Sunday, May 3, 2015

MLS Divine Comedy, Week 9: Some Souls Settling for the Long Haul

Getting bigger. Thought I'd focus on the positive...
Well, OK, there went Major League Soccer's Week 9. And, no, I don't know what the Hell do to with Tuesday's game. Week 9? Week 10? Some weird outlier that we can all ignore? Who is it? Ew, Houston Dynamo v. San Jose Earthquakes. Um, I hereby formally move that this game, and all its particulars, be stricken from the league record. Any seconds?

Week 9 wasn't the most exciting of weekends - the scoring wasn't high as it could have been, etc. – but it did confirm some trends surrounding some MLS clubs. And, yes, I write that fully cognizant of the fact that 25 regular season games remain in the 2015 season and that, yes, all kinds of things can change: new personnel, current players finding new levels of comfort, etc. etc. That said, some clubs appear trapped too deeply in certain patterns, failings, and personnel shortcomings, as will be reflected below. I will identify them specifically all that way at the end. Feel free to skip down to it, but I'd appreciate it if you, y’know, took the time to skim the reasoning.

Overall, the most striking thing about this 2015 season gets at the heart of everything that is right, and that is wrong MLS. First, take the Montreal Impact out of the equation and you wind up with a pretty damn modest gap between first place teams in the teams chasing for playoff places. For instance, just seven points (presently) separate "good" FC Dallas from a "bad" Houston Dynamo. That's great, in one sense, all that parity, a league of roughly equal teams means every club has a better chance of staying alive for more of the season.

Unfortunately, that reality very directly begs the question of why every frickin' team has to make the post-season. So long as you've built the league so that no set of elite clubs are likely to run away with it, doesn't the playoff system then just double-down on parity, thereby making it redundant? Expect this line of thought to go on for a very, very, very long time. Even as I keep watching three or four games every weekend that mean, frankly, not a whole lot. Speaking of, I took in the following three games this weekend:
New England Revolution v. New York Red Bulls
Portland Timbers v. Vancouver Whitecaps
Sporting Kansas City v. Chicago Fire
OK, enough with the blah, blah, blah. Every MLS team is organized below between states of their post-season after-life: Heaven (clearly post-season-bound); Purgatory (neither they, nor I, know what the fuck they're doing); and, obviously, Hell (long-term prospects point toward lakes of fire and ice and/or eternal suffering). And...let's go.

DC United (2)
Just...competent. And ruthlessly, especially with Fabian Espindola back and Chris Rolfe playing the way he is: that's perilously close to one of the league's best two-man tandems (crucial distinction). If they get Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius rolling, holy shit. I don't know DC well enough to say how far they can go till their depth wears out, but they’re great for now.

New England Revolution (3)
Frame this one with the Revs' second goal: even if Red Bulls' defense collapsed, uh, overly, that kind of movement and passing creates success. As in that's how the game is played, when played well. New England's doing that and, with the defense showing signs of real depth (only partial Jose Goncalves? No problem!), the Revolution looks close to their 2014 incarnation.

FC Dallas (3)
It was only today that it struck me that Dallas destroyed the Houston Dynamo without Michel and without set pieces. Fabian Castillo played the same role he's played since 2014 – e.g. scaring/scarring opposition defenders, but everyone benefits, really. Even if Dallas isn't beating the best (see: Toronto FC and Houston), good teams always beat worse ones. That's what makes a good team.

Seattle Sounders (4)
I want nothing more than to drop this club to the Big Celestial Waiting Room, but, Seattle's third goal says everything that needs saying: there's no need to control a game when you can get an entry pass of the quality that Clint Dempsey played to Obafemi Martins. Seattle's star men have all of it. Goddammit. Oh, and Martins got screwed on that yellow. He didn't dive...

Columbus Crew SC (4)
Columbus gets to keep the halos 'n' harps because it's damned rare to see a team that lost 2-0 create that many good, quality chances. If there's a goal to complain about, it's DC's second – blown marking and all that. But the Crew forced DC to make adjustments, it sounds like they did fine on, not just possession, but positive possession. The point is, every team loses. Good ones look better doing it.

Red Bull New York (4)
The draw to the Colorado Rapids was what it was – e.g. part of the "disappointment" previously cited – but the loss to New England wasn't all bad, even if handed the Red Bulls their first defeat of 2015. They fought back, for one. The guy to flag here is Matt Miazga. Yeah, Charlie Davies burned him for the Revs' opener, but both he, and the rest of Red Bull's combined defense, addressed some questions – and against one of MLS's most complicated attacks. I wanna talk about Mike Grella, too. Dammit. No time.

Vancouver Whitecaps (5)
For me, though, the club continues to underwhelm...but one of the league's best records flat-out has to keep them afloat. The Pedro Morales conundrum continues – e.g. he doesn't show up to every game, especially the road events – which bites a little given that the rest of the club, Octavio Rivero chief among them, definitely did. I said some more stuff about Vancouver here (see: first talking point).

