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.

Red Bull New York (0)
Undefeated is undefeated – only three other clubs can claim the honor (and you wouldn't want to share the same podium with two of them; Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids) – but the Red Bulls are playing like they're trying to woo the entire league and not just their fans. I still haven't seen (this) New York play, but I'm going to cave later this week to see if I can't figure them out a little. The highlights speak to a bit of opportunism, but that's the point of the high-press, innit? The press got a lot of credit from one smart person, but reports, even if they're in-house, were stoutly favorable (see further echoes at #5 here). For every question around Red Bull this year, particularly the defense, they've so far had an answer (e.g. the high press, so that defense only rarely gets tested). Finally, Luis Robles, Jr.: most under-rated 'keeper in MLS.

FC Dallas (2)
No one scored in Dallas' dull 'n' dour...uh, what's the opposite of clash? Let's call the unholy mess between Dallas and Seattle "stepping on the softest turd," because neither side managed even a shot on goal, and merely credit Dallas for holding on with ten men after Kellyn Acosta's basically-justified sending off. After 2014, Dallas fans have reason to fear the red, but they should also take solace from solid outings by Fabian Castillo, who put the Seattle defense in pretzels more than once, and by a defensive unit that handily shut down a Seattle B-Team. They're up here based on their record. And for playing a more composed and ruthlessly effective version of the same game as Vancouver.

San Jose Earthquakes (0)
This could stretch to libel, but it's possible, in my mind, that Chris Wondolowski will take a human life upon retirement, if only by way of channeling that insane intensity of his. Just watch the man carry the ball back to the half-way stripe after scoring that penalty kick and see if you don't hug your kids a little closer. Uh, team as a whole...right. It sounds like San Jose fell victim to a poor half. Someone (who I reference a lot) credited them for a making a smart adjustment, so there's that. Overall, though, and for another week, San Jose reads like a team who knows what they're doing and that's enough to keep them up. The penalty was a bit soft, but the foul did happen in the area.

Los Angeles Galaxy (1 1/2)
LA stays up in the rarefied air only because they fielded a clear B-Team. Yeah, I've read all about Pissy Bruce and his thoughts on the game and, yes, the highlights made it look like this B-Team punched at least even. But I have one and a half games from LA that tells me they're playing off the pace a little; and Robbie Keane's naughty gesture tells me I'm not the only one who remains unconvinced things aren't going quite right for MLS's biggest club. Then again, they never do till it, I can't wait for the day when I get to talk about LA in entirely negative terms...

Columbus Crew SC (2)
Columbus lives by possession, Columbus dies by possession. This week, they died and, frankly, the mistakes were brutal, especially on the one that led to the league's original (and true) New York franchise scoring its 1,000th goal (still wrapping my head around that). Columbus isn't getting a ton of press this weekend and me digging too deeply into that runs counter to the spirit of these posts (i.e,. loose impressions should carry the day, at least outside of the games I take in). I still have faith in the Columbus model and their crazy depth. Anyway, Steve Clark came super close to stopping Bradley Wright-Phillips PK and the Crew were good enough to come back once, so they stay on the Swim Team. Lastly, Federico Higuain's red was justifiably righteous.

Vancouver Whitecaps (3)
So, I didn't promote Vancouver to the Swim Team and it's not about spite (or all about spite). While this club has some real quality parts – and even if a bigfoot like Ives Galarcep opined that they had the better of the game against Portland, I don't agree. And neither did the Canadian broadcast crew covering the game. The 'Caps have a lot going for them – e.g. a forward who looks like a real find in Octavio Rivero; a play-maker (or two) clearly capable of making plays in Pedro Morales (and Nicolas Mezquida); and a very solid defensive core (discussed here, admittedly by me). The reality is that, after three viewings – as in nearly all their games – the 'Caps have generally looked more solid and lucky than good. With Rivero in the mix, that's not a terrible formula, but can they ride it to a title?

