Monday, August 31, 2015

Seattle v. Portland: The Timbers' Best Worst Loss of 2015

No, keep looking. This is for your own good. Focus...
The worst thing about the Portland Timbers' 2-1 road loss to the Seattle Sounders was that it allowed Sounders fans to feel happiness. The sweet buzz of victory couldn't have lasted very long, not with how Seattle played – and especially not against the backdrop of their recent results – but, in the moment, I saw their fans singing without a hint of irony or embarrassment. If Portland laid an egg like that, every gaffe and shortcoming would go under the magnifying glass and expletives would fill the air. Do I begrudge them the moment....well, yes. Obviously.

The result itself was the second worst thing. Because it was not fair. Weird officiating comes in at #3, even as I'm entirely willing to accept that the Timbers lost this one more than the ref stole it from them (see: total shots on goal). And at #4...well, there is no fourth worst thing. Not really.

Tonight, I'll be doing one of the easier things in fandom: celebrating a good performance and spiting the loss. Portland played pretty friggin' well on Sunday: they piled up a genuinely impressive number of chances, and didn't miss all of them by much; the defensive shape and pressure in midfield snuffed out nearly all Seattle's attacks before they could get going (the two to four that got through, though, holy shit, did those turn out poorly; more later); among the most impressive things about the game came with how well Jack Jewsbury and George Fochive covered for midfield stalwarts/dynamos Will Johnson and Diego Chara. Hell, ol' Jack turned the old line about old dogs on its head by being the most the dangerous man on the field.

It couldn't have gone perfectly, of course, or I'd be bragging about a win and Seattle's long fall from Olympus. For starters, throw that first goal onto the Steaming Pile of Shitty Goals, right next to that other piece of shit from the early season loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps. The flailing, the falling, just the plain shock of the damn thing. I mean, jesus, if I didn't throw up a little pulling up that clip. Worse, the same clumsiness that let that one slide past showed up a couple more times in the first half. I mean, clearing the goddamn ball. That's park-ball stuff.

As for the second goal...look, I wouldn't have called it, either, but it wasn't that egregious. No matter how inadvertent, Adam Kwarasey did keep Obafemi Martins from getting to a ball that he very likely would have run down. Put it this way: call it most unjust in the grand scheme of the game and move on.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

MLS Week 25: (Loose) Playoff Talk (and Prepping for the Future), Plus Midfield Conundrums

What? Seriously? MLS Cup better be up there...
Due to this week's late start (my Portland Timbers thing went up Monday, fer crissakes) and just a fucking mess of a week, I have to go general and short (as I can make it) on Major League Soccer Week 25/26 Review/Preview and...hold on, is that gentle breeze that just fluttered my hair a collective sigh of relief?

And, barring further vacillation, the Beer and Shots Review will be replaced by Review/Preview posts going forward, which, ideally, will go up Wednesdays. Look, it'll all make sense by the time 2015 ends. Trust me. Moving on...wait, first, below are the two games I took in over this past weekend.
Portland Timbers v. Houston Dynamo (already written up at some length)
Columbus Crew SC v. Sporting Kansas City (recorded at right...and that's it)
Between time and having several other things on which I'd like to focus, I have only one really important direct point about Week 25: the mirrored fates of Kansas City (two reputation-denting losses) and the San Jose Earthquakes (who, on the back of two consecutive road wins, both of them impressive, suddenly look like Bad Soccer just revived its curse) tell anyone who follows the league everything he/she needs to know. Good teams will stumble, while bad teams will rock, if only for a while. Because, MLS. Internalizing that applies to both long-time fans of MLS (like me), or the greenest, noobiest of new supporters: the former forget how much parity defines the league, while it will take the latter a while to fully appreciate that reality. More (and less) on both points wind in and out of the narrative below. It's this fall’s now-abruptly-impending playoffs that I want to talk about today.

It took an article posted on – they called it the "Red Line Report" – to shake me from my annual summer slumber. Without that, I would have gone right on recording each week of the season with the same rough awareness and conscious thought that a marathoner puts into thinking about each foot-fall just one mile in her race. Consider, however, that the overwhelming majority of MLS clubs have fewer than 10 games in which to declare their intentions . And that’s not just for the post-season, but what sort of figure they'll cut once they get there...and, for my Portland Timbers, this space expects "dashing." If there's not a trail of multi-colored rose petals sprinkled along a sun-dappled path to MLS Cup, all I can say is that the Timbers will really have to pull out several more stops, at a minimum, if they expect any nookie over the winter.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Houston Game Showed Portland the Way: Can They Take It?

