Monday, August 17, 2015

MLS Week 24 Shots 'n' Beers Review: Great Games, Bad Defense, and DP Theory

It was the Best of Times!
I think I'm finally there on a concept for these weekly reviews of Major League Soccer. I call this process, The Struggle. But enough about me. Why? Because MLS Week 24? It was goddamn nuts! To give it a name, it was the Week of Not-Giving-a-Shit Celebrations! As in, "why, yes, I'll take that yellow card you fun-sucking prick, because this shirt is coming off!!" Moving on to some random observations:

- The guy in the DC United replica shirt that said "Wine," has inspired me to get a Portland Timbers replica of my own that says either "Gin" or "Bourbon." Taking votes!

- If you listen closely after San Jose's goal, you’ll hear the Mexican commentating team freaking the Hell out. And it was like music.

- Related: was Paul Caligiuri let go by Univision/Mas? Don't they know that novel mispronunciations of players' names don’t grow on trees!?

- I really, really struggled with Shep Messing's broadcast partner who kept using the phrase, "ball defended away" to describe a defensive clearance.

Moral of the story: keep your eyes open during broadcasts, because there's always something out the kid ball who stood behind (think it was the Houston Dynamo's) Tyler Deric fronting all the while. Moving on!

Next, it's time to record the games I took in this weekend. How much do my wife and kids hate me this week? Three! Three games worth of hate!
New York Red Bulls v. Toronto FC
Real Salt Lake v. Portland Timbers (written up here)
Sporting Kansas City v. Vancouver Whitecaps
I watched the rest in the usual 20-minute, bite-sized format. Right, may as well start the review in precisely the same way I'm starting to type: with a Shot...which, here, means a great summation of the week/weekend just past (hat-tip: Series of Unfortunate Events).

The Shot, A Week 24 Recap
"With Orlando's loss, who can take advantage?"
The broadcasting monkey (Chicago's, I think) posed that question at the top of the Philadelphia Union's home game against the Chicago Fire. The answer turned out to be neither club – and the comment referred to Orlando City SC's, uh, mildly dispiriting loss to Seattle Sounders FC - but, goddamn, did these two awful, awful teams entertain the neutrals and, no doubt, leave the home crowd's guts in knots (played in Philly). The final score (3-3) aside, the Fire's Sean Johnson put in a fucking crazy Save of the Week clinic to keep Chicago in it (yes, even better than Adam Kwarasey's save against Luke Mulholland for the Timbers). All right, all right, that’s enough time in the Toilet Bowl. What happened everywhere else in MLS this weekend? In a word, madness!

The real Result of the Week happened Saturday, with the mad, goddamn thriller between Sporting Kansas City and the Vancouver Whitecaps. The 'Caps looked safely in command by way of how efficiently they punished KC's mistakes on a series of counters. Unfortunately, Vancouver left them off the hook a couple times too many, which allowed Sporting to, in a fitting tribute to Peter Vermes' haircut, come back to win it in relentless Terminator style on the back of Paolo Nagamura's blind-side brace. Truly was one for the ages, that one. And full credit to KC for the comeback. It took a toll (see: Besler, Matt, who stayed in the turf for a full minute after the final whistle to say to the world, "World, I am damned tired!"). The fact that this game featured two 2015's best clubs and it delivered entertainment with alcohol-enema intensity put this one cleanly over the top as the most important result of the week.

And yet that was no easy choice. On the way to checking the standings, I noticed that MLS's website has already heralded the week's excitement, and for good reason. Solid candidates abounded for Game of the Week honors because, as I see it, important stuff happened all over: New York City FC kicked off the week right by topping DC; the Los Angeles Galaxy's win over FC Dallas lets the cement set a little firmer on their status as the one and only Super Club in MLS; the Portland Timbers stole a vital last-gasp winner against Real Salt Lake, a victory that the Timbers' Nat Borchers celebrated solemnly like the old, worthy soldier he is (you can see it in the "last-gasp winner" link; poignant); finally, and as noted above, Seattle finally got off their massive schneid with a victory engineered by Obafemi Martins. Not even missing a penalty kick could stop that man, who went on to 1) prove that he can combine with damn near anyone to score what I'm calling the Goal of the Week (again, for importance; we have different measures and standards here at Conifers & Citrus); and 2) later score for fun (yay!). That, my friends, is cheek. Both cheeks. I can't even begrudge Seattle the moment, given how shitty they've been lately.

