Monday, April 6, 2015

MLS Week 5: Sinking, Swimming and Treading Water: Green Shoots of Trends

So, you think you can suck as bad, Philadelphia?
I'm going to start this week with a point of complaint against the website – aka, The Mothership, as I'm fond of calling it.

For the past several seasons, Major League Soccer (MLS) really outdid themselves by providing highlight reels that generally ran seven or eight minutes. No, it's not remotely comparable to watching the full 90 of a game, but one really appreciates those extended clips after trying to make sense of a game with highlights that regularly clock in at under 4 minutes. Those half-clips have somewhat undermined the entire project of offering vague impressions of each MLS club. Goddammit.

That said, making mountains of vague impressions is 75% of my bag, at a minimum. For instance, I'm willing to state, and with some measure of confidence, that Orlando City FC, whatever they think of themselves, are a playing and acting like an expansion team. Meanwhile, some other clubs have gone some distance to building a body of defining work, both negative and positive – e.g. the Vancouver Whitecaps, for the better (and can I please, please stop misreading this club; per the voice in my, the Philadelphia Union, for the morale-sapping worse. The remaining 18 clubs fall somewhere in between, but, for me, it's too early to dub one team playoff-bound and another semi-officially moribund...though I'm eagerly awaiting the day.

In terms of watching games, I did pretty well this weekend. The full slate of Week 5 games viewed:
Chicago Fire v. Toronto FC
Colorado Rapids v. New England Revolution
Portland Timbers v. FC Dallas (yessssss…..)
Vancouver Whitecaps v. Los Angeles Galaxy* (* only half-conscious, but validated)
On to the feature: who's sinking, who's swimming, and who's treading water? As always, the little number in parentheses after each club's name tells all y'all how often I've watched them in 2015. You'll know what I really know by knowing that.

Vancouver Whitecaps (4)
I won't lie: I tuned in to Vancouver v. LA hoping to support my personal theory that the Canadian club is over-rated. Instead, I witnessed a pretty precise evisceration (no, adjective does not match noun) of MLS's reigning champs. Every 'Caps player turned in a beauty - a point seconded by Bruce Arena and a couple LA players – but the ones who shined brightest for me were Pedro Morales, Kekuta Manneh and, the little engine who made it all work, Russell Teibert. The basic theory tested here was whether Vancouver could be a club that excels at sitting back and absorbing, and the 'Caps aced the exam. One final point: David Ousted I really, really goddamn good goalkeeper. While this game was something of an anomaly for Vancouver – as in, they played way better than they have – this outing should what they can do. In a phrase, a lot. Sold.

Red Bull New York (1)
Bye week for this bunch, but I see no reason to drop them. In the time between Week 4 and now, the most interesting thing I heard was the idea that the Red Bulls might have more balance than in previous years, which is down to them no longer having to start every attacking move by trying to figure out how to get Thierry Henry involved. Think I picked that up on ExtraTime Radio, but I'm not sure. Regardless, O.G. New York (for that is what I call them) strike me as a good bet to keep going.

FC Dallas (3)
Loss #1 won’t drop the Texans out of the upper-tier, even if, for me, the 3-1 score-line didn't flatter Portland. Dallas didn't start a key player or two (e.g. Blas Perez), but the fact they never really got going Saturday night posed the bigger problem; the Timbers bottled up Fabian Castillo and, while Portland conceded set-pieces, they defended (most of them) well enough. With two key threats neutralized, Dallas was forced to defend a fair amount. And they did well till damn-near the death. Still solid. Just a tough week.

Seattle Sounders (2)
OK, first, full credit to Obafemi Martins for what I'm sure will be the goal of the week. The acceleration out of that spin is other-worldly; I don't think Jermaine Taylor could have done shit, unless he knew it was coming. After that, the big news comes with the return of Osvaldo Alonso, who, reportedly, did all the voodoo that he do for Seattle so well. No, I didn't see this match, but the on-paper information lined up clearly enough that I didn't see the point. Gonzalo Pineda's sending off (ouch) added a wrinkle, but not enough of one. I also read some stuff about tactical adjustments in the wake of the sending off, but that only tells us something we already know – e.g. that Sigi Schmid is a large and wily coach. So, I expect more of the same from Seattle until they give me reason to expect less.

