Monday, October 26, 2015

MLS: The 2015 Play-In Primer

Id of the site.
Rather than pretend to actual, informed knowledge, I'm beginning this with the following confession/warning:
Sometime around the beginning of September, my interest in general Major League Soccer games and information slackens. For instance,'s Kick Off holds less interest – perhaps because they’re just not all that interesting any more. And when I watch the mini-games, I'm usually a bit looser than I am earlier in the season. Or I'm usually a bit tighter, depending on the era in which you're reading this (nice gams, btw). And, to dig a little deeper and pull the rest of the confession out of my pocket, I...I have skipped a mini-game or two. [Gasp!] It’s just that, things have taken a certain shape by this point of the season. Or at least I think I have. Whether that's right or wrong, well...I...
Look, I have nothing to add to that statement. Basically, at some unknown point in every MLS season – and this is since I can remember, honestly – a time comes when I feel like I know enough about each of MLS club that I can switch off a little. Or just I do. At least this year, I'm getting both information and confirmation on teams from podcasts, and that stuffs cotton in some of the gaps, but once I get the sense that the questions have run out...

I guess that's it. I stop having questions. Or maybe questions go past their expiration date at a certain point in any given season – for instance:

Q: Is the Chicago Fire going to turn it around?
A: They're not. They're just not.

OK, that's enough o' that shit. Time to talk, maybe even predict, the play-in round. As has been said (roughly) in the now immortal Bill O'Reilly clip, "fuck it, we'll just do it live! We're doing it live!" No, notes, no checking the web for information: it's just a full, big-picture state of...things. That pop in my head. It's like word association, just like a game of charades! Yes, this'll be fun. (It’s not going to be fun.) OK, time to get into it, and in order…well, some kind of order. I’m just going left to right on this thing.

Seattle Sounders v. Los Angeles Galaxy
Wednesday, October 28, uh, late game (shit…the organization on this thing is fucked! It's fucked!)
If you gave this match up to me on any given weekend over the past two, three years, I call this for LA. In 2015, LA looking like an over-leveraged developer, and with Seattle having their key weapons on the field, I find it hard to call it for LA. Add in the fact that they play at Century Link and it looks like LA is the club that's starting farther down the hill. People will invoke Bruce Arena ahead of this game – which makes perfect sense, because that's history and probability and I think everyone's a little afraid of Arena, if I'm being honest, and either that he'll say something mean, or start crying...seriously, it's freaky when he cries, because it's so fucking real, man (sorry, had to look that one up once it came to me - worth it!). Right, back to the game, OK, I do subscribe to the theory that LA's midfield is out of whack. I think any team that can shut down Sebastian Lletget and keep Robbie Keane the hell away from the ball has a pretty decent shot against LA because of it; and, yes, I'm still not there on Gyasi Zardes. So, to sum up (and fill in all the gaps left below), yes, Seattle is thin on...let's call it diversity of talent: Lamar Neagle is only worth a damn in the CONCACAF Champions' League, Marco Pappa has turned in a series of cameos rather than a full season, and can I just say that I like saying that one kid's name, think it’s Ivanschitz? I'm sorry, that’s funny to me. Anyway, when I'm watching Seattle and am looking for them to have a chance to do something, I get excited when Chad Barrett comes on. That's not good for Seattle. Great for Barrett, though (Beaverton...repre-SENT!). All that's academic, because Seattle's game relies on one thing and one thing alone: everyone else on the team distracting everyone else until Clint Dempsey or Obafemi Martins scores. Seattle has some older parts at the back that I think LA can exploit, and that's a cause for concern for them. Anyway, the longer Seattle keeps LA off the board, the better their chances. And, as implied, I think their chances are good.

Portland Timbers v. Sporting Kansas City
Thursday, October 29, 7:00 p.m. game
To be blunt, this isn't the match-up I wanted. And to credit someone else, I think the latest Finn's Five makes a great point about the kind of game Portland will have to play to win this game (i.e. damn close to error-free; and I read this one earlier today; not cheating this time). To expand a little, SKC has a lot of weapons: that's what makes them deadly when they are. I read something the other day that got a little into how the wheels came off toward the end of the season – can't remember what, but guessing it's the Armchair Analyst – and that had to do with what losing Roger Espinoza did to their organization. That's both true and, at this point, kind of passe (not a knock on the Analyst; think he was making the same point). SKC pulled out of their dive by shifting personnel, maybe even formations for all I know, but they've tightened things up, too, and recovered their legs a little. They faced Portland at the top of this modest upswing (for it was, even as it was also respectable), so the Timbers have seen the outline before; everything is more defined now, more complete. The happy news is that Portland rolls into the post-season with dicks swinging (off the cuff, off the cuff, off the cuff; he said that, not me; he said that not me!). The Timbers are scoring goals, hallelujah, so, even if they're not perfect on their better end Thursday night (defense), they look more likely to make good on any mistakes than they have all season. I have all kinds of reason for optimism – posted many of them here – but the biggest comes with the thought that the Timbers will bring the current, high-performing attack to bear on a SKC defense that is equal parts young and on the mend. If the Timbers keep an eye on KC's weapons, particularly which ones are firing true on the night, and contains them, I like Portland's chances of scoring. And therefore winning.

