Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Portland Timbers v. Chicago Fire: Hella Continuity

Industrious. Pointless.
The Chicago Fire played the Portland Timbers to a 1-1 draw tonight. Now, two teams knotted at ones in a preseason game wouldn't normally bear notice, but this result is different. Think about it: Chicago tied and Portland fucked up on defense.

That, my friend, provides precise thumbnail descriptions for both Chicago's and Portland's 2014. The details updated for this 2015 saw Michael Nanchoff score on a deflected free-kick, while Chicago picked up their obligatory draw courtesy of a Norberto Paparatto own-goal. (Say, the Timbers scored both goals – silver lining!)

Just some general notes to make before doing the whole bullet thing. I like Caleb Porter's approach to this one, even if I'm totally unaware as to why he adopted it. If nothing else, starting mostly bench players afforded all of us amateur scouts a chance to see what the new kids can do. And, broadly, the new kids impressed - especially the first shift. I'll lard this point below, but, all in all, Portland took the game to Chicago.

I'll get back to Chicago – after talking about the Three Big Things for Portland. Which brings us back to those new kids:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sporting Kansas City 2015 Preview: Beating More than the Opposition

If only fixing Chance Myers was as easy...
What Happened Last Year
Matt Besler got real tired last year. So did Graham Zusi. So tired. Sporting Kansas City came into 2014 as Major League Soccer's (MLS) defending champions, only to sort of ran out of gas by season's end. New York Red Bull shoved them out in the post-season play-in and KC, presumably, settled down for a nap. KC's problems ran deeper, actually, but remembering it took some work. Injuries hammered KC in 2014. The toll hit their backline, in particular, like norovirus tearing through colons on a cruise ship. Around the time the season rolled into summer, the club's desperation for healthy central defenders was such that they threw then 17-year-old central defender Erik Palmer-Brown into a trial-by-fire that went about as well as those things generally do. Taken together, it was a massacre: Chance Myers, out for the season; Ike Opara, out for the season; Aurelien Collin missed a smaller chunk, but still missed some; regular fullback Kevin Ellis had to shift to center now and again; hell, even Palmer-Brown succumbed before the fat lady sang. The club lost players in key positions, besides, though few generated chatter like Uri Rossell's departure (see: every episode of March to the Match in which KC came up). It wasn't all an unrelenting shit-slog: forward Dom Dwyer had a great season (but, please, people, enough with his marriage) and, yeah, playoffs (wasn’t really close by the end). Still, they're pretty eager to put 2014 behind them from what I hear(d on my way to finding all the stuff above about injuries).
Final Stats: 14-13-7, 49 points, 5th in the East; 48 gf, 41 ga

What's Happened Since
Some noise, but not a lot. If only by name recognition, Roger Espinoza's return from Wigan probably caught the most headlines, but Sporting's more intriguing signing – and, arguably, departed designated player (DP) Claudio Bieler's replacement – was Hungarian striker, Krisztian Nemeth. The club rummaged around MLS for a couple more acquisitions – here, I'm thinking Jalil Anibaba and Bernardo Anor – who rate higher than spare parts (perhaps well higher based on glimpses I've caught of Anor in the 2015 preseason). The offseason saw some big losses as well, including recent-year club icon, Collin. Still, Sal Zizzo, C. J. Sapong, and Soony Saad – and, yes, Bieler – played big enough roles in KC’s set-up for 2014 to leave a few questions open. (All here...because, lazy.)

What to Expect This Year
Sporting coach Peter Vermes and U.S. Men's coach Jurgen Klinsmann recently had a spat over the latter's infamous "fitness" comments. That wasn't just interesting because few MLS coaches preach fitness like Vermes; a question lurks in there as to whether KC's high-energy style leads to fatigue, or even injury, the same way Klinsmann's regimen (allegedly) busts hammies. Anyone who hits the link above about KC putting 2014...oh, never mind, here it is again – should note Besler's comments about how KC "makes it tough on teams," because it's not gonna change. I'm not a huge fan of the pressing style (think it's ugly), but KC worked it well in 2013. And, for all their problems with injury, Sporting's goals against in 2014 fell well on the low side. Vermes does gamble a little by trusting his current defenders' parts to hold together; only Anibaba came in as a true (tested) defender. The news looks brighter news up the field. The as-yet-unmentioned Benny Feilhaber spent a lot of 2014 trying to be Rossell, which he did well enough, but he can do more to bring KC's offensive numbers up closer to goal; a more rested Zusi should help as well. At least a couple of KC's picks (Espinoza, maybe Servando Carrasco) should free up both of them to do that. Uh, already noted liking my glimpses of Anor, but have the same thoughts on Nemeth (not alone), who did a nice thing or two in here (start about 4:00 on that one). Anyway, some things to watch in there.

Overall
I think KC could very well have improved the mix on offense. The defense just has to do well enough...which makes Collin the big loss for me. Still, I bet they overcome. And finish stronger than last year...if the injuries don't bite 'em again. Man, that Vermes has cajones...

Chicago Fire 2015 Season Preview: On Breaking the (Countless) Deadlocks

Good enough. They were ties, man.
What Happened Last Year
The Chicago Fire tied over half of their games in 2014. Literally. Think about that. That's less a season than an intellectual/physical exploration of mediocrity as a philosophical construct – e.g. can mediocrity to have "heights" and, if so, how many draws does it take to achieve the Platonic ideal? I didn't watch Chicago much in 2014. With the outcome at least heavily implied – again, literally, over half the time – I figured I knew how the games would end. I caught enough, however, to form some impressions, among them: Quincy Amirikwa's solid season as a bee-in-the-bonnet forward; Harrison Shipp's Rookie-of-the-First-Half-of-the-Year season; the now-departed Bakary Soumare, by all appearances, not giving a fuck (an impression confirmed by later comments); the essential wisdom of Gonzalo Segares' recent retirement; the nice send-off for the long-serving, lately-suffering Logan Pause; long-time midfielder Jeff Larentowicz shifted to the Fire backline midway through perhaps per Soumare's visible lack of shit-giving; Juan Luis Anangono...he played in Chicago last year, right? (Barely, but right). The Fire had a crap year by anyone’s standards. Six wins is the unpalatable flipside to all those ties...that's blue balls frustration. Worse, something larger loomed over the franchise – specifically, an apparently widely-held belief that the front office is reluctant to invest in winning (uh, turns out the evidence is scarce; swear it showed on message boards; or something). The contrast with the original, winning Fire teams must sprinkle salt in the wounds.
Final Stats: 6-10-18, 36 pts., 9th in the East; 41 gf, 51 ga