A Portrait of the Author on the Silver Screen. Or in World War II. Been to both.
In a post last week, I wrote a check against future credibility that I'm not 100% sure I can cover. To refresh memories, I studied all 25 goals the Timbers have scored in 2015 (now 28; thank you to persons involved) as a frame to discuss what the Portland Timbers do when they attack the opposition, or try to. I ended that post, 1) a bit in my cups; and 2) by, stating that I would talk about how to fix the problem this week. And with the personnel on hand.

Looking back on it all, I feel OK saying that whole idea was crazy. Or, better, beyond my knowledge and talents. If I could put together a post on that, and one worth reading, I may as well go start climbing the coaching ladder. Because professional stability is my personal "woobie" and on the suspicion that I'd probably start hiding from my players after the first confrontation (think Major Major from Catch-22), that's out. Another obstacle came with a morning-after-sane-light-of-day realization that the only things I could think to say on the subject echoed things I've said in the 20+ game reports on this site – e.g. I'm a fan of overloads. And...and...well, this is why I don't coach. Well, that plus the conflict anxiety thing.

But the statement obligates some kind of stab at the subject, no matter how feeble. I won't lie. When the first wave of writer's block hit, I consciously blocked out time to watch all of last Friday's game between the Timbers and the Houston Dynamo days after it happened (this is braver than it sounds; I actually caught enough of the match to see all four goals in context; then I watched the 20-minute mini-game; followed that up with the full 90 tonight; my family is looking at me in a way I can't quite translate; will call for help if needed; anyway). The hope was that the team would bail me out; I waited for them to put on a clinic, so I could sit down tonight and simply say, "like that. Portland should attack like that."

Monday, August 17, 2015

MLS Week 24 Shots 'n' Beers Review: Great Games, Bad Defense, and DP Theory

It was the Best of Times!
I think I'm finally there on a concept for these weekly reviews of Major League Soccer. I call this process, The Struggle. But enough about me. Why? Because MLS Week 24? It was goddamn nuts! To give it a name, it was the Week of Not-Giving-a-Shit Celebrations! As in, "why, yes, I'll take that yellow card you fun-sucking prick, because this shirt is coming off!!" Moving on to some random observations:

- The guy in the DC United replica shirt that said "Wine," has inspired me to get a Portland Timbers replica of my own that says either "Gin" or "Bourbon." Taking votes!

- If you listen closely after San Jose's goal, you’ll hear the Mexican commentating team freaking the Hell out. And it was like music.

- Related: was Paul Caligiuri let go by Univision/Mas? Don't they know that novel mispronunciations of players' names don’t grow on trees!?

- I really, really struggled with Shep Messing's broadcast partner who kept using the phrase, "ball defended away" to describe a defensive clearance.

Moral of the story: keep your eyes open during broadcasts, because there's always something out the kid ball who stood behind (think it was the Houston Dynamo's) Tyler Deric fronting all the while. Moving on!

Next, it's time to record the games I took in this weekend. How much do my wife and kids hate me this week? Three! Three games worth of hate!
New York Red Bulls v. Toronto FC
Real Salt Lake v. Portland Timbers (written up here)
Sporting Kansas City v. Vancouver Whitecaps
I watched the rest in the usual 20-minute, bite-sized format. Right, may as well start the review in precisely the same way I'm starting to type: with a Shot...which, here, means a great summation of the week/weekend just past (hat-tip: Series of Unfortunate Events).

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Great Rio Tinto Smash-'n'-Grab (A Template for the Rest of the Year)

Think this is where the Timbers are. I'm OK with it.
Well, that one left me...confused.

For me, the defining moment came in the second half when (I'm working without notes; forgive the vagueness), Diego Valeri received the ball from _______ (blank intentional) and broke toward Real Salt Lake's goal with Darlington Nagbe on the opposite side of the field. The two Portland Timbers had just one RSL defender at their mercy – I'm going with Aaron Maund as the junior partner (though, let’s face it, Jamison Olave is on the wrong side of pretty much every metric), but that's not important – when Valeri, a man normally so bright and bold and proactive, took a few steps inside RSL's half, squared the ball to Nagbe, who was still 45+ yards from goal. The implied message of that pass was, "Here ya go, kid. Hope you got ideas, because I got nothin'."

