Monday, March 19, 2018

MLS 2018 Diary, Week 3: Signals True and False

Nothing to see here. Go about your business.
Welcome to this recap of Major League Soccer Week 3 - and do cherish these early days when the schedule draws bald, strong lines between one Week and the next. As with the clock ticking up to closing time, things get blurry later.

Speaking of blurry, I have strong doubts that the standings will look the same at season’s end than they do today. As much as I try not to lean too far over the skis - especially now that I’m working with less direct observation - I feel pretty confident in predicting that neither Toronto FC, nor the Seattle Sounder and the Portland Timbers will end 2018 hanging off the bottom of the table; on the other side of the same token, I don’t expect Minnesota United FC to finish 2nd in the Western Conference and I do expect that Philadelphia won’t hold onto 3rd in the Eastern - and I say that as someone who’s thrilled to see teams like that where they are, even as I believe both teams read like someone who believes he’s ready for the pro circuit after winning his first three hands of Texas Hold ‘Em.

It was a pretty good weekend all in all, even for being Portland-Timberless - although, let the record show that my unconscious mind guided me toward a means to let the Timbers crash this post - in that not a lot of teams and situations feel settled after Week 3. I’ll get to individual results and comments thereon - and the stuff about Portland - but I want to continue by filling in the outline above and painting sort of an statistical, impressionist portrait of the week just past.

I’ll start with a word on methodology. I watched three games this weekend: Atlanta United FC’s 4-1 romp over the Vancouver Whitecaps, Real Salt Lake’s generally fortuitous 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls, and FC Dallas’ long-handed ‘n’ languid 3-0 walk over the Seattle Sounders (links to recaps down below). Your first take-away from that is that I know those games better than the rest, but, as every modifier in the sub-clause of that sentence suggests (because what do I know about, say, Dallas after watching for just one 90-minute game?), I have every intention of drawing inferences from whatever data points I have on hand, and I’m not sure it’s going to be any worse.

To illustrate the above, allow me to draw broad preliminary examples from this week’s games: for instance, I think Toronto reads as having enough faith in what they’ve got to the point of perhaps asking too much of them - see, who they started against Montreal. The Red Bulls, meanwhile, look like they’re building the squad rotator’s dream. It’s a choice of thinking your players can handle the rigors and still win it all (Toronto) versus a plan to optimize a long-haul season, while knowing that might entail a slip or two (New York, whose squad rotation worked against Portland, but not RSL…sort of). The Sounders, on the other, other hand, might be pushing too many ingredients past their expiration date to succeed in most things this year.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

MLS 2018 Diary, Week 2: We've Got Budding Storylines, People!

Spotting good pedigree isn't always complicated.
I decided to do a stand-alone summary for each week of Major League Soccer action. That’s instead of lumping that in with the review of Portland’s (frankly eye-burning) loss. I’ll go deeper on two games each week - ideally, at least - and give thumbnail impressions for the other ones. If I update either post as the week goes on, it’ll be this one.

And so, with zero claims toward expertise and exhaustive knowledge, here’s how The World of Major League looked this week.

Columbus Crew SC 3-2 Montreal Impact
Crew SC opened some eyes when they opened the season with a road win over defending champs Toronto FC, so I contradicted my own tweets to watch them instead of the Colorado Rapids’ visit to New England. Columbus even started off against Montreal the same way they did against Toronto - i.e., with two early goals nearly back-to-back. Even as they threatened to run up the score, Columbus left fairly glaring gaps all over the field for the Impact to exploit; by the second half, Daniel Lovitz and Ignacio Piatti (who pulled a sleeping dog act through the first half), in particular, dismantled Columbus’ defense from Montreal’s right. The Impact clawed all the way back in right before the final whistle (hell of a goal from Raheem Edwards, too)…only to cough up a late, late (and sadly justified) penalty kick that Gyasi Zardes slammed into the right side of the goal’s roof.

