Thursday, March 19, 2015

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.

Both Seattle and Toronto rolled out of Week 1 with praise heaped upon: the way Seattle ran around and over New England had people combining their name with "MLS" and "Cup," while Toronto’s smart regrouping allowed them to pick apart the 'Caps and move the talk surrounding them from finally making the playoffs to wondering how far they'll go.

And then came Week 2. The immediate results speak for themselves: the San Jose Earthquakes slapped around Seattle's baffled back-line at home, while Columbus took the measure of Toronto and, regardless of the red card, the Canadian club left the weekend a little shorter. Start pulling in results from everywhere else and things get a lot more interesting. Does San Jose's close loss to league-leading Dallas in Week 1 mean Seattle faced a stronger opponent than most people figured, or did Seattle just walk onto Century Link last Saturday feeling too cocky after an easy thumping of a reeling New England? Toronto's case is more interesting still: smart as they looked peeling back Vancouver's defenses, how much of that was Toronto’s on-field quality versus the burden of off-field hype surrounding Vancouver? Yeah, yeah, the 'Caps beat Chicago, but so far the consensus holds that everyone else will too (Seriously, basement in every power rankings I found).

Let us now pause to spare a pitying thought for the once-great Chicago Fire...

With only two weeks' results for a sample, no MLS club's fate is remotely sealed – that goes triple thanks to MLS's playoff structure. (Yeah, fuck it; let ‘em all make the post-season.) That certainly applies to both Seattle and Toronto. That said, all the above forced the conversation into at least a 90-degree turn. Seattle's handsome, duct-tape-solution in central defense got a pass because New England didn't pose a threat; now people are asking whether it'll hobble Seattle's season (all while Sigi Schmid abides). It'll take a pretty solid run of results for the chattering classes to stop talking about Vancouver's limitations instead of hyping them as a deep-stalking threat.

As for Toronto...well, it's always, ALWAYS best to cling to the caveats when talking about them. Because, Toronto and because, history.

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