That play didn't end the game. Credit for the Timbers 1-0 win over RSL goes to Nat Borchers, who, tonight, proved that Third Time's a Charm is a thing when he knocked his third header inside RSL's area past Nick "Portland Kryptonite" Rimando for the game winner and his third of the year at the death-rattling death of the match. Let's see...that’s two run-on sentences now...

What leaves me so confused about everything that happened tonight is how precisely I feel like I understand what's going on, the general trends. And yet I'm not entirely sure I'm right. How's that for an Alice in Wonderland lede?

Tonight was rife with paradox. For one, Portland organized in the simplest of defensive shapes...which, as it turned out, resulted in RSL playing all kinds of crazy, tight passing stuff against, and through, the Timbers. Going the other way, Portland managed only a few, a happy few, attacking sequences that really threatened RSL's goal. Outside those moments, just about everything about the Timbers attack (one sequence aside) looked like pin the tail on the donkey. In all honesty, I thought we looked a little bit like grab-astic shit all over the field going forward tonight – more on that later – but I...think....maybe, that all that was by design.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Timbers: How They Score (When They Score)

Again! And do it exactly right this time!!
If you sit down to watch all 25 goals scored by the Portland Timbers in this Year of Our Lord, 2015, and let memory take thought for a little tango, you come to appreciate a few things. Among them:

- It never really got better than that home win over Seattle. The Timbers scored Number 18 in that one and, ah, she was something, that goal.

- Timbers have treated their fans to a few short, sweet mini-narratives this season. Or, per your preference, false dawns: those two, three weeks when Jorge Villafana made it possible to believe the club had pulled a secret dead-ball specialist out of its ass; the two-game partnership between Gaston Fernandez and Maximiliano Urruti that turned out to Gata’s swan-song. The team snuck in a couple surprise highs – see, Jack Jewsbury's late-game-hero cameos (speaking of's comin,’ Jack) – but the great, fitful constant for the season comes with those wonderful occasions when Darlington Nagbe tore straight through the fucking sternum of a couple defenses, punching right GODDAMN THROUGH TO THE BEATING, BLEEDING HEART...OH MY GOD?! WHY AM I YELLING?! GOAL! GOAL!!!

- Those are cherished moments, those times when Nagbe all but freakin' teleported into that gap 25-30 yards from goal with defenders scrambling before him like panicked villagers with barbarians snapping at their heels. Feels like it's been awhile. Guess that's it. Thought maybe if I yelled loud enough they'd come back. Anyway, it's easy to forget sometimes just how much Nagbe was all over Portland's first seven goals of the season, late(-ish) as they came.

- Finally, who can forget the weird, hopeful waiting for Diego Valeri to come back.

- The feeling hasn't gone away.

- Has it?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Gregg Berhalter and the (Minor?) Penalties of Vanity

I will tie you to that goddamn thing, if I have to. Again!
"You're going to see us playing positive, attacking soccer."
- Something  every new coach said at least once, 1999-2010.
The quote's a paraphrase and the attribution made up, but it frames a concept nicely – e.g., a hell of a lot of coaches come into their jobs with a head full of ideas, most of them being based on ideals. This used to really annoy me – hence the range of years in the attribution – but, once you cotton to the idea that a coach is just another freelancer whose very reliant on self-promotion, it's easier to cut the guy some slack.

At the same time, some coaches believe it, or at least enough parts of it to get dangerous ideas. Or useless ones. Hitching their star to a formation – 4-4-2? With a diamond or without one? The Christmas Tree, you want the Christmas Tree? What about the 4-2-3-1, the kids, man, the kids! – or an approach – e.g. your high-pressure clubs or their counter-attacking opposites – they ride that magic carpet so far past its use that, when they finally land, it's wise to put down fairly close to the local unemployment line. Other times, though, a coach will cling to some tactical tendency...say, a firm insistence for playing the ball out of the back, on the ground, thank you. It doesn't do defining harm or anything. But it is silly.

That last little wrinkle has become the calling card for Gregg Berhalter's Columbus Crew SC. Though not a major topic of conversation, broadcast booth talking heads have noted Columbus' insistence on playing out of the back throughout 2015 and pundits have weighed its risks; more importantly, no small number of the other Major League Soccer clubs have attacked it. Under that light dusting of chatter, Columbus keeps right on doing it. Now, personally, I like the concept. And there's a pretty cogent argument in its favor: a player worth his contract will learn how do something better if he does it over and over again, so why not make working on it part of his day-to-day? Call it the piano-lesson theory of coaching.

