Friday, April 24, 2015

MLS Week 8 Previews: Seattle v. Portland, The Thrilla in Vanilla! (And the other games)

Week 8 has already kicked off, by now, but there's plenty of MLS soccer ahead this weekend. Topping the bill this weekend, The Only Game That Matters, The Thrilla in Vanilla, yep, that's right, Seattle Sounders FC v. Portland Timbers.

And, to all those other rivalries out there, you're doing it wrong. (Kidding (inspired by #3). I enjoy everything about Seattle v. Portland, but I couldn't give less of a shit about that stuff.)

With that out of the way, it’s preview time.

Seattle Sounders FC v. Portland Timbers
For starters, the gap between how I see the Portland Timbers and how other (maybe) smart(er), and definitely better-connected observers see them has the noodles that make up my brain unraveling a little. The team I watched fumbled all over that tiny Yankee Stadium pitch with all the grace and confidence of a teenage boy (or me) trying to undo a bra (look, it's not my long suit). Portland eventually got to what NYCFC couldn't – e.g. bumbling the ball over the line – so they won. Even the one thing the Timbers did well didn't look so graceful. Yeah, yeah, Adam Kwarasey won Save of the Week (start watching about 1:10 in there). I mean, that's a no-look save in the end (the vote is rigged; stupid democracy). The man flinched. (Not judging; I would have flinched and squealed.)

While not everyone saw the game - and see the Timbers' season as a whole - differently, enough people do to make me question my perspective and/or sanity. To me the Timbers look like a eleven guitar players simultaneously playing eleven different solos. Calmer people answer back with numbers – e.g. the Armchair Analyst reminding me of Darlington Nagbe's impressive chance creation statistics, followed by the Soccer Made in Oregon noting that Nagbe created as many chances in the second half against New York City FC as a lot of players do in an entire game.

But, damn me if I can't stop evil, doubting questions from popping into my head: what, exactly, does "chances created" mean? What's a "chance"? Portland v. NYCFC didn't feature a ton of clear openings.

Basically, the whole week has felt like everyone telling me the sky is orange, while all I see when I look up is blue. All that has me of a mind to take a different approach to the preview this week, say, weighing Portland's constituent parts against Seattle's constituent parts and seeing how they stack up. Here goes:

Portland's Defense v. Seattle's Attack
A lot of this boils down to keeping Clint Dempsey or Obafemi Martins from doing this. Given Portland's individual defender's gift for making massive blunders, expect Timbers to live and die by how well they defend as a unit – e.g. Martins will slip past one defender, inevitably, which makes it critical that another Timbers player stays nearby and alert, perhaps even cheating a little to ensure he can cover it, even if this invites Martins to slip a pass to someone else (just not Dempsey, please). Every Timbers should do his damnedest to channel Seattle's players where there's either less risk, or some support. Shackling Martins and Dempsey will go a long way toward accomplishing this, but, with Seattle having just about everyone available (yeah, yeah, except him; getting to it), Seattle can throw a lot of looks at Portland: both Lamar "One-Hot-Week" Neagle and Marco Pappa do just fine cutting inside and out, while Gonzalo Pineda distributes from deep positions as well as anyone in MLS. Meanwhile, the freshly-returned Osvaldo Alonso does so much for the Sounders and so very well...I'm just never quite sure what it is he does. So that's everything, I guess. Even as I think the game will turn on Portland's capacity to prevent this from happening – and that's on Diego Chara and whomever he's partnered with (personally, pulling for Jack Jewsbury) - I expect that the day will oblige Nat Borchers, Liam Ridgewell, and Kwarasey to put out of a lot of fires. As much as I made fun of him above, Kwarasey has looked more and more comfortable every week, so I think mistake-free games from Borchers and Ridgewell, or the opposite, could very well decide this one. Comforting? Uh....Oh, one last concern to flag: Alvas Powell is one yellow card away from sitting out for yellow card accumulation. You can bet that Seattle knows this and they've shared this pro-tip with both Neagle and Pappa.