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Toronto FC 2015 Season Preview: Send the Drunken Sailor to Toronto. With His Wallet

A rainy day at BMO.
What Happened Last Year
Toronto FC tried so friggin' hard to make the playoffs for the first time in 2014 that it's fair to wonder if the Major League Soccer (MLS) Competition Committee didn't spare them a pitying thought when it expanded the number of playoff spots going into 2015. TFC's 2014 saw the arrival of Michael Bradley, who embraced the club with both arms, and Jermaine Defoe, who...ah, moving on. Gilberto came, too, and he did...things. It's hard to remember now, but TFC started pretty brightly – even as an uncomfortable number of red "L's" trickled into the early returns. No, my chief memory of Toronto's 2014 was the faint, yet very real awareness that their playoff hopes were absolutely fucking dead by September (this headline is funny in that context). The players talked bravely in the media, but the funeral dirge played a little too loudly by the time the last games came around. This made for painful viewing, to be sure, even as the Reds dying corpse could still kick hard enough to, oh, end my Portland Timbers' playoff chances (touche, fuckers). Conventional wisdom held that too few capable planets revolved around TFC's stars. Eh, could be. It certainly didn't help that Stephen Caldwell had to raise pups like Nick Hagglund while trying to hold Toronto's defensive line. It also probably didn't help that Defoe missed too much of the season (and hated Toronto with all his heart) and that the World Cup kicked Bradley's ass twice over (that's once for wear and tear, and once more for confidence). Whatever happened, the whole project has to float near the top of MLS's all-time Expensive Flops list. Fer reals.
Final Stats: 11-15-8, 41 pts., 7th in the East; 44 gf, 54 ga

Los Angeles Galaxy 2015 Preview: Just...Good. Dammit.

The first video in search for "drunk on self-belief." That's it.
What Happened Last Year
Landon and Donovan, mostly. Jesus, did that story-line suck up a lot of the Los Angeles Galaxy's oxygen last year. I won't pretend I didn't follow it and absorb it (more), or even that I didn't choke up when Donovan broke the record(s) (link under "follow," I think), etc. Still, it's surprisingly easy to forget that LA kicked a lot of ass on the way to winning MLS Cup. By the end of the season, even into the playoffs, the Galaxy somnolently stumbled from one game to the next. Apart from the holy hurt they put on Real Salt Lake in the second leg of their playoff series, they didn't dominate clubs down the stretch; instead, it took only some minimum number of their players stirring just long enough to score the decisive goal. In that same spirit, LA surrendered the Supporters' Shield to the Seattle Sounders with a shrug. Cold-eyed confidence feels very much part of LA's culture; it's as if they know they'll win the next one. Sure, there were great moments – see, the rightly-celebrated 20+ pass build-up; Robbie Keane pulling a goal or two from his nethers, etc. – but this Galaxy team must have played one of the quietest all-time greatest seasons in sporting history. Very methodical, basically. Disturbing methodical. Nothing speaks to that as clearly as their goals for/against numbers.
Final Stats: 17-7-10, 64 points, 2nd in the East; 69 gf, 37 ga (both league best; tied on the ga)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

New York Red Bulls 2015 Season Preview: Does Drama Central Quiet Down?

Whither Dear Henry? Whither belov'd Petke?
What Happened Last Year
It sucks to admit it, but, yes, for the New York Red Bulls, 2014 was the Year of Thierry Henry. Speculation as to whether he would retire after the season was flat-out insane for the second half of it. Henry justified a lot of that hype and hand-wringing by turning in what can only be applauded as pivotal play on the field. From all of that, however, I admired nothing so much as this 37-year-old man's yeoman work in the second leg of their playoff series against the New England Revolution. Even more badass? His short, sharp answer as to whether he would play on New England's turf for that second leg. The man earned his accolades. Red Bull proved to be the big club they strove to be for a couple other reasons last season: Bradley Wright-Phillips near-miss on breaking the single-season scoring record sucked up plenty of ink; in a nice touch for the domestic soccer press, so did the quietly effective midfield pairing of Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander. It was a little tempting to run with that mildly anonymous element, but New York (let's use that name loosely while we still can) still had some bright light, big names last season in Jamison Olave and Tim Cahill. Then again, it speaks to something else that one of these players logged major minutes by year's end, while another did not. Red Bull accomplished what it did in 2014 through a pretty clear-headed brand of pragmatism. And one guy, in particular, had a lot to do with that.
Final Stats: 13-10-11, 50 pts, 4th in the East; 55 gf, 50 ga

What's Happened Since
An end to pragmatism for one. Also, a wholesale discarding of high-profile designated players (DPs). To say Red Bull went through some changes between 2014 and 2015 amounts to dismissing a tornado warning as the thing tears through one's kitchen. The Mike Petke firing was, quite possibly, the biggest shit-storm in MLS history (wait for it...a strike now would top it). That said, the transition to a lighter DP load changes the club quite a bit as well – i.e. lose Henry, Olave, and, his 2014 production notwithstanding, Cahill in a single off-season and your club has some serious work to do. So, what has Red Bull done? Well, their biggest off-season coup has to be signing Sacha Kljestan, for whom, let the record show, I'm more or less a complete whore. This being New York – e.g. Drama Central - the trade that paved the road for Kljestan's arrival rankled a bundle of feathers: Alexander had proved himself (to the notice of too few), but the ensuing, messy parting of Ambroise Oyongo somehow struck deeper at the time. New York picked up Felipe Martins going the other way and, for what it's worth, I like that pick-upgiven Peguy Luyindula's Henry-esque age. They have some depth pick-ups besides – see: Baptiste, Andrew-Jean, the re-signing of Damien Fontane...Perrinelle, and the weird, wily acquisition of Leo Stolz. Say what you will, but this is not a club that does things by half.

