Wednesday, July 22, 2015

MLS Week 20 Review + The Bargain-Bin Starting XI

I know! Kennedy Igboananike at $800K? Madness!
I'm a late getting to this review of Major League Soccer's Week 20. I didn't even get links into the review of the Portland Timbers draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps last weekend, fer crissakes (links in there now; embarrassed by the delay). A combination of reasons led to that, all of which I will cover in the semi-traditional, semi-confessional prologue that always seems to top my posts. Said prologue will last exactly one paragraph, after which paragraph, the conversation shall return to MLS and the Timbers.

I caught only two whole games over Week 20, Portland v. Vancouver and the New England Revolution's home win over New York City FC. Worse, where I usually power through a full diet of 20-minute mini-games easily as a family of four goes through that first bowl of chips and salsa at your finer Mexican restaurants, I left chips and salsa on the table this weekend (or, more directly, I have yet to sit through Real Salt Lake's win over the Houston Dynamo). Worse, I experienced every game – whole, mini-, or live – at a remove, as if I watching television about someone else watching the games on television. I blame all of this on The Great Bon-Bon of Indifference, a chocolate confection possessed of the power to rob a person of his/her agency. Just...keep that in mind, at least for what it's worth, when you read the stuff on Week 20. The rest is gold. Or at least gold-flaked.

For Week 20's review, I'm going with a six-pack of observations and a big-ass shot; we're talking a three-finger at minimum, on the latter. As with any good night out, may as well start with the shot. You know the saying: "Liquor, beer, everclear." Or something to that effect. At any rate, the six thoughts that came to me as I watched the Week 20's game comprise the six-pack. As for the shot, well, that's courtesy of a gift I unwrapped six days late.

As (surely) everyone knows by now (and I implore you to catch up if you do not), the MLS Players' Union released MLS player salaries for 2015. I'm still working out the real-world American holiday that this annual release of salaries best resembles; all I know is that this annual (likely abetted) press leak is a personal highlight every summer. As data goldmines go, this list is nothing short of a fishes-and-loaves miracle: it yields ideas and arguments; it begs comparisons and encourages reflection on the broad concept of injustice; it provides almost bottomless fodder for discussion, basically. Which is totally killer.

Of the countless possible ways to cut the data, I'm going to start with one that's been rattling around my head for about a month. In honor of the all the players in MLS who are big contributors to their clubs, but without taking a big chunk of that club's payroll, I put together a full regulation, 28-man MLS roster comprised entirely of players who earn under $100,000 per year. In the interest of space, and out of respect for your time, I'm just going to just list my team by position immediately below. For anyone interested in seeing what they'd do (takes about an hour, maybe two), or just wanting to argue with me (please do!), I copied and pasted the full list of the players I considered at the end of this post (because it's at the end, so anyone who wants to ignore it can, and because the internet is infinite). And, for the record, that list is by no means complete, so feel free to hit the original list of player salaries if you see anyone missing.

Without further bullshit, I give you the best 28-man roster I can build for under $2.8 million (e.g. 28 guys, at $100,000 or less per guy). Call it the Bargain Bin Starting XI:

Goalkeepers (3)
Josh Saunders (NYCFC; $90,000); Tim Melia (SKC; $84,203.33); Clint Irwin (Rapids; $97,000)

Defenders (8)
Steven Birnbaum (DC United; $96,000); Axel Sjoberg (Rapids; $75,000); Alvas Powell (Timbers; $68,700); Aaron Maund (RSL; $63,449.50); Dylan Remick (Seattle; $60,000); Kevin Ellis (SKC; $63,150); Taylor Kemp (DCU; $60,000); Matt Miazga (Red Bulls; $74,500)

