Wednesday, April 22, 2015

MLS Midweek 3 X 5: Small Montreal's Mad Night and the Ballad of Eddie Johnson

Yea, let him fumbleth the ball.
Time to wrap up Major League Soccer's Week 7 with some deeper observations of trends, teams, and realities. Think I'll call it "MLS Week __, 3 Big Ideas, Five Small Thoughts." The goal is to add this to the weekly post rotation, which, happily, is finally taking shape.

Before getting into those, I do get in a little reading during the week, plus a couple podcasts. The insights I pick up in those readings serve as a nice corrective to my Divine Comedy/Rankings posts, which I very deliberately (or at least very deliberately intend) to post before taking in other people’s thoughts and opinions. It’s sort of an external bullshit detector. With that in mind, I’ll kick off this post with...

The Department of Corrections
Most of my blown calls reside where I do – e.g. the Pacific Northwest. First, Vancouver: a league-leading record and near-universal good opinion strongly suggests that my resistance to their early-2015 success has tip-toed into perversity. A couple podcasts (ExtraTime Radio's and SBI's) pointed out the obvious: in basic terms, the 'Caps play more conservatively on the road and open it up at home like, uh, all smart teams do; in other words, see the win over the Los Angeles Galaxy for their top-end and take keep those four road games (three of them wins) in perspective. Speaking of perspective, the Portland Timbers. My Portland Timbers. Why that win over New York City FC – again, "that win" - got me on the ledge (i.e. prompted me to "abandon all hope," as I did in the Week 7 Divine Comedy) I'll never know. Several people with a little more distance had the perspective to observe that a win, no matter how ugly, works like a savings account. Those three points your club barely earned will still be there if/when the results pick up because, say, a key player comes back from injury and gets the attack going, or maybe the defense full incorporates two new players in crucial positions. So, yeah, I got a little unhinged. The rare feedback I got (I don't get a lot) tells me I'm not alone in my frustration, but, yes, I over-reacted. To a win.

OK, on the main event!

3 Big Ideas
1) Montreal's _______ Night at the Azteca [appropriate punctuation]
To fill in the blank above, I'm going with stoic. And, for punctuation, let's go with something rather anti-stoic, an exclamation point. I mean, an exclamation point! As anyone who cares to knows by now, the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions' League (CCL) final ended 1-1, in Mexico City. The (fucking) ref laid his thumb pretty damn heavily on one side of the scale, by allowing: 1) Ignacio Piatti to suffer a challenge that was, in any language, cleats-up, hostile and reckless, without even calling a foul; 2) Club America players to function as a full-on parade of assholes, who volunteered to usher Dilly Duka off the field with impolite shoves; and, finally, and most egregiously, 3) let America's equalizer stand, in spite of the fact that America's goal-scorer wrapped his fucking arm around the neck of (I think) Calum Mallace to gain leverage for his header. So, in spite of the most stringent efforts of this (again, complete fucking asshole of a) referee, Montreal let Mexico with a pretty impressive draw, plus an away-goal, in hand. The stoicism angle comes in with the extreme dignity with which everyone associated with the Montreal Impact carried themselves throughout. They could have whined about the calls, they could have mobbed the ref for (willfully) missing the lunge on Piatti, they could have besieged him for missing the mugging on America's only goal, but they didn't. They just fucking got on with it. And got a result. Beyond a gloriously sold-out house and raucous Stade Olympique (kindly forgive my ignorance and lack of research with regard to the stadium's name) I have no expectations for the return leg. MLS's record in the CCL is not great – we all know this – so, wherever I am, I will be sending a head full of positive vibes toward the greater Montreal metropolitan area with the absolute and complete wishes that it will somehow matter. I also know that I want Montreal to bury that (fucking crooked) ref and lay Club America's extraordinarily disappointed corpse on top of, yeah, there's a little hostility in there, too. Just a little. Great fucking game, Montreal. You did the league, and Canada, damn proud.