What to Expect This Year
New York ranked highly as they did on the list of clubs that interest me because, more than most MLS clubs, they can break either way in 2015. Henry is a massive loss, without question, but a player with that level of gravity, no matter how wholly justified, dictates how you play the game. It's possible the Mighty Frenchman's departure frees the club to attack through more channels (though it's not like New York did horribly attacking down Sam's right). Personally, I have high hopes for a...how does this work, getting McCarty, Kljestan and Felipe onto the field all at once? Does this require a 3-5-2 with….surely not Stolz as an anchor d-mid? The point is, New York has a highly intriguing season ahead, even if not for the right reasons. That said, I'm sure of two things: 1) Wright-Phillips will not (by his own admission) push to break the record again; 2) what continuity they have will buy their success in 2015. I can’t believe I got this far into a preview of Red Bull without saying either "Luis" or "Robles," but I rate the shit out of that goalkeeper.

Overall
Red Bull has good parts. I even rate most of the new guys. They also have chaos. So, why the hell is Ali Curtis on a one-year contract?

Columbus Crew 2015 Preview: Attack with Deer-Like Fury!

A better approach. (Credit: kilo943fm.com)
What Happened Last Year
The Columbus Crew – remember when they went by that name, y'know, way back? – started strong last season. They put a big hurt on eventual Eastern Conference champs, DC United, in the first week, a result pretty much every dismissed at the time, courtesy of DC’s epically awful 2013. When the Crew shocked the Seattle Sounders, in Seattle, that was something else – perhaps even topping power rankings something else (not checking; lazy). Then games 5-19 happened and, suddenly, a flash-in-the-pan funk clung to the Crew. And then came the close, when the Crew went 10-3-2 (see previous link) to end the season, when people remembered how much they liked them all along. I swear this is the quintessential experience of being from Ohio...Anyway, Columbus hit the playoffs hot as any MLS club – except the New England Revolution. The Revs ended the argument about who was hottest by handing every member of the Crew two heads in Columbus in the first leg of their playoff series. In spite of the ignominious ending, good things happened in Ohio in 2014: Ethan Findley had a breakout season; Tony Tchani raised his game damned high; Michael Parkhurst anchored a pretty sound backline; newly-arrived 'keeper Steve Clark proved one of the finds of the offseason, etc. etc. So, no, it wasn’t ideal. But it wasn’t bad either.
Final Stats: 14-10-10, 52 pts., 3rd in the East; 54 gf, 42 ga

Monday, February 16, 2015

New England Revolution 2015 Season Preview: Strength to (More) Strength

Lee Nguyen is the large brown dot, presumably.
What Happened Last Year
Well, there was MLS Cup. The New England Revolution didn't come close as they did in, say, 2006, when Taylor Twellman scored a goal in extra time, curse broken, etc., only to have Brian Ching cancel it out, literally, a few minutes later (Oh, holy memories, Batman! Joey Franchino taking the field, Clint Dempsey in a Revs jersey, Pat Noonan...Khano Smith...on the assist? Wowsers!). Gawd, to think Seattle bitches about their bad luck (fuckers). At any rate, New England fielded a deceptively exciting squad in 2014 (deceptively, because see their stats), that featured this weird amoebic attack that flowed largely through Lee Nguyen's career season. My memory tells me most the chatter started a year prior when Diego Fagundez and Kelyn Rowe ripped it up, with Juan Agudelo up top (more later), but there they were in 2014, with former forward Teal Bunbury converted to a wide player, Charlie Davies returning to a big stage, Jose Concalves paired with A.J Soares in a fairly effective backline. There was also the mid-season controversy/season-turning signing of Jermaine Jones, too, which arguably catapulted the Revs into MLS Cup. Yep, with so many players popping up on top-of-the-league lists and a deep, exciting run into the playoffs, it was a good year in New England.
Final Stats: 17-13-4, 55 points, 2nd in the East; 51 gf, 46 ga (+5 differential? Seriously?)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Seattle Sounders 2015 Season Preview: The Kids Who Get Everything for Christmas

Never enough tree. Nice problem.
What Happened Last Year
"It is easy to forget just how close the Sounders came to winning three major trophies in 2014..."
- Ives Galarcep, Goal.com
That sums it up neatly as anything. For Portland Timbers fans, "three major trophies" is the loop tape for your shittiest nightmares. The Seattle Sounders did come very close in the end – and not without earning it. As much as it hurts to say it, Seattle has a rock-solid team. Even if they acquired by spending more than (some anonymous) "you," that's still their team and we all have to fucking deal with it. Even in Portland. Everyone knows about Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey playing two-man tiki-taka through a rotating cast of MLS defenses, but a clutch of rarely-sung role-players carried the real secret to Seattle’s (near-) success (HA!) on their backs. If it wasn't Lamar Neagle knocking in nine goals (along with nine assists; most under-rated attacking player in MLS, anyone?), it's Marco Pappa coming in late to turn a game, or Chad Barrett chasing down everything like some crazed dog, or Stefan Frei pulling the ball right out of his ass before it went in the goal, or Zac Scott just...holding his shit together with retirement nipping at his heels. That supporting cast is the secret to Seattle's success. And, yes, I hate them for it. But, their nearly-glorious (HA!) 2014 was highly impressive. And the motherfuckers look all set to do it again.
Final Stats: 20-10-4, 64 points, 1st in the West, Supporters' Shield, 65 gf, 60 ga (wow.)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Portland Timbers 2015 Season Preview: Bringing Back (Most of) The Same Band