Having tracked the chatter and watched a fair amount of Columbus this year (7 times, plus all the 20-minute mini-games), I'll put this opinion in the fairest possible terms for Mr. Gregg: if the Portland Timbers did all this half-pointless dicking at the back, I'd lose at least two-thirds (2/3) of my shit. After watching the Crew (hold on...goddammit! Can I please stop typing "Screw" when I try to type "Crew"??) struggle to tick this basically pointless box time and again against the widely-acknowledged mess that is (are?) the Colorado Rapids, it's time to call this practice by name: a tedious little exercise in vanity. So, yeah, knock it off, Gregg.

Monday, August 10, 2015

MLS Week 23 Review: GOTW, SOTW, ROTW, Plus A Lot of Comparisons

A moment most MLS fans have had to contemplate.
Well, the good news is, I finally wrestled one these weekly reviews to under three pages. Huzzah! And...that's the preamble: let's get to Major League Soccer's Week 23.

Week 23 could be called the Week of the Inflated Result, with several teams (see: Columbus Crew SC v. Colorado Rapids; or, Sporting Kansas City v. Toronto FC; or Los Angeles Galaxy v. Seattle Sounders FC). posting scorelines that looked bigger on paper than they did on the field. It could also be called the Week of the Outside of the Boot Goal (examples  #1 and #2). More than anything else, though, Week 23 brought with it some sign of separation among clubs, with the clearest example coming with what the Vancouver Whitecaps did to a Real Salt Lake side that tried to sneak a B-team onto the pitch (see: methodical pounding), which worked about as well as trying to put out a fire with a paper towel.

My personal highlights of the week included a mom in Colorado doing the “earmuffs” with her kid in the hope of saving him from what I assume was the "you suck, asshole" chant. It's that or Felipe's trouser blowout against New York City FC. Video for both moments was, by definition, hard to find. Actually, the video department is totally slouching this past weekend. Maybe they’re losing interest…so, watch those mini-games, yeah?

All in all, I believe that very little happens week to week in MLS. I wish I could frame all this better than, “so, a bunch of stuff happened, and here’s some of it.” I don’t, though, so what comes below are just a collection of notes that came to me as I watched all the mini-games during MLS Week 23... and the following three games in full (and, yes, the Conifers & Citrus Interest Rankings have been updated!):
Portland Timbers v. Chicago Fire (full, grumpy write-up here)
Colorado Rapids v. Columbus Crew SC (brief, barely worth reading write-up)
Los Angeles Galaxy v. Seattle Sounders FC (write-up)
Uh, last thing: I'm replacing the ol’ beer-'n’-shots motif with a straight-up Top 10 thoughts for the week. Actually, I’m just moving “the shot” (e.g. the big, heavy-hitting idea) to a separate post…look, it’s a work in progress, all of it. At any rate, join me on a tour of MLS Week 23, starting with The Honors!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Match Notes: Colorado Rapids v. Columbus Crew SC

Why I Watched It:
Because, as a blogger, I understand how important it is to have someone paying attention to what you’re doing. Here's to you, Columbus Crew SC. And, cheers, the Colorado Rapids.

It was more fun than Seattle v. LA, certainly, sort of the middleweight bout to their heavyweight affair: more movement, more foot-work, more punches thrown. Probably less confidence out there, too, which can be a useful spur. When the play-by-play guy (don't care about his name) said to Marcelo Balboa that this game had "0-0 written all over it," I laughed right along with 'Celo. Especially after he said that immediately after Columbus literally hit the crossbar twice inside a second. This was a damned even affair, all in all, even if one weighted with prior thoughts and assumptions about both teams, among them: did Columbus finally come out on top of the offense-v.-defense argument (as in, they won) because Colorado's sorry offense couldn't push their iffy defense hard enough? (Probably.) What does it mean that the Rapids kept pressing and nearly equalized to the very end? (That Columbus' defense is probably as bad as it seems.) And this means Columbus can score against anyone, right? (Going with "yes" on this one.) All in all, count this a good, necessary win for Columbus. As for Colorado...I'm sensing a theme.

