Sunday, July 15, 2018

FC Cincinnati 2-0 Tampa Bay Rowdies: A Dream Date with Corben Bone

Most things improve with practice...
The entire experience of watching FC Cincinnati take down the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Nippert Stadium would have felt less like sitting through my kid’s Christmas concert had I watched it last night instead of just an hour or two after watching the World Cup final, but I digress…

After a first half filled with the soccer equivalent of kids’ attention drifting, forgotten words and flat notes, FC Cincy took charge in the second half, and almost immediately. Cincinnati’s Corben Bone made a great case for game MVP (wait for it), throughout the second, but he started early with a pin-point cross to Emanuel Ledesma’s mysteriously elusive run. He nodded home that goal in the middle of 10+ minutes of steady pressure and increasing chaos in the Rowdies' defense. While it didn’t spin totally out of control, Tampa’s defense never recovered. In more ways than one, the Tampa Bay Rowdies played the kid who just stands there for the length of the concert, silently picking his nose while he stares at his parents. That’s with respect to Junior Flemmings, who did his damnedest to make the hosts earn it.

FC Cincinnati wouldn’t get its insurance goal until very, very near the end - that came in the 84th minute, when Emery Welshman dished a smooth pass to Danni Konig one thin minute after Welshman stepped onto the field - but Bone should have bought the policy 30 minutes earlier when he made himself a sitter that he bounced off the crossbar. And, as always, anyone who’s interested can see all the above in the highlights (or see it again), as well as picking through the United Soccer League’s random-access dog-pile of statistics at the Match Center for this game. Still, the story for this game was pretty simple: Cincinnati won it 2-0, and the only real question in play was whether or not they would score. Tampa battled hard, but also clumsily - by which I mean I’m calling bullshit on their (alleged) 66.2% passing accuracy, or questioning the methodology at the very least.

After that, there’s not much to say about this game, beyond cautioning anyone with even the slightest interest of doing so against watching that first half. After writing “10 minutes of dead air” around the 13th minute, I decided against writing “see above” at 10 minute intervals; the chuckleheads in the broadcast booth backed that up around the 35th minute when they noted that neither team had managed as many as five consecutive passes. FC Cincy got rolling, thank god, while Tampa Bay…well, see the kid picking his nose above, then add periodically smacking the heads of the children around him.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

MLS 2018, Form Guide ULTRA,, I don't know (Today is July 12, So...)

The first layer of translation.
I finally wrestled this whale to shore and, with that accomplished, that should leave only slicing off chunks of blubber going forward and, Jesus Christ, and by everything else that’s holy, I apologize for that metaphor. The goal is to communicate enormity. Moving on…

To begin, this post updates and expands on this monstrosity and, if things go according to plan, I’ll set one of these loose each week (barring vacations) to stumble around the Earth, confuse readers, terrify children, etc. All I’m really trying to do with this Son of the Monstrosity (Frankenstein Jr.) is track the results for every team in Major League Soccer over their last 10 games – and it’s mostly big picture stuff like, who each team played during that time, where they played them, and - I see this as the big one - the quality of the opposition. It’s not short, but it’s also mostly numbers, and I’m trying to keep the commentary reasonably brief. I’m fishing after trends for the (potentially) significant reason that I don’t think this league is as random as commonly assumed. Weird results do happen, of course - e.g., nothing in the record explain Columbus Crew SC shipping four goals to the Los Angeles Galaxy, regardless of venue - but more of it follows reasonable patterns than you’d think at first blush.

There is, like, a lot below, but, before starting, I have one thing to identify, and two caveats:

1) The words “IN” and “OUT” that you see below mean teams that are, at time of writing*, in the playoffs (IN) or out of them (OUT). (* I mean this allowing for losing track of the few teams that see-saw back-and-forth over the playoff line);

2) It is probable that I’ve fucked up some numbers below - particularly the W/L/D for the last 10 games, and also the goals scored, but that should even out when I’m tracking fewer things; and

3) I might have misidentified the last 10 games for 3-4 teams down below, but the specific definition will also smooth out going forward. It’s easy to get turned around when building this from scratch.

