Monday, April 23, 2018

MLS Week 8: 10 Things, Heavily Weighted Numbers, And Those Who Defy Them

Results don't often vary, but can...
For reasons of sanity, I’ve decided to cut the “2 Games” piece out of these weekly round-ups of Major League Soccer. “10 Things” are all I have in me…and this is how it begins. (No, no, darling Barbara. I love you. I would never leave…).

That doesn’t mean I didn’t watch the mandatory number of games (I mean, someone’s watching, and failure to comply will result in a report to proper authorities…right?) - I watched Columbus Crew SC draw 2-2 to the visiting New England Revolution and the Los Angeles Galaxy coughing up two goals and all three points at home against Atlanta United FC - but giving featured games the paragraph or two I’ve given them eats a lot of time and, swear to god, I think it chases traffic away. I mean, if somebody keeps telling me something they wrote fts. two teams I don’t give a shit about, I’m not gonna read it.

I learned a thing or two, of course, and formed opinions, even if not closely held ones - e.g., I rate New England the better team, especially when both teams are gunning, and head coach Brad Friedel looks to have a good head for subs (and good subs to use); Atlanta never once left the driver’s seat, and a ton of that was down to Miguel Almiron (again), but I still somehow got it in my head that the Galaxy will end 2018 in the Top 3 in the Western Conference.

There’s more, lots more, pages upon pages of notes made on highlights, boxscores, and even a couple from the comments to the recaps (a guy posting as “Morningside Park” had some solid notes on New York v. Chicago. I don’t touch on everything down below, and can’t, really, but these are 10 comments on sights and sounds from MLS Week 8.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC: Pathetic Cobra, Cunning Mongoose

I started with seeing the things I expected to see - e.g., New York City FC’s Maxi Moralez finding seams between the lines to dart in and of like a hummingbird (pound for pound, just sayin’) - about 15 minutes into the game. The predicted spells of possession started to show about 25-30 minutes into the game, when NYCFC established a perimeter around the rough area of Portland’s defensive third (and with a pinch-in from both sidelines), and just…held that line and probed for weaknesses for as long as minute, maybe even three minutes at a time. The inexorable mechanics of a boa constrictor at work, and only a matter of time away.

To introduce a second unnecessary snake metaphor to the equation, a cobra is scary as hell until a mongoose shows up. I came into this game with a headful of dread (see twitter), and that had everything to do with NYCFC reputation, unbeaten, high-scoring, relentless; I’d seen them at least twice this season and never walked away without believing in their permanent upward mobility. To drag the cobra back into this, think when it hoists its head up, hood flared, poised to strike; that’s what each of those 1-3 minutes spans felt like (or, to introduce another metaphor, think a hammer hovering over a nail). When NYCFC settled into a rhythm after Portland scored their first from a Sebastian Blanco header, and camped out where I thought they would (just inside Portland’s half), I had flashbacks of both of New York’s comebacks against Atlanta United FC just the week before. More to the point, if you compare the league-wide hype-factor between Atlanta and Portland, a mighty river flowed from one, while a fitful trickle flowed from the other.

That’s respectively, in case you can’t tell. Seriously, I would have asked for tall odds for a bet on a Timbers win tonight - say 6:1. Saying they’d win by three would have shot the odds through the roof - say, 25-1, maybe even higher. And I think you’d get a taker or two on that 25-1 for a 3-0 win, the final score for this beautiful puppy. Just think what you could be doing now with all that cash, Doubting Thomas…cocaine and Vegas, man. Or just an eighth and Spirit Mountain. By Uber.

That said, I just checked the highlights and I’m struck by the full meaning of Blanco’s goal - e.g., the mongoose of the…second order metaphor. Even the title to the link is titled, “Sebastian Blanco loops an unlikely header into the net,” and that captures it nicely. Blanco  had to get a better line on the ball than 5’ 9” Anton Tinnerholm to score Portland’s first goal, and it didn’t necessarily feel like Sly Stallone leaning just a little bit more on during one of the qualies for Over the Top. As noted above, New York kept doing what they do, keeping the ball in front of them, finding Moralez ping-ponging between the back four and whatever midfield configuration then opposing team puts in front of that. It felt like they’d pin Portland in and, when the time was right, ripe, and most devastating, they’d strike. Not sure where I am for metaphors by now, but this feels more like a feline alpha predator at this point, that’s just to note where my head is right now. Moving on…