Notes on Colorado
- Axel Sjoberg, good as he is, got worked hard enough by Kei Kamara tonight to pick up a couple yellas. More below.
- This will sound shitty, but still: in spite of making two outstanding saves last night, I think Clint Irwin is shaky, both as a shot-stopper and on the distribution end of things. He has a very good defense in front of him. They can do better. I'm pretty sure.
- Jared Watts did very well tonight. He didn't carry the game to Columbus, but he acquitted himself very well as an omnipresent #8 (maybe; #6?), and dished the ball well and safely. Yeah, yeah, I rip Timbers players for the same, but Watts is a stand-in...
- ...though, curiously, with two of the regulars present and accounted for: both Marcelo Sarvas and Sam Cronin started….about where Watts did. There's a line-up question in there that may or may not address the Rapids' iffy offense.
- This team is a mystery, full stop. Whatever my misgivings, the team Pablo Mastroeni trotted out worked well and his substitutions made enough sense, and the Rapids pushed all the way to the final whistle – as in, really pushed. Their players did smart things in the attack, and...well, it just didn't work out, did it? me...

Notes on Columbus
- The way they insist on playing out of the back is just vanity at this point. Much more on Tuesday.
- Kamara is such a pain in the ass, that he got a good, if rookie, defender sent off. Damn.
- Tony Tchani was an absolute fucking beast tonight. He fed Kamara for the first goal, played the ball to Christian Jimenez that set up Crew SC's second, while also holding down all kinds of shit defensively all over the field. Am I saying heir apparent to Kyle Beckerman? Yes, I am. Dammit! I need a bigger platform for this...
- I like that they did the rotation thing, putting in Kristinn Steindorsson in order to spell Justin Meram. MLS has a long, dumb season. A big part of getting your best players on the field at the End Times comes with knowing who's your best player. So, test that shit.
- And give Federico Higuain a turn. He looks old as my dad's dad.
- Wil Trapp is faster than I thought. He's another one to watch...just, y’know, glance outside Germany, Jurgen.
- OK, with Tchani and Trapp shielding the back four, how is Columbus this dodgy defensively?

Game Notes: Los Angeles Galaxy v. Seattle Sounders

Why I Watched It:
It was the array of stars that tempted me: Keane, Gerrard, and, now, Dos Santos. It was only 10 minutes before kickoff that I knew that all of the Seattle Sounders stars would be absent – no Dempsey, no Martins, no Alonso. Hell, Marco Pappa didn't even suit up. Eh, it is what it is.

For a good 30 minutes, this one threatened to interest. Even after Chad Barrett epitomized the Sounders season in the space of five seconds by scoring and pulling up lame, Seattle took the game to the Los Angeles Galaxy well enough, at least for a while. They attacked through set-pieces mostly and, as the commentating team pointed out, Seattle's big men – for they are that – gave Omar Gonzalez and Leanardo all they could handle on five to a half-dozen corner and/or free kicks. LA escaped with a 3-1 win in the end, but the thing most worth noting is how much the score could have moved going in either direction: LA escaped on at least two occasions, which would have resulted in a tie, and Stefan Frei came up big enough for Seattle to keep out a couple great chances for LA, which prevented a blowout...

...and, in spite of all of that, it wasn't the most exciting of games.  LA won it comfortably with a combination of insouciant patience, star power on the field, and celebrity sightings off of it (Gordon Ramsey in David Beckham’s luxury suite!). Basically, Seattle's still in trouble...

Notes on LA
- Not unlike (what I heard about the Republican debate) the under-card talent carried the Galaxy today. Gyasi Zardes addressed every deficiency I've ever attributed to him today (e.g. heavy touch and dodgy decisions on passes), Juninho  ran the midfield like it was 2014, and Sebastian Lletget terrorized the opposition left like he's done all season.
- The (meaningful) workman-like stuff aside, the stars dazzled only in passing (as in, from time to time, not just by their passing). Keane and Giovani dos Santos combined neatly on a couple occasions, - most notably when Keane fed dos Santos for LA's third (links later) – but I detected something subtle in LA's overall approach, something that flirted with fire and/or over-confidence.
- Defensive man-of-the-match honors go to Robbie Rogers, who not only positively locked down his left side (the opener excepted), but also followed a play to clear a ball of the line.
- Bottom line, for all their stars, LA's role players tend to come up huge. Whether it's Bruce Arena's coaching or savvy scouting, this is the secret to LA's success - the fielding of solid starting elevens.

