Wednesday, July 29, 2015

MLS Week 21: On DPs, Foreign Players, MLS's Backbone...and Jurgen Klinsmann

Speaking of fucking legends.
Thanks to the Gold Cup, the domestic soccer week – Week 21, for those keeping track – overflows with talking points. Add all the transfers (which, full disclosure, I am barely tracking) and the most polite thing you can call me is desperately, graspingly behind. Which argues for an image of a behind being grasped desperately.

There is, however, one addition of which I'm proud: e.g. the new sidebar that transfers this site's disclosure as to how many times I've watched each and every Major League Soccer (MLS) club in action over a full 90 during the 2015 season. I'll update that every week rather than embedding it in these weekly posts.

As for the contents of the post itself, it's what it was last week: a shot (one big idea) backed by a six pack - e.g. six talking points – that came to me while watching the following games over Week 21:
FC Dallas v. Portland Timbers (already written up; sorta)
Chicago Fire v. New England Revolution
New York City FC v. Orlando City SC
Oh yeah, went East Coast-heavy this weekend. Also, given how late this is going up (my never-met goal is always Monday night), here's to hoping that the thoughts that came to me are random enough to be novel against the larger soccer backdrop...because what's the same shit worth if it's just later?

The Shot: My Kingdom, My Kingdom for Fine-Ass American Forwards!
Somewhere in the middle of Simon Borg's vast, broad tantrum about the Gold Cup semifinals, he did what a healthy number of American pundits do – e.g. more or less absolve Jurgen Klinsmann for his complete, utter, and wage-defying adequacy. In Borg's defense, though, he smuggled a pretty sharp observation into the conversation - specifically, he argued that anyone coaching the Yanquis (aka, the U.S. Men's National Team) will struggle due to the thin collection of quality forwards at his (and maybe, some day, her) disposal. His argument rounds out decently enough when one considers how many goals the aging Clint Dempsey scored for the U.S. during the just-past, little-mourned Gold Cup tournament – and, no, we're not counting the Cuba game, which was a goddamn free-for-all in which it's possible that I could have scored. OK, no, not me.

The accusation against U.S. forwards stung, admittedly, and, motivated by my soap-opera-esque desire to take down Dear Jurgen, I scoured MLS rosters for lethal-to-competent forwards – outside the MLS guys called up, obviously (Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski, and Jozy "Short-Shift" Altidore, and, later, Alan Gordon, and, arguably, Gyasi Zardes) – to hold up to Mr. Borg and scream, "See? Idiot?!" At any rate, here's my list:
Mike Magee (Chicago Fire); Chris Rolfe (DC United); Will Bruin (Houston Dynamo); Jose Villareal (Los Angeles Galaxy); Jack McInerney (Montreal Impact); Kenny Cooper (Montreal Impact); Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution); Teal Bunbury (New England Revolution); Charlie Davies (New England Revolution); Patrick Mullins (NYCFC); C. J. Sapong (Philadelphia Union); Quincy Amarikwa (San Jose Earthquakes); Chad Barrett (? – I know, I know, but 54 goals, all-time?)...and...OK, that’s enough...
That list is, admittedly, some combination of weird and desperate, but, a few exceptions aside (I'm looking at you, Cooper, and, arguably, a long-gimpy Mike Magee), most of those guys have experienced a reasonably recent "up" or at least they're young enough to beg the question. All the same, I view the list itself as a little damning. And I went loose in there, too, even if not crazy-loose: I mean, I skipped Lee Nguyen, who I'd argue could play forward, even if he shouldn't.

The point is...OK, first point, no, there aren't a ton of choices in there with a clear demand to get on the field. The second point goes deeper: there are enough forwards in that mix, and guys who aren't SO decisively worse than, say, Aron Johannson, who did get a call-up and who, according to most of what I've read, underwhelmed his audience over the course of the Gold Cup. So, to put it directly: Klinsmann has a naked European bias – as in, just playing in Europe is enough (see, Timmy "Dead Fucking Air" Chandler), that has absolutely nothing to do with production for the national team. To say Klinsmann is hung up on Europe-or-bust is a polite way of saying the man worships at the Altar of Europe. And, I don't give a shit what anyone says (including this guy), any random player plying his trade in Europe isn't going to automatically solve America's problems. More to the point, and whatever the cause, that pool of players born in Europe who are actually available to play for the States is decidedly finite.