Portland Timbers (5)
The Timbers climbed out of the mire in style this weekend, soundly beating the league leaders of the moment. It took sleeping on it, some breakfast, three cups of coffee, plus a couple hours more before I felt like I understood how Portland picked up the win over Dallas. I wrote about it at length here, but even that didn't emphasize the right point: Portland won because they never let Dallas get going. A lot of credit for that goes to Maximiliano Urruti and Diego Chara – who both scored, not coincidentally – but, after that, all it took was one smart substitution. Sadly, the Timbers can't scale they heights till they clean up the defensive errors, but, for what it's worth (and speaking as a fan), I think they took the right steps. Trying not to be a homer, but I see a decent ceiling for my hometown team.

New England Revolution (2)
Two wins in two games. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Neither the highlights from Week 4, nor the full 90 from this week left me all that impressed with the Revolution (that said, some good reporting after Week 4 sold me on them a little). I walked away most impressed with a couple of New England's defensive pieces – Scott Caldwell, who played large, and Andrew Farrell, who played goddamn big. This week, I read praise for Kelyn Rowe's booming early cross (see #4) to Juan Agudelo, who finished gloriously, bt-dubs, and that’'s sort of what the Revs required this weekend. As the Colorado broadcast team pointed out, this was New England’s first win in Colorado for a long, long time, so maybe it's worth minding the context. I only know that it didn't look all that great on the day. But it's good enough to keep New England's heads above water. And it doesn't hurt having the parts that can do great things.

San Jose Earthquakes (0)
Two losses in as many weeks bring San Jose crashing down to Earth. Still, Dominic Kinnear's considerable sang froid about it all gives me pause; maybe he knows something I don't (by which I mean, I know Dom knows something I don't). And maybe he has right to be, because the highlights paint a pretty favorable picture of San Jose's day (as did the article behind the link above); Adam Jahn's name came up a lot too, so that's something else to track. Personally, I'm past the point where I think San Jose is performing over their abilities. Whether it's Kinnear's coaching, or enough turnover to make a difference, I don't think San Jose's a club to take lightly in 2015...not that I've watched them yet...

Los Angeles Galaxy (2 1/2)
A team can only ride champion bona fides for so long, and LA officially cashed in their last credit this past weekend. Welcome to the kiddie pool, buckos! Vancouver ran them over so thoroughly that the only note on that game where I discussed LA reads, in its entirety, "Varynen is better than rated. I bet he pairs w/Gerrard." And, in all honesty, I'm not even sure that's true (again, late and groggy viewing). While LA did try to play like LA from time to time – for me, no team in MLS does better with opening up the field with superior spacing – they simply couldn't pull it off against the 'Caps. Mika Varynen isn't enough; Baggio Husidic isn't enough player, either, and Juninho hasn't hacked it all year in midfield. Call it the Legend Hangover, but LA is not the team they've been the last few. LA being LA, they'll probably get back to it, but it's hard to see how at this point. Whether an aged Englishman will tip it is a very open question.

Columbus Crew SC (3)
Another bye week, which is only of note because they went into it after a tough loss. The only big club news comes with the signing of Steve Clark, a 'keeper I really dig, personally, to a long-term deal. Clark said all the right things after it happened and I'm guessing Columbus fans would whisper sweet nothings right back. After that, there's only the minor impending doom of a bi-coastal road-trip to worry about. Crew SC is probably up for it, at least as much as most clubs.

Sporting Kansas City (2)
Ah, Dom Dwyer broke his 2015 duck. Twice almost, but, yeah, that was a foul. It's hard feel impressed because, Philadelphia Union – aka, the heretofore awful Chicago Fire's Under-Study of Awful taking their turn to trip in the limelight. Taken in isolation, each of KC's goals looked powerful or smart, but living and dying by the set-piece, as KC did this weekend...well, it is what it is. I've never seen a team ride that particular talent to a league championship. In spite of having (what I think are) fewer missing starters this year than some teams – Graham Zusi just went down last week, after all (just fucking rest the guy, seriously) -  Sporting seems a little mysterious and messy. Like a lot of clubs, they're not firing clean as yet (see: Opara, Ike; leading scorer), and that's only more puzzling because they're one of those clubs with pretty solid parts all around. Definitely time to tune in to this club again.