Los Angeles Galaxy (3 1/2)
Yep, finally demoted. One headline I read (haven't got to the article yet) says it all - e.g. roughly, that LA are still figuring it out after Donovan and Sarvas. OK, fine. But to draw a Colorado Rapids team, short on rest and my outlandish estimation of them aside, and in LA? Good teams don't do’ll see this theme above, certainly, and maybe below. The shorter version reads, if Alan Gordon is your bright spot...

Sporting Kansas City (3)
Sporting very quietly racked up the chances against Chicago (example) until, finally, they knocked one in. The manner of it mattered – mainly because they'd set up (and missed) some clear chances (looking at you, Dom Dwyer). Basically, Chicago defended too narrowly too often and KC finally put in a cross that couldn't miss. Finding a way to win is great, but I think they'll value the clean sheet a little more.

Chicago Fire (2 1/2)
Chicago plays crazy vertical and the addition of David Accam only aggravates that tendency. Speaking of, the Ghanaian might have at least revealed his level against one of MLS's better teams. Look, I like Chicago's parts – and I think they've got Shaun Maloney well in the fold – but something about this bunch feels limited.

Montreal Impact (2)
These guys are still in MLS. Swear to god. OK, yes, next weekend. Oh shit. Against Portland, too. More next weekend. Quite a bit, I imagine.

Colorado Rapids (3)
To get a little loosey-goosey on this one, the Rapids coaching staff rather abruptly looks like they appreciate the gravity of their situation. Pablo Mastroeni, in particular, has traded the Zen quiet for barking fits on the sideline. More to the point, and regardless of each week's score-line, the Rapids have punched close to even with any team they've played. And that's why I rate them.

Portland Timbers (9)
Sure, Portland's failure to take all three points underlines some troubling, perhaps even systemic, trends with my local club, the Timbers did manage to handle Vancouver fairly comfortably at home. What's more, the club's one-man cavalry stormed across the Pampas this weekend. Yessir, Diego Valeri played his first minutes and, as argued here, the club already looked better.

Toronto FC (3)
I barely buy Toronto at this point. Sure, the lone goal they scored was an otherworldly beauty (deal-with-the-devil? I see that eye, Sebastian) – because, who does that besides Atomic Ants? – and a cluster of sweaty men naturally followed. And, yes, two consecutive wins can mean something, but how underwhelming is a 1-0 over the consensus worst team in MLS? It's not like Jozy posted a pair of classics last weekend, either. Thin stuff for a club packing a fat wallet.

San Jose Earthquakes (0)
Credit them for ably defending a series of crappy crosses, sure, but the lone goal they scored against Real Salt Lake was spiritually offside, even if, under the strictest of interpretations, it wasn't. (But it was, right?) Based on my highly indirect observation of San Jose this season, they're scrappy. But how far will that take them, because 2015 scrappy feels significantly lesser than 2012 scrappy.

Real Salt Lake (2)
Right, right: it was last week where Kyle Beckerman died with his boots on inside his own 18. This week featured (admittedly, what looked like) a barely-watchable Fiesta del Slop-'n'-Shit vs. San Jose. The defining element of this game? A never-ending series of errant/desperate crosses. The old RSL is long gone; nothing exemplifies that quite like the singling out of Devon Sandoval as a bright spot on the night. Welcome to Hell, kiddies. It's a long damn way from Utah.

Houston Dynamo (1)
Repeatedly allowing multiple goals both defined and doomed the Dynamo in 2014. Even if one (rightly) takes away last week's bullshit penalty against KC, the past two weeks' seven-goal bleed has to revive bad memories. Last week, I wondered if Houston could keep raising their ceiling; the loss to Dallas presented the flip-side by very clearly engaging that ceiling.

Orlando City FC (2 1/2)
Bye week for this bunch. The $64,000 question (this is MLS, after all) is whether they sorted out their situation at forward. While they did get some good news on that score, Martin Peterson (The Irish Solution) didn't exactly tear up the scoring records in his previous leagues.

New York City FC (2 1/2)
A stray statistic during the broadcast of their loss to Seattle seems worth noting – e.g. that NYCFC has let in 4 goals past the 70th in 2015. Their players sure looked cooked when Seattle picked them apart for their third. Still, NYCFC snuck in some decent play late. For all its good attributes – e.g. decent players Mehdi Ballouchy, Ned Grabavoy and Mix; Patrick Mullins actually impresses me - and they look completely capable of knocking around the ball – NYCFC's results speak louder. That just can't be ducked.

Philadelphia Union (2)
League's far-worst goals against average; check. Just...there's nothing much more to say than this: the Union does not look like they know what they're doing out there. The emblematic moment came in the 54th when Raymond Gaddis made the 100%-correct run and Eric Ayuk over-cooked the ball in. It's just all a step to the wrong side of the right line with Philly. Either Jim Curtin is in way over his head, or the club needs to blow it all up and start all over.

And, to wrap up, the observations I made above on the following teams read like trends to me: DC; Seattle; Chicago; Salt Lake; Houston; and Philly. Everyone else feels like things could change...interesting...

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