I built a lot of this using the Form Guide from MLS’s main site, which I still rate as the single-best one-stop page of information available. It’s also hard to use because ins and outs outlined here don’t appear on the surface - hence my little Frankenstein Jr. And, from there, I believe it’s pretty self-explanatory, or at least I’d like to (please tell me it’s self-explanatory!), so I’ll just start sprinting (toward that rich, sweet blubber….sorry). Just start reading and let me know if you have any questions. It starts with the Eastern Conference, and I’m still listing both conferences according to the current standings.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Portland Timbers 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes: Looking for Trouble on the Enthusiasm Express

Went a little abstract. Feels right. Cool drawing...
Dear God, where do I start this one? (Also, I mean not in the “Lord protect me” spirit, but the “holy whirling dervishes whirling in my head” spirit…tricky metaphor…)

I’ll begin by stating that I like everything about Samuel Armenteros, except what he did with his beard. It's his life, and all that, but also please reconsider.

In another vein, I saw a handful of tweets from last night to earlier this afternoon celebrating how the Portland Timbers played last night in their 2-1 win over the visiting San Jose Earthquakes. It’s a hard point to argue against, so I’ll do that later. For now, though, I’m on board The Enthusiasm Express. The last time a win felt possible before every single game, the Timbers won MLS Cup. And that’s the thing: a couple soft spots aside - again, Alvas Powell, but never catastrophically, and there’s still solving the problem of who either complements the team’s core players*, or replaces them when they go down - every player on the field moves and passes as if they know what’s next, and where his teammates should be for support. That applies to both defense and offense, and that is fucking magical, like, a fairy riding a unicorn level magical. The results have followed from too, and I say that as someone who replies to the words “eleven game unbeaten streak” with a tight smile. To put that another way, I’m on board The Enthusiasm Express, but I keep glimpsing troubling things out of the corner of my eye.

Before getting to the meat of this thing, I want to make a point and sort of save it for later. Think how you use a stringer to keep the fish you catch alive. That point: Armenteros should never have scored that second goal, just by the number of San Jose players around him. Moving on...

(* Diegos Valeri and Chara, Sebastian Blanco, Jeff Attinella, Larrys Mabiala and Zarek Valentin; I waited till after mentioning Armenteros because I think he belongs in the core at this point. A case can be made for other players, and that explains a lot of Portland's success to this point.)

Nashville SC 0-0 FC Cincinnati: "Rivalries" and (Re-) Checking the Levels

No, I said "left" at Team Stats. LEFT!
Before getting to the game, I want to repeat something I said on Twitter. I am a Ronnie Woodard stan. She offered that rare commodity to soccer color commentary - i.e., talking cause, effect, and on-field mechanics, stuff it’s easy to miss when you’re watching through a screen - and with a quiet confidence. It’s something you don’t even know you miss after 20 years of listening to, say, a clown like Alexi Lalas express his love for set-pieces. To give just one example, she praised the play of FC Cincinnati’s centerbacks, Dekel Keinan and Forrest Lasso, on the way to damning Emanuel Ledesma, Danni Konig and Nazmi Albadawi for failing to defend enough. Basically, the lack of defense from the forwards made it easier for Nashville SC to find their attacking players in front of FC Cincinnati’s defense, and that put the latter under pressure for most of the night.

She could be wrong, but I still felt smarter. With that out of the way, I want to focus on another in-game comment from the broadcast booth, one pulled from some domestic soccer publication and with regard to FC Cincinnati:

“One of the most impressive teams ever assembled for a lower division American soccer club.”