Notes on Seattle
- It's easy to forget, sometimes, just how big Seattle is as a team. Just with Chad Marshall, Zac Scott and Andy Rose, they have size on set-pieces that a lot of teams rightly envy. And I'm sure I'm missing someone...the commentators made a lot of the advantage, even if it wasn't enough today. That won't always be the case, either.
- For me, Seattle's best player today was Erik Friberg. His energy was excellent, for starters – one would think he's playing for a contract like that – but most of the purpose and pace to the Sounders attack started and continued through him. He didn't get much help, sadly.
- Where it stopped? Lamar Neagle. It's official, the kid's having a bad year. Between Leanardo picking the ball out of his spokes and him being half a step off or behind, Neagle posed little to no threat all game long. Much like he has all season. This is a big, big reason for Seattle's inability to climb out of the slump.
- To their credit, though, Seattle's "Accidental B-Team" put in as good a shift as I've caught since the big absences hit. Because someone else pointed this out to me (can't remember who), I can't take credit, but a surprising amount of Seattle's offense passes through Tyrone Mears.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Timbers Top Chicago, But Are They Tall Enough?

NOTE: This is NOT a high bar.
Celebrating a win comes naturally. It's also easy to moan about a loss. This morning, though, I'm going to do the second hardest thing in spectator sports, i.e. moan about a win. (What's the hardest thing? Trumpeting the little victories in a loss.)

This could have gone up last night, but, after peaking at Twitter and seeing generally positive tweets about Adam Kwarasey's clean sheets (in spite of himself?) and how reliably the Timbers perform at Providence Park (but what about well?), giving people time to celebrate before I haul the rain clouds over the party felt like the classy thing to do.

Look, I'm happy that the Timbers accidentally beat the Chicago Fire last night. Yeah, yeah, credit Timbers players for putting themselves into position to cause problems, but the goal that won it was accidental. In the hours since the final whistle blew, I’ve come to think of the win as such: when Lassie came over the hill barking her head off, she brought good news and bad: the good news is that Timmy is alive and uninjured (we won!), but the bad news is that Timmy is still at the bottom of the goddamn well.

This past Thursday, I attended a classy symposium comprised of people with a peculiar (erotic?) interest in the performance and fate of the Portland Timbers. At one point, some smart someone floated the question of whether last night's game was a must-win. After answering yes, I drifted off from time to time as I tried to figure out why that felt accurate. What I came up with is the argument that facing a team that's clearly in the running to be, literally, one of the worst in the league, and on your home field, works like those childhood-destroying signs at amusement parks that say "you must be at least [this tall] in order to ride this ride."

Being as tall as that sign only means that you're big enough to go on the ride, not that you're ready for it. Think of "the ride" as the playoffs, and you should follow.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Portland Timbers Missed Opportunities: The One Everyone Knows. And the Other One.

Wait, is this really my opening argument on Gaston Fernandez?
Gaston Fernandez wasn't directly involved in my strongest memory of his time with the Portland Timbers. That came courtesy of a guy who slotted into seats next to what were once my season tickets (which have now been passed on to, in my estimation, the best season ticket holder in the history of the species, if not the genus). During some random game in 2014, as the starting line-ups played out over the loudspeakers, the various sets of fans around me got to talking and arguing about each player as his name was called. When Fernandez name came up, I leaned over to the guy next me (a friend, btw; not some random guy) and said something to the effect of, "Yeah, he's not doing it for me so far."

Hearing this, The Guy Who Slotted Into the Seats Next to Mine (now his official name) leaned over to tell me (not a friend, btw; a random guy) and said, "He puts the ball in the back of the net." Not being the kind to let an argument go unchallenged - and, goddamn that horrible Mockney accent - I pointed out some of Fernandez's apparently hidden deficiencies. The Guy Who Slotted Into the Seats Next to Mine replied by shaking his head and repeating, "He puts the ball in the back of the net." And again with the Mockney...

That guy really bugged me that night. And for a couple nights after. I got over it, though, and realized he's a damned enthusiastic, very friendly guy. All in all, very likeable. Turns out I'm the dick. So, yeah, that thing about first impressions? Basically bullshit.

Getting back to Fernandez, no, I didn't get his game. That's to say, if you put a gun to my head and demanded that I pick Fernandez's best spot on the field...well, put it this way, the time it took for things to turn to me laying dead on the floor depends entirely on my ability to stall. That said, I can readily offer up an idea of what comes to mind when I think of Fernandez: those two or three (or maybe four or five) goals he scored early in 2014 when he kept on magically appearing on the back post, in the 'keeper's blind-spot, to tap in a shot from, at most, two yards out. I think that's what The Guy Who Slotted Into the Seats Next to Mine was thinking when he said what he did.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

MLS Week 22 Review: The Bonus Multiplier Player, Result of the Week and MORE!!