Rather than labor this point, as I absolutely know I can, I'll just lay down the following argument: Jamaica became the darling of this tournament by way of a fairly simple formula: they functioned well as a team, one without world-class forwards, but one that figured out how to get the most out of the personnel they do have, mostly by time together in the Copa America. That is the lesson that a tinkering-obsessed twit like Klinsmann refuses to get: there is something, and probably something more, to building a team. Klinsmann's method so far, and it also seems to be all he's got, is to endlessly continue sampling the wares. The man is walking, breathing, overpaid example of the Choice Paradox in practice.

So, consider this my call, for...and here's another fucked up thing, if you're going to play for the future, why not do that at forward, as opposed to the life-and-death realm of central defense? (And, Jesus, do not get me started on the Kyle Beckerman equation...of which, too late; more below). The point is, why not play American, or, god forbid, American-based forwards of enough quality, until the team around them figures out how to get the best out of them?

OK, that's that. Before getting to the six-pack, please allow me to dish out Conifers & Citrus' honors for Week 21:

Goal of the Week: New England's Kelyn Rowe against Chicago. Look, defining will sometimes trump pretty in my book – especially when it explains a team as well as that goal explained just why and how Chicago is (so far) doomed to suck in 2015. That is shocking defending.
Save of the Week: Josh Saunders near-post swipe against Servando Carrasco. Goddamn miracle, that.
Result of the Week: Columbus Crew SC's high-scoring draw against Toronto FC, for highlighting why those teams can't rise above the pack. Shit defense is lethal, people, at least so long as it stays shit.

And, here goes, The Six Pack. Watch closely and you'll see that a lot of the material comes when my mind wanders while I'm watching a game...and, lordy, does it wander.

The Six-Pack
1) Heir Apparent for the Dirtiest Damn Job in Soccer
Sticking with the USMNT, this year's Gold Cup made it crystal clear that the national side needs some form of like-for-like replacement to replace Kyle Beckerman – who, let's hope, is at the end of his international career. While I'm not going to go through every roster in MLS looking for candidates, as I did with the forwards (maybe next week), I'll only say this: Beckerman's full-range of abilities – e.g. tackles hard, passes smart and, when the occasion begs it, passes pretty goddamn well – is better than most people realize. Now, personally, I'm of the opinion that the U.S. produces only one position almost as consistently as goalkeepers: energetic, essentially-competent, ball-winning midfielders. Your No. 8's and No. 6's, basically. Given that, call this another area of the field where Klinsmann should have been blooding players. Scott Caldwell, or even Fatai Alashe spring to mind, here, but I'm confident other players abound...and I'll dig them up next week. Or this weekend. Goddamn it! Another project...the point is, we need a brand new Beckerman, dreads not required. RSL needs one, too, if not nearly as urgently, but it.s coming. Javier Morales entire system relies on Beckerman, or someone like him.

2) The DP Flood, Second Wave
This is big enough for a decidedly non-soccer outlet to pick it up, but the Designated-Player Season is finally, truly upon us. (And, side note: it's funny to read an article by someone who's getting paid to write something that you feel like you know more about.) What's really telling, though, is the difference between the players who arrived, for lack of a better word, on time – e.g. Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa – versus the late arrivals. Everyone knows about Giovinco, but Villa is a goddamn hoot to watch: apart from pressuring every bit as hard as, say, the Portland Timbers' Maximiliano Urruti, the not-so-aged Spaniard throws fits at such a pitch that, in spite of some comments above, it gets one thinking about the gap in soccer IQ between Europe and the States (Kaka unleashed one of his own on Cyle Larin for not continuing an obvious run – and rightly so). To lay all my cards on the table, Andrea Pirlo's debut brought all this to mind. Full disclosure: infrequently as I've seen him, Pirlo impresses me more than any player in world football today. Because conversations about who's best are inherently subjective, my personal bias runs heavily toward great passers. Always has, always will (dribblers are show ponies, goddammit!). The point is, I squealed at least twice watching Pirlo pick out NYCFC's bull-in-a-china-shop wonder Kwadwo Poku to send him running at Orlando's backline. Pirlo's composure on the ball is a source of wonderment for me, and I'm OK with that. Meanwhile, Frank Lampard looks a lot like one of the tackier jokes in MLS history. So, to answer part of the question posed by The Atlantic's article, yeah, it's a missed bag. The answer to its larger point, on the other hand, is no less straightforward: my man-crush on Pirlo is real and, yeah, I think he's got things to teach young American players. But MLS's salary structure is a mess, and it's in bad taste to boot. Sure, it's business, but the American way of doing business doesn’t always produce happy the next two points show.