To flip the script, what does that say about Nashville SC? The home team owned the balance of play and chances in last night’s 0-0 draw between these two teams - or at least until the final 10 minutes. If you go to this game’s “Match Center” (which is pretty one-stop shopping; check there for highlights) and to the “Distribution” tab under Team Stats, you will find the buried treasure…

…sorry, kidding. To give them credit, the USL website arguably puts up more complete data than Major League Soccer’s, but it takes a road map, plus a couple secret handshakes to find it. Back to the game…

Monday, July 2, 2018

FC Cincinnati 2-0 Ottawa Furr...shit, Fury: Good Ruler, Terrible Context

Another layer of meaning? Are you fucking kidding?!
Watching the replay of FC Cincinnati’s 2-0 win over the visiting Ottawa Furry…crap, Fury, begged more questions than it answered. Again, knowing as little as I do about the USL Mark 4.0 (maybe?) makes this project a little like staring at a ruler, only with no idea what it’s measuring. That said, based on the replay, and a growing body of FC Cincy games, I feel confident with the following statements:

Cincinnati clearly looked the better team, but not a dominant one; I described their first half as “a game of fitful probing.” That had everything to do with Ottawa’s defense, a compact organized bolus that tangled up just about everything anyone tried to move through it. That’s their M.O., according to the booth - playing compact and countering down Route One - but, with a losing score-line and a half-time pep-talk blowing a breeze up their backsides (maybe), Ottawa tried to play a little in the second half. That step improved the game more than Ottawa’s chances, with their best chance (from eight shots? when??) coming when team captain/avatar, Carl Haworth, nearly walked in a goal early in the second half. Ottawa is a goal-a-game kind of team - one of those pertinent details one can only find by piercing a layer of mysterious veils on the USL's official website (gateway to Ottawa/hell) - and it showed. Still, I upgraded them from “just no fucking idea what they’re doing” to…well, this, I suppose:

“Who is Cincy? When have I seen them on their game? When off? No sense that Cincy will seize the game and run away with it.”
Even if I barely remember what that meant, it feels pretty fair. That said, one thing I have noticed about Cincinnati is that they tend to find the game all at once - i.e., after 15-20 minutes of half-hopeless dicking around, they sneak in a half-chance, then, two, three minutes later, they put a better-than-hopeful shot in goal. They score more often than not too, nearly two goals a game. Hold on, need to back-track a bit for another note…

Not every player on the field plays this way, but USL Soccer feels closer to rugby, aka, soccer’s twice-removed cousin, because more of the passing looks more territorial than planned. Getting the ball nearer the opponent’s goal holds a thin, yet permanent edge over how it gets there, and that means half-blind, mostly aspirational headed passes and the balance of balls out of the back look like thinly-veiled clearances (wow, second veil reference…whatever have I been watching?) show up all over the field, and attacking means chasing forward passes into space more often than it means deliberate, defense-unlocking interplay.

Happily, both of Cincinnati’s goals worked against that generality - and the reality that Cincinnati has that in them makes as good a comment on the team as I’ve got. Both attacks came down Cincy’s left and both involved Corben Bone, an MLS journeyman who might have backed into becoming a USL journeyman courtesy of Cincinnati’s (so far) steady squad rotation. His career aside, Bone paired with Blake Smith, Cincy’s left-back, nicely as steak pairs with red wine. They combined for the first goal (with Smith providing the final ball), while Bone delivered the assist for the second, a cracking beauty fired back against the grain from just outside the area by Nazmi Albadawi. Between delivering the pin-point cross that let Albadawi kill off the game and pinging the pass that freed Blake for the cross, Bone played a decisive role in the win. And that opens up a couple discussions.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Seattle Sounders 2-3 Portland Timbers: On Confidence & A Larrys Charm in Your Back Pocket

Should make you appreciate the horror of this "good luck" charm...
I posted something late last week as a kind of ambient response to the “wacky unpredictability” of Major League Soccer as a league. I explained the theory behind the response in that original post - and at just plain fucking stupid length, btw - but, here, I mostly want to circle back on how the predictions I made based on that data fared in its first weekend…

…yes, I see the title. I wrote it. It’s relevant, so, please bear with me.

