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.

So, how was Week 1? Spazzy and a little clumsy. Half the players ran around like puppies seeing a tennis ball for the first time. And like those over-eager pups, some teams tuckered themselves out a little early (looking at you Philadelphia Union). Fans are generally cautioned to take several grains of salt with the results and form from the opening weekend. Things will calm down. Come July, when players start to labor under a sweltering, sweaty sun, when the more disappointing details of the Collective Bargaining Agreement insidiously sap motivation, players and their clubs will remember they're doing a job like the rest of us and slip into well-worn ruts. How teams cope with that slog through summer says more than these early days – for good or ill. That's later, though. Here are the 10 things that caught my eye in MLS's first weekend.

Week 1's Big Results
I hereby nominate Toronto FC's smart comeback over Vancouver Whitecaps, with honorable mention going to how much hurt the Seattle Sounders put on the New England Revolution (because I couldn't watch their game). Toronto's overcame a terrible first half game plan against the 'Caps, which gooses their vote for me, but they way just about all their new guys contributed mattered more: you could feel how big a shit Damien Perquis came after each defensive blunder (because, screaming) and Benoit Cheyrou operated in midfield with poise and intelligence to match Michael Bradley's. Yeah, yeah, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore: they count, too, especially the wee Italian with Velcro feet. Credit Seattle for the win, applaud the last goal (but pay some mind the penultimate point below) and assume they’ll do good things this year. But Toronto. Combine the steel with the way they brought the talent and feel good for them. Because Toronto.

Orlando Got Lucky
Maybe Orlando City FC did outplay New York City for much of the game. Phil Rawlins certainly thought so. By the second half, though, NYCFC started pushing and pulling things together. Mix and Ned Grabavoy got the midfield running, feeding that big Adam Nemec kid (who has decent wheels); David Villa found a way to be effective – out wide of all places – and the gods rewarded New York with a well-worked goal from Mr. Mix. Then came Aurelien Collin's (justified) sending off and things looked dark indeed for Orlando. They pushed, however, produced a series of desperate flops and, finally, won the free-kick that Kaka deflected into goal off Jeb Brovsky - an intended victim of earlier Orlando flops, it should be noted. It's a long season and Orlando will undoubtedly come together, but, based on that second half, New York might come together a little sooner. It'll be worth seeing how that holds as they add new faces who haven’t yet seen a lot of MLS.

The Handsomest New Faces...
Toronto's new guys did well, obviously, but several of new faces showed their best side. Put Nemec in there for me, but I also liked Fernando Aristeguieta for the 15 minutes I watched the Union flail to an empty conclusion. Hernan Grana looked surprisingly comfortable for Columbus, while Kristinn Steindorsson looked a little better (the air of a solid pro, a la Cheyrou). Mix was fine – and helluva goal - even if I couldn't tell whether it was him or Grabavoy on the ball half the damn time. Uh, who else? In spite of his previous spell in MLS, I'm going to include Brek Shea in this mix because he showed better than I expected at left back (and may he face Josh Williams every week; fun!). And lastly, Emanuel Pokertits (OK, OK, Pogatetz) made a good impression out there. Sure, sure, the big names count. But these middling signings from around the league are likelier to raise all boats.

...And the Standouts Among the Familiar Ones
I created this talking point mainly to praise the Chicago Fire's Quincy Amirakwa, because, unlike a lot of his team, played like he knew what the hell he was doing out there. That said, a lot of regulars did well. The good ones, and we know who they are, form the backbone of this league. And they deserve to be paid as such, dammit.

Vancouver's Simple Riddle
Don't play a high line against these guys and, on evidence of Week 1, you'll do all right. The alternative would be to absolutely smother every player the second he gets the ball – even Pa Modou Kah, apparently. Vancouver played great for as long Toronto let them, basically, and, boy, did the Reds ever let them play. It was bad enough that I was going to contrast TFC very unfavorably with the Colorado Rapids of all teams (see second to last point below), but the Reds tightened things up nicely and went on to kill Vancouver with a thousand passes.

