Sunday, May 24, 2015

MLS Week 12 Rankings: The Underdogs Punch Upward and Taintward

Step One: Just getting into the truck.
This will remain a power rankings post – and those rankings will come up (or near the) top – but the bulk of the content below discusses what I saw, or thought I saw, in the games from Major League Soccer's 12th Week. Without going too deep into the thought process, single-game performance and overall form don't always run on the same track – an argument supported by several games in MLS's Week 12. In some ways, then, this boils down to separating head (analyzing a game) from heart (arguing one team is better than any given other). Should be easier to readers, too, in that they read about the games they want to and skip the rest.

Speaking of, I tucked in for a full meal during Week 12 (as in, three courses):
Toronto FC v. Portland Timbers
Colorado Rapids v. Vancouver Whitecaps
Seattle Sounders v. Sporting Kansas City
View that selection of games through the right lens (e.g. Cascadia tinted) and you'll notice a pattern: this space might adopt the practice of watching the Cascadia teams every weekend, picking other games as necessary to reach my full complement of three games. Stay tuned...

...and shit weekend for Cascadia, yeah?

So, what kind of weekend was MLS's Week 12? Underdogs bit up, for starters. The Philadelphia Union put in the biggest bite when they took a piece out of the New York Red Bulls – at Red Bull Arena, no less – but the Montreal Impact’'s jawed on FC Dallas leg bones, while the Rapids gave a not-sharp-enough Vancouver a little nip. After that, a couple late "moments" built on reputations (here, I'm looking at the lucky Los Angeles Galaxy mugging all three points from the Houston Dynamo) or put a dent in them (see, the Chicago Fire channeling Lazarus to come back against the Columbus Crew). Beautiful goals were set up (for Colorado and Montreal) and players were sent off – too many for the New England Revolution. But what did it all mean for the rankings?

Not a lot, as you'll read below. Too many good teams looked bad in Week 12, but that doesn't mean all the heretofore crappy clubs crawl up to their places on the league ladder. Climbing one rung doesn't automatically translate to an inevitable climb to the top of the ladder; it just means you went up that one rung. Big whoop.

Anyway, the Week 12 rankings are below. The number in parentheses after each team’s name still notes the number of times I've watched a full game for said club (12 semi-abusive nights and days with Portland; and counting), but I did throw in the previous week's ranking for each club, too.

1) DC United (3 1/2) (Last week: 1)
2) Seattle Sounders (5) (Last week: 3)
3) FC Dallas (3) (Last week: 2)
4) New England Revolution (3) (Last week: 6)
5) Vancouver Whitecaps (6) (Last week: 4)
6) Sporting Kansas City (5) (Last week: 10)
7) Columbus Crew SC (5) (Last week: 5)
8) Real Salt Lake (2) (Last week: 13)
9) Red Bull New York (4) (Last week: 7)
10) Toronto FC (4) (Last week: 11)
11) San Jose Earthquakes (1) (Last week: 8)
12) Orlando City FC (2 1/2) (Last week: 12)
13) Houston Dynamo (2) (Last week: 9)
14) Los Angeles Galaxy (3 1/2) (Last week: 14)
15) Colorado Rapids (4) (Last week: 16)
16) Portland Timbers (12) (Last week: 15)
17) Montreal Impact (3) (Last week: 18)
18) Philadelphia Union (2 1/2) (Last week: 20)
19) Chicago Fire (2 1/2) (Last week: 17)
20) New York City FC (2 1/2) (Last week: 19)

Damn, that was not easy (please see last paragraph). Not a lot of "diem" being "carped" at present; I tried not to go too nuts sending people up or down, but... Well, let's pick through the source material to see why everyone ended up where they did, shall we?

Sporting Kansas City 4-2 New England Revolution
The idea that the Revs are about to hit a mid-season swoon reminiscent of last year's unintentional vacation had me all geared up to use this loss as Exhibit A. While it's never good to allow four goals – even with an undeserved penalty in the mix – New England is creating plenty of chances and, most days, their defense gives them a much better margin of error. SKC was in a mood that night: Dom Dwyer basically created his own shot and buried it, while (for me) impressive newcomer Krizstian Nemeth had New England's defense back-pedaling all night. Pretty damn impressive for a club with so many starters missing – which is why I have them as a (finally) rising force in the Western Conference. Both clubs had a second game this week...more on each below.