Real Salt Lake (2)
With my immediate knowledge of RSL fading with each passing week, I'm forced to rely on the scribblings of others. And, from what I'm seeing, RSL has become the Javier Morales Show (see #2). (At the same time, small wonder.) And that, my friends, is a series with a definite cancellation date, though, ideally, one that won't end before this season. The most impressive thing is that they won on the road; my general assessment of San Jose only makes the achievement stand a little taller. Oh, and they're undefeated. Not tested too sternly (Portland, Toronto, Philadelphia, and San Jose), but, still, undefeated. Watch this space, basically, and keep an eye on the trap door.

DC United (1)
ExtraTime Radio's Simon Borg nailed my impression of DC this week when he dubbed them "grinders" – e.g. a collection of savvy pros whose defining talent is not fucking up. As if according to a strip, United survived (what looked like) wave after wave of Orlando City attack; anytime a gap pulled apart their defensive shape, goalkeeper Bill Hamid would clean it up. (As pointed out in one of those weekend wraps on which I feast, DC could very well be an entirely different, and worse, club absent the services of Mr. Hamid.) Fast forward to the end of the game and you get to the signature moment – Luis Silva barely beating Donovan Ricketts for the game-winner. It could be they're better than that, or at least were against Orlando – witness the mad scramble in the mouth of Orlando's goal midway through the second. I have to watch these guys?

Montreal Impact (1)
Up in French Canada, it's all about tomorrow night's CONCACAF Champions' League. It was sorta nice of MLS to do that and yet, at the same time, sort of like letting your kid stay up super-late to ace one quiz while simultaneously risking them missing a two other ones. While the Impact has yet to really get rolling in MLS, I think I speak for the entire league when I say, per the Spartan tradition, return with your shield or on it, you crazy Quebecois. Seriously, bon chance on Round 2. And remember the Costa Ricans have no armed forces...

New York City FC (1 1/2)
And, yep, another club with a bye week. When I think of NYCFC, I feel a little embarrassed for them, frankly, for the way they're pining after the aloof Frank Lampard. Sure, he came to town to take in their last game, but what was that but visiting the old high school girlfriend that you already dumped for that worldly college girl (I don't need to name names, here, right?) Or, in this case, a pen pal to whom he once confessed never-ending love...all while getting his wick wet in Manchester (it's clear now, right?). Anyway, the jury is still out on this club for me. And most people, I'm guessing.

Orlando City FC (1 1/2)
Passes behind players, smart runs that go unnoticed, shots pulled disturbingly wide even when they are noticed: a peculiar ailment afflicts this team, one that limits them to doing everything almost right. Call it the eternal wind-up to a sneeze. Credit Orlando for putting on a good show – the game-day atmosphere looked absolutely buzzy - but, like many an expansion team, Orlando's proverbial stew hasn't simmered long enough to blend just so. The (unjustly brief) highlights displayed some encouraging moments from Orlando players not named Kaka – Kevin Molino popped up in a couple key moments – and that's probably a good sign. And Brek Shea and Ricketts combining to keep them in the game was some he-roic shit. And it wasn't enough. 1-2-2, five points from 15...

Chicago Fire (1 1/2)
OK, it's bold, but I'm pulling up the Fire to walk among the living. On a day they finally fielded their full contingent of designated players (DPs), Chicago posted their second win in a row. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what I said about New England; this shit's comparative. The point is, Chicago's season became this play titled "Waiting for Accam," which, here, referred to David Accam. The fact that he showed up and looked legit helped. Then short-suffering DP, Shaun Maloney picked up an assist, along with his first goal; then the other new kid, Joevin Jones, scored a beauty of his own, and generally garnered praise. Add the fact that Jeff Larentowicz and Adailton look like they're working toward being MLS’s best over-30 defensive pairing (kidding; I haven't checked that one) and it's possible that Frank Yallop's overhaul could go somewhere. And, yes, Harrison Shipp and Maloney can share the same field; it only takes Yallop playing Maloney way the hell up the field.