I made 10 predictions on 11 games (on Twitter) - I couldn’t get a clear read on the game that ended with the New England Revolution beating a struggling, game-poor DC United 3-2, so I didn’t call that one - but I got six correct outright. I saw the rough outlines of two more games and, honestly, that New England game broke down about how I expected it to, so that’s either 8-9 broadly correct predictions using what I now feel confident enough to dub The System (and that’s so, so misplaced). As for the games I missed, I think 9 educated pundits in 10 would have called those games the same way - e.g., the Montreal Impact has no business beating Sporting Kansas City and, while Chicago has some legit juice, they’ve mostly been good against weaker teams, so I thought New York City FC would beat them, but, nope, things panned out the other way ‘round

…I’m also cognizant that NYCFC is adapting to a new coach and they’ve been a little more streaky than the top-, top-tier teams in MLS, so why not a slip? And yet, that somehow doesn’t explain SKC tripping over its own toes in Montreal. I might actually have to watch some tape on that shit, poke around for defects, etc. (Probably not, I got other things, but you never know.)

Contra (what I’m now calling) The SKC Exception, the Portland Timbers' 3-2 win over the Seattle Sounders made sense. It was also a big cold dish of revenge (BONUS!), but key, results-based trends for both teams predicted the distribution of points - e.g., Portland’s steady defense against Seattle’s sputtering attack, the Sounders’ global mediocrity, especially against MLS’s better teams (a-HEM!). Some recent developments - e.g., injuries to Stefan Frei and Roman Torres (aka, arguably the two ventricles of Seattle’s defense) - opened the chance for Portland to run up the score.

Friday, June 29, 2018

MLS 2018 Mid-Season (and Beyond?) Review: Yes, All 23 Teams

The mighty house I have built.
Because I couldn’t watch the replay of Atlanta v. Portland (and so many of you refused to elaborate on it), I went and did something exhaustively nutty. My pain for your pleasure, or at least your edification.

Understanding Major League Soccer as this wildly unpredictable league morphed into a kind of truism. I’d very much like to kick the legs out from under that one, at least to the extent that I can. I have the data, which only leaves how to organize into something readable. Think I’ll organize it according to the current MLS standings…hold on. I haven’t even talked about what I’ve got in terms of data or goals, have I? Backing up…

First, I reviewed the last 10 results for every team in MLS (23 = bigger league), recording how each team did over that stretch, including their record, both home and away, goals scored and allowed, and so on. From there, I cross-referenced that info against the teams they’ve played - specifically, the number of those teams currently above or below the playoff line (I label this “IN v. OUT”). And, for the final act, I take that information and project it forward to get some reasonably grounded sense of expectations for, again (and welcome to my Rain Man side), all 23 teams in Major League Soccer.

This methodology might fall several yards short of perfect - and I’d be delighted to have a robust and detailed conversation about the bugs in this system - and the only sources I used are the Form Guide and MLS's injury page. Even so, I committed only a glance’s worth of attention to injuries and potential/pending new signings, and long-time MLS fans know what a new signing can mean in the MLS 3.2 (or thereabouts) era. Also, a team’s form over the past 10 games just does not inevitably carry forward to the next 10 games, never mind through the end of the season. For instance, Toronto FC has helped teams across the league to better records throughout the 2018 season, but they still feel like a plausible bet to turn that around and go all Jekyll/Hyde and visit splitting headaches on other teams down the stretch. Or take Seattle: can one Peruvian make that solid defense finally pay off? Teams like the Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake, meanwhile, are currently above the playoff line, but do they really belong there? By way of answering that, details I found en route to building this massive pillow-fort of data added a little weight to vague opinions like that - say, where weaker teams have picked up their points so far this season.

You’ll find a ungodly pile of words and numbers down below, so get ready for data, y’all! To give the tldr crowd the short version, I think the Eastern Conference gets interesting after the fifth team, while the Western Conference gets interesting after the third; if there’s not more fluidity on the Best Coast than the other one, I’m reading everything very wrong. Back to it, this is in the order of the current standings. And, to note it, when I write “Record v IN teams:” below, that means against teams that are in the playoffs at time of writing, while “Record v OUT teams” means teams that are not. And, when I talk about the “IN/OUT Split” when looking at the rest of a team’s games below, that means the number of games they’ll play against teams on either side of the playoff line (again) at time of writing - e.g., Atlanta United’s IN/OUT Split is 6/11, meaning they face teams that projected for the playoffs 6 times, and teams not 11 times. And, golly, does Atlanta look to have it good. Let’s see how everyone else looks, staring with…