Thursday, November 5, 2015

MLS: Limping Numbly Between the First and Second Legs

Whoa. I know the 4-3-3.
Last night, after marching through two-and-a- half mini-games from last weekend's the first legs of Major League Soccer’s conference semifinals, I gave up watching. Just didn’t have the...jesus, don't even wanna finish that sentence. I later took to twitter to announce that I had nothing to add to the convo, so I wouldn't. Nice people affirmed my laziness and I thank them for their kindness (and their implied unwillingness to read shitty content). Smart generous people, every one, even that mooching little fuck, Tiny Tim.

This morning, however, I woke up with something to say. MLS has made some sense for, oh, these last few weeks. I'm not sure I like it. What I mean is that teams that performed well toward the end of the regular season and into the post-season have continued to do so; the clubs that hadn't done so hot, well, they moved to this great big farm in Canada, way the hell up there, where they're going to live happily ever after (everyone got this lie about their absent pets when they were kids, right?). In plain English, the bad clubs' seasons are over, the proverbial cream has risen up the playoff experience ladder, and, holy shit, the games matter.

And there's the rub: are they somehow less interesting for it? I'll elaborate...because I don't think this is clear (or, honestly, all that important, but I digress). 

When fans and pundits clock the conference semifinal pairings, it feels like it didn't take a ton of thought to tick through the list and come reasonably close to pegging the winners. I'm not claiming it's automatic – we're not talking my psychic ability to change traffic signals with my mind (possibly seeing what I want to see) – and, yeah, some good stuff and weird crap happened – e.g. away goals, the Montreal Impact's Didier Drogba sick assist on Columbus Crew SC's road goal (the man just can't stop scoring, people), his bizarre open-field tackle on Columbus 'keeper Steven Clark; the New York Red Bull's Ronald Zubar tried to kill a Finn (Markus Halsti) and receiving no caution, etc. – but nothing happened, really, that upset the cart, not in the big picture.

MLS is a lot of things, but predictable? Not bloody often, at least not during the regular season – aka, The Time When the Only Streaks Are Brown. All that irregularity (nice accidental choice of nouns!) makes the glut of regular season games some little bit more meaningless. On the other hand, unpredictability doesn't live all that far from excitement, so I feel a little something gets lost when things get predictable. It could just be I miss having something to wonder about. What is there to talk about really if all that's going to happen is what's expected?

With that in mind, I wanted to devote this post to mulling over how the other half of the universe gets a little back. Why? Because I watched all those games and mini-games since freakin' March (March!). I dunno, maybe some part of me wants – no, fuck it, needs – to believe that all that time on my ass sipping suds and staring at a screen wasn't a total waste and/or lost in a series of blackouts (three shirts lost to drool over the course of this season...moment of it out on Taps). So, let's dig into this shit. Because that's what we do here.

I'll start by listing where I think the odds lean for the second legs below (said impressions loosely confirmed by at least two podcasts; one of 'em). I listed the pairings in the order they'll be played.
1) The New York Red Bulls will put DC United out of their (and our) misery.
2) Montreal will knock off Columbus
3) The Seattle Sounders' stars will thwart FC Dallas
4) The Portland Timbers will steal back those several points they left in Vancouver this season, thanksverymuch.
Now, to march through each of the semifinals in turn and rate the chances that any of 'em will treat MLS fans to an upset...or, in the case of that last game, heartbreak. In that event, the verb "treat" is no longer operative. Last thing: the margins on most of the above might be thinner than meets the eye (but admitting that would collapse my thesis, so, ain't happenin').

New York Red Bulls v. DC United
I don't think anyone expects DC to come out of this series alive. More to the point, I don't think anyone wants them to. DC is very, very boring. That makes this game, and the series as a whole, a study in contrasts: dour, creaking professionalism v. field-wide energy and aggression. On evidence of the full 90 minutes I suffered with both teams over that the first leg, this study is not terribly interesting. DC started all right, but the Red Bulls grew into the game, as if they downloaded the broad strokes of DC's game-plan, a la Neo from The Matrix. After settling mostly for deep crosses through the first half, New York, mostly through Sacha Kljestan, started finding seams in the channels and that opened up a couple more avenues to goal. They could only find one goal, however, and, even if it's made from whispery gossamer, that's the life-line for DC.