2) Old Teams Whose Teeth Grow Ever Longer
For long-time followers of MLS, tonight's game couldn't help but dredge up memories of Real Salt Lake's ultimately tragic run to the final back in 2011. That RSL team was, for me, among the best the MLS ever produced, confident in possession, strong at the back, and blessed with inventive attacking players in all the right places. The same...general idea applies to the Houston Dynamo dynasty that ruled MLS back in the mid-aughts like the Galaxy has ruled the league since. Times have clearly changed for both clubs, and, given the convoluted roster rules for MLS clubs, it's hard to say where each club's tough decisions end and the limitations laid down by MLS's roster weirdness and salary rules begin. Regardless, what one sees in both cases are two clubs stocked with more than a few MLS legends – e.g. Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Brad Davis, and Ricardo Clark – inching, more or less gracefully, toward the twilight of their careers. The tragedy is, neither club has managed to line up a generation in waiting to accept the torch. RSL, in particular, retains a solid core: through the steady talents of Beckerman, Morales, Alvaro Saborio, Nick Rimando, and Tony Beltran, they started 2015 undefeated. Solid players like Chris Schuler (save for stupid injury), and rising talents like Luke Mulholland, mean that RSL will be competitive – but only to the soft point of reaching the post-season. That's no great accomplishment these days. Even with one of the more modest and egalitarian salary structures in MLS, entirely deserved rises in pay for all those players suck up resources that could bring in the higher-end players RSL needs to compete with free-spending clubs like LA and the Seattle Sounders. Yeah, they have room under the cap, but...consider the Toronto FC cautionary tale. The end result is squad/developing players like Devon Sandoval, Jordan Allen, and Luis Gil trying carry into the future as proud a tradition as MLS has ever seen. And, so far, they're just not up to. Transition's a bitch, I get that, but it's still tragic. Things look even worse for Houston, if for different reasons. That team's current structure leaves nothing for club legends like Davis and Clark but to limp towards retirement with an equally diminished supporting cast. Worse, the whole set up shackles new coach Owen Coyle to a team thats not his own, and that he cant re-build until those players either retire or move on. The latter isn't going to happen because, what other club in its right mind would take Davis at his age and salary? Under a normal, free-agency structure, Davis, or even Clark, could have seen his contract end (whenever that happened) and moved to another club, had the idea suited him, instead of being quietly forced to take the best money he's going to find by way of his popularity with his current club. The structure of contracts would be different under free agency, perhaps even vastly. MLS took a pass on this in both the last, and most current, collective bargaining agreements. My point is that this helps clubs and it doesn't. Well, theoretically...I'm still working on the shape of this, so feel free to argue.

3) The Ballad of EJ, and DC United'’s Future
Reports periodically bubble out of the DC press (mostly via the highly tied-in Steven Goff) that Eddie "Grown-Ass Man" Johnson will soon retire due to an over-sized heart. This sucks on a couple levels. First, Johnson was the kind of personality MLS needs - mostly because he had a personality. Look, the guy reliably did and said stupid shit every season, but he was 110% human. In a league of bland team guys, that was flat-out awesome. I would much, much rather go out for beers with Johnson than I would with some whacked-out jock like, say, Chris Wondolowski. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely admire and respect Wondolowski, but I'm actually interested in Eddie Johnson. If nothing else, he was one of the few MLS players that I felt like I really understood. DC will lose that, and MLS will lose that – and MLS is taking the bigger blow. DC, on the other hand, gets a little lucky – or, if they don't, they bloody well should. Assuming Johnson retires, that should free up his salary space on DC's roster and, god yes, DC needs something in the attack. Badly. They still have Chris Rolfe, who has started 2015 strong as anyone could hope for. Jairo Arrieta, on the other hand, does several things well...just not finish, which is sort of a forward's defining skill. Fabian Espindola comes back next week, and not a minute too soon, but DC needs more than that still, especially with Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon still not sticking to their potential from 2013 (2012? Yep, 2012) season. Assuming Johnson leaves, DC should be able to pick up a fairly big-ticket attacking player – i.e. the designated-player-sized hole that Johnson left behind him. Again, that's great for DC. Fans of MLS do lose out, though, by losing a player that half of us love, and the other half of us hate. That's why, personally, I wish Eddie could have gone out on a higher note. I wish he could have retired after reviving his career with the Sounders, and helping the U.S. to the 2014 World Cup. Like a lot of people, I wish Eddie went to the 2014 World Cup. He didn't, though, and his career looks like it's going to end on a down as result. And that sucks. Good luck with the future, Eddie Johnson. You were a lot of things, sir, but you were never once boring. And that’s one hell of a legacy.