Oooh....damn girl, I know it!
What Happened Last Year
Agonizingly simple really: the Portland Timbers coughed up inopportune goals last year like the ladies who dish samples at Costco. Portland fed far too many teams free lunch this way. No game exemplified the failing like the 4-4 epic draw against the Seattle Sounders early in the season; up 4-2 early in the second half, the Timbers eventually fell apart under pressure from one of just two MLS clubs with better offensive numbers last season. The Timbers noted the problem and announced how seriously they took it by signing, Liam Ridgewell, a weird-for-MLS defensive designated player. Ridgewell came and the problems, well, they stayed. Portland's playoff dream all but ended when done in by another defensive collapse, e.g. the late-season 3-2 loss to Toronto FC, which, again, saw Portland throw away a two-goal lead. Oh, and midfielder and team captain, Will Johnson, suffered a broken leg at the start of that one. And Key Man, Diego Valeri, limped through the tail end of the season. Hope was high after 2013, that was the hell of it all.
Final Stats: 12-9-13, 49 points, 5th in the West; 61 gf, 52 ga

The 2015 MLS Half-Assed Preseason Guide

Again, WHHEEEEEE!!!
Like most Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs, I started 2015 with big plans and high expectations. Energy was high when I started, but then, y'know, life, family and...let's just bury those good intentions somewhere, give 'em a nice stone, and move on. (Look, such is the freedom of running a site that people only visit on a post-to-post basis. I haven't even defined "regular service" yet. And WHHEEEEEE!!!!)

I did manage, uh, nine team previews in the end? Links to all those appear are before the jump. (And the official site did us all (something of a) solid by pulling together a comprehensive guide for all clubs). After the jump, I'll provide before and after thumbnail comments on MLS's 11 remaining clubs. And, to give this post some kind of substance, I'll wrap up with personal, place-holder predictions on which clubs you’ll see in MLS's stupidly-expanded post-season.

As you can see, this post’s updated title matches the effort expended.

Enjoy!

1. Portland Timbers
2. Seattle Sounders
3. New England Revolution
4. Columbus Crew
5. Red Bull New York
6. Los Angeles Galaxy
7. Toronto FC
8. Chicago Fire
9. Sporting Kansas City

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Eye on the CBA: Running Commentary....Till the Damn Thing Ends

Bless mommy, bless daddy, and bless the MLS Players' Union...
Can I leave this alone? Yes, I finally can. A rant of disgust and shame is below. While I believe that the MLS Players' Union (MLSPU, go team!) and the league will eventually reach agreement, I'm painfully certain it will be a devil's bargain that will do nothing so useful as mirror the employer/employee dynamic of the United States of America as a whole. This does not make me happy. So, enjoy the hostage situation that is the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiation. Just don't expect a satisfactory resolution. 

Links and commentary appear below in reverse chronological order.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The CBA: Yep, Nothing to Do But Wait It Out

Dude...that's Tony Beltran, right?
OK, one more issue to wrap up before rolling out 2015 season previews: the ongoing negotiations over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) for Major League Soccer’s (MLS) employees. Here's that...

The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that negotiations will go down to the wire, if not run straight through it. "News" on the CBA will be more of the same – e.g. players talking solidarity as they brace for a strike, while the owners, and the league, remain silent. When I visit reddit's r/MLS (still working toward checking BigSoccer), I see frequent assertions that all the talk of impasse and strikes amount to nothing more than "posturing" (OK, not the best example, but I'm done digging.) I don't share that opinion. I believe all concerned will lose the first weekend of the season and I wouldn't be surprised if we missed more...

In totally unrelated news, I'm really excited about the USL in 2015!

It's the anticipated knock-down-drag-out over free agency that shapes my opinion. Stumptown Footy (along with several others, I hope) posted a piece about former CBA, which expired at the end of January. All the stuff about minimum salaries, playing bonuses, appearance fees, travel and moving expenses was interesting and all, but the focus belongs on the compromises that, for lack of a better word, replaced free agency in that earlier agreement.

Jurgen Klinsmann: My (Quarterfinal) Verdict

You (hic) wanna know...he'sh an asshhole.

Now that I have flogged every side of the debate over the ongoing tenure of U.S. Men's National Team (USMNT) head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, I feel ready to hang up the entire debate until after this summer's Gold Cup (some more, minimal sniping here). What appears below is intended as a sort of final statement on what has become a sort of wallowing in the froth generated by Klinsmann’s "fitness" comment.  After this post, I fully intend to follow the pledge outlined below:
I hereby promise to refrain from discussing Jurgen Klinsmann's fitness for either of his jobs, as the result of any future event, result, quote or circumstance, of whatever nature, THROUGH the final whistle of this summer's Gold Cup final, without reservation or reference to any clause, visible or invisible, contained in my head, or committed to any surface of any kind in writing, including but not limited to, personal notebooks or bar napkins.
So, where do I feel like things are with Dear Jurgen?

There is no more polarizing figure in U.S. soccer today than Klinsmann. Only Landon Donovan comes remotely close and, to put a figure on it, I think his favorable/unfavorable breaks around 80/20. Klinsmann’s, on the other hand, probably splits shockingly close to 50/50. I also think he was closer to 60/40 prior to the whole "fitness" kerfuffle.

For what it's worth, I think these are "naked" opinions – as in, you'll only get numbers like that if fans and observers feel compelled to provide an up-or-down opinion. It's like I think this way because that's how I think of Klinsmann.

My final verdict on the Man of Our Moment goes something like this: I believe in project of improving the culture of soccer in the United States and for improving the USMNT's tactical sophistication, flexibility and, if necessary, our players' collective and individual fitness. I also don't think Klinsmann’s the right guy for the job. Who is? No idea. I am, however, prepared to be very flexible in that regard. And, yes, I stand by the idea I posted last week about retaining Klinsmann as technical director and hiring some other qualified candidate to act as head coach. And, yeah, we could probably do worse for a coach, too. Look, can we all just agree it's complicated.

In brief, then, yes to what the U.S. Soccer Federation is attempting, no to Klinsmann as the guy to do it.

