Monday, March 30, 2015

MLS Week 4: Sinking, Swimming, and Treading Water

While it's tempting to say that narratives are taking shape after Major League Soccer's (MLS) Week 4, I'll resist that temptation. There's good reason for this, for Week 4 was the week of mini-redemptions, the time when teams who entered the season carrying the (or some) weight of expectation started to carry that weight at long last. Here, I'm talking about your New England Revolutions, your Real Salt Lakes, your Sporting Kansas Citys, all of whom picked their first wins of 2015 this weekend. (And why am I talking about these things as if there are more than one of each?)

That said, one team given some small expectation to succeed took a step back to reconsider the weight. And that would be my still-beloved Portland Timbers. Goddammit.

Some teams trend in the opposite direction with continued, even inexplicable, success; I'm looking at you, Vancouver Whitecaps. (Flip-side of the link in the paragraph above.)

With all the above now stated and acknowledged, the reality is that the New York Red Bulls are, hands-down, the most interesting team in MLS right now...

...which isn't so hard given the back-drop. If there's something else everyone seems to agree on, it's that the last two weeks have sort of underwhelmed in aesthetics and entertainment departments.

Before diving in, let the record show that I managed only two games this weekend. Sad emoji, but I had the rich satisfaction of time spent with family...who reminded me of how very disappointed they can be in me:
Vancouver Whitecaps v. Portland Timbers
FC Dallas v. Seattle Sounders FC
On to the question, who's sinking, who's swimming, and who's treading water. I haven't yet decided just how exacting a judge I'm going to be. For this weekend, however, I'm going pretty soft due to all the international absences...which is something else I should have mentioned earlier. And, again, the number in parentheses after each team's is my confession of how many times I’ve watched them play this season.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

'Caps Top Timbers: Your Official Angry Gods Warning

I'm going with Ridgewell...
OK, let's have it. One of players on the Portland Timbers has clearly slept with his mother. Results can only turn that wackily wrong when the gods intervene. So, to the guilty party, kindly raise your hand. Or gouge out your eyes. I think that worked for some guy back in the way back.

It could be I'm just pissed that the final 20 minutes, as well as the game's defining moment compels me to re-write a few talking points. Before the...goddamn it. I hate when I forget the lede. I'm talking about the 2-1 loss/gut-punch that the Vancouver Whitecaps dealt the Timbers last night. Results being what they are, there is no meaningful bright side, just the mildly comforting thought that Vancouver's Sam Adekugbe can empathize with the feeling of an unexpected hit to something tender.

Anyway, the re-written thoughts numbered exactly two. Before the Timbers got clicking late in the game, I was shaping an argument that Portland's central defensive pairing of Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers counted as the one thing that went right all night. The related counter-point dubbed Darlington Nagbe a play-making failure, a man too extravagantly gifted to do the important little things well. By the time it was all done, Nagbe had risen to the occasion and Ridgewell and Borchers would combine for a gaffe straight out of slapstick. From a very, very unfunny comedy.

I'll unpack those undone assumptions below, along with a couple other bitter, bitter thoughts. Any reports of men crying blood this morning in the Portland metro area? No? Damn it. Still, no confessions. Hubris still has her hold.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

MLS and the Global Tipping Point

Not Olympic, yet somehow totally appropriate.
Where is the tipping point? That’s the question under examination here.

When Major League Soccer (MLS) kicked off with a handful of U.S. World Cup heroes and some decently high-profiled internationals (here, I'm thinking of guys like Carlos Valderrama, Roberto Donadoni, and Marco Etcheverry), the league came off as a carnival barker's novelty. Even as MLS has grown and, somewhat recently, noticeably improved, it has never shaken the minor league status.

One major assumption has held through all this – the idea that any given American player's ambition is defined by his willingness to go to the European big leagues. Failure to find his highest possible level and test himself against it was, by definition, a preemptive denial of whatever potential he, or his career, had. Anyone who doubts this should read up on Landon Donovan's career, who could never do enough during his time with Everton because he failed to transfer to the Liverpool club outright.

A number of Americans – maybe one score, maybe two (maybe more; fuck it, I'm not counting) – put in real time in various European top flights. While some other enjoyed more success with individual clubs – here, I'm thinking Clint Dempsey and Brian McBride at Fulham, or maybe Sacha Kljestan at Anderlecht - Michael Bradley probably compiled the most storied and prolific European career of any American player. And then he came back to MLS. Like Dempsey, like Kljestan, like Jozy Altidore, etc. etc. That's all pretty new, so I guess we're all still sorting out what that means.

