Wednesday, April 15, 2015

MLS Previews: NYCFC v. Portland Timbers. And All That.

It's ON!
Right, preview time. Major League Soccer (MLS), Week 7. Let's see if this week finally makes sense of anything. Just going to jump right in with the main attraction (for the locals). Yea, the last shall be first. Pretty sure that’s in the Bible.

New York City FC v. Portland Timbers
(Sunday, April 19, 4 p.m.)
I have just taken in New York City FC's (NYCFC's) last three games in form of a delicious, condensed paste. The following is my report.

Scouting New York City FC
NYCFC's opposition over the past three games has been, to put it metaphorically, the stuff that the cream rises above: the Colorado Rapids, Sporting Kansas City, and the Philadelphia Union. Two of those teams have worn the "League-worst" label at some point during this brief 2015 season; in fact, Manchester Jr. (aka, NYCFC), faced the Rapids during a stretch when their goal-scoring slump was simultaneously record-breaking and allergic. In that time, New York's second team put together a 0-2-1 record. And that basically makes them New Jersey, right?

In NYCFC's defense, they played one of those games during an international break, which robbed them of Adam Nemec (meh); that same week, I think an injury/suspension/whatever robbed them of their marquee player/attraction, David Villa, plus a couple other guys who may or may not matter (Sebastian Valesquez and Shawn Facey). When KC came to visit that week, well, to put it unkindly, the Missouri club faced a team smack in the middle of the MLS median. New York fielded the average of the average, players like Andrew Jacobson, Mehdi Ballouchy, Jason Hernandez, Patrick Mullins, and even Ned Grabavoy. I can name some other names besides (say, Jason Hernandez and Chris Wingert), and, personally, I rate all those players as somewhere between quality (Grabavoy, Wingert, and Hernandez) and solid depth (Jacobson and Ballouchy). They lost to KC that night, if narrowly, but, to borrow a cliché, KC can’t score in a brothel with bank-roll, so there's that.

Anyone interested in seeing what Nemec and Villa can do on their own should enjoy this slick moment against the Rapids. That's of particular interest because New York looked outright winded through the first half of that game; they only caught their lungs in the second half and, at that point, they managed a couple chances - again, mainly through Villa. On the other hand, incompetent as it was, they wound up on the wrong side of a Colorado shooting gallery that night and were generally lucky to escape. The single most impressive statistic compiled so far compiled during that time the 72%-28% advantage in possession they held during the second half against the Union. And look where that got them (a loss).

All the above noted and acknowledged, I learned my lesson last week: I will never again presume that the Portland Timbers can't find a way to lose to an expansion club, or anyone else. In Grabavoy and Mix Diskerud, New York has guys who can play possession; Villa is a genuine talent (and he likes to flair to the left, where he'll meet Alvas Powell on Portland's right) and Nemec is...well, he's big and reasonably fast. And he scored for his native Slovakia while away on international duty...though that was against Luxembourg, which like pushing over a kitten. Still, I think they're a pretty straightforward team with a pretty simple approach. They enjoyed their best sequence I've seen so far in their goal against Philadelphia. Let NYCFC's attackers do that, and they can break you down. So, that's the threat. Where does Portland come in?

UPDATE, Based on 20 minutes' worth of soccer, NYCFC v. Philadelphia Union (April 17, 2015)
NYCFC looked (reasonably) set to win last night, till they coughed up a late equalizer to Philly's C. J. Sapong, aka, The Masked Avenger. Recalled their season-opening loss to Orlando City SC, except they let in a good goal in this game. A point at home can’t feel great, nor can a 1-3-2 record. At any rate, I have just a couple bullet points to add to the above:

- Kwame Watson-Siriboe has challenged rashly in just about every highlights/condensed game/actual game I've seen so far – and he has the cards to prove it. I'd try to go at him, but on the ground; paging Darlington Nagbe.

- Javier Calle pushes far enough up the wings that I thought he played midfield. Nope, he's the left back. Josh Williams seems to play a little deeper than he did with Columbus Crew SC, during 2014. I view Calle's positioning as another reason to start Dairon Asprilla over Rodney Wallace. When Porter starts Nagbe, he seems to have him pull inside, to let Alvas Powell sneak up and get isolated on the wing, but I like the idea of doubling up to really work that wing, with an eye for some of the same long diagonals, the club has played to Powell.

- NYCFC appears most comfortable attacking like New England – e.g. setting up siege and trying to break down the defense with short passes and quick movement; at least that’s where they found their most promising moments against Philly. Mix, Nemec, Grabavoy, and Ballouchy (who scored last night’s goal; good one, too), can all do this fairly effectively. The $64 Question (no zeroes, this is MLS, after all) is whether the Timbers can do a better job keeping them out of Zone 14 than Philly did.

- Finally, David Villa is a sneaky little shit. His footwork in the area is as quick and instinctive as you like. Villa isolated against Borchers or Ridgewell is one way to spell "disaster" on Sunday.

- Last night only reinforced my impression that NYCFC fields some seriously average starters. As much as I've seen him do a thing or two, Andrew Jacobson is my Exhibit A for this. In all honesty, Portland should work the middle as much as they're able and generally cut inside. We are not a strong crossing team and New York’s soft enough in the middle that the Timbers might be able to play to their strength.

OK, back to previous programming.

