Saturday, April 22, 2017

Toronto FC 3-1 Chicago Fire: Art and Scaffolding

Yep. Down to the visage of grim concentration.
After watching Toronto FC knock off the Chicago Fire 3-1 in Toronto, I logged out of MLS Live confident that the first headlines I read would hail the return of Sebastian Giovinco. And, yep. That’s entirely understandable because goals win games, after all, and Giovinco played like a man seeking to make whole his wounded professional pride…

…and, side bar, I think that’s what MLS really needs when it comes to foreign players; guys who play as if the stumbles they encounter in MLS somehow invalidates their accomplishments elsewhere. (Another sidebar: or guys like Diego Valeri, who feels a like an orphan who found a home.)

I’m going to lean into another cliché to explain this win: Toronto won this game in the middle of the field. Toronto’s trio – which put Michael Bradley in the hole behind Victor Vazquez and Marky Delgado – simply overwhelmed Chicago’s duo of Dax McCarty and Juninho, with Bastian Schweinsteiger in front of them; congrats to Toronto, too, for being the first MLS team to contain Schweinsteiger…proves it can happen. In recent weeks, Chicago has been able to get the ball in, near, and around the top of a team’s defensive third and keep the ball in there; they worked combinations from there (like this) that led to goals. Toronto’s midfield – and especially its back three – stepped aggressively to keep that area clear; any time it got in there, their defense swarmed to either pick the ball clean or force a bad pass.

Chicago couldn’t get a damn thing going as a result. The broadcast threw up another cliché – e.g., that Chicago was “having trouble getting hold of the ball” – and I landed on a more nuanced connotation for that concept, one broader than possession. Think of it as “handle” in basketball, something closer to a lack of control; Toronto basically strangled off Chicago’s preferred paths to goal and that killed them. A moment came around the 60th minute when Schweinsteiger made a clear attempt to haul the game onto his shoulders, but Toronto swallowed that up too. Pretty impressive outing.

Monday, April 17, 2017

MLS Week 7 Review: The Good, The Bad, The Tough

MLS. Only with fewer restraining variables.
First, the data dump.

Philadelphia Union 0-2 New York City FC
Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 Seattle Sounders
San Jose Earthquakes 1-1 FC Dallas
Montreal Impact 2-1 Atlanta United FC
Orlando City SC 2-1 Los Angeles Galaxy
Chicago Fire 3-0 New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls 2-0 DC United
Columbus Crew SC 2-1 Toronto FC
Houston Dynamo 2-2 Minnesota United FC
Colorado Rapids 1-2 Real Salt Lake
Portland Timbers 0-1 Sporting Kansas City

Those are all the games played and entered into the official record in Major League Soccer’s Week 6.5 (look, I know it’s annoying, but the calendar self-corrects, I think, Week 12). The question is what to make of them. To take a wild stab at that…

Tangoing Narratives
The low-hanging stories noted the weekend full of comebacks and late (sometimes late, late) goals. It’s not so much that both of those things aren’t some combination of fun and important, but San Jose has to squint tight to see inspiration in its late equalizer and David Villa’s amounts to a genius fuck-around and little more, but teams like Montreal, Orlando and Real Salt Lake came by the little spring in their steps honestly. I have solid arguments for all the above (San Jose needed every one of those 90 minutes for that one goal, Philadelphia is depressingly terrible [sad emoji], any win over the heretofore nettlesome Atlanta earns a little bump (especially when well corralled; red card helped), LA has the rep, even as they’re riding it beyond its legs, and any sign RSL can win sans snow is a good thing, respectively), but, all the usual caveats apply: we’re only 6 games into the season (for most teams…hold on…still wrapping my head around how…5 teams have played 7 games…MMMaatttthhhh……….), and, as always, MLS is a random-number generator in league form – and ain’t it a downer that I can’t get some crack about 20-sided dice in here? (22 teams…who does your branding, MLS?)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Portland Timbers 0-1 Sporting Kansas City: Say, That's Not Right (But It Is)

First, some context: my wife and I had gone on a date prior to the game, and that put me about two sheets to the wind at kickoff. I made it through the game, and then some, but I think I wrapped myself in Sheet 4 or 5 somewhere in there and, in every sense except actually being asleep, called it a night. With that in mind, I’m going to approach this from an impressionist angle.

A feeling sums up the Portland Timbers’ 0-1 loss at home to Sporting Kansas City: a sense of vague yet persistent frustration. Every time a Portland player faced an obstacle, he did it knowing that another obstacle stood beyond that one, and so on to what felt like infinity for some damn reason (or maybe Sheet 3, but I digress). By game’s end, most Timbers players looked not so much tired, as weary*. Enervation in game form: that’s what Saturday’s loss felt like. Running, but never moving, Sisyphus putting his shoulder to the rock again, etc.