Toronto FC (3)
Sorry, Toronto fans, but this past week's loss obliges me to send Canada's most woebegone club to nether regions they know all too well. Even with Joe Bendik playing strong, TFC conceded three goals and I put some that to a note I left myself after watching the game: "Fullbacks ([Warren] Creavalle and [Justin] Morrow bit a little early." I put more of that to the reality that TFC simply doesn't defend well. An article posted this morning gave a good sense as to why (missing bodies), but it's pretty simple: no good day ends with three goals conceded. This team can play; even with Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore a little dozy, they put together some pretty sequences, none better than the one that lead to Sebastian Giovinco breaking his duck. As much as I think most people have moved on from the "but, Chicago" caveat, the fact remains that, heading into the season, and even more once the season got going, most pundits expected more out of Toronto than Chicago in 2015. It says something that the opposite just happened. One thing that would help immensely: getting rid of that high defensive line. Accam torched that thing all day long.

Houston Dynamo (1)
As noted above, I didn’t "watch" watch the Houston; I caught about 20 minutes at the gym, with my glasses off. In those 20, blurry minutes what I saw featured a club that generally stalled out 30 yards from goal. Pundits and people keep wondering what Erick "Cubo" Torres will bring to the club, but it's hard to think he'll do much if the rest of the team can't provide useful service. Even after Seattle got reduced to 10 men, Seattle still managed the best, most cohesive moments, at least per the highlights. Look, when your 'keeper is far and away your team's brightest talking point, you're staring down the barrel of one shitty season. While it's too early to write off the Dynamo, it's equally hard to wrap one's head around expecting much from them.

Colorado Rapids (2)
It's something like ridiculously bad in Commerce City. This club is snake-bit like they fell into one of those rattlesnake wintering caves during the post-season. In spite of creating a number of highly-credible chances, the. ball. would. just. not. go. in. Suffice to say, a sense of injustice welled up inside mi Corazon (seriously, that gets auto-capped?). The pisser is that I saw plenty of Rapids players turning in very good games: I know Michael Harrington well enough to know that he played great on their right; Gabriel Torres was tireless and often good; Dillon Powers just missed his moment; Juan Ramirez looks like a real deal, if not the real deal; and Vicente Sanchez put in a super-sub shift to envy. And yet they're scoreless. Hell, even Bobby Burling looked good, and they still let in two goals – including a bullshit PK. I'll be writing up the penalty-kick-that-wasn't fiasco on Wednesday...the point is, Marcelo Sarvas wasn't far off with talk about curses. We're talking tiki-powered shit like from that old Brady Bunch. And I don't Sarvas should play as a number 10. Just sayin'...

Philadelphia Union (1)
Going purely by highlights, wow, Philly fans must be suffering after this one. I saw the up-and-down see-saw stuff that everyone saw after the game, but until I saw the highlights, I had no idea how close the Union came to making it 3-1; how, Michael Lahoud, how? And yet. And yet, let me get this straight: Rais Mbohli went out to defend a cross on KC's first goal and he wound up just...lying down (crap; had to link to the highlights; bear with it)? Somehow? Sweet Jesus, how did Algeria survive any stage of the World Cup? The man is entirely useless on crosses, enough that I fell blessed, beatified and sainted all at once to have Adam Kwarasey as the 'keeper in Portland. There is a bright spot, Philly fans, and he hails from Venezuela (that'd be Fernando Aristeguieta). But, yes, absolutely do something about that goalkeeper situation. Comb the local rec leagues. You, literally, can't do worse.

Wow...I’ve got to start shortening these entries. Eh, fuck it. Tell you what. Anyone out there who's made it all the way through to end of this, holy shit, do I owe you a beer...hit me up if you live in Portland*.

*MASSIVE DISCLAIMER: I will do this, literally, twice. After that, hell no.

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