It’ll be interesting to see the reads on this game, because Montreal looked the stronger team; they almost rescued a draw in their road opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps (of whom, see below), but they didn’t and they’re stalled out at zero points for the season and a -2 goal differential. They still have dangerous players - Piatti, obviously, but also Matteo Mancosu - but they also have issues from getting players like Jeisson Vargas and Saphir Taider into useful roles in the team (Taider, especially, played under his pedigree) to having a few players who look a couple steps off Broadway (Michael Petrasso and Samuel Piette). As for Columbus, if yesterday gave an accurate display of their team defense, I’d be as worried about that as a Crew fan as I’d be about the team moving. On the plus side, they look like they have a plan in the attack, and their engine, Federico Higuain, looks like he’s got plenty of miles left. More than anything else, both teams look interesting and show real potential, both for effectiveness and decent entertainment.

OK, that’s that game. I’ll wrap up one more (probably tomorrow) and tuck that on the end of this post as an update, but, barring inspiration, that’s as deep as I intend to go on those. As for the rest of this weekend’s games, here are a handful of thumbnail notes and takes both hot and cold.

Also…c’mon, MLS. The six-minute condensed game? When the highlight reel takes just two minutes less? Guys…

Saturday, March 10, 2018

New York Red Bulls 4-0 Portland Timbers:The Slough of Despond, But With a View!

Think this might be familiar this season.
What do you call a game that had nothing?

Some mysteries have no answers....holy shit, some mysteries have no answers.

My top-line thought on the New York Red Bulls’ 4-0 pool-shark evisceration of the Portland Timbers was…well, brutal. Portland has regressed, and abruptly. Ideally, this is a bad speel that will pass once new coach, Giovanni Savarese, figures out where he wants to take the whole thing and he's just keeping things status quo (same formation, and relying on most of the same players, etc.) in the meantime. At time of writing, though, Timbers fans have an absolutely stunning view of the Slough of Despond.

Because this post only continues the evisceration, I want to state this early: this isn’t hitting the panic button. Portland hasn’t been good on the road since 2015 (though they held up decently in 2017), so I didn’t expect much from the opening stanza of 2018, most of which the team will sing on the road. Something else I didn’t expect: a Portland team that looks, for all the world, like it has no clear sense of how to move the ball forward, never mind be goal-dangerous, a team that looks utterly fucking clueless in the attack. It’s important to stick with that idea about the same players in the same formation because the bulk of this same team didn’t just win the Western Conference last season, it featured the league’s most valuable player, Diego Valeri MVP, and looked like it had several ideas on how to score.

Between preseason and season, I haven’t seen Valeri feature in anything for Portland so far. Worse, every other player looks to have dropped off the same cliff. And that’ the real mystery: how does a team that basically knew what to do in the attack last season transform into eleven stumbling blind mice? I mean, sure, night follows day, but rarely that fast.

That aside, Portland’s starters punched even with New York’s reserves tonight (again, the reserves.) The Timbers “came back into the game” in the early part of the second half, but still without quite knowing what to do fully in play. Luis Robles, Jr. had to stop one chance (v. Samuel Armenteros) and steal another (header by Dairon Asprilla), but those two shots bounced against Portland’s ceiling, while the Red Bulls, on the other hand, left Portland chasing on the game winner, playing in, out, around, then across Portland’s defensive middle to score a tap-in. The Timbers defense flat-out sucked for the second week running, so it’s not a huge surprise to see them struggle against an accomplished forward like Bradley Wright-Phillips; the 17-year-old, on the other hand, Ben Mines, the guy who scored the goal documented above…yeah, that’s a blow.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Los Angeles Galaxy 1-2 Portland Timbers: We Have Our (or Some) Dignity

The right kind of vulnerable.
To begin at the actual beginning, I’ll have to switch up a thing or two about “My Process” in the post-condensed-game MLSLive era. The only way I can dial back in to pick up more detail is to watch the entire game all over and again, and no. With that in mind, this week will take a high angle view of the situation that is, at this point in time, by no means perilous.

And that’s the top-line question about the Portland Timbers’ 1-2 road loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy already answered: am I happy with it? Tentatively, and on the level that I didn’t expect any different. Also, the team caught a break in that they didn’t melt into a putrescent puddle after giving up a second goal to the Galaxy. The Timbers stumbled to the edge of the abyss Atlanta United FC visited in their opening loss, but didn’t fall in. And that’s not so bad after a bad performance.

