Thursday, August 22, 2019

New York City FC 1-0 Columbus Crew SC: Scouting One Half of Hell

Yeah, no.
The first thing you have to take into account when New York City FC squares off against Columbus Crew SC is the simple fact that NYCFC is better, player to player. Jonathan Mensah played a damned solid game last Saturday and, within the first half at least, he was Columbus’ one, and nearly only, key player. NYCFC’s Maxime Chanot, meanwhile, played imperious throughout. Hell, Alexander Ring stopped at least three attacks by lunging his foot at the ball and gaining position; there’s a movie analogy for this and I’m loudly dying inside right now because I can’t dredge it up. Honestly, NYCFC made the defensive plays look so easy that it hardly mattered they (mostly) ran out of ideas on the attacking side by game’s end.

Columbus, meanwhile, held fast to one burning idea in the first half: do not allow a goal, even if it means playing Eduardo Sosa as a defensive forward midfielder (no typo). NYC responded by putting up most of their chances (shots turned out to be generous) during that same half; they had a 10-plus-shot-to-dick advantage, a 70/30 possession edge as late as the 55th minute, and the one goal they’d need to put away the game (sneaky little shit of a goal too). The game ended at a sleepy 1-0.

The Crew came out to play in the second half and it showed; maybe it only took trotting out one of their real regulars - Pedro Santos, the inheritor of the injured Federico Higuain’s duties. They created a couple chances, they pressed a little, and, in general, they stymied NYCFC. And that’s the other key detail: Columbus sacrificed this result to rest key players – e.g., they didn’t start Santos and neither Wil Trapp nor Gyasi Zardes played at all (take it from a Portland fan; starting David “Fucking” Guzman is pure desperation). Crew SC kept its powder dry for Sunday, so 1) don’t expect them to bunker for the first half against FC Cincinnati, 2) they clearly thought they had a better chance to get three points out of the Queen City, 3) they’re totally fucking coming for you like a shitty Liam Neeson vehicle.

With that said, here’s how Columbus is, or has been (that’s “bean,” the English pronunciation) over its last 10 games:

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Los Angeles Galaxy 2-2 Seattle Sounders: My First Scouting Report...on a Travesty!

You fucking wish, John Champion.
If you’ve heard anything about the Seattle Sounders in this game, believe every word. First, yes, they really did only draw this game by the mercy of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 71st minute miss and the David Bingham-Jorgen Skjelvic tag-team-super-fuck-up-own-goal 10 minutes or so later.

Heightened moments aside, and ignore the box score, because that shit absolutely did not happen, Seattle sucked on both sides of the ball. On the defensive side, players bunched, blocked each other out of the game, and generally couldn’t decide who should do what. The lying box score says they posted 21 shots, but I remember only one or two of the six they put on goal. What really stood out was the general, universal disconnect among Seattle’s players. At some point, Jane Campion mentioned something about Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan getting into a tiff about who should do something (their theory: push into the offense). The bigger issues came on offense: way too many of Seattle’s players simply see simple, useful, available options – whether a long, cross-field diagonal to a fullback open as all outdoors, or even the next obvious one. When that’d gone on long enough, players stopped making the runs – because why would they? – and, when they did, they just got burned all over again, like Lucy yanking away the goddamn football on loop.

I will not let myself believe the Sounders will be so magnificently incompetent when they come to visit Portland. There lies folly. (How does one use “folly” fancy? Asking for a friend.) And, to start a little gossip, they might be missing Gustav Svensson, who had his leg wrapped in ice after limping off for reasons I missed through random fast-forwarding. (I put in the time; if this was porn, I would have caught, like, 3/4 of the actual plot.) Still, the team Portland will face looked decidedly average, both on Saturday and of late.

For context, here’s a table that should look familiar to people:

SEATTLE SOUNDERS, 11-8-7, 40 points, 40 gf, 39 ga, (8-2-3 home, 3-6-4 away)
Last 10 games: WLWWLWLDLD (4-4-2)
Last 10 at home: WWLLD
Last 10 away: LWWLD
v NE
Who They Are in One Sentence: I count one win to be proud of in those last 10 games – Atlanta, way back – plus a stray or two. The key thing to remember: Seattle used to shut down teams. They’ve given up 11 goals over their last four and, as nearly everyone’s pointing out, they’re usually surging right now.
Their Last Game: See above. And weep.
Next Games. @ POR (8/23), v LAG (9/1), @ COL (9/7), v RBNY (9/15), v FCD (9/18), @ DC (9/22), @ SJ (9/29), v MIN (10/6)

