Friday, November 27, 2015

A Preface: The Cliff Notes Version of the 2015 Season Review

Hoping for better full versions than we have here.
The 2015 season ended some time ago for a little under half of Major League Soccer's clubs/teams/franchises; so ended the regular season. Between there and here, seasons have ended for as many clubs (eight. that's eight teams), which leaves us with the four teams left in contention. Well, some of those four teams are more in contention than others...OWWW! (Fuck, what was that? I'm JINXING it? Do you really think that’s a thing, Randall? Are we twelve-year-old fucking girls, Randall? Shit!)

Anyway, the more time that passes into the rearview, the keener I am to get started on the big, dumb off-season I have planned between here and the kick off of the 2016 MLS Season. Yes, it's the ol' Look-Backward-So-We-Can-Look-Forward-With-Clear-Eyes, Season's End Review of the year that was in Major League Soccer, and for each club in MLS. I say that knowing that at least four clubs have more tales to tell before their 2015 ends (Randall! Randall! Back off, man. Back. Off. Corner. Get in the FUCK-ing corner and stay there! Don’t move. Don’t. Are we clear? I said are we clear?!), but, at this point in the season, each and every club in MLS has written their story for their 2015. Also, if I don't start this soon, I don't see how I get this done before First Kick 2016. (As in, holy shit, I have to crank out these puppies, probably at a clip of two per week, so efficiency's king, speed-reading's queen, and god damn the video.)

How's this gonna work, then? Below, I will tell a brief, thumbnail tale (rhyming!) of each MLS team's 2015 season. The subsequent reviews for each club will examine how well my sometimes distant perception of each team holds up. I'm checking my sense of reality against some better approximation of reality, essentially. How to get the better approximation of reality is a work in progress...for the record. Judy is doing the research on that as we speak. (Need anything, hon? Tea? Yeah, I'll clean the garage; next weekend, Judy, can't it be next weekend?)

If you're new to this site, you might ask, well, "what are your credentials, sir?" I'll start by directing that curious hypothetical straw-man to the Conifers & Citrus Interest Rankings, which are posted at right. Those record the number of times I watched a full 90-minute game for each of the clubs in MLS this season. That hasn't been updated for a while, but I've watched at least 12 of those clubs one or more times since the last update (Portland chief among them, of course), and I watch every condensed, mini-game that MLS put up on MLS Live all year long (even if the state of mind in which I watch these can be relaxed-tilting-toward-coma).

Off-the-cuff impressions of each of Major League Soccer's 20 clubs for the past season unfold below, going from worst to first (per the final standings). The reviews will come out in the same order. And, ideally, those will look forward as well as back. For what it's worth, I think that'll come out sorta elegantly, in that the best teams will generally (very generally) have the most to fix in the coming off-season. OK, caveats posted, so let's lock and load.

Chicago Fire: A Craigslist Shopping Spree
After a historically mediocre 2014, the Fire went designated player shopping. The spent money, not crazy money, but real money, bringing in guys like David Accam, Kennedy Igboananike, and...something, something Guly du Prado (let the record show that I am working entirely without notes). The plan was to have all the machers help lift the remaining squad of paycheck punchers over the (low, low) playoff bar. This did not work, largely because the machers didn't "mach."

Philadelphia Union: Every Day I Write the Book (of Inadequacy)
Reviewing Philly's 2015 will be a rare, true learning experience within this project. They were sort of MLS’s Lost Team of the Year (do they give out that award?) in that they didn't produce much for story lines and that reviews of most of their games started from an assumption of ultimate failure. And yet, weird league that MLS is, they hung around till nearly the end.

Colorado Rapids: A View from Inside The Alamo
Yeah, yeah, wrong state, but only other analogy that comes to me reads too tragic, so The Alamo it is. The story seems pretty simple here: the Rapids had a decent defense, but never really worked out scoring. Their bigger off-season moves – e.g. calling in veteran savvy with Marcelo Sarvas and Sam Cronin – failed to give enough confidence to the team's talented youngsters, so...yeah, that's the season one gets. How Pablo Mastroeni still has a job, I'll never know.