How does DC haul themselves back into the contest on that thin thread? One of the podcasts I listened to (going with this edition of Soccer By Ives) complained that DC committed too few players forward. I found this only somewhat true, but their deeper criticism held: a team will never get much subtlety with Markus Halsti and Perry Kitchen pulling the strings. That leaves width, more or less, and flashes of interest happened out there – notably when New York sent Matt Miazga out wide to track down Fabian Espindola. DC needed that, too, with Espindola looking like their only consistent weapon: Chris Rolfe couldn't do to any New York defender what dropped on the New England Revolution's Andrew Farrell. Anyway, those two soldiered and struggled, DC wailed in a couple set-pieces, and that was that. They'll reprise that effort, no doubt, but, lord, do they need a supporting cast (hello, story of DC's season). DC needs only one goal – just the one, because it'd be away just like New York's lone goal so far – and that would allow them to set out their stall and drag the whole damn affair into the purgatory of extra-time and PKs. Wouldn’t take much, really, maybe a good game from Nick DeLeon (who did just swell against New England), and it's not like Damien "Fontanelle" Perrinelle missing helps New York ward off such evil spirits. If DC does score, there's only one question in play: can they ride it out? Can you say Bill Hamid?
Prediction: I think the second leg will follow the plot from the first: DC will storm forward at the opening whistle. New York just has to survive that – then I'm betting they’ll blow it open.

Columbus Crew v. Montreal Impact
In broad terms, this game pits a sound defense plus an increasingly reliable offense (Montreal) against a high-potential attack backed by a mad-cow-esque defense (e.g. unpredictable and spongy – not in the absorptive sense, but in being laced with holes; that’s Columbus). Columbus should find some relief in knowing the sources of the errors (e.g., frankly embarrassing marking by Kei Kamara on Patrice Bernier’s goal, then Johan Venegas stripping Michael Parkhurst (one of my favorite defenders and sort of my life-coach/animal-spirit) and leaving him on his bottom) aren’t likely to recur. In more good news for Columbus, the Impact don’t generally press their opponents’ defenders, a probable relief for Columbus’ bunch, who have been on strict orders to pass out of the back all season; the Crew should be able to push their fullbacks high, as well, just as they like to. (FULL CONFESSION: for all the games that I watch, I really do owe hat-tips for no small number of observations scattered throughout this post. Continuing…) But that’s precisely the danger: Ignacio Piatti makes sweet, sweet love to the gaps between fullbacks and central defenders; I think that Vegenas kid isn’t too bad at this, either. As the game wears on, Montreal can bring in Dilly Duka to widen the field in the attacking third, thereby opening more gaps. That entire set-up leaves Didier Drogba alone against the Crew’s central defenders and, as much as I like Parkhurst (believe for me, Michael! I need this!), he’s a toddler wrestling an adult when he’s up against Drogba. That leaves Gaston Sauro, who definitely has the size and balls to square off against Drogba, but that’s a bit thin for my money. The Crew has to carry the game, though, and I think plays into Montreal’s hand and/or upside.

So, what’s Columbus do? Hanging Montreal with their own rope-a-dope is the best they can hope for, really. Kamara will need to be big in this one and Ethan Finlay will need to find a way around the layered double-teams that kept him out last Sunday. Columbus’ fullbacks can help relieve pressure on Finlay, which should free up Finlay at the same time, Federico Higuain has to smoothly circulate the ball, while Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani will have to mind the lanes, and, if they want good shit to happen, get forward a little, too. In fact, if Columbus does try to get aggressive, I say push Tchani forward rather than relying too much on both fullbacks.
Prediction: I see the Crew losing in the same painful manner they did against New England in 2014. They need two goals to win as is. My guess is that they’ll score a goal only to have Montreal take one back some time later. When you’re cursed to give up one (or, in 2014, three) too many in the first leg...

FC Dallas v. Seattle Sounders
Could this be the most finely-poised 2nd leg match-up? That’s my feeling. A sort of swirling mass of inputs goes into that, some of it real, some of it perhaps mythical. I had to pass on the Seattle v. Dallas last Sunday (and with powerful regrets), but I did like a lot of what I saw from Dallas. Mauro Diaz looked every bit as good as he did all season, at least so long as he was healthy during it, and Fabian Castillo pairs up very nicely against, oh, Seattle’s entire back-four – we’re talking me versus Usain Bolt, or thereabouts. Dallas has a solid defense, even if I don’t know a ton about their ‘keeper, and I’m sold (on the defensive dimension, at least) on their central defensive pairing of Victor Ulloa and Kellyn Acosta...or would have been, before I confirmed that Acosta wasn’t out there last Sunday...hmm...wonder how much that mattered...or will matter this Sunday...I remember where Andreas Ivanschitz was when he fired that game-winner...