Seattle Sounders (1)
Seattle put on a clinic at the ol' sleep research laboratory last Saturday. Holy god, was that game awful and, yes, I'm blaming the team with the bonus player for that. With a lot of key players absent and limping, the Sounders trotted out their depth and it proved wanting over 70+ minutes against a Dallas team playing one man down. A more interesting point is that this is not a new trend for Seattle. Moreover, this matters because missing players are a reality of the game. Finally, the book is still out on the Brad Evans, Centerback Project, because Dallas couldn't really road-test it. Sure, they'll be better with all their parts present, but so will everyone else.

Sporting Kansas City (2)
Every time I’ve seen KC play this year, I've thought they looked good enough, y'know? Just a finish shy of winning or drawing (paging Mr. Dwyer, paging Mr. Dom Dwyer), or robbed by some ridiculous call or another. This week's highlights are far kinder to KC than they are to New York City FC. While they won on a play that purists hate – e.g. the long-throw – it shouldn't surprise anyone to see a team stick with something that works. And Ike Opara bombing toward goal on set-pieces has worked well in 2015, only he's literally 2/3 of their offensive output. Which could answer a question or two about the season thus far.

Real Salt Lake (2)
First, and between this year and next, Jeff Antinella's performances mean RSL should be pretty safe in goal after Nick Rimando, The Legend, retires...and, yet, that was one damn soft goal that Antinella let in (but mind the rest of the saves). Still, RSL gutted out the game, picked up their first win of 2015 with something a rag-tag crew of misfits (well, a pair of their all-time best players notwithstanding) and that's well and good. Overall, I get the impression that RSL won't be bad this year; the question is how good they can be given everything that's going on. So far, so good ain't bad early.

DC United (1)
For me, DC's 2015 season will be defined by how well once-promising, once-learning players like Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius perform. If they return to the form from a couple years back - a glimpse was given thereof at the death in this match - DC will be fun to watch again, instead of one the league’s chief ugly grinders. If they don't, it’s another year of hoping Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva can stay on the field long enough to keep things interesting on the attacking side. Failing that, this team will be goddamn torture to watch, a results-driven, fun-sucking mess with lots of 1-0 wins and goal-less draws inflicted upon the world. LA is good, or they can be, but DC faced a reduced version of that and, from what I've read, didn't control the game. And yet they won.

Montreal Impact (1)
I still haven't seen Montreal with Ignacio Piatti in the line-up (so much to watch; so little time), but that was a cool, slick PK he tucked past Donovan Ricketts. What this club needs more than anything else, though, is a consistent scoring threat, which makes that persistent sneaky-shit goal from Jack McInerney the point of interest for Week 4's performance. All in all, Montreal treads water on dubious premises: they have yet to pick up a win in league play, but I'm keeping them up based on their game in hand. After taking a 2-0 lead at home and letting it lapse, well, if they don't feel seaweed curling around their kicking ankles...well, they should.

New York City FC (1 1/2)
I haven't read much about NYCFC's outing, nor did I see much in the highlights. Actually, the highlights give the impression of a team that got shelled at home. I'll keep an eye out for stats and further information, but, in all honesty, this club doesn't have enough history (and it hasn't done quite enough to hold my interest) for me to give a stronger take than wait-and-see.

Orlando City FC (1 1/2)
The Kaka show rolls on, and Orlando will continue to tread water for as long as it does. I've read praise of his game-tying goal (also, see #3 here) and, yep, it's all deserved. Everyone who knows the game understands the concept of "first touch," but to see how quick and subtle it can be touches on Platonic. Still, the reality is that Orlando gave up two soft goals – e.g. the flurry of hands that led to Piatti's PK, and the uncertain mess that made way for Jack Mac's gorgeous chip. Orlando's defense has, to this point, been that club's strong suit. If they lose that – and I'm not reading doubling their goals-allowed number as a permanent loss, but still – and things could get tricky for the Florida outfit.

Portland Timbers (4)
Though it pains me more than donning underwear made of steel wool, I have to drop the Timbers into the deep; failing to do so would render last place after four games utterly meaningless, not to mention the stinking shame of playing favorites. I went on about them at length here, but the short story reads like the long, painful fucking thing from last year: if you can't close out games, you draw them (against LA) or lose them (against Vancouver, in a truly inexplicable way).