Montreal Impact v. Toronto FC
Wednesday, October 28, early game (with the above, I guess that means 5 p.m.?)
I took in virtually all of this game last Sunday and, now that they're paired in the playoffs, I'm glad I did. First, one disclaimer: I like Montreal. Just about everything about Montreal. Which is weird, because I've never been there. All in all, though, the result of this game does turn on something entirely obvious: Toronto's "Atomic Ant" (Sebastian Giovinco) versus Didier Drogba (who I'm sure has nicknames) and, as too many people forget*, Ignacio Piatti (* Yeah, that guy; Mr. Goal-of-the-Week-33? Guy who has pulled goal-scoring rabbits out of his ass all year? That guy.) Due to the pretty straight 2-on-1 equation there, and naked favoritism, I like Montreal's chances better in this one. One big caveat gums up the works: Toronto looked better for a lot of Sunday's game: they got closer to Montreal's goal and put better shots at it; whether by skill, or Montreal's indulgence, they moved more fluidly going forward; and, perhaps most important of all, they did really well keeping Montreal in front of them...except over the course of that one minute. One goddamn minute, and everything unraveled, Toronto lost 2-1, and a little momentum besides. Drogba has done a lot of things. Hell, from what I hear I patched up a civil war in Cote D'Ivoire (dammit...right country? not looking it up; you heard the man, "LIVE! LIVVVVVE!!"). He also put a pretty interesting dent into the "adjustment period" theory. Might have been the first real dent ever, then again, it might not have. All anyone knows is that Drogba showed up, and other teams have a hell of a time keeping him off the score sheet. With Montreal organized behind him, Piatti, Dilly Duka, and, once in a great while, Dominic Oduro, as well as they are, Montreal can absorb a ton and then come back with a helluva a punch. It's a pretty good system, in the end. I'm happy to report that Toronto is in with a shout, for they have walked a long road to get to where they are and, in better news, they look decently provisioned to succeed. No one doubts that The Ant lived up to every line in his billing this year, but I also liked a lot of what I saw from Michael Bradley on Sunday (quick, aggressive one-touch passing, and all over the damn place); between those two players, Toronto just needs a couple of the other guys to step up – and Toronto has players who have shown they can. I expect good things from this one...not that I'll get to see them. Crap.

DC United v. New England Revolution
Thursday, October 29, Early Doors (name the reference, win a prize!)
A tough one to call, not least because I think this one squeezes in two of the more dubious post-season participants. On the one hand, there's DC, a club that may or may not have enjoyed a little season-saving renaissance. I didn't buy it, personally, and view what Columbus did to them last Sunday as an act of ripping off their pants to show the proverbial midgets inside, propping up their legs. New England, meanwhile (and according to my memory), had run either hot or cold until the past few games when they tended to an unpleasant lukewarm. They ended on an up, but that just begs questions of identity: are they the team of their one-game winning streak, or are they the team who threw away four of their last five? When form gives you nothing, it's time to turn to personnel – not that that clarifies anything. The young and energetic against the old and able; body versus brain: that's how it pans out broadly and, to confess a bias, it's hard not to like the youth (and, yes, even that’s sloppy – see Taylor Kemp, Chris Korb, and Perry Kitchen's still pretty young). It's OK to like young attacking players (where DC is thin, at least on quality...more below; idiot's getting ahead of himself, again), especially young American ones, because they have careers ahead, national team calls ups, maybe even a scandal or two (patiently waiting for MLS's first 100%-uncomplicated, loathsome asshole), while no small number of DC's guys are already walking in twilight. The youth DC has either hasn't performed on an exciting level (see: Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon) or it's more of the same from a U.S. Men's National Team perspective (Bill Hamid). Look, all that's aesthetics and it hardly matters from a practical, or at least predictive point of view. OK, re-focusing...New England still carries the Jermaine Jones trump card (assuming he's not suspended); whatever the hell he does for them – whether it's run the show, or help the youngsters around him keep their heads – it matters a lot. I don't think either club is whole, and I expect neither to go far, but this one will turn on whether DC can keep the game tight, or if New England can speed it up.

And, done. In something under Biblical length. Looking forward to games, happy there is a Thursday ahead and dreading the damn thing all at once...just gimme a couple days to find my game-face. I'll get it on...

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