Allowing for, let’s face it, fairly consistent error, the above shows the results and opponents from Seattle’s last 10, along with the teams they played. I threw in the rest of the Sounders’ 2019 regular season schedule to add value, while omitting the strength of schedule stuff I tried to include in the Form Guide ULTRA. Enough about me, here are some more big picture thoughts on Seattle:

The New Guard Nods Off (a Bit)
There are some “stats are lies” static in the thin collection of numbers (e.g., Seattle rocked a 44 gf, 43 ga in its 2016 championship season), but Seattle had its most success by keeping the goal allowed down and running up the goal differential as far as their latest trick-pony could raise it. Last year was their best, with a +15 goal differential on 52 goals for, and 37 goals against. They’d stay tight, keep out the goals, and find some special player or another – e.g., Clint Dempsey, Raul Ruidiaz, Nico Lodeiro; someone always seemed to show up – to either score or create enough goals to cover it. While the scoring side has…mostly held up – with eight games left, they’re on 40 goals scored, so they probably won’t be far off their actual (four-year) average. It’s the defense that thwarts ‘em. I’m aware that Zlatan does it to most defenders (i.e., 20 goals – X penalty kicks), but Kim Kee-hee died out there tonight. That’s the real story with Seattle, they’ve got 39 goals against already – just four goals shy of their worst defensive season, goddamn 2016, when they allowed…oh, see the beginning of the paragraph...

I went hunting to find the players who might be letting Seattle down this season, only to find that most their key players – barring Joevin Jones due to absence/injury – are pretty much on pace for their “Sounders-version” of normal numbers. Both Lodeiro and Ruidiaz should match their output from 2018 – more fodder for the “blame the defense” theory – while, with Morris, it’s tricky. He put up crazy numbers for a rookie, only to have a lost season between 2016 and today. Like the rest, Morris is on pace for 2016 numbers in 2019, but…

What Does “Elite” Even Mean Anymore?
The fascist-adjacent hacks at MLS (I’ll only do that once, promise) didn’t include it in the highlights, but Morris spurned a “just-touch-it” header early in the game, and that was before throttling two to three promising plays in the crib by bumbling offside.

Morris also played a hand in Seattle’s only coherent and reliable attacking move of the night – e.g., a ball over the top of a high line to a fast guy (gave 'em their first goal) – so he’s a weapon – one, coincidentally, likely to aim at the heart of one of the Portland Timbers’ most famous weaknesses.

Overall, though, he mattered about as much as the rest of the Sounders tonight, which is to say neither much nor often. And that’s where I want to close this out, the question of Seattle’s collection of actual talent. With Chad Marshall retired to save that magnificent cabeza and Roman Torres taking time off to get huger(!!), Seattle has relied on Kim Kee-hee and 24-year-old new kid, Xavier Arreaga, at centerback. Arreaga had at least a half dozen punishable mistakes, and I’ve already noted Kim’s game. They look exploitable...for the right collection of players...

Roldan, Harry Shipp, and even a guy like Svensson are the “stars” of this team, the players tasked to hold together the newer parts on either side of them. With respect to all of them – precisely because they’re the guys that make any star player better – these are reliable parts, not a nitrous boost. When you think about it that way, it’s less surprising that Seattle’s not entirely holding together. They’re vulnerable. And they should be doubly-vulnerable playing in Portland…against that, there’s the meth-esque rush of the rivalry to consider…

That’s it. I’ll fill in Portland’s side in a twitter thread.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Portland Timbers 0-2 Atlanta United FC: Narratives and Their Wrinkles

That is clarifying (apparently), but who sees it as such?
I loved this game for everything except the result. It was a fucking diamond, I tell you, in that it reveals different things when you hold it up to the light…

I didn’t like that the game ended with the Portland Timbers losing to Atlanta United FC 0-2 in Portland, obviously, even if I kinda saw it coming, or at least the outlines of it. To make a list of it, if you look at Portland’s last 10 opponents – @ MTL, v FCD, @ NYC, v COL, v ORL, @ SEA (ha!), v LAG, @ MIN, v VAN, v CHI – between talent and form, Atlanta presents as the most thoroughly leveled-up of the bunch. Sure, NYCFC looked as strong as Atlanta when the Timbers beat them in the Bronx, but the rest of all of those teams rolled into their game against Portland with some amount of baggage and pain, and that’s the line I’m drawing in this post: in Atlanta, Portland finally met a team with a similar kind/amount of talent and momentum and, the shocking evenness of the evening notwithstanding, it didn’t go great for the Timbers. They lost at home and with…a solid percentage of what most people seem to regard as its best team on the field. The only question I have is what percentage of Timbers fans found this result disappointing and what percentage see it as clarifying.