3) The (Better?) Balance of the Foreign Invasion
This one came by way of watching Aurelien Collin thrive in yet another setting – Orlando this time. The final score-line was brutal for Orlando, without question – giving up five goals can't be anything but. This one game aside, Collin remains one of the best center backs in MLS. The same goes for the Montreal Impact's Laurent Ciman who, at least I don't think is here on DP money. File this under another something I don’t have time to flesh out this week, but there are a literal shit-ton of players on MLS rosters who are making south of DP-money, but all of whom make MLS better week in and week out. They come from all over the world and, player to player, I think they do more to make MLS a better, prettier league to watch than the DPs. And, relevant to the above, Poku makes the point just as well. All this goes to show that there's a bigger middle-class in MLS than that article in The Atlantic acknowledges (link: second line of point #2). And, yes, this absolutely ties in with, say, the paucity of American forwards, or even creative midfielders, suiting up for MLS clubs. It's not ideal, obviously, and, worse, there's no guarantee whatsoever that this increase in competition will somehow magically lead to "leveling up" among American players. I mean, it could just be a well-paid unemployment line for American players, yeah? And now it gets worse...

4) Shout-Out to All the Jeremy Halls
Even though he inspired this talking point, I still had to google Jeremy Hall's name to see where he’s currently playing (and, yes, I watched the entire game, honest). That'd be the New England Revolution, but, in something both telling and worth noting, his Wikipedia entry shows him in a Portland Timbers' jersey. Once again, that Atlantic article provides a good point of reference on a player like Hall because he's the guy that article does talk about - e.g. the one who's passing the ball to all those aging DPs while earning middle-management money (yep, $70K). To frame it rhetorically, how can one not have a soft spot for a guy like Jeremey Hall? Players like Hall provide the foundation for every good and great thing a DP like Jermaine Jones, or even a near-DP like Nguyen, does. He’s also one of the guys that the current CBA screws over...maybe, by which I mean I'm not sure whether that short loan spell to the Wilmington Hammerheads counts against his total time-in with MLS (which, if it does, runs headlong into the whole equation of free-agency-after-X-years). All I know is, Hall has put in solid minutes for at least two MLS clubs – New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC (94 games total, since 2010) – and he's also a guy who's good enough to stick around MLS year after year. Six years into his career, though, and he's making a salary low enough to make one wonder why he puts up with it. The market is global. And tricky.

5) Outside Back, Where the Competent Become Still More Competent
I didn't honestly have a ton here beyond noting that two of the games I caught this weekend featured players who typically play other, more attacking positions – Dallas' Ryan Hollingshead and the Chicago Fire's Matt Polster – playing at right back. I'm not 100%-sure on Polster, and looking it up to confirm would ruin the potentially dodgy observation (and I'm a fan thereof) that, depending on one's footed-ness (e.g. which foot is said player's preferred foot), right or left back is where a player ends up when he's not quite good enough to displace a player in front of him in his ideal position, but he's too good to kick off the team. This isn't a bad trend, by any means. More quality at the outside back positions is a good thing because, as pointed out in Matt Doyle’s historical/tactical geek-fest, the role of outside backs has grown in the modern game.

To bring this point right on home – as in all the way back to the big, sloppy shot that started it all – it might not matter so much if all the U.S. can produce are forwards like, say, Zardes, whose chief talent is an accurate, one-touch shot toward goal from a cross. Contra-Klinsmann, sometimes it's about making the most of the talent you have. That's as opposed to pretending you can unearth rare gems in Europe, just because it passed through the asshole of some big club.

6) The Sub-Mediocrity Lifestyle
Finally, I thought I'd close by sparing a thought for the Chicago Fire, who, for me, and according to the standings, remain the worst club in MLS. What stands out most for me comes from my notes, which read (again, and always, verbatim: "I did not see Igboananike do anything DP worthy, or even well, v. NE. Sad." Here, Igboananike means Kennedy Igboananike, one of the three (or several) DPs Chicago brought in over the 2014-15 off-season to turn around a 2014 so laden with draws that it defined mediocrity. Whatever your club did, imagine never being good enough. That shit is horrifying. They did more than most and yet one would think that, at this point, Chicago's fan-base aches for last season. How bad have things gotten? Their one bright spot, David Accam, looks to have traded in all those darting runs for going down far too easily with an eye to drawing fouls. Long story short, things have turned brutal in Chicago, even more brutal than Philadelphia, or even Colorado. Lord knows how they turn this around...

All right. That's it for this week. Back on Saturday and/or Sunday to wrap up the Portland Timbers v. San Jose. Hope it's better than the last one...till then!

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