New York City FC: Hollywood Squares, Before the Fall
The guy presented as the Center Square (Frank Lampard) didn't show till over halfway through the season; and he couldn't entirely keep up with the banter when he did show. Flashes aside – say, hints of what could be between, say, Tommy MacNamara and David Villas, call the whole thing a bad chemistry experiment. (Far) too old in the midfield, and too adequate in defense, NYCFC spent more time anointing would-be saviors than winning games.

Real Salt Lake: Disco Sucks!
(Man, my analogies related to historic sites and events just won't land in the right city today). Eventually, a thing – whether it’s good or bad – just sorta keeps going past its expiration date. The margin between failure and an acceptable 2015 wasn't all that wide for RSL, but the new performers they're finding to carry the old, tired tune can't find the rhythm. Thus, maybe it's time to blow the whole thing up, as was done on a fateful night in Chicago so long ago...and hope that what comes next is better than New Wave.

Houston Dynamo: On Playing English Division One States-Side
One player had a (late) career year (Ricardo Clark), another wrote the beginnings of one (Giles Barnes), and a couple guys flopped (I thought Raul Rodriguez looked out of place wherever Houston played him), but the entire equation averaged out into bustling, dourly under-imaginative rushing around. It's possible Coyle packed too much of what's wrong with the English game (e.g. energy over imagination) into his suitcase when he came.

Orlando City SC: The Key That Didn't Fit
When the season started, most of the talk surrounded Kaka; by season's end, the conversations shifted to when they'd get Brek Shea back, what the hell got into that (I think it's) Ramos kid (one of their damn fullbacks, the one who started dropping crosses on dimes; again, working without notes), and Cyle Larin's impressive haul of goals. One of the few teams who adapted and, as a result, grew with the season – and they came damn close to the playoffs because of it.

San Jose Earthquakes: Skeazy Guy With the Knife at Your Party
The 'Quakes sort of loitered in a corner through all of 2015, brooding and angry, coming out of there here and there to put a real scare into the rest of the Western Conference: hence my choice of title, which draws the fine line between menace and nuisance. They seemed closer to the former by year's end – by way of things like figuring out how to use that Matias Perez Garcia kid and that Godoy kid coming in – but the rest of the West held on.

Toronto FC: On Buying Dear
The only thing it takes to throw money at a problem is enough money: TFC has money in abundance, along with a willingness to spend it. The club absolutely unearthed a gem in Sebastian Giovinco – a clear and righteous case of getting what you paid for – but this club also shows how spending sprees can’t fix everything. Making the playoffs probably felt good, but TFC has the same problem they always have: balance that's permanently out of whack.

New England Revolution: Re-Writing the Re-Written Constitution
It's tempting to find the difference between where New England finished in 2014 and where they finished in 2015 in the person of Jermaine Jones. It's also too simple. While some players improved – I thought Scott Caldwell put in a highly composed season and Diego Fagundez rallied late - production tailed off for too many others; Lee Nguyen, in particular; Jones was just gone too long, too. Throw in Andrew Farrell's learning curve and one gets the sense of just how fragile the 2014 revolution was in the end.

DC United: But for the Grace of Bill Hamid
How can a team that held on till late in the Supporters' Shield race come out of the season looking so small and tired? Cynical soccer does that to a team's rep. DC played on a thin margin all year, playing tough to beat while relying on moments of magic from Chris Rolfe, the oft-absent Fabian Espindola, and random infrequent "hitting" from hit-or-miss players like Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon. Bill Hamid is goddamn incredible, but he can't score goals, too.