I’m borne for the latter camp (Team Clarifying!), even as it cuts against the record the Timbers compiled over their last 10 games; trust me, 20 points from 30 is fucking rare in this league, but that’s been Portland’s level. (Immediately relevant thereto, Atlanta has managed 19 points in its last 10 games, MLS regular season only, as in, not this game, or what the Mexican press thought of it.) At the same time, Atlanta has played well – sometimes very well - against MLS’s better teams – e.g., your NYCFCs, your LAFCs, your Galaxys (a fallen family, but still). Portland, to their very real and enduring credit, has done the proverbial business since finding their feet toward the end of its long, opening road trip; whatever I think of each of the ten teams listed below, wins in those games didn’t just happen and Portland posted some memorable wins during that stretch – there, wins over Seattle and LA stand out – but that doesn’t change the blunt reality that this resurgent, surging Atlanta teams was a different animal.

Before digging into details, sure, it could have gone either way last night…and that applies even if I think Atlanta created the better chances overall. As much as it’s fair to point out that Julio Cascante made the inexplicable decision that lead to Atlanta’s second goal (not sarcasm!), that wasn’t every reason why the Timbers failed to draw, never mind win, last night’s game. (Also, and because I ignored it entirely below, here's Atlanta's first goal.) They were not centered, they did not feel…

Sunday, August 18, 2019

FC Cincinnati 1-4 New York City FC: Stanko-Curiosity & Role-Playing

Um, OK. Can we look at the other 19?
As I sat down to write this, I’d got it in my head that FC Cincinnati had a long history of scoring the first goal then gradually losing control of the game. As it happens, it’s a recent phenomenon, applicable only to their last three games. So, that’s one discarded frame (and title; I was thinking of going with, “I Got It, I Got It; I Don’t Got It”), but it does accurately describe a game (and a late phenomenon) slipping away one deflating increment at a time.

Related: I’ve fretted over the importance of FC Cincy scoring the first goal in the preview threads I post to twitter; the last few results punched a combined eight holes into that theory (i.e., one hole for each goal allowed), so let’s quietly set that one aside.

The best way I can think to explain yesterday’s 1-4 loss to New York City FC turns on a question: review the starting line-ups that FC Cincinnati and New York City FC fielded yesterday and ask yourself, which team’s player you’d take at each position on the field. At most, I’d take Andrew Gutman over Ronald Mataritta, Kendall Waston over Julian Sands (then Ben Sweat, but not over Maxime Chanot, maybe Mathieu Deplagne over Eric Miller, and one of Cincy’s midfielders (probably Victor Ulloa) over Keaton Parks, but he’s only 22 so that pick could invert in a year or two.

NYCFC picked up a couple lucky bounces – see, Valentin Castellanos’ accidental assist on Heber’s first goal and the way Mikael van der Werff’s heel didn’t do enough to thwart Heber’s cut-back on his second back-breaking goal – but better quality at nearly every position, particularly in the attack, feels like the proper narrative. Cincy posted as many shots as NYC in the end – at least a pair of good ones, too – but when the time came to strike the ball well and true, having Castellanos and Heber on one team versus Darren Mattocks and, say, Roland Lamah on the other decided the result.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Portland Timbers 3-2 Chicago Fire: The Worst Rom-Com Ever...

The competition....
If you feel like you just watched the most pointlessly meandering rom-com in history tonight, you’re not alone. Everything from form to road records to comparative statistics to the Portland Timbers scoring the first two (semi-random) goals said that tonight would end happily for the Timbers; it was always a question of what obstacles would intervene to keep the lover (Portland) from its beloved (all three points). To start with the most salient critique, the plotting was terrible. In spite of a 3-2 win by Portland....yeah, I was bored.

