Monday, July 6, 2015

MLS Week 18 Rankings/Playoff Predictions + Timbers v. San Jose (- MLS Hiatus)

Eat it, San Jose! That's one tooth for each point and one for the goal!
For Major League Soccer's Week 18, I only had time for the Portland Timbers v. San Jose Earthquakes. That's it. And I only caught 60 minutes of that. The good 60 minutes from what I hear, but, yes, stupid, stupid, interfering life has once again mugged soccer and taken most of its valuables.

Then again, it is with a mixture and loin-stirring anticipation that Conifers & Citrus announces that this shite...whoops, "site," I meant "site." What a strange little slip. Anyway, Conifers & Citrus hereby announces that it will set aside all things MLS and most things Timbers in order to switch to total coverage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup for much of the month of July. Or, well, total coverage of Gold CUP, Group A, because, honestly, there's no fucking way I can do more than that. Seriously.

Said coverage kicks off...well, tomorrow, frankly. I'll go on a Preview Safari in the meantime and try to roll that into my comments going forward, showing off knowledge in the vain spirit Great White Hunters display the carcasses of animals they killed from a far remove (also, I'll pull out one chest hair for every minute it takes to do said homework, because, all man; also, at that rate, I can remove every last hair from chest in about an hour). As much as I'd like to preview the whole thing, I just plain ran out of time. All I can say is that I'll try to make it up to each of you, personally. Promise*! (* This promise is conditioned on limits on time, clear-headedness, and, again, damn, dirty life.)

With that shift in focus, now seems like a great time for a little closure to the MLS season so far. Week 18 Power Rankings unfold below, albeit with a twist this time. This week's rankings will look more forward than backward. Sure, sure, the past always informs the present, but with 16 of 20 MLS clubs now at, or past, the half way point of their regular season (NOTE: link will be irrelevant in, oh, two weeks), I feel like there's enough data on hand to do a little projecting as to who will end up where and why. As such, the notes on each of MLS's 20 clubs will be suitably general, or maybe messianically-specific (e.g. "Lo, Steven Gerrard will cometh and rippeth the rest of Major League Soccer shining new assholes, if it pleaseth God"). To be clear, then, the rankings below are mostly projections – i.e. teams are ranked as to how I think they'll stack up in the final analysis – so, expect some arguably non-sensical leaps and drops from last week's rankings. Though there aren't all that many...

Well, that's that. Thank god the League Scheduling Committee opted to give MLS clubs a little summer break to accommodate the Gold Cup schedu...oh. Didn't do that, huh? So...I guess that means the next rankings you'll see on this site will be for Week 22. D-amn! I might squeeze in this or that as well, but no promises!

All the above acknowledged and noted, I'll keep at least one eye on my beloved Portland Timbers (my good eye, too!). Barring a conflict – for I have no DVR capacity - I'll still wrap up each Timbers game even as the Gold Cup rages. It's just this week that I'm doing a digest version of a game. As in, right now, and about last night's tooth-yanking squeaker of a win over San Jose.

It took a last-gasp, no-look flail/swipe (seriously, Jack Jewsbury totes swung blind) for the Timbers to crack San Jose's damned stubborn resistance. That's not so surprising given where the 'Quakes sit on goals against (17, tied for lowest with Sporting Kansas City); and the defense just improved that little bit more when Clarence Goodson rejoined the starting XI after walking off an early-season knock. San Jose didn't give the Timbers defense much trouble – and no wonder without Chris Wondolowski and Matias Perez Garcia in the line-up – but the game presented as entirely lopsided over the 60 minutes I caught.

The Timbers didn't start so hot from what I gathered, but I'd also argue that they rarely do. I did hear about Alvas Powell getting away with a handball that coulda/woulda/shoulda been a PK (then again, Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi would later get away with something (that I wouldn't have called either) and Jordan Stewart got away with a hell of a swing at Dairon Asprilla's strong jawline (it's a miracle his elbow didn’t shatter against the magnificence): suffice to say Ricardo Salazar had the best of nights and the worst of nights; there was also the one offside call against Portland pissed me off (as a dedicated Spirit-of-the-Lawist). They put up with some bullshit, basically, but Portland persisted and, gods be praised, knocked in a crucial goal just as Timbers fans heard death's rasping wheeze coming around the corner. The consistent pressure and a respectable range of invention encouraged belief more than anything else. And it's great to see the Timbers picking up all three where and when they have to. Speaks well of the rest of the season...