All right, that’s it. No more on this till after the Gold Cup. The completely thrilling and successful Gold Cup.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Harrison Shipp and the High Road to the Promised Land

Their rituals remain...strange to us.
Player interviews provide interested, even eager, fans with some of the dullest content they will ever read. Even if 99% of athletes possess a seemingly impossible talent for sucking life out of clich├ęs, a reader gets lucky sometimes. It could be the interview features a player from the blessed 1% implied above. Or maybe a reporter frames a question just so. For example:
"Last time we spoke you talked about the broader perception that American players lack the ability to play in a creative midfield role. How much does your desire to change the perception of American creativity motivate you and how much added pressure do you feel when you’re in that position?"
 88 (Eight-by-Eight)'s interviewer, Robert Kehoe, put that question to the Chicago Fire's Harrison Shipp. Shipp only confessed to "loving" the pressure of carrying the "creative player" torch for America’s Young Turks, but he didn't elaborate. That seems a shame what with how that question gets at everything from player development to larger issues like soccer in these United States and even the Jurgen Klinsmann Project.

Welcome to the New Digs

The question is, why change?
Yes, I pulled the plug on Cream of Soccer Ball. I never liked the title. In fact, I blame that crappy title for the site's struggle to find a unified aesthetic. I did preserve all of the content, which is a first and a sign of progress. Even if I'm not sure what toward.

I build Conifers & Citrus on the Indian burial ground of that former site (lucky!). In a departure from that past, this title speaks to this blog's content:

1) Conifer represents the Portland Timbers, this site's official Sporting Organization; and

2) Citrus represents orange wedges, the regenerative brain-food of halftime.

After putting up a post or two up between tonight and tomorrow, I'm going to pause to prepare for the Saturday, February 14th launch of a major exercise in optimism, namely, 2015 season previews for each and every club in Major League Soccer (MLS). The format remains TBD, but the schedule has been optimistically set for one a day (HA!). As for order, I'm going with the extent that club interests me as we round into the 2015 season. You'll see that after the jump. In most cases, my personal ignorance will grow as I progress, but that's the point of the project – i.e. growing less ignorant.

At any rate, it seems like a good idea to stay busy and positive while my parents are working through their divorc...I mean, while CBA negotiations progress to a mutually-satisfying, dare I say glorious, resolution. My childhood bedroom will never, ever change. Never.


And now, the order in which the previews will roll out:

Monday, February 9, 2015

Confirmation Bias and the U.S. Win over Panama

As we all know, you don't always get to view games in environments that foster complete focus. You can be at a bar, for example, in a seat miles away from the TV showing the game with some god-awful regional college football game hogging the rest of the atmosphere and all of the volume. And anyone who takes any interest in the game you're watching only does so long enough to tell you he/she hates soccer. Which is nice. It’s also possible that you're spending that time with family who feel like friends and friends who feel like family. I had the latter, better experience on Sunday when the United States took on Panama.

So, no, I didn't watch the game too closely, just enough to form a general impression. A Panamanian attack or two produced a mildly anxious start, but that only afflicted the U.S. like a low-grade fever till Michael Bradley broke it with that silky Olimpico. Gyasi Zardes and Clint Dempsey combined for a slick little goal a few minutes later and that ended the game in just about every way. Panama's efforts foundered after that and generally in the U.S. midfield. If I'm not mistaken, Sean Johnson, the U.S. 'keeper for the second half, touched the ball just once.

The win was nice, but only in the same way as a 50-degree day in January: fine, but only remarkable due to circumstance. When I got home, though (again, see visiting), I sat down and read a bunch of match analysis. Most of that confirmed what I was able to piece together in between watching toddlers careen around over hardwood flooring. Hold on...taking a break to pat myself on the back...wait, not as flexible as I used to be...OK, got it. There, that felt good.

Now, to delve a little deeper...hold on, one more. I saved Matt Doyle's "Three Things" article for my last read yesterday because I generally agree with his thinking enough that I feel smart when I'm done. So, read that. I'll wait. Back yet? OK, good. Now...to the nitty-gritty.

As pointed out by Doyle and elsewhere, the U.S. reverted to its familiar 4-4-2 (or maybe it was a 4-2-3-1), Bradley lined up deeper, Jermaine Jones had Matt Besler to cover him, etc. I think this was better, but, to credit some guy named "Kev," who posted a comment on SBI's breakdown, the U.S. would have been wiser to experiment with a 3-5-2 against Panama instead of Chile because that's a better measuring stick for a variety of reasons (good on ya, Kev!). By common consent, though, Bradley played looser and better than he has in months, but that applied to just about everyone whose name contains neither  "DeAndre" nor "Yedlin." Basically, every time I looked up, I saw the U.S. rolling toward Panama's goal, with either Bradley or Zardes or Dempsey leading the charge. And that's good.

Relevant to that, I read/heard/saw someone deflect away Zardes' assist to Dempsey to celebrate the same player's chest-bump near-assist to Michael Bradley (ah, there it is; in the body of SBI's breakdown). That’s a good thing to flag, because there's no replacement for having good ideas in and around the area. This is definitely a place where more meets merrier.

After that, it seems like Jurgen Klinsmann can't say or do anything lately without inviting a lot of second guessing. His choices of personnel with whom to experiment proved no exception. As Goal.com asked in their write-up, where was Wil Trapp, or more minutes for Luis Gil or Lee Nguyen? I second those questions with Trapp and Gil, in particular, especially given what Herr Klinsmanns's musings about what he might do with next January's camp (related: does this smack of arrogance and an inability to trust others to anyone else?) . This time around, at least, Klinsmann came up aces with Zardes by universal assent. Against that, fewer people bought into the Miguel Ibarra experiment and small wonder - from what I saw, his afternoon amounted to a flubbed cross and running that broke equally between impressively fast and disturbing aimless. Klinsmann, meanwhile, seems a little too eager to prove his reading of this player. Oh, and to claim unseemly credit for Bradley's Olimpico (he comes perilously close to saying he planned it in here).

It's kind of a nothing game in the end, even if the crappy run that came before inflated its importance. In the end, though, Panama is Panama. Only an idiot takes them lightly, but we own the series against them for inescapable reasons like resources, population, interest, etc. They're improving, without question, but zero to one is 100% improvement by definition. A loss here would have been embarrassing, but nothing more, no jobs lost, no one dropped irrevocably from the U.S. Men's set-up and so on. And, yes, that's a problem, if only in context. Another post for another day...

