Thursday, May 7, 2015

The 2 X 4: Best Defensive Duo in MLS; Portland's Puzzling Pieces + 4 More!

This is not a 2 X 4, but it showed up in a Google search for "2 X 4"
So, I decided to retire (the little-noticed, and therefore likely, unmourned) 3 Big Ideas, 5 Little Thoughts. I named that still-born little beauty "The 3 X 5” for the length of its short little life. Ah, memories. Still, the problem was obvious: what does 3 X 5 have to do with Conifers or Citrus? Nothing.

So, welcome to the 2 X 4. There is no more legit cut of wood known to mankind, people. And it’s a di-rect (if manufactured) descendant of a gen-u-ine wood product, a subtle improvement, if you will, upon the majestic conifer. It will still involve Big Ideas and Small Thoughts, just two of the former and six of the latter. And, in keeping with this site’s connection with the Portland Timbers, one big idea will focus on them. All the same, that’s going to be the second big idea...look, I think about this other stuff, so I may as well lead with it from time to time. And…away we go...

2 Big Ideas
1) Best Central Defensive Pairing in MLS
This one’s been bouncing around my head for a couple weeks now. I’m pretty sure it came to me the day I spotted Clarence Goodson’s name next to Victor Bernardez’s in the San Jose Earthquakes’ starting eleven. Then and there, I said to myself (quite possibly out loud), "Shit, that's gotta be close to the best central defensive pairing in MLS." So, I test the theory.

Now, we can throw out some candidates right away – e.g. my Portland Timbers. Though positively stoned on hope for the long-term prospects, the most positive thing I can say there is that they've worked things out and they haven’t. Toronto FC goes out the window as well because, new acquisitions aside, well, TFC just has a shitty defensive record and they damn-skippy don't play for Philly because, damn; the Houston Dynamo, on the other hand, imploded their defensive record only recently.

At any rate, that's the dead fruit in the grass a-molderin' (where the Hell is this hillbilly tone coming from? The lumber thing?). To find the finest fruit, the stuff substantial enough to make strong branches sag, I've picked through all the MLS rosters and checked some starting line-ups. The player combos listed below strike me as the Top 5 tandems playing in MLS right now. As in, right now, which temporarily rules out RSL, due to Chris Schuler’s injury. Finally, yes, they’re listed in order and, yeah, I had to get a loose on definitions with #2.

1) Omar Gonzalez and A. J. DeLaGarza – Los Angeles Galaxy
2) Bobby Boswell and Kofi Opare – DC United
3) Michael Parkhurst and Emanuel Pogatetz – Columbus Crew
4) Clarence Goodson and Victor Bernardez – San Jose Earthquakes
5) Jose Goncalves and Andrew Farrell – New England Revolution
So, it turns out San Jose's "Big 'n' Tall" duo (there's your nickname, San Jose fans: Bernandez is "Big," Goodson, "Tall") clocks in at #4. I feel good about defending the choices...I think, because I have reasons for each of them. Finally, honorable mention goes to (because I think they’ll improve):
Drew Moor and Bobby Burling – Colorado Rapids
Zach Lloyd and Matt Hedges – FC Dallas
Aurelien Collin and Zeb Hines – Orlando City SC
A close reading of the alternates will show that I threw one pairing out the window. That came around when I watched the Rapids a couple weeks in a game that featured Bobby Burling without Drew Moor. Suffice to say, it made a world of difference.

2) Portland's Puzzling Pieces
While checking back for other people’s thoughts on last weekend's draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps, one thing I read was Kip Kiesgaard's player ratings on The low, low ratings he assigned a couple players – in particular, Gaston Fernandez and Ishmael Yartey – dredged up some old bar-room chatter about the state, and construction, of the Portland Timbers first team roster. The big question is pretty straightforward: is there a plan here? Is the Timbers brass building toward a roster built from identifying and addressing needs and/or some form of conceptual approach or is to more about a system of following up on leads, doing some due diligence and signing this more or less promising player more or less at random? I won’t lie: In low moments, I lean toward the latter.

Nothing brings this home like the off- and early-season signings of Dairon Asprilla and Ishmael Yartey. I'll start by confessing that I knew absolutely nothing of these players prior to them signing with Portland; in fact, Yartey remains a mystery to me still (Kiesgaard's take on him gets at why). Asprilla, on the other hand, has compiled a mildly encouraging collection of moments – e.g. a couple thwarted attempts at goal, a missed header – file those under right-time, right-place, which usually matters – and he had that positively heavenly turn at midfield against Vancouver. Returning to the point above, I know neither Asprilla’s nor Yartey's best/natural position. What I do know, or what I've seen, is that Caleb Porter appears to have them competing for the same spot(s) on the field – e.g. either of the wide positions in the "3" of the Timbers' 4-2-3-1, but I can only recall seeing both on the right. And, obviously, the Timbers brass brought in both players to heighten awareness among Portland’s current players that they’re playing for the jobs every game.