MLS's Hidden Hot Nerd?
To lean way forward on an early impression, I think the Houston Dynamo come into 2015 as MLS's most under-rated team. Think of them as that mousy high school girl who, upon shedding her glasses, letting down her hair, and getting a little dolled up, stuns all the popular kids (who, let's face it, are fucking idiots). Some of the doubt grows from key players having another year on the same legs, some of it comes from their switch to the tougher, yet somehow duller, Western Conference. That said, look at the starting eleven they fielded against Columbus on Saturday and try to find the genuinely weak link (with that said, I do have something on this; see below). I see nothing of much note (except, again, below)...except depth. They have some good parts on the roster – e.g. Corey Ashe, Joe Willis, Nathan Sturgis, and Erick "Cubo" Torres, eventually – but it is wise and fair to question if they have enough guys in the right places. Or who can be plugged into the right places if needed. Maybe the Dynamo misses the playoffs; it wouldn't surprise me. But when you see a club like Vancouver fall apart like they did against Toronto, or Real Salt Lake look powerfully like a work in progress against Portland, you also have to wonder if a team of wily veterans can’t hold steady enough to sneak past them into the post-season.

And, Yet, Don't Throw Away the Proactiv...
Because sometimes the nerdy girl doesn't transform. Sometimes she's Will Bruin. He is Houston's weakest link. For all his physical attributes (size, mostly) and acknowledging that he scores the occasional brace, the man just makes bad decisions. Yes, it's hard to play forward: you get closed down fast, you're chasing after hopeful, low-percentage garbage that your teammates classify as playmaking genius, but Bruin is something else. He's the guy that will hold up the ball perfectly, only to blow the layoff. He'll get a ball in great position, only to trip over it three steps before the telling moment. I'll go ahead and admit that his stats read better than expected, but, when I think of Bruin, I think of all the times I've thought, "hey, at least they have Bruin," only to bear witness him do more than any defender on the other team to thwart Houston's attack. Cubo can't come soon enough...

Colorado's Late Lock-Down
I didn't even note the time spent watching Philly struggle through the last 15 against the Colorado Rapids because it was only the last 15 I watched. Bit by bit, though, I learned the Rapids were down a man. After that I noticed how every Union player seemed to have a Rapid living in his pocket. Sure, Philly fucked up a lot - their last 15 featured enough botched traps and wildly errant passes for three full games – but a lot of that had to do with Colorado players panting over their shoulder every time they so much as thought of the ball. I’m sure that someone, somewhere pointed to early-season legs as the reason for Philadelphia's clumsy conclusion. Colorado labored under the same early season kinks on Saturday, and yet they still swarmed like dervishes till the very end. If this is a new leaf for the Rapids, it's probably worth noting for the future.

New England's Sunday Pick-Up Defending
Yes, I'm probably only noting this out of simple hatred of Seattle, but the flipside of their great third goal – where Obafemi Martins combined with Gonzalo Pineda, who combined with Dempsey, who combined with Martins, who again combined with Dempsey to set up a tap-in (or something like that) – relied on some super-confused defending from New England. Full credit to Dempsey, Oba & Co. for sharp, proactive play, but any scenario that features both Dempsey and Oba breaking through on goal unchecked spells defensive breakdown in bold wacky font. Like so: DEFENSIVE BREAKDOWN. (Wait...where are the fucking wing-dings?) As the Armchair Analyst notes, New England is going to miss A. J. Soares. For me, they'll miss him no less than they did Lee Nguyen and Jermaine Jones on Sunday. That guy was seriously underrated in terms of talent and leading the line.

Save of the Week
To close with something simple, only two saves rated as outstanding for me this weekend. When Houston's Tyler Deric pawed away Kei Kamara’s well-placed, well-powered header, he capped the stellar performance that bought Houston three points. Clint Irwin's save on Conor Casey’s near-post bullet, though, that fucker happened so fast that I still haven’t seen it. Yeah, it only bought the Rapids one point, but that thing was a miracle...and, after last season, a point for Colorado falls under the same category.

All for this week. I salute anyone who made it all the way down. And, yeah, I think I’m going to confine these talking point posts to those games of which I see a half at minimum. This felt too big. No es Bueno...

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