Thursday, August 27, 2015

MLS Week 25: (Loose) Playoff Talk (and Prepping for the Future), Plus Midfield Conundrums

What? Seriously? MLS Cup better be up there...
Due to this week's late start (my Portland Timbers thing went up Monday, fer crissakes) and just a fucking mess of a week, I have to go general and short (as I can make it) on Major League Soccer Week 25/26 Review/Preview and...hold on, is that gentle breeze that just fluttered my hair a collective sigh of relief?

And, barring further vacillation, the Beer and Shots Review will be replaced by Review/Preview posts going forward, which, ideally, will go up Wednesdays. Look, it'll all make sense by the time 2015 ends. Trust me. Moving on...wait, first, below are the two games I took in over this past weekend.
Portland Timbers v. Houston Dynamo (already written up at some length)
Columbus Crew SC v. Sporting Kansas City (recorded at right...and that's it)
Between time and having several other things on which I'd like to focus, I have only one really important direct point about Week 25: the mirrored fates of Kansas City (two reputation-denting losses) and the San Jose Earthquakes (who, on the back of two consecutive road wins, both of them impressive, suddenly look like Bad Soccer just revived its curse) tell anyone who follows the league everything he/she needs to know. Good teams will stumble, while bad teams will rock, if only for a while. Because, MLS. Internalizing that applies to both long-time fans of MLS (like me), or the greenest, noobiest of new supporters: the former forget how much parity defines the league, while it will take the latter a while to fully appreciate that reality. More (and less) on both points wind in and out of the narrative below. It's this fall’s now-abruptly-impending playoffs that I want to talk about today.

It took an article posted on – they called it the "Red Line Report" – to shake me from my annual summer slumber. Without that, I would have gone right on recording each week of the season with the same rough awareness and conscious thought that a marathoner puts into thinking about each foot-fall just one mile in her race. Consider, however, that the overwhelming majority of MLS clubs have fewer than 10 games in which to declare their intentions . And that’s not just for the post-season, but what sort of figure they'll cut once they get there...and, for my Portland Timbers, this space expects "dashing." If there's not a trail of multi-colored rose petals sprinkled along a sun-dappled path to MLS Cup, all I can say is that the Timbers will really have to pull out several more stops, at a minimum, if they expect any nookie over the winter.

This conversation shifts a little – or a metric shit-ton, in some locations – once the topic turns to the Los Angeles Galaxy. Hit that link and take in the first time minutes of Monday's ExtraTime Radio and you'll get the impression that the rest of 2015 will feature the Galaxy beating up on a series of glass-jawed, lily-livered patsies before hoisting MLS Cup in...whatever month that happens. All the enthusiasm grew from the Galaxy's Sunday thrashing of New York City FC. And that's what makes the headline for that show – "Can the LA Galaxy Be Stopped?" – sort of odd. NYCFC is the most notoriously lopsided clubs in MLS, with their defense, in particular, dressing up as a hot mess every other weekend throughout their inaugural season. To ETR's credit, some of the on-air talent cooled down the conversation and acknowledged as much.

For me, MLS's House Pundits approached the issue from the wrong direction: the question doesn't turn on how absolutely fantastic LA is right now, but how erratic every other club can be. That's the deeper meaning of Sporting KC's god-awful goddamn week. When I listened to that podcast, my first thought was, "What about KC?" This past weekend put some truly evil cross-examination questions to Sporting's consistency, which made it damned tricky to point to them as LA's road-block. (But, for the record, if they put me on the stand, I'd put SKC's bad week down to fatigue because that's how it read, particularly against San Jose.) After KC, though, who is there? Whether one goes by their record, or their reputation, most "top clubs" in MLS have had a bad run recently (well, not always bad); it was the bottom-dwellers that came good this past weekend – your Real Salt Lakes, your San Joses, etc. Nothing confirms this wisdom of taking a dubious view of any trend in MLS quite like the Colorado Rapids' WTF, two-game winning streak, or even something left-field wacky as the Chicago Fire beating the New York Red Bulls last night. I mean, if we can't count on the Fire to be total shit, I ask you, what can we count on?

Personally, I'm going with what the rich folk tell everyone else to do when the stock market goes funny (due largely to the way those same rich folk played with the thing as if it were a goddamn board game, which, to them, it is): take the long view. Way back after Week 18, I posted rankings that speculated on which clubs would make the (stupidly bloated) 2015 post-season. I definitely missed, misread, or overlooked plenty of things – e.g. the Red Bulls defense (which has been quite good); that Orlando City SC would go off the rails so badly that they probably think they're all airplanes by now; or the fact that Columbus would suffer multiple shit-streaks in a season – but enough of the thoughts and arguments I made there still ring true. Or, worst case, they follow a loose kind of conventional wisdom.