About Portland
On the defensive side, NYCFC coughed up a lot of chances against both Colorado and KC, particularly from "Zone 14" (I think) – e.g. the place on top of the penalty area. That should work nicely for Portland, whose general strength (can?) on both sides of the ball resides in midfield. Regardless of who Caleb Porter pairs with Diego Chara in central midfield, I like our chances of keeping New York from a lot of short passing on top of our area (says the guy who thought Orlando City SC wouldn't pass circles around the Timbers; this is my penance, people). Josh Williams, who I haven't mentioned, and assuming he's fit, will probably/possibly bomb up Portland's right to play in crosses to Nemec (even though I didn’t see much of either player doing that), while Villa will (probably) try to operate in the gap between Powell and whomever generally plays toward his side in Portland's central defense. (NOTE: in all honesty, I'm mostly discussing how I'd coach NYCFC based on my knowledge of Portland).

I like the Timbers midfield against this group. If Darlington Nagbe keeps doing what he's been doing, he should find and/or create more room than usual in which to operate. And, as advocated for over past weeks, I'd be fine seeing Dairon Asprilla start over Rodney Wallace. I mean, why not? I'd even deviate from the 4-4-2, maybe try more of a 4-4-1-1 as The Shin Guardian tweeted last week (embed, man; learn how!), with Nagbe under Fanendo Adi. Thanks to the field at Yankee Stadium, there won't be a lot of width...which isn't such a big deal. I've seen the Timbers cross.

Bottom line, I've seen New York's attack and, while the talent is there, it's a little lonely. I think their midfield is average, their defense and goalkeeping, solid. Play patient, but put them under pressure and I think they'll crack. Portland's better, on paper and off of it. It's just about application. Which has, admittedly, been lacking. Uh, here and there.

OK, moving on the rest of Week 7's games. And quickly.

New York City FC v. Philadelphia Union
Wait, you mean Portland gets a winded NYCFC to boot? Woo-hoo! As hinted at above, Philly rolled the New York Lite last weekend, in spite of the deeply lopsided (2nd half) possession stats. Moreover, New York defended Philly's first goal with some serious expansion-team wobblies. Given the teams involved – e.g. no great shakes, all 'round – anything can happen. But don't take that to mean it's going to be watchable.

Red Bull New York v. San Jose Earthquakes
With Friday night's game, yeah, now we're talkin'. Just about everyone rates O.G. New York (aka, the Red Bulls) and with good reason: as they showed against DC United last weekend, they can grind when they can't dazzle. The 'Quakes, meanwhile, have demonstrated a keen solidity. With Clarence Goodson back and paired with Victor Bernardez, they're strong defensively and they have the weapons to attack from that foundation in Shea Salinas, Adam Jahn ( he suspended?), and (is that his name?) Matias Perez Garcia. Looking forward to this one, even as I think San Jose will sit back for the rope-a-dope.

DC United v. Houston Dynamo
Bluntly, I don't think much of Houston; for my money, Montreal outplayed them last weekend. DC, on the other hand, impressed me last weekend. That tells you what I expect, but this is MLS. I'm guessing that, at worst, DC will grind out a 1-0. Tyler Deric, whose name dances with the wind in this 2015 (wish I knew Spanish for that one) is the X-Factor.

Columbus Crew SC v. Orlando City SC
Had Columbus not done what they did to Vancouver in Vancouver, and had Orlando not done what they did to Portland in Portland, I would have written this one off. Orlando, especially, made good on their early-season play from everywhere on the field, but the front line. Columbus, on the other hand, continues to suffer under that unbearable "unfulfilled potential" label. If there's a word for this one, it's "potential." Still, could be the game of the week.

FC Dallas v. Toronto FC
OK, no. This, for me, is the game of the week. Two clubs thrown to together into Cage Match of Desperation! Dallas, the home club, seeks to crawl out of their recent slump, while the visitors, Toronto, has to climb out of their entire club history, with enormous fucking bags of gold coins strapped to their shoulders. That's a tall order, especially with Toronto key-man Michael Bradley having run through the full 90 tonight.

Colorado Rapids v. Seattle Sounders FC (or is it SC?)
This one should be better than it looks on paper. Or it could be decidedly worse. No, they haven't done much right since mid-2014, but the one thing Colorado has done well in 2015 is defend. Seattle has to figure out a way around that – quite possibly without Clint Dempsey, the Dean Martin to Obafemi Martins' Jerry Lewis. Or is it the other way around? (Quick plug: I'm reading Nick Tosches Dino, and I recommend it heartily. Even lustily.)

Real Salt Lake v. Vancouver Whitecaps
Going by current form, expect any excitement in this one to come from Vancouver; expect grim, grinding competence from Salt Lake, all while praying for some leavening brilliance from Javier Morales. The way the 'Caps travel, combined with how stoutly RSL defends, this one looks like a methodical snoozer. 0-0, 1-0: these are no one's favorite numbers, so join me in a goal-dance for Salt Lake. Or a(nother) shock result from Vancouver.

Los Angeles Galaxy v Sporting Kansas City
With Ike Opara out for a while, KC is hurting on both sides of the ball. Add Graham Zusi, Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers to the mix and...ugh. The Galaxy survived against Seattle this weekend, courtesy of some obvious shooting by the Sounders and a noteworthy night for Jaime Penedo. Based on recent form, does anyone expect KC to test the Galaxy like Seattle did? Nope. Which means this is LA's game to play. Let's see what they do with it...

Philadelphia Union v. New England Revolution
I am mad at the Revs and will be till they start playing pretty. Philly just needs love, brotherly and other. Then again, it hardly helps that they, like NYCFC, will be playing their second game of the week on Sunday. As such, my expectations for this one are low, unless New England wakes up or takes crazy chances. One potential cure: if Philly gives more time to C. J. Sapong and Conor Casey. Philly looked sharper to me last week after the two veteran attackers came on.

OK, all for this week. At least previews-wise. Bon chance, all y'all!

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