Timbers Review/Preview, Week 3/Week 4

Start running on those legs and kill! KILL!!
This past weekend, the Portland Timbers choked a draw out of Sporting Kansas City. This coming weekend, they travel to the Great White North to kick off the Cascadia rivalry/fronting for 2015 against the Vancouver Whitecaps. (And, curse my wretched lot, I am going to miss this one, at least the live broadcast. Life, you see.) As always, let's start talking about what will happen by looking back at what happened last week.

So, that KC game. Was it two good, albeit colt-legged, teams canceling each other out (per the SBI podcast) or just a flat-out disappointment (per ExtraTime Radio)? Personally, I prefer to think of it as proof of the theory that it's easier to stop goals than to score them. In that vein, the one area of agreement was that Portland's defense held up pretty well. And that's pretty much it for meaningful happy talk. Coherence and creativity neither started, nor brought relief off the bench. Per my review, I felt Sporting stifled the usual suspects in Portland's attack, especially on the right, which could explain why I was able to single out Dairon Asprilla and Alvas Powell for the faint praise I offered. Anyway, the only person I came across who felt much of anything by the end of this...well, wet turd, was Back Office Gavin, who found inspiration somewhere in there to rage against pragmatism.

A sliver of a novel talking point emerged when one of Stumptown Footy's people dubbed Liam Ridgewell his Man of the Match. Nothing wrong with that, but I keyed in on Nat Borchers, if only for winning a pair of foot-races toward Portland's goal against KC's Dom Dwyer (which surprised me, actually; is Dwyer that slow, or is Borchers faster than I thought?). Visibility means good things or bad when it comes to defenders, but I was most interested in what all that said about the nature of Ridgewell's and Borchers' partnership, and how it normally functions. While it's almost certainly still a work in progress, I had assumed that Ridgewell would be the guy stepping to the play and Borchers the one laying back and reading – and those foot-races suggest Borchers as a last line of defense. Anyway, call it something to watch and, maybe, hold one’s interest during one of those inevitable slow games.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Scott Caldwell, the Thoroughly Modern Midfielder, and A Promised Land

Box-to-box? Pure No. 6? He's tough to peg, but best let him pick his spot.
This is going to wander a little, so bear with me.

During last weekend's sour draw between the New England and the Montreal Impact, my attention drifted to Scott Caldwell. Generally, the only players on the Revs' roster less likely to draw attention than Caldwell are the guys on the bench. And brings me to my point.

I started watching Caldwell because, time and again, I saw the Revs' outside backs struggling to find a passing outlet while, at the same time, overlooking Caldwell. There he was, smack in the middle of the field, just outside the center circle on New England's side of the field with no one from Montreal particularly close to him; sometimes Caldwell raised his arms in a bid to catch their attention, but the Revolution stuck with Plan A – e.g. attempting to stuff the ball up the flanks in spite of Montreal's generally effective response of pinning them against the sideline.

Caldwell got more of the ball as the game progressed, but he never struck me as anyone's first option. This formed the impression that, 1) Caldwell's teammates don't trust him implicitly on the ball, or 2) they insist that he earns the ball – presumably by prying it off the foot of some opposition player.

All the above got me wondering (plenty of time for it in a game like that) about what Caldwell does when he gets the ball. Generally, he does what most No. 6's do: dish it to other players, most often with longer or shorter lateral passes; when he's feeling really nutty, he drops it back to defense. OK, yes, I did see Caldwell push the ball forward – it was even a decent pass, if I recall – but it's pretty clear that Caldwell's job is to find, say, Kelyn Rowe who (on a better day) will do something great with the ball, or Diego Fagundez who will (on a better day, in 2013) get dangerous, or, of course, Lee Fucking Nguyen. (I tried to dig up Caldwell's day via Opta, which only shows that I don't know how that works, or who gets access to it.)

MLS Week 3: A Handful of Little Things

Dude. Wrong sign.
Sometimes little things come to me as I’m watching a game – e.g. a quick revelation on this player or that, notes on he plays the game, etc. I can only stretch things like that into stand-alone posts by stuffing them with sawdust, 50-cent words and bullshit. So, instead, I’ll bundle them into a little mini-collection as I have below.

Anyway, there are...let’s see, 1, 2, 3...5 little thoughts below that came to me while watching four games worth of Major League Soccer (MLS) Week 3. After 360 minutes of staring at something, I may as well talk about the fauna, right?