Midfielders (12)
Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas; $84,000); Eric Avila (Orlando; $77,000); Luke Mulholland (RSL; $83,750); Marco Pappa (Seattle; $75,000); Mehdi Ballouchy (NYCFC; $83,250); Thomas McNamara (NYCFC; $71,500); Calum Mallace ($75,000); Nicolas Mezquida (Vancouver; $80,000); Juan Edgardo Ramirez (Rapids; $75,000); Miguel Aguilar (DCU; $60,000); Kwadwo Poku (NYCFC; $63,045.09); Scott Caldwell (Revs; $67,500)

Forwards (6)
Charlie Davies (Revs; $82,759.53); Andres Romero (Montreal; $100,000); Tesho Akindele (FCD; $87,500); Quincy Amarikwa (San Jose; $100,000); Stephen Neumann (Revs; $92,750); Devon Sandoval (RSL; $60,000)

While that roster shows my predilections (Midfielders Wild!), at least one trend in there speaks to a broadly good thing about MLS's salary structure: upward mobility is a thing, as demonstrated by the absence of MLS players proven over time. While I had to go young all over, it really kicked in at defense – something I put down to MLS clubs knowing a good defender well enough when they see him to get him over the six-figure hump. That said, color me shocked at what one can get for under $100K in MLS. No less importantly, free agency could help out a lot of these guys – Mulholland and Pappa, to name two. All in all, though, the team built above reflects a deeper truth about MLS – e.g. an MLS club can build a team that's tough to beat on the cheap, but it takes money, or a little sumpin' sumpin', to build a contender.

Or, to pose the obvious question, could the above team make the playoffs? Maybe...but doubtful. Maybe in five years' time, and only in the East, but there's not enough there, at present, to make good in my mind. Still, I rate that a respectable side that I'd field proudly! And at only $2,250,057.45. Holy shit! Grab my wallet, honey! We're goin' DP shoppin'! Shit...see how easy that is?

Hope that went down all right. Time for the six-pack – e.g. six thoughts that grew out of things I saw during MLS Week 20...nearly all of which is informed by other things I saw before Week 20.

Then again, let us pause here for the weekly honors. The Official Conifers & Citrus Goal of the Week goes to the New England Revolution's De-Pantsing in Fifteen Passes (subtitle: The Revolutionary Opus). C&C's Save of the Week Honors goes to Montreal's Evan Bush stoning KC's Dom Dwyer, not once but twice. (Necessary fine print: these votes came from less than total coverage.)

One last one: Week 20's Result of the Week: the Los Angeles Galaxy dropping its third five-spot in five games (and fourth blowout in five) on the San Jose Earthquakes. In yesterday's ExtraTime Radio broadcast, Ben Baer seconded a thought he didn't know I had: that Sebastian Lletget was as important to the Galaxy's win as any star on the field. There was a horror-story quality to this comeback: LA walked down this win the slow, sure stride of Jason Voorhees, confident in their victims ultimate demise. And it's going to get worse before it gets better, goddammit.

OK, now I'll crack the 6-pack. First beer's on Portland!

1) Assessing Porter Paulson's Payroll
Some weirdness and concomitant misalignment between players and resources aside, I give the Portland Timbers a reasonable grade for their overall salary structure. Say, a "B." I think Portland generally pays their established guys enough to make them feel wanted (and therefore reluctant to move). A hotter question is what the front office pays enough for potential, and on both sides of the scale – e.g. on the low-end, there's Michael Nanchoff at $60K (and is that enough for his upside, given his injuries), while there's Fanendo Adi at the high end, who, at $664,000, clearly got paid with the expectation of returns on investment. As argued a couple months back, Adi's in a good spot; the question comes from a bang-for-literal-buck perspective. The question goes deeper when the misalignment comes into play: consider that a key player, one not-infrequently nicknamed "Maestro" and one in last year's MVP discussion – Diego Valeri, for short – makes $550K, to Adi's $664K (prior to buy-down), while a defensive player, Liam Ridgewell, who brings home a cool, even $1 million. I guess that's a long, number-filled way of saying that the Timbers numbers don't match how I prioritize retaining these players. I don't expect they would necessarily. They just don't.