Seattle's Defense v. Portland's Attack
(Apart from Portland's long-acknowledged and much-missed long-term injuries) Both clubs have missing parts here: Rodney Wallace for Portland and, yeah, the big one, Chad Marshall for Seattle. This will leave the Sounders scrambling a little at the back, given fits-'n'-starts struggles of the Brad Evans experiment and the likely insertion of a cool (as in, not warmed up) Zac Scott. Anyone wanting to sell Scott short should perhaps talk to Sporting Kansas City's Ike Opara, who rated him one of the toughest defenders in MLS to beat on set-pieces in back-to-back podcasts. Look, say what you want about Scott, he's pretty damn reliable. Slow, but reliable. As everyone knows, Tyrone Mears took over DeAndre Yedlin's spot at right back and that's good news for Portland's defense, but bad for the attack; less likely to open up a break in transition, you see. I think the guy on the other side, whomever it winds up being, has roughly the same tendencies; in other words, I think Portland will face a back-four that's largely content to sit home and let everyone else on the Sounders' side attack. Ideally, this will free up space for Nagbe. Even if his game confuses me sometimes, I like his chances for finding openings against the Sounders. The big question for Portland, and it's still open so far as I know (though I Soccer Made in Portland expects the same line-up from last weekend), is, uh, how Portland will line-up. Personally, I'm pulling for a return to the 4-4-2, with both Maximiliano Urruti and Fanendo Adi up top (midfield will be Nagbe, Dairon Asprilla, Chara and Jewsbury). The point here is to get at Seattle's center-backs as often and intensely as possible. The only thing Adi and Urruti need to do together is bug Seattle's back-line, and that's something they can do apart just fine. Bottom line, I'm not expecting fluid, coordinated attacking from Portland (though I am hoping for it), so much as disruption and quick exploitation.

And, briefly, goalkeepers: I rate Stefan Frei higher than I do Kwarasey. That said, I am damn eager for Kwarasey to win me over. We're talking single-red rose, people. (Wait. It's not just asking for anal?)

That only leaves one question: what do I expect? Here, I'll confess to a massive, perhaps overwhelming bias: I think soccer should look a certain way; if a team can't possess the ball and dictate the game, they need to look confident in absorbing pressure, and then fluid, decisive and efficient in the whole transition/counter thing; without the latter, a string of passes across the back is just an invitation for the opposition to pressure your backs and force crappy, long passes. Or, in other words, turnovers. Because the latter typifies Portland too much this season – e.g. just...uncomfortable – I'm having some trouble buying in. With that in mind, I want to see the Timbers play aggressive, up-tempo, and disruptive soccer. If they can do that, I think they have a decent chance at rolling the Sounders, and a good chance at a result.

OK, on to the rest of the mess. At least one of the first two games is already in the books and that’s fine. I haven't changed a word from the original (tell me how I did!). Previews for the rest of the games come after those. Note I referenced the disciplinary and injury reports extensively for this.

Chicago Fire v. New York City FC
The Fire returns to action after in intra-season break that amounted to a second off-season. NYCFC, meanwhile, would probably take the same kind of layoff over their current winless streak. Assuming they come out guns a-blazin', Chicago will test the poop out of NYCFC's defense – something the Timbers rarely managed last week. NYCFC will likely counter by holding onto the ball. If Chicago can shake loose some turnovers, I bet they can roll the newcomers – and compound their miserable start to 2015.

Colorado Rapids v. FC Dallas
There might be a little heat to this one. Something about four goals surgically-inserted up Dallas' collective butts, and in their house, a couple weeks back. Can Dallas bring the payback? At the risk of making a really stupid prediction, I'm saying no – at least not enough to even the score. Whatever Colorado's shortcomings (e.g. coaching, till recently, scoring), they have been solid defensively. Having a savvy old goat like Drew Moor back in the fold can only help – especially on set-piece defending. Dallas' best hope comes with killing the Rapids in transition, but that's a "two-to-tango" scenario.