Something told me that Portland would never score. I can’t even peg the time this occurred to me – did that come to me before or after KC scored their goal? – but I think I’d experience the former as resignation and the latter as despair, and how far are those two things, really? No team in MLS has had much luck breaking down KC this season, but the Timbers seemed likelier than most teams to do it. Instead, we got a double-layered shit sandwich: a loss at home against a Western Conference rival and an indication that KC’s has both the system and the intent to put their opponents in a submission hold for the length of the 2017 season. They’ll choke off games, basically, and that’s boring, but effective. And boring.

I just sat through the condensed game to fan the fires of memory a little, and here’s where I pick up that asterisk. * Portland’s best chances came late, so my memory failed me a little on that detail (but is that timing issue relevant? you be the judge), but I still maintain there’s a reason my chief mental impression of the night featured Diego Valeri seeming to just scream at referee, Drew Fisher. From the looks of it, it just came out as “WWWAAAAAAHHHHHH!!” It’s like Valeri performance-arted The Scream live, on-field, only instead of wailing about the horror of existence, his felt more like "do you believe this fucking guy?" as a madman's bellow. At least that’s how I remembered it…

Orlando City SC 2-1 Los Angeles Galaxy: Stage Fright?

Don't know what it is either. Just found it under "stage fright."
It’s not even summer and it already sucks to play in Orlando. As the broadcast booth reminded viewers incessantly during the game, Orlando has won every home game in their new stadium; at four games, that’s more than any other team in Major League Soccer history. That’s neat and impressive, certainly, but it’s a stretch to call Orlando a well-oiled machine.

Consider Orlando’s opening goal: Will Johnson can and will make that aggressive run (especially if one told him he could not), but I’d bet he doesn’t score that goal more than once in every 20 attempts. it was a wild shot, basically, one that took a lucky strike to go where it did. Next, consider Orlando’s most dangerous player on the day, Carlos Rivas. The more I watched Rivas – a fast player, certainly, but one whose speed papers over his technical deficiencies – the more he felt like a human embodiment of Orlando as a team; he, like them, is capable, but he’s not even sort of elegant. All in all, Orlando has a plan to beat opponents, but it feels closer to accurate to describe said plan as “concocted,” as opposed to “constructed.”

The Los Angeles Galaxy was the team they beat (2-1…am I just getting to that?), but it was close and came late, which just means it followed a familiar script for this weekend (lots o’ late goals). Cyle Larin bagged the winner around the 90th minute by overpowering Jermaine Jones in the area – and that also felt fitting. Jones spent too much of this game distracted by bullshit to the point of near-disengagement, so one final switch off wrapped things up nicely (or, in fairness, maybe Larin’s just too damn big for Jones). Jones, along with the rest of LA took far too long to get started; they might have even owed their late little roll to a couple personnel and formation changes by Orlando’s Jason Kreis (lookin’ at Luis Gil for Cristian Higuita, in particular). Whatever caused it, a handful of players bestirred themselves to give Romain Alessandrini – who has been LA’s only reliable danger-man – some goddamn help out there. Yes, even Giovani dos Santos.

If that sounds hard on the latter, blame anyone who talked up how LA would become dos Santos’ team in 2017. On the evidence (and with one big exception), he doesn’t seem to want it. If there’s a strange sub-plot in this whole thing, it’s the fact that LA looked better, more polished on those occasions when they did things well. Orlando, for their part, scored just one more goal and that’s what matters.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 Seattle Sounders: On Keeping the Dam Whole

Like this, only shoved into a dam.
More games should end like this one did. The Seattle Sounder pushed against the Vancouver Whitecaps’ defense with what looked like the pressure of water pouring through a crack in a dam, but the defense held using the familiar tactic of stuffing body after body after body into the crack (again, soccer shows the way; we can only pray that hydro-engineers will listen) and the ‘Caps held on to beat the Sounders 2-1. When it wasn’t David Ousted (who’s doing better, even if he’s still shaky by his former standards), it was Tim Parker and Kendall Waston. Or even Sheanon Williams.

From the Seattle Sounders standpoint, though, they need to ask themselves why they held back for as long as they did. Seattle can answer that however they like, but I’d like to nominate a one-word answer: complacency. Vancouver started as the visibly weaker team; Seattle, meanwhile, looked fluid and comfortable, their players moving the ball easily in a way that showed a shared understanding of where the other players should be and where they want the ball. As Vancouver eased into the game – aka, once they stopped just passing the ball to the touchline or even the nearest Sounder – they started to take it over. What’s more, ‘Caps players started picking off Seattle’s passes – and that’s how Seattle’s strength – i.e., knowing where to find their players – became a weakness. It got to where Vancouver’s players knew where to find them too.