Monday, April 16, 2018

MLS 2018 Week 7: 10 Things, 2 Games, and 1 Grim Tiding

I need MLS to be a better product. In spite of the similarities...
How to attack this week’s pile of games? First of all and, as usual, I watched the now-usual Portland Timbers v. [TEAM], plus two other games - which, this week, included Atlanta United FC v. New York City FC and Vancouver Whitecaps v. Los Angeles FC. I have notes about and links to both down below, the task at hand…

OK, full disclosure: I ran out of steam last night. It happened during one of those monster preambles and, no, stopping right there; preambles are for posts that draw more than 25 page views. With that, I’m going to list 10 things that stood out in the weekend’s games - hopefully stuff you’re not seeing elsewhere (but, that’s OK too). I’ll wrap up with extended notes on the two non-Timbers games I watched (see above), and here’s a link to my write-up on the Timbers’ squeaky-bum win over Minnesota. I’ll see what my 10 talking points leave hanging, and might squeeze in a quick, more or less global wrap-up, one that leads with where Portland fits into the big picture, but that’ll be it. OK, 10 things about Major League Soccer Week 7….swear to fuckin’ Gahd they’re counting goofy.

10) Darling. Just to say it, I’m just fucking dying to know how Atlanta fans feel about Darlington Nagbe. I mention the beauty goal he scored down below, one that got called back (for good reason), but any Portland Timbers fan watching this game would recognize every run he made. And probably tear up a little.

9) Derbies. New York derbies are gonna be fantastic this season. LA derbies won’t suck either. Things don’t look so tight up here in Cascadia yet, but…give it time. Or, y’know, fuck it. Off year.

8) Haves and Have Nots. NYCFC deserves special mention, not just for that magnificent little war they played against Atlanta, but because they just kicked the shit out of Real Salt Lake at home just 5 days prior. I gush about David Villa down below, but the RSL win showed what they can do without Villa (plenty). And some of the numbers versus…just holy shit: 665 passes to 374; 26 shots, 8 on goal versus 11 shots, 5 on goal. The gap between NYCFC and RSL is a matter of class. (ouch.)

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Portland Timbers 3-2 Minnesota United FC: It Wasn't Dealt With Well

The Alvas Powell Award.
Sweet Jesus, where do I begin?

I expected the Portland Timbers to score, but without expecting Minnesota United FC to even sort of keep up if they did. I expected something tidier, boring even, two teams coursing back in forth as if running with plastic bags over their cleats, and two, maybe three goals going in - and per the distributional assumptions above (that is Portland would win by 2-0, 2-1, maybe even 3-0). By playing for their jobs (or…maybe even for the badge), Minnesota turned those assumptions on their head. The extent that Portland allowed them to do it is the underlying subject of this post, the question waiting for an answer. Whatever I expected tonight, it wasn’t that.

The Bizarro-World game that played under this one earns a mention too. Both teams scored goals that the referee (who? dunno. I’ll look it up tomorrow; I’m on a roll…or just starting one) called back for offside. I think the goal the Timbers scored should have counted, but I think the “goal” Minnesota scored (that is the one legitimately offside) established the center of this game as much as anything. Minnesota pulled Portland apart on that move; it was only the offside flag that saved the Timbers an earlier comeback than the one that ultimately arrived.

Portland’s offside goal, to their credit, followed from the kind of hunger you want to see in your local soccer club, players barreling forward to panic defenders, etc. The way that bobbled off Diego Valeri’s shin just so…look, under the rules of general physics, a ball doesn’t bounce with such perfect weight off someone else’s anything, which makes me see Valeri’s feed to Fanendo Adi as another piece of luck to bounce Portland’s way. Look, I saw the deflection on Alvas Powell’s cross to set up the Timbers’ second by Diego Valeri, and that lagged matched the timing of Valeri’s run. When I wrote last week about things just kind of working at home, that's totally what I'm talking about. General physics really do seem to bend in front of the home crowd, as if some omni-scientific placed magnets in the right places to make the ball move just so.

Hold on. I'm digressing from the anxiety I feel after this game. Have I mentioned that, or only hinted at it?