...which is why some might be confused, maybe even a little pissy, about where I place Portland down below. Say what you like, but, please, no spitting. And, after that, surely the longest preamble for a rankings post in blogging history, let's talk about the past and future of every last club in MLS and where I expect to see them at season's end. Allons-y!! (Is that correct!? Lookin' at you, Montreal...)

1) Sporting Kansas City
(Full games: 6) (Last week: 1)
Still read as the most balanced roster in MLS to me. Between off-season signings paying off (Krisztian Nemeth, Soni Mustivar, and Roger Espinoza), a couple hangovers recovered from (Graham Zusi and Matt Besler), and actual depth in defense (Kevin Ellis and Erik Palmer-Brown), KC has it as close to figured out as any club in MLS.

2) Los Angeles Galaxy
(Full games: 3 1/2) (Last week: 7)
Yep, put me down as one of those guys who believes the Galaxy's recent, frankly terrifying tear augurs a powerful storm. And this is before Steven Gerrard has even kicked a ball for them. No matter how long his adjustment period turns out to be, it's likely to be an improvement over the March Through Mud and/or Personnel that typified the first 10+ games of LA's 2015. The only thing I can see killing them? A season-ending injury to either Omar Gonzalez or A. J. DeLaGarza.

3) Vancouver Whitecaps
(Full games: 6) (Last week: 3)
With the way they've stolen points on the road all season, Vancouver looks as menacing as any club in MLS. If they can nail down dominating at home - yikes! Octavio Rivero might have dried up (as many predicted he would), but Kekuta Manneh has spent the past four weeks doing everything he can to turn the question of how good the 'Caps can be if he becomes a consistent threat into something spoken of in the past tense.

4) DC United
(Full games: 4 1/2) (Last week: 2)
Of all the teams up here, DC strikes me as likeliest to fall further. Disciplined as they are (very) and in spite of that precisely-balanced blend of grit (Bobby Boswell, Perry Kitchen and supporting cast) and talent (Chris Rolfe, Fabian Espindola and supporting), the key word there is "balance." It just takes a little nudge, and from god knows where, to knock everything out of whack.

5) Seattle Sounders
(Full games viewed: 9) (Last week: 5)
Is that hissing I hear in the distance? Ahem. I know, I know, the past few weeks have shown everyone the bottom of Seattle's depth and its measured in feet, not fathoms. But Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins will come back and that's going to shift the pressure, generally, from Seattle's backline to the opposition's. Basically, the reasons they tore up 2014 and early 2015 is healing.

6) Portland Timbers
(Full games: 18...rounding up) (Last week: 4)
Yes, I am absolutely as thrilled and impressed with Portland's recent run as the next guy. Yes, I'm aware of just how much the defense has improved (a lot, and blessedly so) with Nat Borchers' arrival and another year's adjustment for Oh Boy Norberto Paparatto. The attack isn't always a well-oiled machine and, a couple patsies aside, the Timbers face reasonably tough defenses in 10 of their last 15 games.

7) Columbus Crew SC
(Full games: 6) (Last week: 8)
The Crew have bounced back from a shit-streak with four pretty impressive results - and all while riding the same system that brung 'em. With Wil Trapp back in central midfield (but for how long?), career years in progress for Ethan Finley and Kei Kamara, and a still-sound roster that has potential to improve in a couple spots, I expect Crew SC to finish strong enough.

8) Toronto FC
(Full games: 6) (Last week: 6)
I'm not even sure how much I buy this one. For all the talent on the roster, Toronto is Toronto is something like cursed. Fortunately, they have the generally (at times shockingly) shitty Eastern Conference to float on, so I guess the point here is, how can they miss? Especially with a pair of actual contenders for the league's best attacking player leading the charge to the other goal (in case it’s not obvious, Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco)?

9) FC Dallas
(Full games: 4) (Last week: 14)
While it's too early to say they're pulling out of their annual spring/summer swoon, I'm arguing that it doesn't matter, even if only for the same reasons noted above for TFC: they're some measure better top to bottom than everyone below them. Careful readers might notice that this has Dallas taking the sixth and final Western Conference playoff spot. Yep. The one club I see stopping 'em...

10) San Jose Earthquakes
(Full games: 2...again, rounding up) (Last week: 12)
Defense + savvy + a little flair: works for DC, works for the 'Quakes. When it comes to central defenders, Clarenece Goodson is among the elect, David Bingham is better than most people think, Marvell Wynne is equal parts awful and effective: with them holding the line, all they need is Wondolowski, Perez-Garcia and Shea Salinas running the attack to be competitive. 2015's spoilers in every sense of the word.