There are your details, but what is the story? Here's one version: I swapped notes with Timbers fans all day Saturday, during which I suggested that I could live with Portland loss, or even a draw. The answer that came back every time drew my attention to the fact that time is running out on 2015 for any club in MLS that isn't already stepping in stride. More clubs fit that profile than don't, actually, which means it's just another season in the parity-obsessed MLS. Personally, I'd exempt only the Galaxy, KC, Vancouver, the Red Bulls, DC United. Things are more settled than that, at least in the Western Conference, but that's as much by accident as design. In spite of how they're playing (I'm not sold, frankly) teams like Portland and Dallas have compiled enough wins to look safe for the post-season – but that also has a lot to do with the Houston Dynamo dropping points to the New England Revolution over the weekend (again with the Result of the Week candidates!).

Time is definitely running out on several clubs, most of them in the West. For instance, if there's a way that the Colorado Rapids aren't fucked, someone should update the Kinsey people, because I'm pretty sure they've tried everything by now. RSL is getting there, too, much like San Jose...and, let us pause to mourn the shattered dreams that attended Avaya Stadium's opening...

As for the Eastern Conference...well, let's just say that, a couple teams aside, the cream ain't exactly rising over there. It's anybody's game. Seriously, a team as dire as Chicago is only eight points behind Toronto FC, who sit in 5th place? I ask you, how?!

Now, for the rest of the weekly wrap up. I'm going back to the six-pack, six observations on the week just past. A fair chunk of them will probably revolve around the full games I watched on any given weekend, but I'll also go where the spirit commands. At any rate, crack 'em open and, ENJOY!

1) A Western Conference Stare-Down

As was mentioned throughout the SKC v. Vancouver broadcast, KC went into Saturday night's match with a couple positive numbers in their pocket: most points-per-game in MLS, plus a reasonably long-standing unbeaten home record. Vancouver walked in with some positives of their own up the sleeve – notably, the top record in the mighty Western Conference. The two clubs went at it like true heavyweights right until the death when Sporting went full-Balboa to the 'Caps Apollo Creed (talking Rocky II, obvs). Sub-plots unfolded all over – e.g. sure, Kekuta Manneh knocked in a brace, but what about the couple set-ups he squandered (and how the Hell did KC allow so many terrifyingly lopsided break-aways) or Pedro Morales' rocket freekick that, really, should have ended the game as a contest; then there's the question of how Vancouver lost Nagamura not once, but twice (an answer for the second: Pa Modou Kah had his reliable moment of ball hypnosis), or just how Kevin Ellis balls up into something like a cannonball when he heads the ball (it’s both freaky and cool). Put it all together, the goals scored by both clubs and the goals leaked, and put that against the one question that should be on everyone's mind: how do KC and Vancouver stack up against a fully-resurgent Los Angeles Galaxy? I heard more than a few "who can stop 'em?" comments after LA's win over Seattle back in Week 23 (but who didn't beat Seattle in recent weeks?). As much as such comments read as over the top to me (and don't necessarily match what I saw over two 20-minute mini-games; and FC Dallas disagrees, too), it is right and wise to acknowledge that KC and Vancouver look to have the best shot at making LA go away before MLS Cup this season. And by that I mean where it counts – e.g. in a two-legged playoff series.
1a) Aside from the unrelenting series of more or less total defensive breakdowns – we're talking several 4-v-1's – KC's defense screwed over their 'keeper, Tim Melia, all night. He handled hot back-passes and weird ones. More than that, he's gone from just another schlub in the MLS 'keeper pool to starting for what has very recently been argued to be the best team in MLS. Where is this man's MLS Insider? (I ask because I am a complete whore for that show. More please.)

3) Red Bulls, Charging Right Up the Middle
At one point during the Red Bulls v. Toronto FC broadcast, the TV showed a graphic of Dax McCarty's stats for 2015. I can't find the thing (who keeps things like this...and where, goddammit!?), but those ranked McCarty at 2nd through 5th in the league in a lot of stats relevant to defensive midfielder. Ing. Ing. Your completed passes, your interceptions – all the things, basically, that speak to energy and effectiveness in a midfield player whom, when you watch him, doesn't always present as a defensive midfielder. If you watch New York, though, you'll see a team that is comfortable playing in and through every part of the field – most notably up the middle. They even adjust the attack to get more play up the middle, as when Mike Grella shifted inside when he and Anthony Wallace struggled to get past (an admittedly impressive) Justin Morrow. That, in fact, is where Grella popped up several times before playing in Bradley Wright-Phillips for New York's first goal of the afternoon. As I've noted in the past, McCarty deserves a huge amount of credit for the way New York can do this. Even when Sacha Kljestan turns in a stinker (and he has this year, on several occasions; still, finding his feet), New York pokes and probes until they get through. It's not always flawless, it can even get ragged on a bad day, but this team knows how to play together as well as any in MLS. Their only real limit is a lack of star power, and how much is that a limit when you're clearly playoff-bound and playing well? Moreover, they've tried to address this by signing Shaun Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Veron, even as that risks upsetting the chemistry (eh, maybe Veron fits in all right). Still, nice problem to have. And, as a fan of a team that...more or less sucks at playing centrally, I can only voice my envy.