Yes, going crazy from the heat...
In order to make this latest weekly update of Major League Soccer (Week 22) at least somewhat about the week just passed, I have to tinker with the organization. Otherwise, it's mostly about random observations that, 1) came to me as I watched the games and mini-games, and 2) involve trends and comments on this player or that, i.e. basic concepts with no immediate bearing on time or place. With that in mind, the one beer* specifically relevant to Week 22 will come before the shot (again, see asterisk), and the five other, perhaps seasonal beers, perhaps not, will follow.

(* These posts are built around the concept of a shot – e.g. a long-ish, lightly-researched anchoring feature – and a six-pack of beers – e.g. shorter, brief, likely not researched, yet hopefully well-argued thoughts).

One other piece of housekeeping: the Conifers & Citrus Interest Rankings (see right sidebar) are current. (And, for the curious, I explained what those rankings are and why I see them as useful last week.)

All right, enough with the preamble. How about that Week 22? That record-breaking Week 22, which featured goals, goals, goals (X 36, or thereabouts). For something wild (in the David Lee Roth sense of the word), a couple of the games reinforced (see: Columbus Crew SC), or reinforced (see: Seattle Sounders FC) actual trends. All things I may or may not talk about. Haven't decided yet, honestly. All I know is that I've got my notes and intend to go where the spirit directs me.

1) The...Things of the Week!
Goal of the Week: Taylor Kemp's slicing, one-time bomb against Real Salt Lake. I just like Kemp.
Save of the Week: I never saw anything better than Luis Robles' save against Conor Casey.
Result of the Week: Though tempted to go with Columbus' just straight-up collapse against Orlando City SC (more later) or the way the Seattle Sounders' loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps took an existing trend in a bad direction, but, for me, DC United's flat-out nuts, meme-breaking win over Real Salt Lake yelled louder for attention than the rest. And that yelling came in a couple languages, too. Now, obviously, it put DC back on top in both the Eastern Conference and in the Supporters' Shield race, but that's just the beginning. East beat West, and that's something even if RSL hardly stands as the West's best. The fact they came back into the game highlights a telling trend for DC this season, one brought up during the game: DC United boasts a 4-3-1 record in games where they're trailing at the half; this comeback made that 5-3-1; even with 24 games played, that's pretty badass. The deeper (deepest?) point has been framed a little strangely in the few places I've come across it. DC has earned a well-won reputation as the dourest of grinders: literally, one exception aside, DC's 22 prior games were low-scoring, one-goal-margin affairs. A couple comments – possibly throw-aways, given that they came during podcast – hinted that the last two, high-scoring comeback wins represent some kind of break with that reality/approach. Is it true? Dunno. Moreover, a genuine shift could mean all kinds of things, just as much as it would if the past two games prove to be anomalies. All I know is, that’s why we watch.

Now, get the salt and chop up a lime. SHOT!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

MLS Week 22 Games Notes: Philadelphia Union v. New York Red Bulls

Not all introductions go well.
(I watch the damn things, so it always feels like a waste to not comment on it. I just couldn't figure out how to get them into the weekly MLS wrap. So I stopped trying. Oh, and I updated the Conifers & Citrus Interest Rankings - see right sidebar!)

Why I Watched
The Philadelphia Union picked up the kind of player that fascinates me – e.g. foreign guy that I've never heard of, but who looks to have a decent resume. Yep, I'm watching for Tranquillo Barnetta (whose name sounds made up). There are more new guys to watch on the other side of the center-stripe, too, what with the New York Red Bulls now lousy with Wrights-Phillipseses.

Overall (Or, Was It Worth It?)
Yeah, if only for the way it told two tales of a player's league debut: Philly had Barnetta come on about the 64th minute; he coughed up a penalty to New York at, oh...the 66th minute (NOTE: Unofficial count....well, nailed it, actually). New York's Shaun Wright-Phillips, on the other hand, showed off a little of what he's all about (e.g. dribbling/combining; good wheels), all the way up to setting up his brother, one Bradley, for one of New York's three. Details aside, I called the game "territorial" in my notes. I'm not saying that neither side wanted possession, but the primary focus appeared more about getting the ball into the opposition's half and, through high pressing, keeping it there. It wasn't always pretty, or even often – that's not a style I like a lot – but the game sorted out about right (e.g. 3-1 to New York).