Axel Sjoberg, Rookie of the Year (I kid, I kid)
There is no date certain in 2014 when a bad run for the Colorado Rapids turned into pureed shit. Things weren't great for a while, but the stench over Commerce City turned unbearable when defender/team captain Drew Moor went down in August. After that, anyone not blinded by hope wrote off the rest of the season and the smell didn’t offend. Moor remained on the shelf when Colorado kicked off 2015 and, more to the point, Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni selected a bunch of new and unfamiliar faces in the starting line-up for Week 1. Axel Sjoberg's name was among them and I have no doubt that fans and other interested parties saw it and thought, "what the fuck?" and for number of reasons (e.g. rookie, the mini-mystery of how to pronounce his name). Sjoberg stuck in the starting eleven when Week 3 rolled around. He also happens to be the player who got the close-up for the still that advertises the highlights (at least I think it's him; big enough guy, and there's a "4" on his shorts, which could be the second half of 44). Sure, he shares the image with David Villa, an obvious focus for cameras, but that's down to Sjoberg jumping in Villa's pocket every time he tried to play centrally, for one. Sjoberg also looked pretty goddamn good – and, again, this was a rookie against a Spanish national team player. Sjoberg's size jumps out – I'm sure people wondered what the hell that basketball player was doing on the soccer field – but he looked smart, strong and poised enough that I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the mix for rookie of the year. Unless, that is, Moor comes back and relegates Sjoberg to the bench...

Monday, March 23, 2015

MLS Week 3: Sinking, Swimming and Treading Water

Yes, the current state of MLS is a quarter wrapped around and inside itself.
And...we're back with another set of thumbnail impressions of each of Major League Soccer's (MLS) 20 teams and, since we're only three weeks in, some feeble attempt to put all those impressions in a frame that means...oh, jack shit. Before digging in too far this weekend, I'll start with a list of the games I took in for Week 3.

New England Revolution (1) v. Montreal Impact(1)
Sporting Kansas City (2) v. Portland Timbers (3)
Colorado Rapids (1) v. New York City FC (1 1/2)
Orlando City FC (1 1/2) v. Vancouver Whitecaps (2)

And in that order. Nice. And, anyone notice the numbers after each teams' name above? That's the number of times I've watched those clubs play this season. Going forward, I'll move that down below, to where I list each MLS club, just so it's out there. Call it my version of full disclosure, a quick-reference confession as to how well one can expect me to know any given team. Trust me, there will be blind spots (and blood!), most of them the result of me, well, not really giving a shit about one team or another. And it could be yours. Just know that, on my end, it's arbitrary. Anyway, we're all about disclosure here at Conifers & Citrus. Well, I am. One-man operation and all that.

So, what to make of Week 3 as a whole? What did we learn? For me, it's a general upsetting of expectations. For instance, who thought New England would start so badly, or that the San Jose Earthquakes would be in the top half of the league, never mind the top 3? Sure, FC Dallas is the hot team right now, but, as a long-time follower of the league, I can promise you that they've done this many, many times before. And, no, I'm not spending next hour searching and linking to Wikipedia's surprisingly good record of all this to prove my point. The rest of it's kind of a fuzzy little fuck-up in all honesty, a question without answers, a coin-flip that somehow fails to land on either heads or tails. The point is, it's early so no one knows anything with any certainty right now and that the only thing we all agree on so far is that the Chicago Fire is bloody awful.

OK, time to check in on who's sinking, who's swimming, and who's treading water. (Short answer: damn near everybody's treading water.) And, just so you know, a little thought went into where I placed each team down below. A little, mind you. These are deliberately and consciously not power rankings.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Sporting KC v. Portland Timbers: One Boring Game, Many Talking Points

Eyes on me, Darlington. Be the ball...
Well, that happened. A goal-less draw against Sporting Kansas City in Kansas City. So, what does it mean?

Maybe it's a general early season thing, but I caught the same thing from the Portland Timbers (and Kansas City) that I caught when watching the New England Revolution play to an equally frustrating result against the Montreal Impact earlier today. One half of the team was all the way there, while the other half wasn't. Of particular significance: the New England broadcast recalled naming Kelyn Rowe as New England's match in that club's blow-out loss against Seattle Sounders FC. That's only remarkable because last week's (general) consensus man-of-the-match for Portland, Darlington Nagbe, had something of an off-night tonight against Sporting KC. There's a reason for that...on to the bullet points:

A Rotating Cast
Most of my personal goat players from Week 2 – notably, Dairon Asprilla and Alvas Powell – were Week 3's better performers, while most of Week 2's brightest stars – notably, again, Nagbe, but also Fanendo Adi, Rodney Wallace, and Jorge Villafana – didn't do so hot in Week 3. It's not as straightforward as that – for instance, both Adi and Wallace came closest to scoring for Portland – as opposed to it being a question of degrees. To give an example, KC's Jalil Anibaba and, particularly, Jimmy Medranda, basically owned the side of the field that Portland tried to hold down with Wallace and Villafana. As for Nagbe, well, the game sort of swallowed him whole. Or, more to the point, KC mauled Nagbe's worst habit – i.e. dribbling around in circles while he thinks about what to do. I tell you, what that kid needs more than anyone else is some fiery-eyed guru to look cold and dead into his eyes and say, "just act, feel the moment." That said, I want to highlight Asprilla because, tonight, he looked the part: aggressive, confident, willing to shoot from range, crashing the box at appropriate moments. Even if he didn't have his defining moment, he put himself in a place to have it. And that beats the shit out of a kick in the head. Maybe we'll get 'em all firing at the same intensity one day. Anyway, next...

Thursday, March 19, 2015

MLS, Week 3, Ho!!

It doesn't really matter which bed you choose...
OK, still working on a name for this feature...bear with me...

Did things a little differently this week. It wasn't perfect, but it's the germ of several ideas that will, 1) let me cover soccer in a way in which I’m comfortable and, 2) yes, preserve my marriage.

Did I say I would post 5 topics this week? Madness, I tell you, like getting stoned on the urine of three motivational speakers in the saddest hotel room in the world. Three league-wide topics, plus one Timbers Review/Preview post, is clearly my cap and, no, I didn't get there this week. That said, I did get through two topics and the Timbers Review Preview. Links below:

The Columbus Crew’s Justin Meram: His Ceiling, His Upside, Etc.
Flip-to-the-Flop for the Seattle Sounders FC and Toronto FC: What’s It Mean?
The Timbers Draw Against LA and What They Have to Do to Beat Sporting KC

So that's done. I had this swell idea about creating an all-Major League Soccer (MLS) U.S. Men's National Team roster and I made good progress there. But, then I laid down nonsensical parameters and generally made a mess of the thing, so that's another post for another day. When I get my head around what I want out of that.

The rest of this post looks forward, as it will every week from here on out (ideally; or just better). First, I'm going to flag what looks like the best game of the weekend ahead – and, of course, why it's so goddamn killer – and, after that, I'm going to look back at a couple stories from the week that's just about over to chatter about the biggest stories (or, let's face it, the ones that meant the most to me...there's a theme this week).

Contenders, Darlings & Cold, Hard Results

Vancouver Whitecaps. Or Chicago Fire.
There are two kinds of favorites in sports. On the one hand, you have the "real" favorites – i.e., the teams generally regarded as having potential to win the title, a title, or to otherwise do things. On the other hand, you have league "darlings" – i.e., teams that give neutrals lusty little crushes for whatever reason (ht for phrasing: The Hold Steady). It can be anything with the latter: a lively fan base (see: Timbers, Portland), a style of play (see: Crew SC, Columbus), or collection of exciting, often young, parts (see: Whitecaps, Vancouver).

Going into 2015, the short list is pretty firm when it comes to the "real" favorites, with people including the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Seattle Sounders, and the New England Revolution. (Side note: has anyone ever called New England "The Revulsion"? If not, why not?). Naming the league's little darlings gets a little complicated, per the reasons listed above. For this post, though, I want to talk about the teams that close and/or thoughtful followers of Major League Soccer (MLS) tabbed as potential dark-horse contenders. Most of what I heard and read ahead of the season pointed to three clubs here: Columbus, Vancouver, and, courtesy of their drunken-sailor-spending ways, Toronto FC.

Those were predictions, of course. Things get interesting and real when the results start coming in.  For instance, FC Dallas forced its way into the trophy talk on the back of a couple solid results. Elsewhere, two stumbles in as many weekends has people asking if New England will limp out of the conversation. Also of note: people generally appear willing to take Columbus seriously by now. Still, the most compelling early results, for me at least, involved three clubs named above: the Sounders, the Whitecaps and Toronto FC.

Portland Timbers, Review/Preview, Week 2/Week 3

Hey...I'm getting titles for these things...

I pride myself on a willingness to admit to errors in thought and judgment. It's important to be open to things. Or to anything. With that in mind, let's talk about last Sunday’s post-mortem for the Portland Timbers draw against the Los Angeles Galaxy.