4) Toronto FC's Defensive Disaster
Anyone who dons Toronto’s red replica kits every weekend has a perfect right to feel both anxious and aggrieved at this past weekend's loss. While they can take general comfort in an attack that, on its day, can rip just about any club in MLS a freshly-widened asshole, that defense is pretty goddamn terrible. We're talking expansion club (Orlando, who've really eaten it lately) and Philadelphia terrible. It doesn't seem to matter what they do, or who they play; Toronto's defensive gaffes are many and legend (see: Nick Hagglund v. Fabian Castillo earlier this year, which was orca v. sea lion pup wrong). The loss to New York contained enough bad symptoms to warrant not only immediate hospitalization, but also quarantine. As much as people talked up New York's "high press," the reality was that Toronto absolutely killed themselves by allowing the Red Bulls space and far too much vertical space. There was no meaningful line of engagement, for one – I can't count the number of times the Red Bulls laid siege to and all around Toronto's penalty area – but they made elementary mistakes even when the field was collapsed. The best specific example came with the goal linked to above - e.g. Grella to Wright-Phillips (fine; here it is again); that happened because Toronto couldn't hold a clean defensive line, period. For lack of a better theory, I'd argue that Toronto lacks a clear defensive identity. And so it's all  over the place as a result. If anything keeps TFC out of their (is it?) ninth (no, eighth) post-season, that'll be it.

5) The World's Most Interesting Man in Full
I happened to be staring at Twitter when NYCFC's Andrea Pirlo played the loose pass that would lead to DC's only goal in that game. It was bad enough that people jokingly called it a secondary assist. I generally dip in and out of Twitter, so it's possible I missed notes and tweets about what Pirlo later did right – e.g. he beat Perry Kitchen on a-brave-at-36 50/50 ball and put in another spotlessly clean tackle later on; moreover, he played a ball so precise and clever that I'm not sure that even David Villa saw it till he ran onto it and scored. Mistakes will be made in a 90-minute game. A player on Pirlo's level is entirely up to repairing some damage. Maybe even a lot of it.

6) The Atomic Ant and the American Legend
Old guys like Pirlo (and Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard) constitute a fairly specific sub-set among MLS players; they're not really building MLS so much as drawing a spotlight to it for a spell. People enjoy their failures for this reason. This season introduced a still-more specific sub-set to the equation – guys like Sebastian Giovinco. A lot of the talk about a player like Giovinco revolves around what he can do for the league – see, the whole question of how he "legitimizes" MLS to other foreign, top-class players. As much truth as there is to that, what gets overlooked a little is how much he risked by coming to MLS. Unlike the old dudes, Giovinco is mapping the story of his career right now, and in MLS. That's the other side of being in his prime. Hot young DP prospects can fail and reboot; even American DPs can fall back on their nationality, because the words "American" and "world-class" can be used to make an argument, but a simple declaration, not so much. Giovinco has too much resume, and too much time ahead of him, to get away with imploding; he can't write off his time in the States as pushing it one year too far, or even blame it on, say, the "craziness" of American officiating. The last guy to put that much on the line? Landon Donovan, probably. Until Giovani dos Santos joined MLS, I don't think that really applied to anyone else (Robbie Keane comes pretty close, though). What I like most about the comparison, though, probably falls under wish fulfillment. I like to think that, more than any other league on the planet, players join, or stick with, MLS for the widest variety of reasons. It could be personal, professional, a desire for anonymity, getting paid, or just feeling safe day to day. As for Giovinco, I wouldn't be surprised at all if his reasons mirrored Donovan's. After all, there are times when it looks like he’s having the time of his life. Yeah, yeah, it's beating up on the JV a little. That's fun, at least sometimes...

And, damn it! Hung up on DPs again. That's it! I promise that in next week's wrap-up, no DPs will be mentioned in . That's all for this week. Back...mmm, let's go with Thursday.

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