Five Small Thoughts
1) Year of the Goalkeeper
Every week, du Nord's podcast obsesses over the number of goals scored over the past weekend. Lo, they have lamented often this 2015. Look at the equation from the other side and consider the possibility that goalkeepers are just killin' it this year. Tyler Deric gets, and earns, a lot of press, but think about getting the ball around Vancouver's David Ousted, Red Bulls' Luis Robles, Jr., or DC's Bill Hamid. The names keep coming if you think about it – e.g. Stefan Frei in Seattle, Steve Clark for Crew SC, even the Revs' Bobby Shuttleworth. Hell, Nick Rimando has been so good for so long that people use his name as a goddamn verb (Portlanders cross themselves on hearing his name; no? couldn’t hurt to start clearly). Scoring in soccer isn't easy and a lot of these 'keepers up the ante in MLS.

2) Expansion Club Blues
Building a reliably competent attack typically comes last for any iteration of a soccer team. It's somewhat fitting, then, that both expansion teams have struggle a little with this (goals for to date: 5 for NYCFC and six for Orlando). It's even more noteworthy with NYCFC and Orlando City SC, in that pundits and neutrals generally credit both clubs for trying to do it right. Each club probably views the other as a rival, if only for 2015, so I'm betting there's at least a little at stake. Respectable as both clubs' defenses are, I'm putting my money on the club that sorts its offense first. Who's gonna do it? Can't tell yet. I think it's going to take some buying, tinkering and tuning for both clubs.

3) The Next Venezuelan Great* (*by Which I Mean "Venezuela Great")
While Venezuela rarely comes up in discussions of soccer hotbeds, that country has imported some memorable forwards to MLS – e.g. Giovanni Savarese, who poached goals for the old NY/NJ MetroStars, and Alejandro Moreno, a journeyman who was positively gifted at drawing fouls. (No need for a "where is he now" on Moreno: he’s in the broadcast booth saying something weird more often than anyone on sanity's side of Paul Caligiuri.) For me, Philly’s copper-topped new acquisition, Fernando Aristeguieta, very much belongs to this same tradition. I don't know if all Venezuelans do the maniacal running thing, but every Venezuelan forward who comes to MLS sure seems to. Anyway, I bet he's good for at least 10 goals this season. And that ain't bad.

4) The Maginot Line. One That Works
I don't think he picked up much ink even when he signed last season, but the Red Bulls might have quietly acquired an assured central defender in Damien Perrinelle. The big Frenchman first caught my eye when he nodded home goal while sandwiched between two Philadephia Union defenders...uh, nope, turned out he scored that one against DC United. Regardless, he has kept popping up since in the right place and the right time in every full and condensed game I watch.

5) Mass Confrontation Rule
Yes, referees are annoying narcs. But, Jesus, consider that god-awful, eternally-bleating rabble they're cursed to manage. Ahead of 2014, MLS made noises about putting an end to mass confrontations – e.g. the shoving, grasping blobs of players pulling at them and yelling in the refs' faces. They followed up with warnings to a couple clubs in 2015, apparently, but a big meltdown in the Columbus v. Orlando match argues that the message hasn't gotten through – especially for Crew SC. It's on the league to follow through with fines; in Hernan Grana's case, I'd throw in a suspension as well. That shit's not just annoying, it's embarrassing. So crackdown on it...

...then get just as serious with keeping bad refs – e.g. the guys who let dangerous play happen – as far away from a whistle as humanly possible.

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