It's possible that the late collapse/draw narrowed my perspective a little. Or closed it completely. To give one example, maybe I didn't praise Darlington Nagbe's performance enough...because gods know other people did. Some internalized gripes about the state of Diego Chara's fitness didn’t make that post – he looked totally tanked to me and I would have pulled him around the 60th – but 5 Minutes to Kickoff (uh, twitter handle, I guess; the link went to The Columbian) made a statistically-based argument that Chara brought balance to the Timbers midfield. Sort like a short, corn-rowed embodiment of the Force. (Besides, who the hell do I think I am, bitching about fitness like that? Jurgen Klinsmann?)

In my defense, the sweet nothings I whispered about Jack Jewsbury picked up a little amplification. Nice.

I have done a lot of reading and reflecting since then. Whether it changed my mind or not (for instance, I still found a way to whine about Nagbe; incorrigible; then again, it's worth noting that, when given a clear opportunity, the man simply cannot bring himself to so much as scowl), it's all food for thought. If nothing else, I learned that Jorge Villafana was somehow assigned to mark Alan Gordon on that final penalty kick (in here somewhere). And that seems like a bad idea...

With all that in mind, how does Portland look heading into their first road game of the 2015 regular season – e.g. this Saturday's away game at Sporting Kansas City. Not too shabby, in my estimation, though that has as much to do with Sporting KC as it does with the Timbers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Odd Man In(side): Columbus Crew SC's Justin Meram

I dunno. Maybe his are invisible...
Was it Bruce Arena who expressed his admiration for Clint Dempsey with the immortal phrase, "He tries shit"? (Yep. Among other gems.)

Dempsey has found his spot on his field by now, but he was among the first of a rare species of player lurks today on some MLS rosters. Assuming your club has one, he's likely one of the more divisive players. Bar-room debates that can only end with "agree to disagree" surround this one, with the subject most often revolving around his best position on the field. In the end, the only thing any large group of people can agree on is that he belongs on the starting eleven.

For my club, the Portland Timbers, that's Darlington Nagbe. For the Columbus Crew SC, my guess for that role would be Justin Meram. Because he drives me insane.

When I watched Columbus' win over Toronto FC during Week 2, my attention drifted to Meram time and again. He commands it, for one, and that goes back to the phrase above: "he tries shit." Whether it's inadvisable, better options are available, or it's just plain impossible, Meram will go for goal. Most often, this boils down to cutting inside from the wing and driving toward the opposition goal until, at some moment that only Meram can hear, a dog whistle sounds that commands him to "SHOOT!" And so he does.  He's sort of like a pro wrestler in that sense: it's the man's "finishing move"...but this is soccer, an unscripted sport, so this comes off something less than automatically.

Monday, March 16, 2015

MLS Week 2: Sinking, Swimming, and Treading Water

That you, Chicago?
Trying something new for Week 2. Rather than pull 10 talking points out of my ass (takes a lot of digging, not all of it pleasant), I thought I'd cut those talking points in half, post those one by one, and start the week instead with something at once simpler and more global – e.g. thumbnail impressions of each of Major League Soccer's (MLS) 20 teams (big thumbs). More or less information will form each impression based on the obvious – e.g. how often I watch any given team. Each week will start, then, with a really basic overview – e.g. "Well, that was a week of red cards dipped in bullshit!" – after which will come a list of the games I watched over said weekend. Thumbnail impressions of each MLS club will follow from there, each organized according to how each club currently projects.

As for the impressions, first, these will be honest. If I don't really know, or have much to go on, I'll admit it. You'll see. Second, I'll frame those around an obvious water metaphor: sinking, swimming, and treading water – failing, succeeding, and holding steady, respectively. Even if they'd match the site better, tree- or citrus-fruit-based metaphors just don't communicate as easily. I mean, I like oaks better than pines or, say, grapefruit better than limes, but is that universal? More to the point, who doesn't understand that sinking in water is bad, because drowning?

Moving on to regular programming, I took in the following games over MLS's Week 2:

Portland Timbers v. Los Angeles Galaxy
Real Salt Lake v. Philadelphia Union (well, 60+ minutes of it)
FC Dallas v. Sporting Kansas City
Columbus Crew SC v. Toronto FC

And it was good. It was a pretty solid weekend, overall, some good games, exciting goals and some top-notch weirdness (see: RSL v. Philly). Still, that was a week of red cards dipped in bullshit, y'all!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Portland Timbers v. Los Angeles Galaxy: Building a Reputation, One Collapse at a Time

I see ya, Jorge! It's a-comin'!
Well, at least it’s familiar. Like that old shoe you keep wearing,. Then again, it's only because you can't afford new shoes. And yet the Portland Timbers spent money – designated player money, for one, and quite possibly a bump in salary (i.e. Nat Borchers probably makes more than Pa Modou Kah and/or Mamadou "Footy" Danso, right? – to fix the defense. And yet, there it was, that last-gasp dagger, the goal that slips between your ribs so often that the stupid wound just won't heal.

Each and every Timbers fan should fully it expect by now. I mean, would it be the Timbers without it?

OK, pushing past the daze to recap: the Timbers tied the Los Angeles Galaxy tonight 2-2, in Portland, and the game ended with two goals, one at the death (Portland's) and another after the death (LA's). All in all, it wasn't a bad game: the Timbers had the better of the first half – the first 20-25, especially – and they went into halftime with a justified lead; LA seemed content, in fact, to hit the lockers at halftime with an eye to re-grouping. When the second half came, either the Galaxy came out better, or the Timbers came out worse (I'm absolutely awful at telling the difference, frankly), but, regardless, LA looked sharper overall and clawed back a goal to get the teams level at 1-1. And it looked a whole lot like things would end there. Until Portland scored. Then it looked like Caleb Porter’s first career win in March. Until LA scored. Goddammit.

Anyway, tough outing, gut-wrenching ending. Here are the three things that stood out most for me...a theme unites the first two:

Thursday, March 12, 2015

MLS Review, Heading Into Week 2 (my only rhyming title of 2015!)

Well, there you go. Portrait of the Artist....
OK, heading into CBA Year 1, Week 2 of Major League Soccer. As noted in previous posts, for the sake of wallet and liver, I'm going to try to forgo the nationally broadcast games, because those require bars. It's all MLS Live 'round here, except when it comes to Portland Timbers' games. Fortunately, MLS Live's slate isn't too shabby this weekend.

This passes on some thoughts on things in Week 1 and after – and it's mostly after. Or looking forward. That might change going forward, but that's for next week or never.

1. Week 2's Marquee Match-up
The schedulers didn't make it easy, but I'm going with Columbus Crew SC v. Toronto FC. By all accounts read or heard, Columbus took it to the Houston Dynamo, in spite of the loss, while Toronto clawed back with smarts, guts and, in fairness, a big payroll, against the Vancouver Whitecaps on the road. Call it a match of depth and breadth versus the big names, a chance for the old guard to take on the newest iteration of the new guard. Honorable mentions, well, shit, they abound: FC Dallas v. Sporting Kansas City; the New England Revolution's opportunity to rebound versus New York City FC's shot at legitimacy. (Insufficient detachment bars me from nominating Portland v. Los Angeles Galaxy; I'll refrain till Portland clears some unspoken threshold. It probably says enough that I can't wait to see how Vancouver rebounds against the lowly, loathed Chicago Fire...that's down to Portland playing Vancouver in a few weeks.)

2. Corrections Department Opening in Orlando my first wrap-up of Week 1, I called Orlando’s draw "lucky." OK, yes, they were lucky to equalize, but the consensus of my shrinking pool of sources generally credited the Floridians with the better game on Sunday. Turns out it catching only the second half warped the perspective a little. That's not to say that Orlando doesn't still have to prove it. They do. It could be that they have less to prove than I figured, at least.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Portland Timbers at Mid-Week: Looking Back (at RSL), Looking Forward (at LA)

No, no, no! It'll be too late by St. Patrick's!
The question that has preoccupied me since, oh, last weekend – not coincidentally, when I learned of it – was the history of barren March...shit, what's the plural of March, the month? Marches? Anyway, it seems that Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter has never won a game in March. So said Stumptown Footy in its 3 Questions post after last weekend's draw to Real Salt Lake. Call it one of those fluky stats that is defining in some mysterious way. The Timbers haven't won in March since entering MLS. Damn.

A couple notes on that. First, picking up a win in March won't come easy in 2015. Portland has the Los Angeles Galaxy this Sunday. After that, it's back-to-back away games against Sporting Kansas City (shit!) and the Vancouver Whitecaps (shit. punctuation matters here). Second, the reviews are in on Portland's draw against RSL and they read least when judging the quality of the contest. "Playoff intensity" says World Soccer Talk (well, roughly). There were more raves, but I won't link to them. Expecting people to sit through all those damn podcasts is a big ask, but, scout's honor, plenty of pods talked up the on-field quality of Portland v. RSL.