"Seattle's legit," or they’re some version of “back”: that’s what I heard more than once this week. The Sounders spent so much of this season waiting for injured players to heal, some more than others: Osvaldo Alonso never left that conversation, but he’s in it in a different way than both Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey. With Alonso, for me, he’s the difference between Seattle playing well and controlled; for all the cheap shots Alonso dishes, he’s the beating heart of Seattle when they're in control. With Martins and Dempsey, though, those two mean Seattle can steal any game; as such, they don't need the control. Even if they managed it more last year than this, that's one hell of a lingering threat. I’m not sure how Dallas copes with that, in all honesty. I guess my first question is whether or not they have to. To put that another way, is Dempsey (in particular) really back? The last two games that built the myth – last weekend against Dallas AT Seattle, of course, but also the play-in victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy – set up better than generally acknowledged for Seattle. Then again, I could be the one spinning the myths. So long as Dallas holds, though, and rides the tricky, coming-or-going balance with Dempsey, Martins and (so far as I know) Ivanschitz (by which I mean, Dempsey and Martins are so good and combining even fairly far from goal, that it makes them hard to track (and harder to mark) and that uncertainty opens space for long-range bombs like the one Ivanschitz fired last weekend). Dallas will respond with fast feet (Castillo and Michael Barrios) and smart passing (Diaz).
Prediction: Yeah, I can’t really say how this one plays out. I agree that being at home probably helps Dallas. And, obviously, I still think Seattle is a little overrated (blinders? what blinders? What is Seattle Derangement Syndrome?). And...yeah. I’m just not sure.

And, now, The Big Boy, the main event, the whamma-jamma-supa-slamma-wearin’-polka-dot-pajammas...

Vancouver Whitecaps v. Portland Timbers
I like Portland’s chances in this one, honest. Before going any further, I need to pause for a very, very important caveat: friends, if you catch wind of me trying to bet so much as a FUCKING DIME on this game, you are to stop me by any means necessary; Portland is doomed to lose if ANYONE takes me up on a sporting bet; JOB could take that bet and it'd still go South. Again, between trends and timely tinkering, the Timbers ended the year on a pretty big up. Nice as that is, one thought has me feeling better still: had you sat down 10 soccer fans to watch that opening leg and you told them that it was Vancouver who played a marathon (not a real verb/noun pairing, but, shit, would that improve marathons) into the wee hours last Thursday, at least 8 of them would believe you. The way the entire game collapsed around Vancouver’s goal made a pretty natural pairing with the shrinking of the Whitecaps’ game-plan to one of simple survival. Maybe Portland drew energy from that, who knows? Yeah, yeah, this reads a whole lot like “they’re due, man, Portland has it.” Speaking of which, has anyone seen my wallet and my phone? (GUYS: SERIOUSLY, NO BETS BY THIS GUY! THIS IS NOT A DRILL, PEOPLE!)

And, so, to ask the one question that no Rose City resident wants answered well: how does Vancouver wake up and steal the series? Well, I’ll start by admitting that I tried to focus on Vancouver last night as a reviewed the 20-minute tape and, golly, it did not go well (how, how was I supposed to focus on mere Vancouver when they played beside 11 artists’ rendering of Adonis?). I did pick up on one thing – I over-stated in my earlier piece how rarely Gershon Koffie, in particular, got forward – but, with how little that mattered, that’s not a lot for ‘Caps fans to hang their caps on. Kekuta Manneh stood out for me, but he was a lonely man out there; Octavio Rivero bumbled around earnestly, but still bumbled; Koffie probably had their best efforts and his two half-chances only add up to one. Some people (again, Galarcep) grasped at best cases, like Pedro Morales coming back, or more time for Mauro Rosales, but, even if they line-up, it’s a lot to expect them to save the day when playing below capacity. I don’t know a ton about Vancouver, but what I do know suggests that they’re not much on changing up approaches, and that leaves only what they have done, only better. Sure, it takes just one goal for them to win, but that’s only if Portland stands pat. And that feels unlikely. I saw Vancouver dictate tempo in a game only once this year; they won the thing, which makes one wonder why they don't try it more often. I guess this game turns on how willing Vancouver is to play patiently, to avoid spending too much of the game defending. Maybe Manneh breaks loose and breaks the deadlock; maybe Christian Techera comes to play this week; maybe Morales comes back long enough to provide the necessary guidance to Portland’s goal. What I sense, though, is that the longer Vancouver plays coy, the less likely they are to walk away with the prize.
Prediction: If the Timbers get the first goal, I have the feeling that Vancouver opens up too much and gets destroyed. The deeper this goes, I think the worse it gets for Vancouver, too. And I think that’s how this breaks: either Portland scores first and breaks it open, or they score late and steal it 1-0. Again, either way, I like my chances. Now, where is my phone and my wallet?

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