Put that in the context of how much one (maybe two) pundit(s) hyped the Galaxy heading into 2018, and given that big goddamn field - which, as I failed to adequately explain to the people I watched the game with last night, takes Portland out of their element like few fields in MLS - this made for a gutsy start to the Timbers’ 2018. And I say that as someone who, at this point, ranks winning the Supporters’ Shield over all trophies. Face it, MLS Cup is just having a go at the leftovers excellence leaves behind…

My neuroses - or just that specific set of neuroses - can wait for a bit because I want to, 1) get back to the game, and 2) talk more about how I see the Portland Timbers’ 2018. Also, 2)(a) I want to talk about what I see doing with posts like these for the season. With that, let’s start with 2)(a).

With this 2018 Major League Soccer season, my plan is to start with a post about what just happened with the Portland Timbers during and after any game they play (except, say, U.S. Open Cup, which I couldn’t care less about, and the powers that be have only themselves to blame for that). I want those up on Sunday night in the future (ideally), but the plan is to update the same post with anything worthwhile I stumble across on throughout the week. What this should produce is a standard, evolving Portland Timbers/MLS post for each week of the season (when I’m not on vacation, because I’ll totally be on vacation later this year). In a perfect world, this’ll involve just adding touches to the Timbers material, while actually filling in the blanks on notable news from the rest of MLS (i.e., the Houston Dynamo dropping four pieces of unanswered hurt on Atlanta United FC, which supports a personal theory that they’re short on defense). This is idea without action so far, but it feels really, really promising conceptually, so just pretend it happened and was wildly successful (PLEASE!!??).

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Major League Soccer 2018 Strip-Mall Quonset Hut Preview

Or something that is neither a quonset hut nor a strip mall.
Last weekend, I put Five Questions to the Portland Timbers as a way of putting down my marker on where they are as they head into what has to be the fattest season in Major League Soccer history (i.e., the most milk and honey bless’d). Today, I’m going to take my best, 2/3-sighted shot at filling in the blanks for the rest of MLS. And I’ll get to that fraction…

Over the last couple nights (slowin’ down…gas), I picked through The Mothership’s (aka,’s) one-stop strip mall for season previews - a metaphor I feel is, frankly, beyond apt. Goddamn hacks barely keep up the website anymore, never mind do full-service…

…I’m kidding: given where my head is, I'm happy to have a quicker (cursory) tour around all…fuck, I’ll count after, every team in MLS that touches base on how they’re all shaping up for the 2018 regular season. (Did they…know that?) For the record, I have been picking at MLS news since the beginning of February, and that gives me some context for what I see in the preview “blurbs” that feature in MLS’s Tour de League season preview - or what I'm calling the MLS Strip-Mall Season Preview. Which means you should see this post as a quonset hut built on the side. That said - now we’re getting to the 2/3 thing - while I couldn’t land on a fraction that felt good, 1/2 felt too low, and 3/4 way too fucking high, so, I settled on claiming that I know some amount of stuff about 2/3 of the…let’s call it “broader situations identified” in all those previews. By which I mean, I have some genuine sense of 2/3 of the players just by seeing their names, because I’ve seen him enough to have an opinion; the same goes for coaches, trends, and the basic history of most teams.

With that, all I’m going to do is use the MLS Strip-Mall Season Preview as a platform to roughly comment on where all…of MLS’s teams are heading into 2018 (swear I’ll count it by the end). You can judge for yourself whether my knowledge base presents as 1/2, 2/3 or 3/4 knowledgeable. I don’t do predictions - they’re not my style (and I’m bad at them) - so this is mostly about strengths, gaps, weaknesses, quirks, etc. All the links down below go to the “depth charts” MLS posted for each club. Finally, I have no goddamn idea how any team but the Timbers did in preseason. I’ve been told that doesn’t matter enough times that I've decided to internalize it.