People project teams into the MLS post-season a lot of ways: some look to history, form, and mix it all up with insights on personnel; other rely on algorithms; I know one guy who places a stethoscope on his belly and listens to the rumblings (after waiting for the gas to pass) (and, yes, that guy is me). Set all that aside for now and take a long look at the MLS standings. No club in MLS is truly out of it yet, not even mathematically. Even a club as manifestly all-year-awful as Chicago sits only eight points behind the "quality pack" in the Eastern Conference, and they still have 27 potential points left to play for. This is a league where bad runs are lethal and great runs are rare. Well, at least outside LA. And prior to LAFC that expansion will suck for a year or two, no matter how much money they put into it.

I don't really credit MLS for this reality; I just accept that it is reality. As much as I hate to admit it, it's nice having a "great club" in MLS. I like the idea of some benchmark of quality. It gives everyone else something for which to aim. That said, I think we'd have a better league if we could all name a couple candidates, or even a few, when someone posed the question, "who can stop LA?"

So, that's just a confession that I don't know what the fuck is going on, right? I guess the real point is each and every club in MLS made some form of acquaintance with its margin of error. It's shrinking before the very eyes for most clubs, while becoming irrelevant for a select few.

OK, expect a less generic topic next week, something a little more analytical, one that might end with some form of conclusion, etc. The sort "trend”" stuff above will be relegated to the "talking points" section. And, per the title, I'll spend some time trying to look forward to the upcoming weekend – hence review/preview. Also, there will be more talking points, and those will be smaller and shorter. I want them to be closer to bare statements, as opposed to deeper analysis, because there's only one team I feel confident really digging in to - the Portland Timbers. I just have loose, if reasonably educated, opinions on everyone else. And, unless I put in actual research, the talking points should read like that. Anyway, I have just a few this week…...and those are pretty lousy with chatter about Portland.

Week 25 Talking Points
1) The Maloney/Shipp Conundrum
Doughy Scot Shaun Maloney left Chicago earlier this week, which put a sort of defining "fail" stamp on their designated player experience for the season. I don’t know much about the departure, the circumstances that led to it, etc. (maybe I'll read about it later, maybe not), but a little thread ran through the commentary about Maloney's time with Chicago: the question of what his presence meant for Fire youngster Harrison Shipp. It was a question of duplication, whether Chicago had too many players trying to do similar things, and wanting to do them from the same general area of the field. The Fire aren't the only club to suffer from it, either - think NYCFC, who (from a distance) seem a little relieved that they don't have to find Frank Lampard a place on the field (my answer: why bother? seriously, by now, why?). Or think, say, the Portland Timbers (more below). Building a roster is tricky, obviously, because a club wants competition (if it doesn't go on too long), but it's hard to keep a good player happy, or even to develop a promising young player when his skill-set too closely matches that of his mentor. Anyway, the broadcasters acknowledged that Chicago is Shipp's club for now. That'll be something to watch...if only till next year.
1a) Nagbe & Valeri: the Timbers' Odd Couple
The Timbers case is trickier in that Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri don't play the same game. One would think that would make them compatible, but the notion that it doesn't lurks in the background of no small number of conversations about Portland's sputtering attack. It starts with wondering if Nagbe doesn't defer somewhat to Valeri; that could explain Nagbe's maddening tendency to sometimes adopt a supporting role. Timbers fans got a taste of what Portland would look with Nagbe in charge over the first few months of 2015. And, well, it happened, and it went OK, but always with the implicit understanding that Valeri would come back and, basically, run things again. All I know is that I have this persistent urge to ship one of them or the other. Thoughts?

2) Inclusive and Fucked Up for It: CONCACAF'S Troubled Tournaments

Anyone who looked back on that Week 18 post will see that I lead the thing by talking about switching to full Gold Cup coverage. That didn't pan out – I mean at all; I was just pissed off by CONCACAF by the end of it all – but I only bring that up because I'm beginning to view the CONCACAF Champions' League through the same lens. I am as conditioned as anyone in the world to love this tournament, but when a Jamaican club can barely scrape its way to the games, never mind win them, and there's too little mystery to some of the groups (here, I'm going with Groups D, E,, not so bad, but still...), maybe it's time to consider some fixes. It could be more play-ins for (sorry!) the Caribbean clubs, or just condensing the tournament to one stretch in the MLS/Liga MX season, but, for the sake of competition, MLS clubs really need to focus on the task at hand – i.e. reaching the playoffs and winning MLS Cup. And looking as good and beautiful as humanly possible on the way to doing it.

OK, that’s it for Week 25. Back next week...with laser-like focus.

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