Thursday, October 1, 2015

MLS and How It's Made for Jurgen Klinsmann. And Experimentation.

Hold on...almost have it. Just another 15 minutes...
I have fallen down, considerably, when it comes to posting regular weekly reviews on Major League Soccer (MLS). I won't bore you with the details (WAIT, no! Listen! The format's SHIT! He doesn't know what he's doing! It's a three-ring circus of wounded elephants and drunken clowns, people! RUN!), but, bottom line, it's a problem with settling on a consistent, brief format that gives the average, or un-average, reader a reason to spend the time on this site. (HELP: this is 100% a hostage situation! Signed: Randall. Mom? Mom?! HELP!!)

That said, we are where we are in the MLS by now? An entire goddamn 30 (+ for some) weeks has yet to settle anything all that meaningful for all but, by my count, four MLS clubs (here, I'm going with the New York Red Bulls (who made the playoffs), the Colorado Rapids, the Chicago Fire, and the Philadelphia Union (all of whom will not (sorry, Philly, but you'll need all 9 remaining points just to catch Montreal). Every other team has some general sense of their fate, but each has to pass through a thicket of results and other details before they know how they're going into the playoffs – e.g. strutting or falling over the velvet rope. And there's seeding after that...

Given how little sorting gets accomplished in all this – think the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter spending half an hour on each student before declaiming - the question of why the MLS regular season drags on for so many months has dogged the league since its inception. The answers to such questions touch too closely on the big questions of life to come easily, but there are answers (see, when one investor loves another investor very, very much, they create beautiful little tax vehicles and build stadiums where they can compete in a way that protects their feelings while maximizing revenue. And, stork). I've pissed and moaned about this state of affairs as often as I could without turning into a boor, or a poor house-guest.

Today, though, I'd like to present the MLS regular season in what I hope will be a new light. Think of this post as a guest who arrived a little late to the party, and with a fresh bottle of bourbon. The good stuff, too, like I reached up to grab it instead of doing the ol' bear-crawl across the bottom shelves. OK, pouring you a drink? Do you take ice? Rocks or neat? Excellent. OK, ready?

Whether they recognize it or not, most MLS fans still suffer from some form of Euro envy. When it comes to the regular season, it's the complaint that the games "don't matter." This is, as the Framers wrote, if in another document, self-evident. In the Euro leagues, each loss, even each draw at home, stretches the road to the Promised Land that much longer; loss to many there, draw too many there, and you'll never make the journey. By contrast, any MLS club can fuck up for weeks at a time and still reach MLS Cup; the New England Revolution proved that last year and could very well prove it again in 2015. But that's only one part of the argument.

The fact that the games don't matter doesn't matter. Fans created the Supporters' Shield as a mechanism to make games matter and MLS sanctioned it and that's all very good and well, but MLS Cup remains the prize every fan really craves. Because, America, because, Super Bowl. It's how Americans are wired in the end: our sports have a season, then they have a playoff, and it all ends in The Big Game. And whoever wins that is The Winner for that year. That's not to say that you, as a fan, will not feel pretty damn great about a Supporters' Shield winning season. The reality is that winning the Shield means that you, as a fan, will have stumbled home happy (and you should be stumbling) more often than not for the length of an entire season. And yet, no matter how gracefully you hide it, close observers will catch you casting an envious eye toward the fans of whichever team shit all over your season by winning the MLS Cup your team totally deserved far more than those hot-handed (or footed) hacks ever will. Ahem.

Combining the thoughts above – 1) that regular season games don't matter, and 2) that MLS Cup is the real prize – and it becomes clear why Klinsmann should coach in MLS upon the possible/probable end of his time running the U.S. Men's National Team (I say "probable," because you never know with Sunil Gulati). MLS is Jurgen Klinsmann's kind of league. His coaching style is positively made for MLS, he just doesn't know it yet, which only amplifies his biggest failing - e.g. a total absence of self-awareness. Understanding why this is involves actually embracing the two defining features of MLS, 1) the "bloated" regular season, and 2) the warp-'n'-weave safety net that's made from parity going one way (the "warp") and the playoff structure going the other (the "weave"). (NOTE: I don't actually know what warp and weave mean in the context of a net; it might not even apply.)