New England Revolution (1)
OK, yes, I did pick up some good and compelling press on how New England beat San Jose, but, again, going on loose impressions, caveats abound. There's the weather, the sloppy-seconds look to both of Kelyn Rowe's goals (still, glad he's getting going, especially after favorable reports from Week 1), and playing at home. Even if they underwhelmed generally when I watched them last weekend, the germs of a high-functioning attack were present and sticking to everything. I'm not convinced they're there yet – hence, the continued stay below the surface – but this club with last year behind them won't have to do much to break through to air.

Toronto FC (2)
It feels a little cruel to send Toronto FC down the plank with legs tied together, etc. They were, without question, missing key players this weekend. The key players in some sense (see: Altidore, Jozy; Bradley, Michael; perhaps more), but RSL had some absentees, too, and they're working through a new system (see, point #1 here) and, more to the point, Toronto is 1-2-0 after the drunken-sailor spending spree in what surely has to be the year for this club. This is the bitch about setting a high bar: once you say you can clear it, you sort of have to. And TFC isn't so far.

Houston Dynamo (1)
If Tyler Deric gets injured, I swear to gods that Houston will get relegated, even if league rules forbid it. Further, unless the highlights lied, the Dynamo got outplayed at home against a team riding a record-streak of no success. That ain't good in any language. Age bites hard on this bunch, which makes the mystery of standing pat through the off-season only go deeper. Can Erick "Cubo" Torres sort out this mess? Has Houston given anyone any reasonable faith on that?

Chicago Fire (1/2)
However poorly the Fire have performed this year, the clear consensus is that Harry Shipp is not the problem (for one man's opinion, see here at #2). If Chicago fans had to vote between putting Shipp on the field versus new DP Shaun Maloney, I'm assuming Shipp would win in a landslide. I know the national media would break that way. At any rate, the win is nice and all and, yes, per the highlights, Shipp did at least two good things on Sunday. Still, the Fire is faced with a list of accomplishment that ends with topping the new-consensus worst team in MLS. I read a nice piece this morning about how well Shipp and Michael Stephens work together. Let’s see how far that takes 'em. And then we'll see what their DPs can do, Maloney, if/when he adjusts, and David Accam, when he finally takes the field.

Colorado Rapids (1)
So, yes, the Rapids have set the wrong kind of record, perhaps a series of them. For whatever reason, I have a fixation with this club. Maybe it's all the good parts, even if they combine to make the crappiest Voltron of all time (punch line!). They looked the better team against, by all reports, an equally punch-less Houston. They looked damn-near effective, in fact, which only builds on the favorable impression I picked up from them what was, admittedly, another draw. People say Pablo Mastroeni is in over his head, and they're probably right, but...actually, let's make that an "and." I mean, if you've got Colorado's talent and the results aren't coming, why the hell not go out and get another coach?  The point is, I see a club playing almost-good soccer, so why stand pat when there's something that might get you to good, if only next year?

Philadelphia Union (1)
The cautionary tale to the comment above comes here with the ghost of Jim Curtin. (What do you mean, he's not dead already? Oh...) Curtin can get glum often as he want, and he should, but, this weekend, the Union lost to the consensus worst team in MLS. Fans can blame it on Rais Mbolhi because, yes, that was another bad goal-keeping moment (any ball in, or on the line of, the six-yard box is the 'keeper's ball), but he had some moments later (right?). The worse thing is that the Union had a couple solid chances late (which went a bit under-reported, frankly) and they did have to work against a sending off...but this is a disastrous start and, unlike Chicago, Philly can't cling to hope that a couple DPs already on the books will show up and turn this thing around.

Ah, another week, another post. I think things are starting to sort out, if only a little. As with most seasons, the cellar-dwellers and the big fish sort themselves out first. For what it's worth, I think the big fish still haven't risen from the depths, even if I'm pulling for New York to splash big. And the Timbers, of course. Time will tell.

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