Seattle took too long to adjust; their late dominance might have been an illusion, the product of Vancouver bunkering to defend their lead (and was that the right choice? Did weary legs dictate the choice?). And I think that’s what I mean by complacency: it’s the theory that Seattle (perhaps like the Portland Timbers in 2016) came into the season sticking with the overall approach that won them MLS Cup. That ties into the cliché about championship teams having targets on their backs, a concept I’ve never really attached any meaning to till now. Maybe opposing teams do study the champs a little more carefully. And that obliges the champs to keep things fresh. Or to see that crown get knocked off their heads.

Anyway, that’s just a theory. This was a good win for Vancouver, an unlikely team that now has two big “on-paper” wins under the belt in this young season (Seattle this week, and the Los Angeles Galaxy a couple weeks back). As for Seattle, look, I could be writing an entirely different post if either of Clint Dempsey’s shots off the woodwork went in, or if Ousted didn’t make two back-to-back saves early in the second. None of that came off: Dempsey was the only positive in the Sounders attack for too long, and that’s how you lose games.

OK, let’s close this out with some notes on both teams.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

MLS Week 5.5 (or 6) Review: Relativity, Near and Far

“a game like this was the difference between traveling to Ohio in 2015 vs. HOSTING MLS CUP. I'm ready to get weird.”
- Ben Stern, @BumpKickSpike
That tweet not only neatly finishes a thought I left unfinished in my write-up on the Portland Timbers’ 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union, it contains the essentials of the point I want to make about Major League Soccer, Week 5.5 (yeah, yeah, Week 6; no, I haven’t let it go).

Using the power of denial (vested in me, and us all, by the President of the United States), I argued in that post that the Timbers have always been good on the road. That wasn’t true in 2016, of course, but it holds a full bucket of water both in the year referenced above (2015) and in 2014, when the Timbers went 7-6-4 on the road. They also didn’t make the playoffs that season, that due mostly to a maddening inability to put up Ws at home (so many ties; and, since I looked, 2013 was sorta freaky, too, seeing as Portland came within a gasp of winning the Supporters’ Shield with a 3-4-10 road record; call it a pint in a bucket).

I didn’t note it up top (in order to connect it to this point), but Portland’s road record in 2015 was 7-8-2. To read the tea leaves he left behind (and, please, correct the record if I’m boning this, sir), Mr. BumpKickSpike doesn’t explicitly argue from the Timbers road record – I think his actual example references not dropping stupid points (jesus…again, sorry Philly; you’re an unofficial adoptee this season, I swear) – but my reference to road records hints at the maddening webs of vagaries that define success and failure in Our Special Little League, MLS.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Philadelphia Union 1-3 Portland Timbers: Situation...Just Normal

We got a good thing going...
I just watched the condensed version of the Portland Timbers depressing (for some) 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union (yeah, it’s those guys I’m talking about). I wanted to tour the details one more time, even as I don’t think anyone can bend, shape and squeeze them into any kind of revelatory permanence. By that I mean, this one’s all about the narrative, because the details don’t look to have changed all that much.

To quickly review those details, however, Darlington Nagbe scored, and that’s always nice; Fanendo Adi scored again (still nice, but less surprising), to become the Portland Timbers all-time leading scorer (just give him the damn ball, guys); after that, Diego Valeri did something lethally important, Jake Gleeson made (I think) a couple confident saves, and that’s good (even if I can only recall the one), I had a blast watching Adi battle Oguchi Onyewu, was it just me or did David Guzman finally look a little sloppy out there (and, holy shit, wouldn’t that be a big deal?), Philadelphia has some good pieces, sure, but they’re not fitting into the same puzzle yet, and, when it gets right down to it, isn’t that the difference between Portland and Philly right now? That sense of, to pick up another metaphor, of the dancers knowing their steps?

That’s where it ends: a better team beat one that’s still struggling (pulling for ya, Philly; I’m totally on part of your side), but isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? For all its silver linings, both old and new, yesterday….shit, Saturday’s (two days out, now) win doesn’t mean anything besides three arguably unexpected points for the Timbers. With the emphasis on “arguably,” because Philly has been grasping after nothing all season long. I’ll get to that in exactly two paragraphs, but, first, I’ve got to wrap up this larger thought on the Timbers.