2) Stars versus All-Stars
At some point during Saturday's game, a San Jose player ran down Steven Gerrard easily enough to make me wonder. That player was Shea Salinas, so Gerrard's lack of pace wasn't so glaring as it seemed in the moment, but it was enough to revive the old anxiety about over-the-hill European stars coming to an America to wheeze helplessly for a summer or two before retiring. Which just pisses me off. As everyone knows, the All-Star roster was announced...last week (shit, when did that happen? Got it; stupid bon-bon) and it was generally well-received. It should have been, too, in spite of a clear absence of Timbers players, because, whether you think some player or another should have made the roster, all of those guys belong. Except, two. The Commissioners' picks – Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard - who now look less like Don Garber's prized ponies than his spoiled adopted kids. The decent thing would have been to wait until either or both player put some, or any, time in. This system of reward puts as much weight on pedigree (the domain of nobility and entertainment nobility) as performance (i.e. star names who came through in MLS play, like Sebastian Giovinco and even David Villa). Given how many days have passed since the roster was announced, I doubt this is anything like a fresh point of view. That said, the entire situation makes the larger point: I'm open to seeing any player join MLS, but, the bigger the name, the harder I want the world to shit on any player who goes bust.
a) Not a single Timber on there. And I'm not sure I can credibly argue for one over any of the selected players.

3) Profiles for the New Model OGNY Army (or a Meditation on the Above Theme)
People have posted plenty of commentary on how the Red Bulls (Original Gangsta New York, O.G. New Nork, OGNY), going into the 2015 season, made a sharp cut against both the club's past practices and the larger, general trends in MLS. The Red Bulls went "star-less" after the star-studded, even personality-driven, culture of the Thierry Henry, or even Lothar Mattheus (The Armchair Analyst looked it over in something I read last night). "Blue-collar," "Moneyball," or even "star-less" provide a short-hand, but, for all the talk of a new philosophy, there's not much chatter about the content of that philosophy, or the theory that guides it. To put it concisely as I (believe) I understand it, OGNY recruitment poster asks for the following:
"Men between the ages of 21 and 35; great lungs, bottomless energy; deep understanding of short passing and movement off the ball MANDATORY; long resume, less so."
The Ali Curtis/Jesse Marsch playbook bets that a collection of "good enough" players actually playing soccer will beat, say, Toronto FC’s "inverted pyramid" set-up of having a bunch of regular guys try to hold down the fort long enough for the big-name star to score. Once again, I see Mike Grella as the symbol of this shift: the man's value derives from how well he works within that system - e.g. running, combining, and running some more to either combine or strangle the opposition in the crib. Grella posts respectable numbers under that system and that’s the player the new philosophy seeks. Details aside, I believe the gamble in play is coherent and sincere; questions as to its plausibility will persist until it's answered one way or another. And then it'll get posed all over the next season, too.
3a) By way of confession, I'm a sucker for this system.

4) Critical Mass on Quality Players
Too often in 2015, FC Dallas' fate turned on whatever Fabian Castillo could or couldn't do in any give game. When he failed, they failed; or, best case, they stalled. The overall mentality keeps with what I see as the FC Dallas /formula tradition of (per my Bon-Bon-addled notes): "6-ish man backline + burners to counter" – by which I meant (probably), Dallas relies on the famous, arguably limited, defend-'n'-counter formula. As noted above, throwing one man forward, even one as charged with lightning-in-the-bottle talent as Castillo, generally ends the argument on the limits of that philosophy by dropping it into the "very limited" column. If a 20-minute mini-game is to be trusted, Mauro Diaz single-handedly revived the argument during MLS Week 20. Diaz looked hungry in way he hasn’t all season, just trying shit all over and he pulled it off, too, and with fair frequency. Given his talent/upside, Diaz counts for more than most players in MLS, but the rough problem is consistent across MLS: how many players on your team's current roster have to produce...something in order for the team to become truly effective? Dallas is fortunate in that it's possible they can swing it with just Castillo, Diaz, and Michel chipping in a handful of high-potential free-kicks.