Sporting Kansas City: The Goon Squad, On the Rack
I've read that KC runs out of gas the same time of year, every year, since that Championship Season, which points to potential limits of the fitness regime. The deeper question is the extent to which the injuries that plagued them in 2015 grow from that same regime. Or maybe it's about putting that together – i.e. this is what happens when a team has a system and loses the players capable of operating within that system. It's good to be strong, but it's not always enough.

Los Angeles Galaxy: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Everyone waited for the Galaxy to stir themselves and start kicking ass. Unlike past years, when that absolutely did happen, LA never got entirely off the couch in 2015. In spite of pulling a serious surprise player out of their asses (Sebastian Lletget), the arrival of Steven Gerrard gave an air of late-Republic decadence to LA's season. Pundits heaped much woe for the imbalance in LA's midfield onto Gerrard, but the rot goes deeper (see: Gonzalez, Omar).

Montreal Impact: L'Assassins
In 2015, Montreal built a reputation as an often-lethal counter-attacking team. The way they hung back from the pack, with a bundle of games perpetually in hand, had the Eastern Conference checking their shoulders all season. Then all of Didier Drogba showed up, making them look poised for...just about anything. They're not a finished product, but they have a good enough foundation in place that it took a very good team to knock them off (Columbus, right?)

Seattle Sounders: There Is a Mountain High Enough
Not much actually changed for the Sounders in 2015, even if not for lack of trying. When stagnation seeped in mid-season, Seattle's brain-trust brought in a couple new players. Sadly, one key player went down and stayed down (Panamanian defender; names escapes...Torres?), and, when stacked against other, persistent injuries, they built a while too high for Seattle to climb over. With that, they stalled around the same first-round playoff hurdle they always have. Ouch.

Portland Timbers: The Simple Art of Solving a Rubik's Cube
Portland's miracle turn-around makes perspective a little hard to come by. As much as some things worked all season – e.g. the defense and all things Diego Chara – the word "miracle" applies: most Timbers fans stopped dreaming of MLS Cup back in August. Long absences through injury certainly stymied the team, but the widely agreed upon key to the miracle involved arriving at last on a system that fit the players – Darlington Nagbe, in particular. One little twist of the cube away all year...who knew? (And do we really know?)

Columbus Crew SC: The Pretty and the (No Longer) Damned
The Crew, of all MLS clubs, stands as the favorite for neutral aesthetes; they play with a kind of swashbuckling, swing-for-the-fences elegance and back that up with a battering ram named Kei Kamara. Even so, an occasionally soft defense gave all but their strongest admirers reason to wonder how far Crew SC could go. Whatever happened before, the Crew's defense looks solid enough these days to get them a half-step higher than the Red Bulls on the climb to MLS Cup.

Vancouver Whitecaps: The Hare
Vancouver started faster than everyone, which had fans and pundits naming them favorites, but by the time Portland got them in the playoffs, the team was running on the fumes of their fumes: thus tortoise trumps hare in life and fable. More things probably went into how they faltered, but the Cliffs' Notes version probably reads that losing their "brain" (Pedro Morales) lead to, and combined with, the goals running out for them.

FC Dallas: The Over/Underdogs
I keep hearing talk that Dallas views themselves as underdogs: this in spite of having so many great things going for them (among them, solid defense, a well-functioning central midfield pairing, a magical unicorn (Mauro Diaz), and one of the legitimate stars of MLS (Fabian Castillo)). Oh, and they tied on points for the Supporters' Shield. They're against the wall right now – no, getting around that – but it'll be hard to find what didn't go well in their 2015.

New York Red Bulls: They're All That
They came into the season as the nerdy girl with glasses that everyone didn't notice enough to ignore, and ended it with fans all over the league fighting their previously disgruntled fans to ask them to prom (or MLS Cup). It's the story of a formula that worked (high-press on defense; quick, carefully-controlled passing on offense) with the personnel on hand. Felipe Martins, Dax McCarty, and Sacha Kljestan got the headlines, but it all came together when the supporting cast showed up.

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