Thursday, September 3, 2015

MLS Week 26 Review/Week 27 Preview, Plus: Best & Worst DPs And...9 Quick, Hot Takes

Official Conifers & Citrus spite of what some memories I note below.
(Posting late again. I know, Judy. I know. Next week. Or maybe the week after. I know you can't stop it, Judy, but can you make it slow down?)

Time to slip out of the small, scenic pond where the Portland Timbers reside (Lake Oswego?) and into the big, rollicking ocean that is Major League Soccer as a whole. While I'm still refining the format – and believe that this feature will be more fluid than fixed until 2016 – I do feel like I'm getting closer. At any rate, lots to get to below, which include:
1) The Review/Preview, the lede that looks both backward and forward at trends in MLS;
2) This week's feature on the best and worst in designated players for 2015; and
3) Takes, Quick and Hot, e.g. quick, (ideally) worthwhile thoughts about MLS teams, players and...or just me sharing my pulling out my next wild hair.
OK, that's it. Time to dig in.

Week 26 Review/Week 27 Preview
MLS stuffed a heavy work-week into Week 26, featuring 12 intra-league games in all. The general schedule piled on a few more games for MLS clubs, courtesy of the Canadian Championship (which ended in a comfortingly sensible manner) and the CONCACAF Champions' League (CCL). The overall set up asked more of some clubs than others and, to be fair, some held up better than others. The trickier issue comes with figuring out why.

Fatigue, or some version of it, offers up an obvious villain in all this. For instance, DC United could argue that all those midweek airplane miles combined with the New York Red Bulls to kick their ass last Sunday night. Sporting Kansas City could finger the same guy in the police line-up (still talking about fatigue) as the reason for their now-100% apparent slump, and so could the Montreal Impact, who also played two games in Week 26 and lost both - and Laurent Ciman, for a bit (and, it bears noting, they will play catch up the rest of the season). It's not a perfect excuse, though, as demonstrated by several examples, including the Colorado Rapids (played two, won two), or, to compare apples to apples, why not ask why the Seattle Sounders, a club that logged more miles than DC, came out with results that ran the opposite direction.

Even as the weight of the argument above tilts in favor of teams losing their legs, especially those clubs embroiled in MLS's various side/solo projects (e.g. CCL, the Canadian Championship, or even the U.S. Open Cup), I've been thinking about MLS's schedule in the weird light of acceptance lately. When you get right down to it, the 34-game regular season isn't all that strange or unusually demanding; take the playoffs out of the picture and you’re looking at something pretty similar to the rest of the world's. Sure, Europe’s leading clubs cope with that burden – and the side/solo projects they face – with larger (and better) rosters, and shorter travel distances, but the essential challenges are roughly the same, as is the solution: thoughtful squad rotation and/or management. MLS actually makes up for those smaller squads in that its lavishly-generous playoff structure means that any given club can suck here and there, even for long stretches (see New England Revolution 2014), so long as it peaks at the right time.

The point is that they aren't any defining structural reasons for any MLS club to complain about the schedule. On some level, it's just something to say after the game to explain a loss. And the way a smartly-structured club roster can trump one that's bought, means there are enough ways to skin the cat to argue that a failure to do it is just that – a failure.

In spite of all of the above, the results from Week 26 basically made sense – more sense than they usually do, in fact – I'm going to table discussion of most results. After that, the weekend featured some results that were unfair, and others would be freakish were they not strangely explicable (if only with resort to curses; see 2nd 'graph on first link and third bullet point in the second). The biggest, latest trend in MLS, however, comes with the Rise of the Spoilers – i.e., heretofore crappy clubs waking up just in time to upset the queue that leads past the ol red velvet rope and into The After-Party at the end of the season (that means "playoffs"; trademark pending). Here, I'm looking at the San Jose Earthquakes (see, four straight wins, and where they got 'em), the Rapids (count 'em, three straight), and, arguably, Columbus Crew SC, if only because they stopped slipping (by way of a respectable four-game unbeaten streak). The Crew matter less in the grand scheme of the Eastern Conference, given where they are, but in the Western Conference...dang. One gets the feeling no one's safe.

But will that show in Week 27? Eh, not so much. I'd vote for Toronto FC v. Seattle Sounders as this week's Big One. Seattle finally crested the edges of their shit-filled tiger trap this Sunday, only they've still got one leg in and could slip back if anyone kicks them in. Toronto could be all right, but the reality is, Seattle's lucky to get Toronto when they're getting them – e.g. with Sebastian Giovinco busted up and absent. Only two other games in Week 27's modest offering (just five games this actual weekend) holds any interest for me: San Jose v. the Philadelphia Union has trap-game written all over from San Jose's side, while both Columbus and FC Dallas stand on a fence with green grass on one side and cow pats on the other. The other two games interest me so little that...well, yes, let's talk about something else.
And What About Portland?
The Timbers have a bye...well, a bye-weekend, I guess. They don't suit up till next Wednesday, when they'll host a worn and weary Kansas City side. I would have sweated that match-up as recently as the beginning of August, but between last week's valiant loss in Seattle and the previous week's generally positive turn in Houston, this game feels winnable. As for actual Week 27, Portland has a two-game wish-list that sees both Seattle and San Jose picking up one point at most – though no points for both would be preferred. So, here's to hoping San Jose steps into the trap. As for Seattle, I wish Toronto looked trickier...