Set aside the timing of C. J. Sapong’s second goal for the Fire – the rough equivalent of someone standing to object to the marriage only to reference something that already got resolved in Act II – because the whole goddamn production actually fell apart when the soccer gods decided to kill the villain in the 1st fucking act. First of all, who does that? Second, when Aleksandar Katai got sent off for (literally) busting Julio Cascante’s chops, this game was always going to end the same way – i.e., with a Timbers win. Tonight had all the narrative tension of the lovely couple playfully bickering about the color of the crockery suggested on their wedding registry.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that I doubted Portland would score its third goal. Thank God they did too, because that was the only consciously-constructed goal that they managed tonight. It gave me some belief that they could score when called upon against a better team (if in the throes of transition), because I’m not so sure anymore. Don’t get me wrong; Portland’s first two goals were fine: the delicacy of Jorge Moreira’s chip takes real talent live, and it’s not like the Timbers didn’t find a way around Chicago’s stubborn defense to score the second goal; they still both had a haphazard, “look-what-I-found” feel to them, and this was against one of the worst road teams in MLS (Chicago), and one that’s hardly lighting it up generally to boot.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Columbus Crew SC 2-2 FC Cincinnati: Hell Is Full of Mistakes

The caption reads, "epic butt goal." On par.
Since I'm a day late at least, and since everyone who cares to knows that the first “Hell Is Real” match ended with FC Cincinnati drawing Columbus Crew SC 2-2 in Columbus (wee victory!), I’ll rein in the usual narrative excess and just spit out some bullet points. Here goes:

- This was a bad result for Columbus. Leaving the closest thing you get to free points in MLS on the table puts them where Cincinnati has been since the middle of the summer – i.e., thinking about 2020. Moreover, they throttled their own modest momentum.

- One last note on Columbus: they’re surprisingly wasteful. An uncomfortable quantity of their forward passes end as unfinished thoughts and they resort to the pointless cross too willingly. And yet, even when they do getapileofchances to put away the game (see the link under "a" for the most egregious and heave out another sigh of relief) and stay in the conversation for seventh in the East*…let’s just say I could hear the choking sound all the way over here on the West coast and a day and a half later.

(* aka, the only open conversation left to the teams below the playoff line in the Eastern Conference, as I see it.)

- Every goal in the game followed from a clear defensive lapse. For starters, I’d argue Pedro Santos’ goal was nothing more or less than a beautiful ending to a bad play – i.e., Cincinnati’s failure to manage a quick restart (and I’d put real money on Santos missing that shot 8 times out of 10). As for the rest: Maikel van der Werff had no reason to nudge Gyasi Zardes off the play; Columbus gambled so hard on covering Kendall Waston that they left Darren Mattocks free for Cincy's first; and Roland Lamah’s cross had no business finding Emmanuel Ledesma through that crowd (but nice run by Mattocks on that play, even if he didn’t finish it). These are the things that happen to bad teams.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Minnesota United FC 1-0 Portland Timbers: On the Psychiatrist's Chair

(Just probing you for weaknesses...)
To lead with the unpopular opinion, whether or not that was a handball by Larrys Mabiala – and I’m of the opinion that it was – he took one hell of a risk flapping both arms high in the air and goal-side of the player he was marking. That moment of stupidity capped a game that, between extreme heat and terrible aesthetics, all concerned parties wanted to end. Losing 0-1 on the road to a good team – e.g., Minnesota United FC – only rises to the level of a crime because the Portland Timbers play the same team in just a few days’ time and the same venue in the U.S. Open Cup with a shot at the final on the line.

That shifts the frame, in my mind, from the meaning of the loss to the question of whether one team or the other gained a psychological edge from this game, no matter how narrow. An answer (“the answer” is a high bar, y’all) circles back to the starting premise for this match-up – i.e., the Portland Timbers played a good team on the road. There’s a massive mitigating variable in this particular mix as well because, after a first half in which the Timbers looked like some version of its better self – mostly on the passing side – the game played out as if they’d downed some shots at the half and during the hydration breaks, as opposed to sugar, water and electrolytes. A late flurry from Brian Fernandez (et al., obviously) aside, the passes stopped connecting and got a little more wild and ambitious (and lazy), and the Timbers collectively tailed off as the game progressed.

One open question is, why? Was it fatigue? The heat? Did a second-half shift in Minnesota’s structure fluster what had been, to that point, the high standard of Portland passing? Did Giovanni Savarese direct them to dial back the intensity knowing that that most of those players would take the field again in just three days? Answer those according to your personal theories; they’re mostly rhetorical fodder, and is it possible that only the sports bras these guys wear truly know the answer to any of those questions? (Are those things micced up? Do they hear/feel pep talks from the coaches?)

We do, however, have the base-line facts on hand: 1) Portland stopped connecting passes with any consistency in the second half; 2) they pushed Minnesota to the wall in their own house. It took a penalty call that over half the people on my twitter feed crapped all over for Minnesota to win the game, at the death, and with Portland ‘keeper, Steve Clark, guessing right on Ethan Finlay’s shot. That’s one thin goddamn line, and enough for me to render my final verdict: