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.

FC Dallas (1)
Sure, it's an opportunistic win, but 3-0-0 is, by definition, 3-0-0. Look, Dallas starts this way at least every other season – e.g. they come out flying only to find their asses crawling through the same mire as the rest of the also-rans in order to get to the playoffs. History aside, I still believe in Dallas' foundation: that defense is good and deep, plus they've weapons in offense that an action-movie hero would envy. Avoiding their annual swoon quite probably relies on, 1) steering clear of the injury bug; 2) avoiding last year's plague of red cards (so far, so good); and 3) getting a little more than expected out of their depth. Long season and all that, but the fundamentals are there.

Columbus Crew SC (2)
The Crew was one of four MLS clubs with Week 3 off. That just gives them a little more time to bask in the glow of their early reviews. Most of the news from the club reflects that glory, by way of a couple players earning international call-ups. Sure, that spells some creative tinkering down the road, but that only brings up another popular talking point around Columbus this year: their rather impressive depth. To put some names on it, why worry about Wil Trapp getting called up when you know Tony Tchani will be back soon and you’ve got Mohammed Saeid sitting on the bench itching to come on.

San Jose Earthquakes (0)
The question is, how hard to punish a club who lets the Chicago Fire back into one of the biggest games in club history? The short answer: they didn't let them all the way back in, even if they were an Eric Gehrig header away from doing so. In keeping with the theme above – i.e. the stuff about surprising varieties of cream a-risin' – the fact is that San Jose is second in the West and, on current points, among the top three teams in MLS. Maybe it's the unexpected pieces that are making it happen? Fatai Alashe's debut against Seattle Sounders FC didn't go unnoted and could it be a sign of the gods that it was his money-shot that christened Avaya Stadium? (Gawd. Sorry. Sorry, that is/was awful). And when some random, someone – say, Ty Harden - scores his first-ever goal, isn't that enough to make you recall San Jose's weird, magical run back in...was it 2012? Anyway, they're up here till results usher them out of it.

Los Angeles Galaxy (1 1/2)
Coughing up an equalizer to Nathan Sturgis ain't great, no matter how plucky he is (and is he even plucky?), but it's going to take a lot to get me to drop LA out of the Swim Team. There are a lot of things I don't remember clearly from late (late, late) Saturday night, but one of them was looking at LA's roster and thinking out loud (though I was alone) that, a couple key positions aside (say, Robbie Keane, Omar Gonzalez, maybe Robbie Rogers), few players on the Galaxy come up in conversation as the league-best in their position. And yet, they win Cups like it's their job. Anyway, no club has LA's cool contempt for the regular season. A lot of that's because no other club has their knack for pulling it off.

Red Bull New York (0 – not happy about it, either)
Another solid result and the Red Bulls might join the Swim Team. Given the number of questions that surrounded the Red Bulls this off-season, they started stronger than anyone had the right to expect. (According to the highlights) Lloyd Sam looks fairly inspired, Dax McCarty makes for an entirely sensible captain, and, high boot notwithstanding, that was one damn smooth finish by Bradley Wright-Phillips. That said, it's hard to weigh these results given the state of the two teams they've played – e.g. Kansas City and DC United. Neither has quite got around to lighting up and that shrinks Red Bull's accomplishment just a little. One thing does impress me, however: the fact that they've done what they have with a defense just about everyone questions.

Seattle Sounders (0)
Another club with a bye week, of which, the best thing you can say is that this gives Brad Evans another week to become a central defender and it brings Ozzie Alonso another week closer to full fitness. After checking a couple spaces for the latest from Seattle, the most interesting thing that happened to the first team would be the waiving of Kevin Parmesan...which can't right (to notch up the respect, his name is Kevin Parsemain; good luck, sir; and good things happened with Sounders 2, which is nice for the richly-loath'd Sounders). Anyway, I'm comfortable waiting till next week to move 'em up, send 'em down, or keep 'em right here.

Vancouver Whitecaps (2)
Call Vancouver's win over Orlando the most deceptive performance of 2015 so far. I found out the result of the Orlando at around the 85th minute of watching (look, I have this gambling problem) which only intensified the wondering about how they'd pull off that mess. Did anyone guess out of their asses? Because that was the safe answer. The point is, it's pretty easy to point to flaws in Vancouver: their defense dropped too deep for much of the game, allowing Orlando to shoot from the top of the area; they didn't care much for possession (but do they ever?); and they seemed to trip over one another a little out there going forward. But, yesterday at least, they had a defense that bought time to figure it out – even if it was, literally, the entire game, plus stoppage. The two things that impressed me most: that Diego Rodriguez stepped in like he'd been there all along and being able to call a solid performer like Jordan Harvey off the bench when Sam Adekugbe went down. Add Octavio Rivero's three-goal haul and the 'Caps might actually have something. NOTE: I was most wrong about this club last week.

New York City FC (1 1/2)
The several podcasts I listen to every week flagged talk about what playing at altitude would mean for NYCFC. And, generally, they laughed it off, because Jason Kreis knows such things. Well, either the altitude mattered, or New York was flat, because they played one reactive, slow game. The highlights didn't lie on this one: New York City FC got rolling once David Villa, a next-level player if ever there was, decided it was time to fix shit. He was helped by the introduction of Khiry Shelton as much as anyone, but New York presents overall as a solid MLS squad with some bonus players in the pocket. A couple more bonus guys, though, and they'll have something, maybe something big.

Colorado Rapids (1)
You're damn right I moved them out of "sinking." Time will tell how much the altitude gave them an assist against NYCFC, but the Rapids looked entirely competent this past Week 3. I have some quibbles – among them, they have to figure out where to play Dillon Powers – but Sam Cronin did a hell of a job holding everything together and rookie Axel Sjoberg kid/giant looked every inch the pro out there this past week. Oh, and Marc Burch...he did some useful stuff on both sides of the ball. I wouldn't call Colorado and sleeper, but they don't look like doormats, either. Who knows? Maybe Pablo Mastroeni gets another year after all...

Sporting Kansas City (2)
KC started the game barreling over Portland. Had they been able to keep it up, the Timbers would have succumbed. They didn't, so they couldn't, so it's another week, another flaccid result, etc. Whatever faith people and pundits keep with KC most likely grows from their collection of talent and how well it's worked over the past couple seasons. For me, they have as good a spine – here, I'm referring to Ike Opara, Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza, Paolo Nagamura, and Benny Feilhaber – as any club in MLS. The talent ain't working yet, but a ton of that has to do with an attack that can't get off the ground. Dom Dwyer going missing after 30 minutes meant it didn't even sort of launch against Portland (and where was my 2015 fascination, Krizstian Nemeth, this week?). Another week with one point, or zero, and they slip under the surface...

Portland Timbers (3)
Even as they're keeping their heads above water, but the Timbers took a step back this week. Not a big step, but Saturday's draw hardly felt like progress. I posted a fuller treatment yesterday, but a short explanation goes something like too few players showing up with heads screwed on. Happily, the defenders weren't among them, so they didn't drop any points. Just didn't gain any either. For Portland fans, though, signs of defensive solidity rings in our ears like a chorus of angels.

Toronto FC (2)
I'm sensing a really clear theme among the clubs on a bye week – e.g. their official sites are all the fudge over their "2" teams. TFC is no different, which means fans and non-fans alike are stuck waiting for TFC's next match. That goes doubly so here due to 1) all the turnover with Toronto's first team – but would they be Toronto without that? – and; 2) the bipolar nature of their first two results of the season (e.g. the slow, steady strangulation of Vancouver in Week 1 versus the ultimately submissive display against Columbus in Week 2). Time officially biding.

Real Salt Lake (2)
Another club with a bye, but one in a more puzzling position than the three above. RSL has looked both good (against Philly) and bad (against Portland) so far this season. They picked up the crappier result on their better day, because god was angry or something. Of any article one might read about RSL, the headline to this one sums it up best. There's something in here about how RSL's most subtly crucial parts now labor for NYCFC, but I'm not sure what it is: cosmic joke, the league's young eating its elders, a la Zeus chowing on's something. The main thing is that I suspect RSL has a lower ceiling than a lot of clubs this year. I'm just not sure if that ceiling keeps them out of the playoffs yet.