I'll wrap this up by seconding or quibbling with the player ratings posted on MLSsoccer.com (yeah, yeah, I'm working on expanding my sources; gimme time). Here goes:

1) The comment on Besler's passing (e.g. “smooth” at 67 of 68) bears noting for future experimentation with the 3-5-2. I got into a quibble with a (smart) guy on reddit about using Besler (or someone else) as a stopper and Jones as a sweeper; he assumed I meant in terms of formation, but I was really talking about function. I don't care if Klinsmann wants to play Jones as a defender and let him wander, but only if he's got someone who stays at home behind/beside him. In other words, I like a four-man back-line, or a loosely-interpreted three-man backline.

2) I saw Mix Diskerud, but only when he was closing down the opposition. I don't remember any clearly positive contributions, but I might have on closer viewing.

3) I don't think Jozy Altidore earned a 6.5 (nor did Ibarra). He did look eager, though (as did Ibarra). That said, I won't mind seeing him again (or Ibarra).

4) I was pretty well tuned out by the time the subs came on. So, um, their ratings don't mean much to me.

All for now. Like a lot of people, I think we'll learn more from the next camp and set of friendlies. Camp Cupcake/Struedel was definitely a wash this year. Unfortunately, the stuff that came before it, notably the blowout loss to Ireland, was emphatically not a wash. More later...and, hopefully, on some different people.

Friday, February 6, 2015

An (Unlikely) Exit from the (Alleged) Klinsmann Konundrum

The guy on the right just needs blonde hair.
My brain fried irreparably during ExtraTime Radio’s (ETR) latest podcast on What Jurgen Klinsmann Said (e.g. the comments about fitness). Those latest comments turned more pundits and regular people against the United States Men’s National Team’s (USMNT) Teutonic Taskmaster than ever before – or at least they did within my orbit. (Against this, a comment in du Nord’s latest podcast nailed the dynamic: it’s either charlatan or visionary and with little in between). Anyway, I lost my patience with Klinsmann during ETR. I dunno, chalk it up to the power of Borg (as in Simon Borg), but I want the man gone (uh, that’s Klinsmann, not Borg).

Speaking of, is there some booth where interested parties can line up for a turn to punch U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) President Sunil Gulati in his stupid squishy face? I never liked the expansion/extension of Klinsmann’s contract through 2018 and my opinion of it gets lower and angrier every day. Could it be Klinsmann talks like he shits purple rose petals because he feels untouchable? Even if the USSF offered that extension in the midst of brighter days (yes, I did forget all that), his accomplishments hardly warranted such a full and unquestioning surrender to his Bavarian wiles.


Making matters worse, or maybe just more stressful, I keep hearing (David Gass on ETR; Jason Davis on Backheel’s Soccer Morning) that Klinsmann’s not going anywhere, not with that contract and not when he has the full faith and regard on the USSF brass. Helplessness enjoys a very direct, special relationship with anxiety. Gulati will be especially tough to crack because how often do you see an executive actually admit to a mistake. Wait...sensing a theme here...

And, yes, the reality is that Klinsmann will likely survive just fine through 2018. Face it, it just doesn’t take that much in CONCACAF to get results. If the program stagnates, or if Jurgen actually damages it, well, put it this way: signs of rot are notoriously subtle (in fairness, so are signs of progress). That said, I really, really need to believe that there exists some form of failure so unavoidably, undeniably obvious that the USSF would have no choice but to call the Klinsmann Experiment dead. To borrow a scenario from ETR’s podcast, what if Klinsmann “lost” his players? (And don’t forget the rumors from the summer of 2013). Unlikely as the USMNT results/performances will keep on sucking, what if they did? I mean, there has to be point of no return? Even with a contract? Right? Ah, yes. There it is. The USSF canned Bob Bradley.

So, if it did come to that, I had a thought. Why not retain Klinsmann as technical director? It provides some form of escape hatch for all concerned, for starters. Maybe the USSF saves some money if it voids only half of Jurgen’s portfolio (I said could; I’m not claiming to know contract law). There’s one potential, deeper advantage in making this shift. While I’ve never rated Klinsmann as a coach, the man is one hell of a gadfly. So, why not let him continue as the stern, unappeasable father-figure for the U.S. program? Or as the foreigner who gleefully mocks our national laziness, naivete and obesity? (I use "gleefully" advisedly; listen to the audio and tell me the man isn’t cackling as he rips his players).

What the USSF does then is bring in a new head coach, someone who can serve as a buffer between Jurgen, the angry-father and his trembling (waddling?) players. American, not American, doesn't matter. Just find a smart tactics guy with a big teddy-bearish heart. Think good cop/bad cop. Or, hell, think God and Jesus. Whatever you call it, that's a dynamic with long, proud history.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Jurgen Klinsmann's Hell: A Whole Team of Donovans

Whoa. Sign this guy.
I will try not to make this about U.S. Men's National Team (USMNT) head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Because, basic, maybe unhinged, hostility. With that in mind, I'll just keep that portion of the post brief. Klinsmann's latest comments regarding U.S. players' lack of fitness and (manic) dedication is just this winter’s version of last summer’s “nasty” comments: bullshit, for starters, but it's more significant as evasion. Let players burn when they deserve it, of course...but does everyone honestly believe Klinsi hasn’t screwed his share of pooches over the past 3 1/2 years? Otherwise, y'know, shouldn't he raise his hand and start asking what he can do?

I could pile up grievances until they top the Portland, Oregon skyline, so I'll stop there with the bitching. Besides, no small number of visionaries and mad-method geniuses have made a regular practice of throwing colleagues, partners, assistants, employees and even friends under the bus. After all, it’s easier to preach gospel when the shit’s not sticking to you. Few enough frauds, however, can outrun truth or reality forever and Klinsmann has many highly-visible moments of truth ahead.

The U.S. will face Panama this Sunday in the last of the January Camp/Camp Struedel friendlies. What he does will be interesting and all, even if people say friendlies don’t matter, something I agree with, even if most of the time.* What’s on my mind today is the grand...hold it, The Grand Experiment of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure.

