And now that the club has a €100 million warchest to spend (or at least prevent forced sales), they can finally—at long last—truly mold the team in the manager’s image, a luxury never afforded to any of EDF’s predecessors under the American regime.
While the reasons for that lack of corporate knowledge are as varied as the men themselves, we can’t deny that it set the club back just a bit...but no more. All of which leads to the topic at hand—is the club right where it’s supposed to be or has their miraculous Champions League run actually raised expectations?
Think of it in 1980s Nintendo terms: Are Roma right on course in their quest to rescue Princess Mushroom—plodding along, stomping on Koopa Troopers, collecting coins and smashing bricks—or have they found an unexpected warp tunnel, putting them a few levels ahead of where they truly are developmentally?
As many of you know, I’m an unabashed Chicago Cubs fan going back decades, and in some ways Roma’s run through the Champions League reminds me of the Cubs fateful 2016 World Series title.
Shit, the Cubs even had their own bout of ACLitis that year, losing outfielder Kyle Schwarber early in the season only to see him return for the Series against Cleveland, but the point I’m trying to make is simply that, in some ways, the Cubs won the World Series a year or two before many people expected or predicted.
Starting with the 2012 season, the first in which baseball’s Monchi, Theo Epstein, took over, the Cubs gradually increased their win total from 61 that year to 66 the next to 73 in 2014 before racking up 97 wins in 2015, their first playoff appearance in seven seasons
The core of that team, at least offensively, was built on up and comers like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Addison Russell, each of whom (Rizzo aside) were 24-years-old or younger, practically babies in baseball terms.
With this collection of young talent, and a few expensive vets sprinkled in here and there, the Cubs incremental approach made them seem like a team of destiny. And while it stung to get swept by the Mets in the 2015 NLCS, it all just seemed part of the process. It just wasn’t their time, but they’d get there.
But then the 2016 season started and the Cubs ran absolute roughshod over the entire league, culminating in their dramatic and historic World Series victory over the Cleveland Indians. And while I was naturally thrilled, and a bit astonished (still am), it seemed a year too soon. Kris Bryant, in only his second season in the league, captured an MVP and looked like a paradigm shifting talent, while the club received unexpected contributions from young and/or overlooked players like Willson Contreras, Kyle Hendricks and Baez.
Point being this: while many people expected the Cubs to make a title run at some point, in 2016 the players seemed too raw to be relied upon, and while they weren’t able to go back to back, thanks to this core of young talent the Cubs have made the playoffs in three straight seasons, a feat they hadn’t managed since 1906-1908, raising expectations in the process. Simply having a winning record or grabbing the Wild Card is no longer acceptable to Cubs fans. Between the talent on the field and the ingenuity and insight in the front office (not to mention the club’s financial clout), the Cubs have proven that their “project’ can not only be successful but sustainable.
All of which is to say, are Roma at the same point in their developmental curve? Is EDF our Joe Maddon? Will that €100 million in additional revenue pave the way for success, and has the emergence of Alisson and Cengiz Ünder (among others) accelerated Roma’s education, or was this run simply an unexpected (but obviously pleasant) coincidence?