Montreal Impact (1)
Had the Quebecois Stallions not raised the flag in the CONCACAF Champions' League at mid-week, I'd be weighing whether to send Montreal on the slow descent to Davy Jones' locker today. I'll open by damning the curse that killed Cameron Porter's budding career – damn you! - because their offense lost the cutting edge it had when he came out (and whither Jack McInerney?). It is hard to judge their offense in the absence of the man (Ignacio Piatti) most widely anointed to carry it. To name some positives, their defense looked sound (or was New England just misfiring that badly?), Laurent Ciman, in particular looks like an upgrade from Italian Geezer past, and count me a fan of the Eric Alexander/Nigel Reo-Coker midfield. It's nail-tough if nothing else. I get it: they're distracted, but they have to mind the MLS season at some point, right?

Orlando City FC (1 1/2)
After, uh, 135 minutes with Orlando, I have to confess that I can't figure them out. It could be they haven't figured out themselves yet, either. They have some fluid moments – e.g. Kevin Molino prancing toward goal like a white-tail, Brek Shea bulling his way up the left, or just about every time Kaka is on the ball (good signing, y'all) – but all the good hasn't come together completely, or often enough, and I've personally witnessed, again, 135 minutes of a defense well capable of breaking down. The fact that it's early is the biggest thing in their favor.

Philadelphia Union (1)
Hustle and luck can only take a team so far – which is how Philly pulled off that draw against RSL – but bone-headed hostility like Zac Pfeffer's crack to Mauro Diaz skull and dipshit mistakes (by Fabinho) is the traveling equivalent of shooting out one tire and introducing a slow leak into another. Philly is marginal in most pundits' books, but it’s hard to find their level based on their existing body of work. It also means they need to keep the dumb stuff in check.

DC United (1)
Chris Rolfe's day counts as  the brightest thing I could pick up out of the highlights from their loss to Red Bull, while the nightmares included mistakes by steady, or even stellar, performers like Davy Arnaud and Bill Hamid (respectively, and especially). DC has exactly one feather in its cap this year and it's a small one: that 1-0 win over Montreal on the opening weekend. Against that, there's the blowout in (was it?) Costa Rica, followed by this past weekend's loss to Red Bull, which looked anything but comfortable. Personally, I'm wondering if this particular DC team didn't peak about 3/4 way through 2014.

Houston Dynamo (1)
I'm going to short Houston a little on the assumption that Tyler Deric cannot do what he's been doing all season long. Then again, for all we know that goal he gave up against Orlando last weekend might have been a god's experiment with fallibility. As the number above shows, I watched Houston once this season – the opener, as it happened – and I thought more of them then than virtually anyone else. Everything I've read and heard since then says, too old and too thin. And, yes, that Deric has kept their asses out of shacking up in the basement with Chicago.

New England Revolution (1)
While their defense looked all right, the challenge 'twas not stern. Worse, they had half the damn squad missing mentally, or with shoes tied wrong, with Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe being the chief culprits. One could argue that this latest result at least improved on the others, but 30 minutes with a man advantage against a distracted foe says something else. Based on this one game (for that is all I have) the Revs have a ways to go before they're able to play at 2014's level. They're definitely still trying all the tight inter-play around the area, but that takes clicking at a high degree – and they aren't. They had their best luck Saturday when they isolated Chris Tierney wide. Could explain why they’re crossing the ball like they are...

Chicago Fire (1/2)
It says something when you're the only team at 0-3-0. It says even more when anyone out there – in this case SBI Soccer – identifies you as the sacrificial lamb for MLS, a la the homecoming victims for college football. Credit Chicago for pulling one back against San Jose on the occasion of their home/stadium opener – I mean, big damn, overwhelming occasion and all – but Sean Johnson gave up one inexcusable flop, which, according to all reports, is more than enough margin of error for the Fire.

OK, all for this week. I think I'll tweak this a little next week by putting more into my posts about the clubs I watched closely. We'll see how time, my organization, and, in all honesty, two straight weeks' worth of birthdays allows that to work out. Till next post...

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