Columbus Crew 2-2 Chicago Fire
I was literally writing, "Chicago needs more from their DPs" when Kennedy Igboananike chipped a cross that looked too tall for David Accam. It wasn't, in the end, and that pulled back the first of two for the Fire. They're not a great team, Chicago. They're so reactive, in fact, that Columbus played right through them at times. Crew SC passes well, but not that well. Still, seeing Justin Meram pull the strings gives their attack another dimension and the Crew know how to use weapons/players like Ethan Finley and Kei Kamara. The attack hums along nicely, but Columbus has got to sort out the team-wide fragility. Even impressive wins diminish a little when you're coughing up too many goals.

Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0 Houston Dynamo
This was a pretty goddamn nothing game in the end: neither club labored mightily; they just labored. Once LA put on their "real" players (e.g. Robbie Keane and Alan Gordon), they combined to win them the game – and that tells you something. As much as it's a mug's game to bet against Bruce Arena, it feels like LA might finally have run out of depth: Baggio Husidic, Kevin Maganto, Mika Varynen, etc.; these guy can carry you to mid-table at most. My only clear note on Houston read, "'Will Bruin in alone on goal' is not a scary phrase," (and yet he scored on the Timbers that way), which I take to mean they didn't pile on the chances against LA; certainly nothing stood out. Unless, that is, the Dynamo loses David Horst to injury; that would hurt. As for the potential penalty call that the foul on Horst arguably, he was running away from goal on the edge of the area. So, technically/officially, sure. Would I have called it? Nope.

Toronto FC 1-0 Portland Timbers
Having already broken the china over this one (the good china; not fucking around) I'll keep my comments on my Portland Timbers short: they haven't come close to sorting out the attack and Adam Kwarasey lacks...presence in the box. TFC, meanwhile, didn't play great but they didn't need to: it's enough to stifle the other side when your bunch can send forward Sebastian Giovinco. All the same, a solid defensive outing for TFC is a big sign. More of that and they'll win more games. Maybe even enough to make the post-season.

New England Revolution 1-1 DC United
The reigning kings of grinding out results (DC United) made hard enough work of this one to make one wonder...then again, what other "big team" showed up during Week 12? Per their reputation for tight margins, pulled together a result, very late, when Taylor Kemp (in acres of space) squared a cross for Jairo Arrietta, who has proved there is life after leaving Columbus (for current central Ohio residents, just sayin'). DC has lots of upside, starting with a great stack at left back in Kemp and Chris Korb – e.g. a cultivated foot vs. crazy speed. New England, meanwhile, lost their collective minds – see Lee Nguyen picking up a second yellow on a man down. The Revs found chances after, but they made more chances before – particularly through Chris Tierney, the first man sent off. But the most encouraging thing about the Revs continues in their defense – e.g. when the commentating crew said, "it looks like there are 2 or 3 Andrew Farrells out there," they weren't kidding. Bottom line: New England is playing well enough to win; at times they play well enough to run away with it. They're just not. For now.

Montreal Impact 2-1 FC Dallas
As good a win as this was for Montreal, they struggled to keep Dallas out over the last 10 minutes or so. While that's a small surprise, Montreal's win makes for a bigger one. And that's more about the tone than the manner of it: take away those last 10 minutes and the Impact looked pretty comfortable against a consensus "good" long-time MLS club. Ignacio Piatti is straight-up made for Montreal's method: he's decisive, incisive, and has the toolkit to run the lightning counters on which Montreal feasts; throw in a nose-for-goal forward like Jack McInerney and a defense that works well enough and it's at least a potential formula. For clinical friggin' proof, see Montreal's second goal. As for Dallas, they tapped into a familiar failing: giving away dumb cards/goals, this time through Moises Hernandez. Besides that, it was a case of too little, too late.

Colorado Rapids 1-0 Vancouver Whitecaps
Marcelo Balboa said it and he wasn't wrong: the Rapids are hell to break down. All they were waiting for in the end was a game where they scored first. Vancouver got on the wrong side of that equation on a night when they were fairly ill-equipped to cope. For all the moments Mauro Rosales had, in spite of Octavio Rivero's bottomless hunger for goal, and against having the cleaner chances, the Whitecaps never got past Colorado. For me, the Rapids answered some questions tonight – e.g. what to do with Gabriel Torres (start him, just outside; let him produce a wicked set-up); how the new guys would fit in (pretty well, with Luis Solignac proving nimble, active, and nearly on the score sheet, while Kevin Doyle's a king at getting the second ball) – but the defining difference came with having a heretofore quiet player step up to score a winner. Lucas Pittinari knocked in the second best set-up of the evening and that was all the Rapids needed. Any Rapids fans looking for further encouragement should consult Axel Sjoberg's willingness to get on Drew Moor's case for lacking intensity on a corner. Kid's got size, presence, confidence...and just enough skill.