Sadly, that doesn't translate directly on-field quality for the Timbers: power rankings from, in particular, put the Timbers at the barest edge of the playoff picture, but a couple other rankings recognized the recurring role of one Nicholas Rimando in thwarting Portland from, to borrow a phrase, being all they can be. MLS's site put it best with their one-word summary: "Rimando'd."

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

MLS Week 1: Talking Points, Speculation....and BLACK GOLD!!!

You don't like Houston? Or Colorado? You're WRONG!
If nothing else, Major League Soccer's (MLS) opening weekend revealed that MLS Live will only carry me so far in 2015, at least in terms of timeliness. That 48-hour national/regional broadcast delay will conspire to keep me away from the marquee match-ups. Is this a problem to solve or a limitation to embrace? Hmmm...

Regardless, below is the planned posting schedule for Conifers and Citrus. I'll do my best to honor it (and, no, every week will not feature long, house-keeping preambles):

Monday: 10 (loose) talking points on the prior weekend's hot action.
Wednesday: A look ahead at the Portland Timbers news and next weekend's match.
Thursday: Round-up of the 10 stories from all the games I couldn't watch.
Whenever: Post-match thoughts and analysis for Timbers games.

In general, don't expect deep diving into tactics or club minutiae for the round-up posts (other people do that, and well, and they get paid for it). When I talk sports, it hails from the looser precincts of the human body (e.g. off the cuff, from the gut, out of the ass, etc.). As such, I enjoy a love/hate relationship with the data explosion (see: all the Opta crap) that has lately seized the sport – by which I mean I only value it insofar as it confirms what I already know. (I coulda been president, I tell ya! (W. I kid, I kid)). I think I will, however, shake what the good lord gave me – e.g. that subscription to MLS Live – and focus on the games it serves up; I'll only hit the national market stuff when the match-up compels viewing (see: Portland Timbers games and the games that the progress of the season imbues with due and defining stature). All in all, though, I suffer from a "wise-guy impulse" – i.e. the powerful urge to be first to see great things or hidden failings in a team or a player before anyone else. Basically, there will be speculation. If I break better than 50/50, I'm changing my name to Cassandra.

Jesus, enough preamble, man. Below is what I took in over course of Week 1:

Los Angeles Galaxy v. Chicago Fire, 2nd half
Vancouver Whitecaps v. Toronto FC
Portland Timbers v. Real Salt Lake (live, dammit!)
Houston Dynamo v. Columbus Crew (late, and a little bleary-eyed)
Orlando City FC v. New York City FC, 2nd half

I hope to match or better that schedule each week. Everything else came by way of highlights.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Portland Timbers v. Real Salt Lake: The Late, Late (Yet Positive) Report

Nice touch on the 40, y'all!
Given my druthers, I'd like to put up a match report immediately after or, failing that, a day after the match. It spaces out my content better, for one (already struggling), but it's good to post things when thoughts are hot and memories fresh. I gave myself a pass on Week 1, based on the soft assumption/lie-I-told-myself that I would re-watch Portland Timbers v. Real Salt Lake in its entirety. Sadly, MLS Live thwarted me with its eternal national/regional broadcast delay. Just know I was willing...

I went to Saturday's opener, which was good and bad: good because I got a nice snapshot of the tifo (see?), some fireworks, saw some good moments in real time, taunted Tony Beltran ("Wallace owns you, motherfucker!"), etc.; bad because I was surrounded by people so fervently obsessed with cards that they would have given a yellow to a blade of grass for failing to curl just so. It also didn't help that I spent much of the time catching up with friends, talking about our crazy kids, downing beers, responding to texts from both inside and outside the stadium, etc. Suffice to say I was distracted.

Still, I do remember some good things. The Tour de Joi starts with Darlington Nagbe breaking Kyle Beckerman's ankles in the first half (ha ha, he fell on his bottom!) to turn toward goal and create a decent shot for Rodney Wallace (that came about the 15th minute, but shows up just after 0:45 on the highlights). It continued, however, with the most promising piece from Saturday: a (basically) four-piece defensive set of George Fochive, Jack Jewsbury, Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell who, collectively, stormed out to kick and generally smother just about everything that came anywhere near the top of the 18. For anyone who endured last season's defensive cluster-cuss that's like the Holy Grail floating over the Castle Anthrax.

Then I drank some more and got to talking about teenagers and near-teenagers and the baffling rage that percolates under some mother-daughter relationships. Shit. Where am I?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Portland Timbers v. Real Salt Lake, Week 1 Preview (Oh Yeah!)