Whoops. One more thing. On the way to finding that link above, I visited The Mothership, only to find a pile-up of fresh acquisitions. I can’t vouch for whether MLS interns got those into the depth charts, but still think most of the opinions voiced below will hold up. About 2/3 of the time. Also, this won’t take long. Probably. Just a thought or two.

Oh, and I actively encourage thoughtful comments. Just don’t be an aggro twit about any of it.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

5 Questions for the Portland Timbers...After a Buncha Shit

I mean broadly, right? Does it feel new to you?
“With the exception of Powell, it’s been a disappointing preseason for the Timbers’ back six. Vytas’s job, obviously, isn’t secure. Olum has been only not-terrible in fill-in duty. Guzman has been subpar. Ridgewell and Mabiala have both been up-and-down. #RCTID”
- Chris Rifer tweet
Rather than speak directly as to how I feel about that tweet - for I have opinions on every point about each named name - I’ll go on for two-three pages in various directions from all that.

First, I watched three preseason games this season - that dispiriting loss to FC Dallas, the B-side scrimmage rout against New York Red Bulls II, and tonight’s 3-2 Jekyll-Hyde win against the Portland Timbers sub-nemesis, Sporting Kansas City (how does a team exorcise a double post?). In the broadest possible terms, that translated to 3 halves of depressingly flaccid soccer from Portland, against one good half and a certain number of glances down fresh avenues that look promising. As for the New York II game, I’m not sure it matters, at least not outside bolstering one particular legend.

I’m going to end/build this post around forwarding 5 questions about the Portland Timbers going into this 2018 season, but I want to park on tonight’s game before getting to those, because 1) it’s our freshest shared experience (come with me, kids!), and 2) it touches on some of the relevant sub-plots to those questions.

To start, however, with one of the least relevant points, Jake Gleeson bailed out the Timbers tonight (with one vital assist from David Guzman(?)). Contrary to the tweet above, Alvas Powell hogged the spotlight in a drunk karaoke vein - i.e., he commanded attention again and again, but missed key notes in crucial moments, and the Geiger count on those moments tracked with proximity to goal; in other words, Powell’s been Powell so far. As for big revelations, if Samuel Armenteros’ preseason hasn’t kindled some hope in your heart, seek professional help, because that fucker’s probably necrotic (shit…yer heart, not Armenteros). Between his mobility, visible glee at combination play, and a highlight reel of good finishes (and none of his finishes for Portland have looked that good so far), Armenteros looks genuinely promising - in a way that a lot of this preseason has not.

In spite of today’s come-back - which, incidentally, lifted Portland a 2-2-1/respectable preseason - Vytas Andruiskevicius busted a hamstring. (Also, thank god for Marco Farfan, and good luck, kid!) And I’m still coming to terms with the full meaning of seeing Dairon Asprilla as my second brightest spot to preseason 2018 - that’s after Armenteros. I mean…that has implications, right?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

And Station Signing Back On...With Ground Rules & Caveats

Why'd they spotlight his fucking feet?
I write this in the spirit of “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning.”

Earlier this week, a handful of people who used to follow this site reached out to inquire as to my health. And, was doing anything worthwhile these days? Maybe sending cars beyond the stratosphere (as god intended, when he made us in His image), or maybe writing about soccer, or something…

They could not have known of my tender vulnerability to such suggestions. They might have picked up on (profound, raging) disenchantment in my personal politics, subtle hints that I’d rather eat my own fucking legs than try to explain/make peace with well and thorough fuckedness of the world at large (“fuckedness” is so a word; hold on, “fuck’dness”? No?). They could not, however, have known that I have, of late, quietly started to peak at soccer content again for the first time in months. I have kicked around the idea since then, consulting my schedule, seeing which projects I can set free (to die in the woods, obvs) and which I can’t…the latter category being full of surprisingly stubborn motherfuckers, not even one of them willing to go without a fight.

Finally, however, after serious and sober deliberation (not kidding on that second adjective) about reviving this project I landed on the only answer I could: I can’t. Not that I won’t, but that I can’t. Conifers & Citrus can never be what it was, because I’m not who I was. I am an older, much sleepier version of me.

And that’s the guy that will start posting to this space again. For as long as he can, anyway. Let me explain…