Seattle Sounders 0-0 Sporting Kansas City
I expected a lot more from this game – and more still from Seattle, especially after learning how many starters KC was missing (the roll-call of glory: Dom Dwyer, Ike Opara, Marcel de Jong, Seth Sinovic, Roger Espinoza, Chance Myers...does Graham Zusi count? He came on late, after all). Oh, and Jacob Peterson went down during the game, too. R-ough. Tempting as it is to knock Seattle for a failure to capitalize – and at home – KC has lately made an art of making due with what they have. One would think that the contrast between being able to sub in Andy Rose, as opposed to subbing in, oh, Connor Hallisey and Saad Abdul-Salaam, would show up somewhere like the score sheet, but it doesn’t and it hasn't. Sporting picked up 4 points from 6 with that cobbled together line-up and against two damned good teams. Seattle, on the other hand, revealed how much Clint Dempsey misses Obafemi Martins (admirably as Beaverton legend Chad Barrett filled in last weekend). So, KC climbed for me. Seattle didn't fall – they actually went up, for me - because they still did so many things right – e.g. I didn't see any club find players wide open on the weak side like they did this weekend. They just couldn’t score. But they will on the next outing.

Real Salt Lake 2-0 New York City FC
It's not so much an "Achilles heel" as in Achilles "back of the entire leg area." NYCFC has trouble managing balls over the top. They're not really great on coverage, either, but nothing should send their fans into fits like watching both Chris Wingert and Jason Hernandez quietly step back to cede a high ball just outside their own 18 to Alvaro Saborio. They have attacking somewhat down – well, maybe* - but "Other" New York has to sort out their back four. Going the other way, *RSL's defense isn't that much better: they didn't do well with entry passes and they let too many NYCFC playes, David Villa among them, shoot from range. Fortunately – for they needed this more than NYCFC – RSL's attack has stepped up in recent weeks, with Devon Sandoval rounding (back?) into form and Luke Mulholland continuing to state his case as the best goddamn bargain this league has seen in the past two seasons. Still, pity NYCFC a little: they have good parts all over – and I'm sure Villa dies a little with every loss ("I...won the World Cup and now I play on the baseball field?") – but it's a haphazard, catch-as-catch-can mess out there and that's not even good enough for MLS.

New York Red Bulls 0-2 Philadelphia Union
I caught a full half hour of this game – from about the 35th minute to the 65th – which means that all I know was this heretofore unknown phenomenon – and forgive me if I pronounce it wrong - known as "Philadelphia dominance"? The Red Bulls simply couldn't do anything consistently right for as long as I watched; sure, the period included Mike Grella's strip-'n'-shoot near-miss, but they were desperately loose with the ball besides and the Union punished them two times in painfully quick succession. Weird stuff happened in there – Dax McCarty getting subbed early (and tactically), for one – but all the sharpness fell on Philly's side of the ledger. I never did sit down for the full condensed game for this one, but that's a deliberate choice: it's fun to remember Philly like this. Y'know, competent. Besides that, the loss offered some support for a personal theory – e.g. that New York's defensive weakness resides with their outside backs – but I'm waiting on more evidence to confirm. The bigger issues is the fairly poor run they're on lately.

San Jose Earthquakes 1-1 Orlando City SC
These clubs traded penalty kick goals (good ones, too) in a game in which Chris Wondolowski scoring his 100th goal(!) in MLS made for the (by far) most interesting story. Honorable mention goes to Cyle Larin's continued progress as a big, hard-working, penalty-kick-wining pain in the ass (he'll probably win rookie of the year, but I think Sjoberg's the better choice). Overall, though, this thing read pretty terribly as a quality experience: choppy, chippy and mildly belligerent – e.g. the usual laundry-list of things that spoil a soccer game – while also perhaps measuring the ceiling for Matias Perez-Garcia's game. Brek Shea picked up a tough red (you can take the boy out of Dallas, etc.), but that only allowed Orlando to showcase their growing maturity; if only I could have rewarded them for it. I came into 2015 thinking NYCFC and Orlando would duel a little closer for the title of top debutant, but Orlando's running away with it so far. Credit to them for it. I'll move 'em up, if/when I can sell it.

Well, that's it. It might have been long, but, damn, was it more satisfying. I'll pick this up again on Wednesday (or Thursday, probably), but I'm going to miss next weekend. Or most of it. Heading out of town...going into enemy territory, in fact. I'll report from there later.

And, by the way, argue with my numbers. I made some major, largely unwarranted shifts. I view those as, 1) correctives for exaggerated misplacements from last weekend (which will, no doubt, get corrected again later) and, 2) a result of a big, messy, mushy middle field. Face it: this league is a hot mess.

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