5) On Picking the Wrong Dolly out of the Reject Bin
File under something else everyone agrees on and/or talks about: New York City FC's defense needs some upgrades – and soon. Further addendums acknowledge that, for all their talent, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo aren't going to fix this. Watching all of NYCFC v. New England this weekend (which I did, and pre-Bon-Bon), something else occurred to me: how many problems in defense could be resolved, or at least patched over, by replacing the guy who patrols in front of the back four. Or, more directly, what if NYCFC could improve their defensive performance simply by replacing Andrew Jacobson? It's always tough, or even simplistic, to call out an individual player and I don't think Jacobson is terrible or anything. A more polite phrasing might ask if he's up to holding down the No. 6 role. Watching him this past weekend, I saw a player who struggled with one key part of the No. 6 role – e.g. circulating the ball with reliable possession passing – and who didn't do so hot with the other one, either – e.g. playing the destroyer. All the same, yes, I did see NYCFC's defense line up in the one of the most provocatively inviting arrangement I've ever witnessed (briefly, three defenders pushed near-side on a throw-in, with the other fullback way across the field, all of which created a space about 30 yards wide and 10 deep for an opposition forward to play in). Weigh that momentary horror against a series of give-aways by Jacobson, on top of problems with positional discipline (I saw him shutting down too many passes near the flanks), and it’s fair to wonder if NYCFC shouldn’t be in the market for a true No. 6. It's worth noting that Jacobson continues to wear #4.

6) Gold Cup Musings
Yes, I am still watching the Gold Cup; that's something else that's sucking up/suppressing bandwidth. Still, I didn't post on the U.S. Men's trouncing of Cuba last Wednesday because there wasn't much to say about it, really. Cuba, being the clearly inferior team, had to be the more energetic one. They failed to do that, and that gave U.S. players way too much time on the ball, and that allowed the U.S. to absolutely pick them apart. For all the griping about the group phases, the U.S. walked through those, too, which pointed to the possibility that U.S. fans bitched because bitching about it beats the alternative of admitting that, yeah, when you get right down to it, the Gold Cup is sort of a lopsided mess. For all the promise Caribbean teams showed up to the quarterfinals, only Jamaica remains standing when the tournament reached the semifinals. With that, the neutrals interest may (or may not have) switched to Panama, who dusted off their chances after pulling them from the fire; given Mexico's travails, it's possible they'll upset them in tomorrow's second semifinal. Yes, it's possible, but, c'mon, who isn't expecting a U.S. v. Mexico final? And, the odd exception aside, isn't that what CONCACAF always coughs up? And doesn't that argue for...jesus, why am I even typing that? For all that the region has improved – and it has over the past several World Cup qualifying cycles – the big fish keep getting bigger, right along with the little ones. Worse, the little ones take steps back sometimes while it seems like the big ones do nothing but grow. That's a hell of a dynamic.

That's all to say, I'd really like to see a change in the Gold Cup. And I'm open-minded: I'd be relieved just see CONCACAF move it out of its permanent home in the States. Maybe they could structure the tournament itself differently...shit, I dunno. Or maybe we should just qualify against CONMEBOL (I know; progress is coming, but it's slow). Regardless, the Gold Cup isn't holding my interest as a whole. And that kind of depresses me. Before the Timbers came around, back when I was just a fan of MLS in general, the U.S. Men's Team kind of was MY team...crap, am I really being a club-first fan?

Oh well, as promised way above, I'm going to conclude this post with the big list of all the players I considered when I built my Bargain-Bin Starting XI above. Players are listed only by position and salary; it’s up all y'all to know who goes with what team.