It’s precisely here where the question of mission comes in? Did Portland really need two wingers, or even wingers/forwards? Is that where the concern really was last year? Or, to broaden it, if Asprilla can play up top, why not try him there, especially with the team’s current problems with scoring.

Finally, Fernandez. Donde esta Gata? Or, in my native tongue, why the hell is this guy still on the books? Duplicative of everyone, and no one. And, for me, he’s not much off the bench. Could I see starting him? Yeah, what the hell, right? All I know is that I caught some twitter chatter this past week grumbling about his game with Timbers2. I searched high and low for what set it off. I might have found my answer in the comments to this Stumptown Footy post. Still, whither Gata? What does one do with that guy? Can the club even sell him within the league?

All in all, it’s about making the most of the limited resources allotted by MLS to each of its clubs. I know I left a lot of questions hanging above, but one troubling answer for me is that the Portland Timbers have something of a redundancy problem.

4 Small Thoughts
1) Clubs Playing for the Long Haul
Week 9 and (is it? Is that what the Tuesday/Wednesday games are?) the start of Week 10 saw a lot of clubs resting key players. Few clubs hoarded resources quite like the New York Red Bulls and the New England Revolution…well, at least not until the Canadian Championship games between the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC. The short list reads damn close to an MLS who’s who: Lee Nguyen, Jose Goncalves, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Lloyd Sam, Jozy Altidore, Benoit Cheyrou, and Ignacio Piatti. Yeah, yeah, "who's who" is a stretch – and, yes, a couple guys could have been carrying knocks (e.g. Altidore didn't even suit up) – but these are big guys for each of their clubs. At the same time, this is a good thing. The MLS season is long and full of air. Resting good players is smart. Because you want them around, fit and healthy, for when it matters.

2) What Kyle Beckerman Said. And What It Means.
"We got to find ourselves...We've got to figure out who we are and what we're about and then try and work on that every week."
For me, one of the most potent images of this 2015 featured Beckerman battling deep inside RSL’s 18 against an absolute onslaught by the New England Revolution. The man looked like a goddamn French Legionnaire pinned deep in some crazy shit. The gap between that and where MLS fans are used to seeing Beckerman is the story of RSL’s season. The quote above came from RSL's draw against the San Jose Earthquakes this past weekend, but it speaks to the same state of mind. It's the sound of a man who lived through a genuine era going through the first stages of grief. And I think it goes deeper than Jeff Cassar. Though maybe it stops at Garth Lagerwey...

3) Picking Through Philly’s Parts
So, there's this team, and while they're clearly not dead, dead, they've got a limp and hungry buzzards are circling above. Say you're one of those buzzards. Naturally, you want to pick off the best bits before the other birds land, never mind the major predators. Now, say that poor limping bastard is the Philadephia Union. Assuming you could do it, which players would you pick off that roster? Which guys look most like good to great players stuck on a bad team? I’ll start by scratching Maurice Edu; I mean, he's the first choice, obviously, but too obviously, and, yes, I want this to be work. OK, A couple guys I rate really highly – Conor Casey, for instance – I'd have to think long and hard over due to long-term injury issues (and Portland’s turf). So, all things considered, I'd go, wow, I guess this gets at the issue. From time to time, I assume it's the injuries – and they're hurtin' fer certain at goalkeeper – but there line-up hasn't been that inconsistent (trust me; I checked). All in all, Philly has this rough balance of promising players yet to blossom and some once-greats showing signs of being on the wrong side of their careers: there's a whole lot of underperforming going on, basically. OK, if forced to pick three, I'd go with: Conor Casey (worth the chance; especially for Portland), Vincent Nogueira, and Zach Pfeffer.

4) The Salt of MLS, The Merely Good
Mike Grella is not posting career-year stats by any means. He projects as a bubble player in MLS, especially given his age (28), the kind of guy who brings something to a team, even a good one like the Red Bulls. Still, I like Grella. In fact, he’s one of my favorite kind of players in MLS – the somewhat out-of-nowhere player who comes in and, from time to time, does pretty damn well. There are two things to watch with Grella: 1) he’s pretty solid at finding good chances, even if better than he is at putting them away – still, that’s step one, and, 2) if you watch him play, you see a forward (or wide player) who gets his head up, sees the field, and combines pretty well in the final third. I guess my point is, yeah, I’d take him. And, to bring this full circle, yeah, I’d take him over Gaston Fernandez.

And...we're done. Form block of wood!!

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