Images for "sunken mattress" are surprisingly rare.
(Editor's Note: I doubt I'll do much for weekly previews this season. I plan on posting a look back/look forward piece on the Timbers every Wednesday (or Thursday), plus after-action reports. That's the plan, anyway. Moving on...)

I have now read, watched and digested every 2015 season preview for Real Salt Lake that I care to. I even sat through the (oddly, yet soothingly, casual) "Catching Up with Cassar" segment posted on RSL's website (the overall production vibe made me feel like I was talking to a high school guidance counselor – who wears a toque to the office for some damn reason). All those deal with what interested parties can expect from the Utah club this year. Today, I'm only thinking about is what to expect on opening weekend when RSL comes to play the Portland Timbers. Which arrived in spite of many labor-related obstacles. Hallelujah and Amen.

What I Expect...
A draw, possibly goal-less, and an emotionally-conflicted, hence needlessly-distracted, Nat Borchers.

And Why...
As noted in my own season preview for the Timbers, I have decent faith in the current squad. Going a little against standard practices, this post presumes a certain level of knowledge and currency about the Timbers – e.g. injuries/absences for Will Johnson and Diego Valeri; the absence of certain replacements and the resulting loss of their respective strengths; new playing pieces, etc. The idea is to look forward.

The CBA: Free Agency, Minimums, and Meaning

I can get my own place? Seriously?
Major League Soccer (MLS) and the MLS Players' Union have collectively bargained to an agreement (CBA is approximated in there) and we, the fans, have a 2015 season to enjoy. This feels good, but it's easier for us, the consumers. We just shell out predictable sums for our bread (beer) and circuses (soccer)...and wasn't that what the league owners wanted, more or less, predictability? Man, I did not lend them much of a welcoming ear in the end. Then again, fuck those guys. But, thank you! I mean, still, you could have made it easier, right? Y'know, spared all of us eager dopes some anxiety?

That leaves the players, then, and the question of what they pried from the league during the CBA negotiations. Because MLS holds its financials close enough to the chest as to be inside it, we, the fans, are unlikely to ever learn the full details of an agreement. (The remarkable vapidity of the league's official release gives a handy primer to MLS's "fuck off, none of your business" approach to PR).

The players picked up two wins by my count; a considerable bump to the league minimum and free agency, even if in limited form. With a fair number of young guys nearly doubling their annual earnings, I see that as nothing but a win. The free agency thing, on the other hand, needs a little unpacking. Jeff Carlisle (among others) provided the details, but the thumbnail version reads 28 & 8 - and that ampersand matters – and graduated percentage caps tied to a given free agent's salary under his expired contract. Again, Carlisle provides, all y'all probably know those numbers as well as I do, if not better. It is worth noting, as Carlisle does, that this new formulation brings in only 10% of MLS's players (some large portion of those players being identified in a post in which The Massive Report did the world a solid).

Monday, March 2, 2015

MLS Preseason Results, in One, Convenient Package

Then again, some things never should see the light of day.
Seeing as I half-assed my previews so very much, I thought I'd make amends by providing a service that, so far as I know (googled that shit) no one else has: pulling together a one-stop spot that shows how every Major League Soccer (MLS) club did this preseason. Yeah, yeah, "preseason doesn't matter." Well, try putting on your first show without dress rehearsal and see how that pans out (jerks).

This turned out to be far more interesting than I figured it would be. For starters, few clubs play directly comparable preseasons. That's to say that, while some MLS sides play mainly MLS competition (say, the Colorado Rapids, Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes) some played no MLS clubs at all (say, the Montreal Impact and, basically, Columbus Crew SC). Even so, seeing how each club performed against varying opposition isn't a totally pointless exercise because every club has a reputation, whether it's hailing from a middling foreign league, being a step down from MLS, or just being a college team an MLS club gets to kick around.

Now, to brass tacks. Each MLS club's record will show below in two ways: one record shows results against all competition (e.g. collegiate/fur'un (foreign)), and the other will show results against MLS opposition only. Uh, that's it. (OK, no, while looking for anyone who posted pre-season results, I found a list of MLS stadiums on Wikipedia. Neat!) Because the results themselves don't present apples-to-apples, I listed the clubs alphabetically. Comments will follow where appropriate, below the results for each club and in parentheses. Ideally, then, I'll provide enough detail to let all y’all decide what counts and what doesn’t.

(NOTE: Results that can't be found on a given team's page were pulled from the "all-clubs" preseason schedule that has been floating around all preseason).