The U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) hired Klinsmann to assume the daunting mantle of "transformative figure." My low opinion of Klinsmann is what it is, but I hereby applaud the balls it takes to say, "Yes, I am your fucking genius. You are welcome." The project itself has inherent value, too, because a team can't learn what it's capable of without trying new things. A least up to a certain point. Try something till you have to stop. Then, stop. Will Klinsmann see that? Sorry, another post for another day.

Klinsmann’s latest "artful" dodge dredged up a whole lot of thoughts about where the USMNT is today and where it's headed: the way fitness, once the USMNT'’s perennial ace-in-the-hole, suddenly became a problem under Klinsmann; how frequently our players look visibly uncomfortable operating under Jurgen's system; and, yes, the long run of crappy results. It's hard to avoid wondering where it's all going. And then you come across a tweet like this one after the Chile game:
"When #USMNT playing B Chile Team they're playing against decades of cultivated tactics/style, meanwhile U.S. at starting point of identity."
That's a random tweet in the grand scheme (by @DanielNyari; follow him on Twitter!; and sorry I'm too dumb to just embed; I'll learn, promise). Had I been able to watch even half of Chile v. U.S., I wouldn't have seen it; it's not my habit to check any given match-tracker, but there it was. And it’s been with me in the week or so since the final whistle blew in [city-name-here], Chile.

What if the U.S. has already discovered its identity? Could this be something larger, maybe a clash of cultures? It's an ironic problem on one level because Klinsmann's mindset taps into something very American: the belief in permanent progress, the idea/fantasy that some given thing can indefinitely rise upward. Then again, this is how we got No Child Left Behind. But that's only half of America: there are also the slackers, the hipsters, the artisans, the work-to-live not live-to-work lifestyle. Good honest citizens have worried for decades whether these hippies will cause us to succumb to Ivan (or “other foreign competitor”), so maybe they're out to turn the USMNT into a hacky-sack kick-around instead of the blood-and-iron war of Klinsmann's imagination.

Basically, it's not inconceivable that Klinsmann’s years-long bitching about MLS could actually speak to a uncomfortable truth about the American player. They might cherish Major League Soccer’s (MLS) old-shoe feel too much to strive for higher ground, or connections to family make stepping too far from American shores too much to bear. Or, to personify the theory, maybe Landon Donovan is the true talisman and North Star of the USMNT and U.S. soccer culture in general. Maybe they're all dreaming of Cambodia as we speak. Or, in more honest terms, maybe we do what we do, and play the way we play, because we like it. Or maybe our feet are just shaped wrong. Let's not pull anything off the table too soon....

So, there are some thoughts in there. Rolling in a big comfy bed with sweet indifference; hints of clashing culture; a celebration of the idea of just trying shit; a placeholder suggestion that the USSF might have been taken in by a silver-tongued con-artist: call it what you will, the Klinsmann era has given us a shit-ton to talk about. I have my thoughts on where it's going, but those can wait...

* In recent years, and for whatever reason, I started acting like friendlies don't matter - as in, I make extremely minimal efforts to watch them. That said, put together enough of the same kind of results – and Klinsmann has done this, without question (see: losses with highly repetitive patterns) – and you’ve got a sample that could very well mean something. It could mean everything, up to and including something straightforward as Jurgen being a lousy fit. I can't remember the last time I heard the argument in all honesty, but the idea that foreign coaches just "don't get the American player" was all the rage way back when.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

MLS & the CBA: Power vs. Persuasion

Live your perfect life! NOW!!!
Those that have, get more. Or, them as has, gets.

Pick your phrase (and hit the links for curious explanations of each), but that seems a good place to start a discussion of the (quietly*) ongoing negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that, ideally, will govern the system of compensation for players in Major League Soccer (MLS) for a long, long time. Can we get forever on this? On perfectly balanced terms? (*I say quietly because the latest articles I’m finding date back to last Sunday; this topic remains ongoing, people.)

Anyone who cares to probably knows the basics by now – e.g. that free agency and more equitable/sensible income distribution are the two key issues separating MLS and its owners from the MLS Player's Union (MLSPU). BigDSoccer provided a studiously neutral primer for the uninitiated, but, according to my reading/listening, most sources side with the MLSPU. And for pretty good reason...

MLS owners claim they're losing money. I believe that in broad terms - and not only because the $100 million per annum figure I keep hearing seems suspiciously round, but because of investments in infrastructure like youth academies, stadiums, and, of course, designated players (DPs). At the same time, even a basic understanding of corporate taxation in these United States supports the suspicion that the league and its owners can write-off plenty of said $100 million per annum. I'm highly confident that they do. But money lost is money lost...which is different than money one never sees. Like, oh, the players. Hence the sticking point.

An excerpt for an old-ish LA Times article put MLS wages in pretty useful context:
"The league, which is losing more than $100 million a year, insists the MSL salary cap will continue to grow. But under the old CBA, that growth was minimal. Last year, for example, teams could spend $3.1 million on the first 20 spots on their roster, excluding designated players, a jump of just $29,000 from 2011."
That same article squeezed a few quotes from Mark Abbott, league president and deputy commissioner, about how MLS's structure allows MLS to be "competitive" in the foreign market and, further, that it somehow allows for "greater investment in players every year." OK, but which players? Bob Foose might be hella biased (as MLSPU executive director), but he unpacked the logic of Abbott’s arguments and put them in a neat, little, slightly malodorous pile:
"...the system is designed to squeeze every single dollar they can possible squeeze out of the guys who are in the league so that they can then go use those dollars to speculate on players who are not in the league."
Left unanswered in all that: precisely how the league's structure accomplishes this. It's just a bald statement and, outside creating a big pool of money, I frankly don't see how it works. On a more fundamental level, this is less about players "who are not in the league" getting the big paydays, than it's about long-serving MLS players having too few mechanisms to attain bigger paydays for themselves, even as they are essential building blocks for both their respective teams and the league as a whole. Basically, MLS's labor structure incentivizes certain behaviors that I'm not sure pencil out anywhere but on the bottom line (see me grasping at/grappling with those idea here).