Special DP Rankings
Below, I identify the players that I count as the Top 5 designated players in MLS. After that, I'll name the essential busts in terms of DP signings who played in 2015 – e.g. the players that came to one club or another and failed in spite of being all wrapped up in cash and expectations. I think we're far enough in the season, yeah? And I'll list 'em 5 to 1, y'know, for suspense.

How did I arrive at these rankings? It's one part about the player's performance, one part what he does for his team, and yet another part looking to value – something that comes up more once I get to the Top 5. For the record, the Top 5 abounds with honorable mentions – which is to say DPs generally deliver, especially guys at the lower end of the salary scale (which Wikipedia's post on this kind enough to include). That also gets at why I struggled to pick the Bottom 5; again, most DPs don't fall much beyond mediocre. Then again, bad luck played a devilish role in the Bottom 5. All right, here goes:

Great DPs: The Cream of the Cream
5) Obafemi Martins
I think the debate over whether Clint Dempsey helps Seattle more than Martins officially died this year. Where Clint combines slick with bravado, Martins' happy marriage between power (for keeping the ball), speed (of thought and movement) and finesse (he could sip tea with his foot, it's so delicate) easily makes him not just Seattle's best, but one of the best in MLS. Even this year, when he was gone a bit. [NOTE: This could be the Stockholm Syndrome talking after what he did to the Timbers last week.]

4) Robbie Keane
He's lost, oh, a quarter step as I read it, but Kean-o's speed of thought and decisive execution means he had a little speed to spare. Between how comfortably he can switch between scoring, combining, and pitching in assists, Keane sets the bar for MLS's consensus best club, the Los Angeles Galaxy...where, presumably, there will one day be holes to fill.

3) Fabian Castillo
Before anyone gripes, this is where the bargain component comes in: do you have any idea how cheap Castillo plays for Dallas? ($160,000?!) Let's just say it's damned close to buying Bacardi at Castillo prices. Unequaled in MLS at the fine art of running at players, Castillo can be streaky, but I'd bet he's always the first guy the other team's coach mentions when he preps for Dallas.  When he's on, he's either s scoring or setting up sitters for his teammates. Even when he's off, he's still a distraction.

2) Jermaine Jones
New England's over the past two seasons makes a damned compelling argument for naming him the legitimate MVP for MLS clubs. When a team's runs of form track one player's presences and absences that cleanly, it opens up the whole correlation/causation quite a bit. For team spending money on an impact player, that's really, really hard to beat. Especially when he carries you all the way to the end.

1) Sebastian Giovinco
Was there any doubt? I mean, honestly? That he gets bullied out of the odd game is the worst thing you can say about Wee Gio. He's dangerous in so many different ways, otherwise – whether shots from distance, free kicks, subtle passes, wicked runs, just plain being slippery as an eel on meth and soaked in vegetable oil (which compile nicely on his profile page) – that he's rarely out of the top three players on any given field. Expensive, and worth every penny: seriously, imagine TFC without him in 2015. Well, won't actually have to imagine...

Bad DPs: The Spoiled Milk Curdling at the Bottom
5) Mauro Diaz
Harsh? Yes. How often does someone, pundit or broadcaster, rhapsodize over how much better Dallas is with Diaz healthy and on the field? The answer mirrors the question: how often is Diaz healthy and on the field for Dallas? Fragility is a bitch (as Timbers fans know), but his prolonged absences and tentative returns could very well be what keeps Dallas from The After-Party. And, by the way, read this together with the entry on Castillo above. And weep.

4) Jozy Altidore
Sticking with harsh – why not? – Altidore's numbers haven't been awful (contrary to what (I swear) one commentator said about him scoring only two this year – this was in August), and I hear he's been better lately, but...c'mon. You expected more, right? There aren't a lot of players in MLS who earn more (it's 7; I counted), but there are plenty who match Altidore's production and utility. And without the dumb decisions and the odd injury.

3) Sebastian Jaime
Shifting now, from harsh to low-profile, I went with Jaime in spite of his genuinely modest pay-check (the man comes pretty cheap; not Castillo cheap, but still bargain among DPs). It's Jaime's time-in that sets him apart for me. That and the way he's failed, over that lengthy period, to save RSL from its increasingly apparent decline. I was about to make some big-stretch argument that MLS no longer signs players like Jaime, but another look at the DP list makes that read wrong. Maybe it's that he's some kind of cautionary tale against going too cheap on DPs that makes him fit here.