Orlando City FC
(Full games: 2 1/2) (Last week: 10)
Again, I will admit my ignorance when it comes to how this club ticks (and, no, I can't say why they have failed to interest me). What I can say, and fairly empirically, Orlando has been as good over the last eight games as any club in MLS (again, that link won't mean shit in two to three weeks). And consistency carries a club miles in this league. Unless I'm counting wrong, fourth spot in the Eastern Conference in fact.

12) Red Bull New York
(Full games: 5) (Last week 11)
Anyone who has read this far has picked up on a mantra by now: "Eastern Conference Good" parts company with "good" as traditionally defined. New York really has had its moments this season. They're capable of genuinely good, challenging soccer. That said, a vague sort of fragility surrounds this club. Listen closely and you'll hear them bump against the ceiling.

13) Houston Dynamo
(Full games: 3) (Last week: 9)
I feel comfortable calling Houston mercurial (wait...definition? Yeah, I'm good). They can beat anybody, they can lose to anybody (sometimes badly), and all that makes sense when you take in all the "average" and "aged" on the roster; sometimes they oldsters kick the young guys (see: DaMarcus Beasley and Ricardo Clark, especially, and it's cool in both cases). Anyone who thinks Erick "Cubo" Torres can turn the tide should google "Chivas USA 2014." (Hold up. I got it.)

14) Montreal Impact
(Full games: 4) (Last week: 16)
Putting it down in ink: the Montreal Impact will make the 2015 playoffs. Didn't they just lose to NYCFC and in Montreal? Yep and yep. What can I say? I like Montreal's starting eleven, maybe even more than I should, but I think they can steal enough games with that defense (Laurent Ciman) and those attacking players (Ignacio Piatti, Andres Romero, and, yes, Jack McInerney).

15) Real Salt Lake
(Full games: 3) (Last week: 13)
Sucks to be on the wrong side of that East/West divide, eh? It's a tragedy that RSL just has the mix a little wrong. Between worn-out bones and international duty, the stars they rely on can't show up every week (Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman) and for every star that's rising up in defense, RSL has another in the attack who lacks the escape velocity to launch (say, Luis Gil).

16) New England Revolution
(Full games: 4) (Last week: 15)
I honestly don't know what's scarier: the Revs' gut-wrenching four-straight slide (1-6-2 over the last 8; again, moribund link)) or the fact that they're still in the number-fucking-four in the East. (Jesus Christ, East, how do you stand yourself?) They can get up there still, even dazzle in the attack sometimes, but it all adds up to nothing with how rarely they hold their shit together at the other end.

17) Colorado Rapids
(Full games: 4) (Last week: 20)
Will the Rapids fire Pablo Mastroeni? Last week's shock win over Vancouver notwithstanding, that's where my money is. It'd be where Colorado’s management's money would be if they had any goddamn sense. I'm lifting these guys above the bottom based on the very real talent on this roster; hell, even the new guys showed up last week. This could be a solid team with the right coach pointing them in the right direction.

18) New York City FC
(Full games: 4 1/2) (Last week: 18)
Whatever this club pays Josh Saunders it is not enough. I'm guessing it's not even close. Yeah, yeah, Montreal fell victim to (a strangely unenthused) David Villa (anyone else notice that?), but this club defends too deeply and too desperately to convince me. Possession and having the ball at the other end will help with that - something that both Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo will 100% help them do – it's not going to cure that problem. Especially if neither Lampard nor Pirlo get back to help.

19) Philadelphia Union
(Full games: 2 1/2) (Last week: 17)
In spite of their spot one step above the outhouse's rim, I rate Philly as the most dysfunctional team in MLS. (Yes, yes, now watch them beat Portland next weekend. Goddammit!) They've stolen a few lately and C. J. Sapong has recovered beautifully on his way to salvaging their pride, but only thing that gets them in the 2015 playoffs is playing in the East.

20) Chicago Fire
(Full games: 2 1/2) (Last week: 19)
There’s dysfunctional - like Philly, which is curable - then there’s a straight-up fucking cursed mess - like, Chicago. Yeah, I'm writing 'em off. This isn't about following the most aggressively mediocre season in MLS history with a bad one. This is about going on a spending spree to fix it that wound up badly enough enough to make a drunken sailor blush. Guly do Prado makes for a pretty good poster boy for the fiasco. They look farther gone to me than any team since DC United 2013.

OK, that’s it. Gold Cup time, people! Looking forward to tomorrow! I’ve officially cleared the slate for two games worth of good times! Huzzah and Excelsior!!

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