Columbus Crew SC v. Philadelphia Union
The best news for Philly comes with Cristian Maidana's return to full health, but the thing they really have to worry about is coughing up late, soul-crippling goals. Given the circumstances, a visit to Columbus is about the last thing they need, because the Ohio outfit is built for patience. If a couple names on the injury report (e.g. Vincent Nogueira and Fernando Aristeguieta) don't make the Union's starting line-up, the season could slip a little further away from them. And badly, potentially: last week taught us that the Crew knows how to exploit an opening.

New England Revolution v. Real Salt Lake
On a positive note, the names missing for this one (Chris Schuler, Jamison Olave, Carlos Saucedo for RSL; Jose Goncalves and Darius Barnes for New England; some potential, some actual) could wind up as a great day for goals. I mean, goals! The Revs might have found third gear, but RSL will give them a taller bar to measure against...or, well, they would have, had most of their defense been able to suit up. In the end, it could be RSL that gets the better chance to get on track. It's just that they've been so far from the thing so far this year without Javier Morales out there. And guess who's another potential absence. Um, maybe avoid this one...

Houston Dynamo v. Sporting Kansas City
Last week featured a number of games that looked great on paper. The weekend delivered, basically; not a goal-less draw in the bunch. And then we get to this game. Even more than the above, both these clubs have "still figuring it out" written all over their 2015. The scary thing is that Houston is probably closer than KC; even scarier for Houston fans, what happened last weekend in DC quite probably represents your Dynamo's ceiling. With Graham Zusi back, and pretty much everyone else available, or at worst questionable (Krisztian Nemeth), KC can throw everything but Ike Opara at Houston. That's, uh, leading goal-scorer Ike Opara. Time's not running out for KC, but it's definitely a-wastin'. A match-up between the West's two debutante clubs sure looked better at the beginning of the season...

Vancouver Whitecaps v. DC United
Ah, now that’s more like it! Even with the onus on the 'Caps to open things up at home, they'll still likely find DC hard to break down. But, wait, if Vancouver opens it up, doesn't that invite DC to counter with slick, experienced players like Chris Rolfe, Luis Silva and...wait for it...Fabian Espindola? Yep, Espindola's back and, frankly, I'd hate to play against a player that talented, that maniacally persistent, especially knowing he's positively chewing the bit to pieces at this point. On the other hand, who bites back harder and faster than Vancouver? Aw, SNAP! What we have here is a clear contestant for game of the week.

New York Red Bulls v. Los Angeles Galaxy
As does this one (for game of the week, I mean). What's likeliest to muck up this game's potential? Only the most irritating thing in the world – e.g. LA playing, well, pretty much like they have this season. With Robbie Keane (very probably) out, and given the turnover after 2014, LA has yet to find its feet in 2015...but that’s what they do every year, so what does that mean? The danger for New York is getting sucked in by a team that can absorb a lot of pressure. My guess is they'll find it fairly easy to turnover the ball, and in good places; getting past LA's back line will take some amount more. If there's a week to pray for a crap outing by Jaime Penedo (or whoever happens to start in goal for LA), it's this one. This one won't open all the way up unless LA is forced to chase it. Then, this one will have all kinds of potential.

Orlando City SC v. Toronto FC
This one makes for a sort of a fascinating match-up, really. Both teams can play – Toronto at the higher level, if you ask me. Orlando has the advantage of being able to defend, something that TFC can't claim without either giggling, or risking being called a pack of liars. History, current form, the state of Florida: all kinds of things conspire to make me pull for Toronto, so I hope they pull it out. If I were coaching them – that is, were I cursed to be Greg Vanney for a day – the line I'd be preaching all week is that the best defense is a great offense. So, get out there and kill, you boys in red.

All right. That's the weekend ahead. Can't wait to see what happened tonight, tomorrow morning.

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