2) Frank Lampard
Signing with NYCFC still counts as the best moment in Lampard's MLS career. That's bad. At $6M per annum, that's bad, super-expensive practical joke territory. Why? Because, apart from signing, Lampard's MLS career has been: a long period of playing, but not for NYCFC, followed by sitting in the stands a couple times in Yankee Stadium (no doubt wondering...what the hell?); after that came a couple games on Yankee Stadium's hallowed ground and about as many missed goals, etc. Lampard basically has one year to prove that he isn't nothing more than the most expensive lure in league history.

1) Shaun Maloney
When I watched Maloney's edition of MLS Insider, I detected hints of a man trying to sell himself on a major life decision. Which makes watching it a little depressing. Full disclosure: he's only at #1 because he's the only guy on the list who can't fix his legacy. Still, every time I watched him, I wondered if he was fast enough for MLS. And that's sort of crazy. I put Maloney at #1 to acknowledge all he meant for Chicago – impact player, certainly, mentor, maybe, but the bigger drag is the year burnt on a bad option. I don't know how Maloney survived the Premiership, but I wish him well if he did return to the pricier portions of Albion’s shores (nope; a bit down-market, but still respectable).

Takes, Quick and Hot[
[Editor’s Note: I never got through all the 20-minute mini-games in Week 26, and I lost my notes for the ones where I did have them. (Did you check, the recycling, Judy? I don't know why it would be in there either. I'm typing.) So, these will be thin this week, fat the next.]

1) How was Frank Klopas the first, and so far only, coach to get fired in 2015? I count at least three likelier candidates (Jim Curtin, Pablo Mastroeni, Frank Yallop and Jeff Cassar).
1a) Am I alone in thinking that Marco Biello will do about as well as Gavin Wilkinson did for the Timbers after John Spencer got canned? Biello’s resort to vague jargon should have Francophone Canada feeling uneasy.

2) Yes, I threw Cassar on that bonfire, even though he's sort of a first mate, who volunteered to go down with the sinking ship after the captain dressed in drag and stole away in a lifeboat (which would have made for a nice image for the post, yeah?).

3) Also, next week's feature will answer the question, who is actually worse than the Colorado Rapids in 2015? Unlike RSL, they have good young parts and in most places.
3a) Yes, RSL is one of those teams.

4) DC United has a ceiling. It's roughly the same one they bumped against in 2014. For all that club's savvy (e.g. lots) they operate on a thin margin, and then their legs give out. I don't think they escape the first round at The After Party.

5) While the furor surrounding Toronto has died down a little, they remain plenty interesting. One of the biggest questions about the club is also the simplest: is it Greg Vanney who brought them success, or the was it the front office that bought it? It's sorta fun, even if it's academic.

6) I rate NYCFC's Patrick Mullins higher than most and still get a kick out of seeing him shine when his club's stars peter out, or don't make the field at all...and yet, I could not sit through this video, either.

7) I have a favorite kind of forward: basically, any player modeled after Liverpool's 90's icon, Robbie Fowler. Though he spent several seasons as the Stones to Alan Shearer's Beatles, I always preferred Fowler (and still wish I could recall, and credit, the man who said he had "village-idiot good looks"). A lot of forwards fit parts of his mold – e.g. a quick mind, a better-than-your-average capacity to combine close to goal, and a strong shot with one foot or the other. KC's Krizstian Nemeth comes closest to Fowler's approach play, even though the Hungarian lacks Fowler's knack for finding gaps and finishing. And Fowler read the game as well as Chris Wondolowski (great article on that, uh, there), but, for all his smarts, Wondo lacks Fowler's combination ability. Chicago Fi...wait, it's San Jose now, anyway, Quincy Amirikwa has bits of Fowler in him, too, but, again, the shooting boots don’t lace so right. Damn. Anyway, I know what I like in a forward. It’s just rare you find them all in one body.
7a) In case you're wondering, yes, I think Giovinco is better than Fowler was. Giovinco also comes closest to what memory tells me I saw, but he's far more skilled the Fowler.

8) ICYMI, this week in hating Jurgen Klinsmann, simmering ever so slightly...On a related note, I picked up another jab from a stale Planet Futbol podcast. There's a crack about how Klinsmann will pass over any American (start about minute 20, for full context), no matter how worthy, for any player who has so much tied on a pair of cleats in, um, put a couple words and impressions in their mouths.

9) Speaking of, yo, Jurgen! San Jose's Shea Salinas has been consistent for the past two years or so, and perhaps even a little better this year. I'm pretty sure you could get his phone number...

OK, a good round 10 would have been good on the talking points, but I'm a bit talked out. Anyway, give these things some time and they'll shape up into something very readable. If by next season. Look for it early, people. First readers get a, um, well, what's say I buy you one of those novelty long-necked coke bottles from the 70s?


  1. Where does Ridgewell fall in your DP spectrum?

  2. Ridgewell would have been higher had I posted this in June, or even July, but I've seen enough slips from him lately to feel a little less impressed: I don't mind a fella getting beat, but he's been SO static and slow to react - and more than once. These often come after another defender was beaten, which forces Ridgewell into tough choices; just wish he'd make them.

    Here, the issue is what the Timbers get for what they're paying. He's a good defender, just not $1 million good. I put him in the high $300K - $400K range.