(All $ figures guaranteed salaries; * Straddles either D/M or M/F)

Jon Busch ($90,000)
Clint Irwin ($97,000)
Joe Willis ($90,000)
Tim Melia ($84,203.33)
Josh Saunders ($90,000)
Jeff Antinella ($65,083.33)
Chris Konopka ($66,000)

Ty Harden ($75,078.20)
Joevin Jones ($66,167.67)*
Hector Jimenez ($90,000)*
Chris Klute ($87,802.09)
Tyson Wahl ($99,666.67)
Shane O’Neill ($76,498)
James Riley ($83,750)
Axel Sjoberg ($75,000)
Moises Hernandez ($61,625)
Stephen Keel ($60,000)
Steven Birnbaum ($96,000)
Taylor Kemp ($60,000)
Kofi Opare ($60,000)
David Horst ($81,500)
Kevin Ellis ($63,150)
Erik Palmer-Brown ($60,500)
Tommy Meyer ($73,750)
Victor Cabrera ($60,000)
Donny Toia ($60,000)
Jeremy Hall ($70,000)*
London Woodberry ($60,000)
Chris Duvall ($60,000)
Kemar Lawrence ($60,000)
Matt Miazga ($74,500)
Karl Ouimette ($60,000)
R J Allen ($60,000)
Kwame Watson-Siriboe ($81,666.67)
Rafael Ramos ($50,000)
Richard Marquez ($60,000)
Alvas Powell ($68,700)
Justen Glad ($71,000)
Phaneul Kavita ($50,000)
Aaron Maund ($63,449.50)
Michael Azira ($62,826.88)
Dylan Remick ($60,000)
Zach Scott ($65,000)
Shaun Francis ($62,940.32)
Mark Bloom ($97,348.89)
Tim Parker ($78,750)

Chris Ritter ($60,000)
Romain Gall ($63,420.08)
Kevan George ($60,000)
Ben Speas ($68,355)*
Juan Edgardo Ramirez ($75,000)
Dillon Serna ($73,000)
Jared Watts ($60,000)
Kellyn Acosta ($84,000)
Ryan Hollingshead ($60,000)
Victor Ulloa ($60,000)
Miguel Aguilar ($60,000)
Nathan Sturgis ($75,375)
Connor Hallisey ($73,750)
Jimmy Medranda ($60,000)
(just missed, Sebastian Lletget: $100,500.04)
Jose Villareal ($61,785)*
Kyle Bekker ($88,015)
Calum Mallace ($75,000)
Maxim Tissot ($60,000)
Scott Caldwell ($67,500)
Mike Grella ($60,000)*
Mehdi Ballouchy ($83,250)
Thomas McNamara ($71,500)*
Kwadwo Poku ($63,045.09)
Sebastian Velasquez ($60,000)
Eric Avila ($77,000)
Darwin Ceren ($96,437.50)
Christian Higuita ($60,000)
Pedro Ribeiro ($60,000)
Eric Ayuk ($50,000)
Zach Pfeffer ($60,000)
George Fochive ($50,000)
Michael Nanchoff ($60,000)
Ben Zemanski ($83,533)
Luke Mulholland ($83,750)
Marco Pappa ($75,000)
Andy Rose ($60,000)
Fatai Alashe ($76,250)
JJ Koval ($60,000)
Marco Delgado ($82,500)
Nicolas Mezquida ($80,000)

Dominique Badji ($50,000)
Charles Elondou ($65,000)
Luis Solignac ($65,004)
Tesho Akindele ($87,500)
Conor Doyle ($61,250)
Mauro Manotas ($60,000)
Bradford Jamieson ($60,000)
Andres Romero ($100,000)
Charlie Davies ($82,759.53)
Stephen Neumann ($92,750)*
Anatole Abang ($50,000)
Sal Zizzo ($94,895.71)
Khiry Shelton ($87,500)
Antoine Hoppenot ($60,000)
Dairon Asprilla ($60,000)
Devon Sandoval ($60,000)
Chad Barrett ($100,000)
Quincy Amarikwa ($100,000)
Adam Jahn ($60,000)
Mark Sherrod ($60,000)
Robert Earnshaw ($100,000)
Cristian Techera ($85,000)

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