All in all, 4-2 final score would have wronged neither party; the same goes for a 4-3, a 3-3, or the slim, scrambling 3-2 win Portland managed in the end. By the same token, a 2-3 loss, or even a 2-2 draw would have written a reasonable script for what happened at Providence Park tonight. Not that I was there. I had offers, but I also had a schedule, but why am I bugging you with my problems? OK, while I’m here, I sometimes pass on going to games in person so I can better cut out the din (e.g., I’m an incorrigible people watcher, so, SO easily distracted). I can’t describe the amount of conversation that carried on over this game tonight; I can only tell you it was fine, welcome, even. Still, I probably missed some shit. I try to keep things real in this joint…

Monday, April 9, 2018

Two Games & 10 Things About MLS, A Week 6(?) Review

A video review of the incident....
With Week 6 (let the record show, I object to their counting), I hope to put forward the semi-permanent version of this site’s weekly review - if only to set/maintain expectations. Outside whoever it is the Portland Timbers played (Orlando City SC, written up here, and heavily), I watched two games this weekend, as usual - the Philadelphia Union’s 1-1 draw against the San Jose Earthquakes, and FC Dallas last-gasp (and, per the reputation) rather stunning 1-1 draw against the, to emphasize it, visiting Colorado Rapids.

I’ve built a different understanding with MLS this season than I have in several seasons past - and that has everything to do with MLS’s home site not posting condensed games (guys: electrocute the interns to keep them awake…we need this. And please send 20 virgins to madam’s chambers later; she needs their tears for her bath). That requires navigating a wider gap of ignorance than I have before, and making the most of any scraps I can find…in the limited time I to commit to this project (again, this came easier when it was enjoyable). That means reading a lot of recaps, parsing box scores and extrapolating from details in the highlight reels, on one hand, then putting in extended video work to try to confirm trends, opinions, and whatever the hell else pops into my head. This week, for instance, I went with two teams who achieve certain surprising things that I can't sort out. In one corner you’ve got the surprisingly sturdy Philadelphia Union, who just aren’t giving up much in terms of goals, while in the other, you’ve got the mysterious, unfulfilled expectations around FC Dallas….who should surely be able to beat the Colorado Rapids in Dallas…and yet…

And, Jesus! I almost threw out some thoughts/topics to frame Week 5, but that would just steal thoughts I need to round out the “10 Things” list on which I’ll end this post, thereby robbing Peter to pay Paul, who must share a joint bank account or something. (I mean, if you think about, if you robbed Peter, didn’t get caught, but still paid Paul with it…well, things pretty much worked out on your end. Right?) Anyway, I almost called this the weekend La Fiesta del Parity, that really only held up across the two games I watched. Starting with...and just understand that these are notes from a tourist.

Philadelphia Union 1-1 San Jose Earthquakes
It was the duel between San Jose’s (as yet unproved) revamped attack and Philly’s remarkable defensive record (still just four goals allowed in as many games) that drew me to this match. What I found, both here and in Dallas v. Colorado (down below) were surprisingly open games, with both teams allowing tons of vertical space on the field for just about anyone to play in. That made sense of another pattern I’d seen in the numbers for both of teams involved in this game: both like to possess the ball - Philly, especially.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Orlando City SC 3-2 Portland Timbers: For 70+ Glorious Minutes...

Suggested...without malice.
If you understand what just happened, congratulations. Personally, I couldn’t explain how the Portland Timbers threw away what, until 20 minutes before the final whistle, looked like a sleepwalking win over Orlando City SC, even with a perfect understanding of system dynamics and a limitless array of visual aids.

Before going further, I’ll start with the refereeing, which was comic. Baldomero Toledo should absolutely be sent to the facility where they make you watch video Clockwork-Orange-style until he sees his own blindness and without the benefit of his natural tears, because he blew two calls today badly enough to warrant such re-education. That both plays went against Portland stokes local grievances with the power of twenty bellows pumped by well-lubed bodybuilders (still pissed this never happened, because it would have made America at least a little better), but that still doesn’t explain the more central question of what the hell actually happened out there. Does anyone else feel like Portland fans collectively linger at the end of the first act of a sci-fi/horror movie, where the hero drives off in a car to what looks like freedom, only to discover the monster is in the backseat, no seriously look it's right there!!? I ask because, this makes two games now - and in a row - where Portland looked for the world as if they’d solved the riddle, only to have things unravel (this is how I experience Sudoku, by the way. I always find out on the very last number that I’d fucked the whole thing up.)