Basically, all that room for failure provides enormous opportunity for experimentation. Any team who sets its sights on MLS Cup – that is all of them, presumably – would be best served by focusing all thoughts, planning, squad rotation, squad manipulation, and even player development toward fielding the strongest team possible not during the MLS regular season, but at the end of it. There are limits to this, of course, in that it is actually possible to throw away too many points during the year. Here, New York City FC and the probable irrelevance of their late run provides a nice cautionary tale, but, bottom line, it takes a lot of fucking up during the regular season to totally throw away your clubs' shot at MLS glory. (What about Chicago? Poor bastards never had a chance...)

So, what does this look like in practice? Or, perhaps better, what can this look like in practice? Let's take a team I know well, the Portland Timbers, and kick it around.

First, and most fundamentally, it means prioritizing depth. This can take several forms, including redefining "starter" as something more honorific than reflexive. A player like, say, Diego Valeri might be "the guy" at his given position, but that doesn't oblige the team to play him every single game at 80% or above. I'd argue it's not even wise. Rotate in, I dunno, Michael Nanchoff in Valeri's place, or hand the playmaking reins to Darlington Nagbe, as circumstances forced the team to do when the season started, and get Dairon Asprilla on the field, and Rodney Wallace. All the above said, the person I'm thinking of most here is George Fochive. His repetitions should be intentional, with a goal of getting him enough "real game" minutes so he'll be as close to possible to his peak come season's end. The goal here is to have real and known options when your side is lining up for the truly crucial games.

This question becomes trickier, but not entirely invalid, when it comes to mixing up formations (which, again, are lies; really need to get that argument posted; another day). I'm a big believer (when I believe such things at all), in the idea that players dictate formation. In game adjustments aside (which are so subtle as to go unnoticed often as not), Caleb Porter, along with 85% of the coaches in this league, have gone with the 4-2-3-1. Setting aside the question of how well this has served the Timbers this season, more, and more thoughtful, squad rotation automatically affords the coach more ways to arrange the attack and, with allowances for consistency in, say, the defense, the team as a whole. To give an example, and even with as little as Timbers fans have seen him, it goes without saying that Lucas Melano will run the front line in a vastly different way than Fanendo Adi. That simple detail should prompt adjustments in the way the players around each player interact with said player. And that's something that should absolutely get baked into the team's DNA. Baking is a slow process, one that requires not just good ingredients in their due ratios, but also time to get the ideally desired result at the end...see where this is going?

The point is that all that bitching about MLS's regular season and weird playoff format misses a point, at the very least. Or, better, it side-steps that whole Chinese thing about the word for crisis being the same as the word for opportunity (is that a Chinese thing? Memory fails me just now). Every fan knows the clich̩ about MLS: it's all about peaking at the right time, yeah? Putting your club's players through the grinder week in and out Рa la Sporting Kansas City, the team that, apparently, has suffered a late-summer swoon under Peter "Fitness-Calvinist" Vermes a couple years running (though, injuries have arguably played a role this season) Рworks against that goal, when you think about it. It's also an argument against sending Nagbe out to get kicked every goddamn week.

Getting back to Klinsmann, his obsession with developing personnel and trotting out different line-ups and formations every week has, in the opinion of many, hurt the U.S. Men's team at crucial moments – say, the 2015 Gold Cup. These are the perils of, literally, endless experimentation. Then again, in spite of what he says, or has said, maybe he's putting all his eggs in the basket that he (damn well) better carry with him to the Russia 2018 World Cup. To give him the benefit of the doubt on one hand, and to pinch his theories on the other, that sort of (alleged) long-term thinking makes a lot of sense under the regular season/playoff system that MLS created, regardless of the reason for it.

MLS clubs, even MLS fans, are sort of screwing up by worrying about every regular season game. When you sit down to watch your club play every week, the thing to watch for isn't necessarily the result on any given day. It's to look for what's working and what isn't, which players look like they have some visible idea as to what they're doing, or just the hunger and drive to do the right thing on any given game day. The ultimate idea is to know what your team's best team looks like by the end of the season and,and to know what adjustments can be made to mix things up a bit, with an eye to throwing the opposition a curve when the moments become crucial. Think of the regular season as an extended audition, basically, or just a series of rehearsals before Opening Night.

All that makes sense, as I see it, if the idea is to win MLS Cup. The league has given all concerned a very flexible, forgiving system in which to operate. Why not use it?

OK, all for today. Next week, and in future weeks, I plan on posting something that will absolutely, 100% tie to the events of the previous week. At a bare minimum, it will reference it.

Look, everything I do is a work in progress...

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