So, yeah, I'm firmly in the players' camp: the cap needs to go up, the league minimum definitely needs to go up, and the players should get some form of free agency. That's the baseline. At the same time, I’m starting to wrap my head around some subtleties.

One argument I've come across a couple times - literally twice - is that the league can't legally hold on to the salary cap outside a CBA/(maybe) single-entity arrangement. The basic idea is that, a CBA creates a party with enough power to sit opposite the ownership group without getting run over; I'll admit I understand this imperfectly, so feel free to read more here. So, that's the legal side, but practical/competitive stuff comes into play as well. The league's "super clubs" (Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders FC, and the Los Angeles Galaxy) have already shown a willingness to spend big and unevenly; add more desired locations against...less desired locations (not about to name names) and the league is likely to see a sorting of talent that will stealthily kill any meaningful sort of parity. MLS would finally be like Europe's biggest leagues (hurray!), but in a bad way (e.g. the same three to five clubs winning the title year after year after year). So, if the whole CBA thing is what it takes to keep a salary cap, I'm for it.

And yet free agency matters. It's the stuff of dignity, for starters. Players should not have to choose between leaving the country to work versus negotiating with what amounts to a nationally-/court-approved single employer. That goes double when said single employer employs a salary cap that barely meets cost-of-living increases, while simultaneously promoting such...uncomfortable growth in wealth inequality with the DP rule. We all know that Tim Cahill just left the league, but how many people think he was, literally, 100 times more valuable to his club, or even 50 times more valuable, than the squad player who shared the same locker room? (Arrived at that figure by taking Cahill’s reported $3.6 million salary and dividing it by a slightly rounded-down league minimum (e.g. $36,500 reduced to $36,000); not unreasonable...right?)

That gets to players getting paid better, which matters, even if it's not as straightforward. Even if this is how they make their living, these guys do get paid to play a game. And, in spite of some drawbacks, is a cool life. They get to follow their passion, like Oprah says they should, and see the world. Even if they fly coach, that's always going to be a draw. This speaks more to attracting employees/talent than income justice, but it bears noting. Players will come, but there has to be some sort of absolute floor for wages. Right?

The players have some things going for them, the more sympathetic (and cogent) argument chief among them. The owners and league, on the other hand, have the money. That means they have options, eating their losses and walking away among them. Can't imagine they'd do that, not with all that money on the table, but it seems like those that have shouldn't necessarily be the ones that get. It wouldn't hurt them to give a little more and to be a little more conscious of what their wage structure says to and about their employees.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

MLS, In the Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Suck it! No car for you! And that woman hates you!!
In the past, this space has crowned a modest succession of (significantly) Eastern Conference Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs the official winners of the 2014-15 offseason (winner, winner, chicken dinner). Fun 'n' games and all, but that act of separating and ranking looks past something bigger. And one has to don some to pretty fucked-up goggles to miss this:

This is Major League Soccer's (MLS) best offseason ever. Hands down. Ignore the biggest names for now, or even the returning flocks of high-end American players (zey are like zee swallows zircling zee setting sun….): every week, sometimes every day, some outlet or another drops word of some exotic, new player coming to MLS. Today, for example, I see reports of a defender from Guatemala, a(nother) Argentine midfielder, a Nigerian who comes to the league by way of Switzerland named Innocent. As recently as five years ago, the league had to scratch the world markets damned hard to get such enticing players. And getting this many of them at once? Out of the goddamn question.

Last night, I counted up the designated players (DPs) who will play for MLS clubs in 2015 (a hit-or-miss list) The first count: 43 of 98, all-time (maybe; Wikipedia). Then I noted the absence of some big names (oh, just Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Sebastian Giovinco, Laurent Ciman, etc.) and revised the numbers upward: 47 of 102 last I counted. And that's going to grow. Already has by two (maybe 3; see above). Yessir, the league is stocking up on some big fishies, the kind that feast on steroids. The point is that no one club really won the offseason. We all won the offseason. Even the surprisingly inactive Philadelphia Union.

Virtually every MLS club kicked off their pre-seasons this past weekend, which only adds to the sense that, holy shit, this is really happening. Hell, outlets are streaming no small number of the preseason scrimmages, especially those between two MLS clubs. Yeah, by common consent these games mean nothing, but they do scratch an itch. Between those signs of activity and all those freakin' new players, it's enough to make a guy feel like a dog being reminded that he is, in fact, a good boy by a room full of the world’s kindest people.

It can make one feel like that...so why doesn't it? To sum it up in three letters, C, B, and A.

Until the stupid Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is signed by everyone who counts (not going to be easy), I don't know how to enjoy any of this. I mean, what are MLS clubs telling all those new signings? Not to worry? When I clock preseason results, or even watch the games (two watched so far, one noted, if in a tipsy, bubbly hiccup), at least half my thoughts turn to whether the players, like me, wonder about the point of it all. I mean, do athletes suffer existential crises? Besides Landon Donovan.

I’ve gone through and discarded a series of overwrought analogies to describe this sensation (some of them just plain wrong – e.g. starving children and cancer patients). My closest, and most appropriate translation of the 2014-15/Pre-CBA experience likens it to being shown your dream car at your Sweet 16 and being told that you are absolutely not going to get it. ("You like the car? Aw, that's sweet. Anyhoo, fuck you. Can't have it. That's right, cry. Your tears are my water.")

I’m going to track the CBA negotiations as closely as I can until they're resolved because it really is the first thing I think about when I think about MLS these days (listen to this if you want to feel a little better). Given the tight-lipped nature of these kinds of negotiations, I don’t expect to find much, but I'll pass on anything more damning, than, "yeah, strike" or more uplifting than, "we're close." And, no, this space won't be all-CBA, all the time. I’ve got a USMNT thing I want to get to, plus some Timbers stuff. Even then...

...sigh...

...talking about all that other stuff seems a little pointless till MLS fans across the country – and, dare I say it, here and there around the world? – hear that the negotiations are over and that the league will actually play some games in 2015.

My current (pessimistic) thinking? We're going to lose March. All of March. Keep those expectations low, people. That's one way to survive disappointment. A shitty way, but a way.