The whole thing feels doubly bewildering over here at Conifers & Citrus HQ (remodeled just this weekend, by the way, with smaller, tighter, and hotter furnishings. The den looks swanky, like the Playboy Mansion, only with IKEA in charge of interior design - i.e., less shag, more Sweden), because, given my writing timeline/expectations (short), I spent 70 minutes of that game outlining a tale of triumph - i.e,. how the Timbers’ 4-3 (of the 4-3-2-1) flummoxed Orlando’s attack to the point of impotence, and reveling in the possibility that the Timbers really could find enough goals against the rest of MLS using what I’ve just decided to dub “The Groupon Attack” (e.g., attack with the power of 5 players using only 3 of them!). That made sense in a game when Orlando consistently stalled at the top of the Timbers’ defensive third and that saw Sebastian Blanco (especially) break through Orlando’s line with nothing but the goal ahead of him and the sound of Mohamed El-Munir’s feet pounding the ground behind him. (El-Munir’s recovery speed deserves its own entry, as does Dairon’s Asprilla’s all-but eternal wind-up on any given shot).

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

MLS Week 4.5 Review: A Glimpse, Because That's All I Can Do

Each of us will see different things. This is the hive-mind....
Due to a full weekend of recovery and its causes, I’m starting this far later (now ending it far earlier) than I’d expected, so expect a bit of a rush job. Not shitty, more something that just sort of pours forth in good time and the right quantity. Feel like I went too long last week…not that this improved on that.

I wanted to put two thoughts up top - the easy one first. It felt like I saw a lot of early goals this week and, for whatever reason, my brain will always read that as a weakness – almost a personal feeling, only at the team level. Think showing up for a big speech without pants. Mistakes, I can forgive, they happen, but showing up unprepared? And without pants? Who raised these people?

Second, I got hung-up on the idea of “systems” this weekend - e.g., the idea of teams that have a game plan and can execute it on a level that’s just a few steps below muscle memory. That came to me watching Toronto FC win on cruise control over Real Salt Lake (links to everything but specific moments are below [ed. - and will go up later]), mostly because Toronto’s movement and coordination on the field functioned smoothly and with some forethought, or a full-blown game-plan – something that stood out most in playing out of defense and in transition. RSL, meanwhile, didn’t look like great shakes anywhere out there. Sure, their right found a way around Toronto’s left a couple times, but they could only really break through when Joao Plata got involved, and he finished more plays (or was in decent position to) than he built. Luis Silva, on the other hand, didn’t get the ball much and tended to start with a bad touch every time he did get it. When that didn’t leave much for Toronto’s defense to stop, and with Toronto knowing several great ways to get the ball into the attack, putting away RSL only took as long as Jozy Altidore sorting out the right runs. (With a Swiss Army skill-set (at least in MLS), remarkable physical control/speed, and a pretty nimble mind for reading the game, Altidore is just good, and I’m not easily persuaded off that point.)

I’d guess Toronto’s players are probably better than RSL’s, player-to-player, but that thing about players knowing how to work together, and with most of the improvising happening up top (where it’s still hot, but safer), probably explains what Toronto did last season and why they’ll still be good this season. I think I saw something similar at work in New York City FC’s road win against the San Jose Earthquakes. I don’t feel as confident calling the margin between players on these teams as I do with Toronto and RSL, but - and this is a theory - San Jose looks like they picked up some decent talent in Magnus Eriksson (and maybe Valeri Qazaishvili), so I’m not sure NYC wins this one on raw talent, or just players better and more confident in their roles (Maxi Moralez chief among them). That said, don’t totally overlook the tantalizing nuggets in the box score, which cushion the blow a bit for San Jose – e.g., 19 shots to NYC’s 9; San Jose put 10 of those on target too.

Before I get too far carried away, I must note that I watched all of only three games this weekend - Toronto v. RSL, the Houston Dynamo’s agonizing running-into-the-wall routine against the New England Revolution, and the Portland Timbers’ near-seizing of all three points against the Chicago Fire. I’ll expand on Houston v. New England below (somewhat), but I just have to acknowledge how much reading between the lines I’m doing in these posts in order to feel good about me. I’m watching highlights, nearly all of which now run under 5 minutes (some fucking lazy interns, y’all), checking box scores, and reading recaps that fill in some blanks, but draw a pretty firm line against doing anything more. Put it this way: if I checked all three of those sources separately (that’s highlights, recap, and box score) for, say, the Colorado Rapids’ 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Union, I would have called it: the Rapids rolling over a beleaguered Union team; a universe in which Rapids’ forward Dominique Badji does everything (except pass himself the ball for his third goal); and a game Philly probably should have won, if I take them in the order they appear in those parentheses. None of that is true, all of that is true, and now you see my dilemma.