Notes on Philly
Because I don’t watch them a ton, I can't say if Philly always struggles with some defensive fundamentals, but they did against New York. The biggest one: a failure to sort out quickly, who goes to the ball and who follows the player. Happened all over with them, and it didn't help. That said, the Union does some things I like – e.g. when they're wide, the look for runs that cut inside at the top of the box instead of continuing toward the touchline to get behind. Mixes it up nicely, for me. Uh, what else? Sebastian Le Toux still has both the spit and fire. Also, Gaddis strikes me as good symbol for Philly as a club: reasonably good, but a bit too sloppy with...everything – e.g. passing, trapping, movement. And, to circle back on the reason I tuned in, Barnetta neither impressed nor disappointed me. He just looked like he didn't quite know what was going on, when he needed to know it. It'll come. Probably.

Notes on Red Bulls
First of all, this is not a great team. It is a good and competitive one, though, and that carries a team far enough in MLS, and even further in the East. One thing I like about New York: how well their midfielders assist with getting the ball out of the back, mainly through finding good angles for outlets. It's just understanding movement, really, and it's not all that different from what Columbus does; New York just looks more comfortable doing it sometimes. New York's other strong suit: defensive rotations; this helps them so much with keeping the game in front of their defense. And, on better days, this happens when the defense breaks down. OK, don't want to go much longer (I have a one-page limit for these), so I'm just going to list 'em: Damien Perrinelle gripes a ton (wait, no, that's Toronto FC's Damien Perquis; my bad...but, jesus, the tantrums Perquis threw), but he's also very intelligent; his defending isn't flawless, by any means, but he reads the big picture very well and his covering runs show it. Matt Miazga could very well be something special; kid looks like a stork, but he's very accurate with those big dangly feet. Finally, when the Wright-Phillips’ combined to score, the approach play felt very English (or I'm exaggerating...shh...) to me: quick and athletic. That feels like a new look for New York, but...well, I'm not sure I think it should.

All for now...

MLS Week 22 Match Notes: Sporting KC v. Houston Dynamo

Good hustle...
(I watch the damn things, so it always feels like a waste to not comment on it. I just couldn’t figure out how to get them into the weekly MLS wrap. So I stopped trying.)

Why I Watched
This one pitted the team I count as the most-balanced in MLS (Sporting Kansas City) against the team that I have, once again, arrived at seeing as the Dark Horse of the Western Conference, if not the league, come playoff time (Houston Dynamo).

Overall (Or, Was It Worth It?)
First of all, good intensity (sending a little mental, motivational pat on the ass to both teams): players had to scrap just to get the ball off the flanks. Yeah, it was tough. The quality wasn't so great; KC sputtered pretty badly by the second half, and that came after two attempts to use Roger Espinoza as a catalyst for the attack. Also to its credit, the game was supremely balanced: Dom Dwyer scored over Ricardo Clark in the first half, to which insult Clark responded by later scoring a goal over Dwyer. Well, Clark pulling up with a busted hammy after scoring his knocks off the balance a little. Oh, so does the penalty kick call that KC didn't get. No brainer, that call: the ref absolutely blew that one. Because he couldn't have missed it. Still, it ended in a 1-1 draw, and with lots of pissy...Kansas-area people.

Notes on SKC
KC plodding performance by game's end prompted me to ask my notes whether they thought Sporting Kansas City is the Western Conference's DC United – i.e. a drably competent band of soccer mercenaries (who, bad week for the comparison, dropped freakin' six on Real Salt Lake)? Sometimes I think they play pretty, then I reflect on how much they rely on things like Matt Besler's gargantuan throw, or those blunt-instrument sprints toward the end-line for a cross. The contrast there, Benny Feilhaber's strong, occasionally elegant 2015, or some of those lightning-slick turns Nemeth turned...was it? The last time that KC played Houston, right? (Can't find it...crap.) What's most striking about KC, though, is their depth – e.g. the way they can see Espinoza hobble off and have some serious savvy like Paolo Nagamura stride on, or enough savvy, as when Jacob Petersen spelled Graham Zusi. At any rate, KC felt more energetic and competent this week than they did efficient and purposeful (sorry...terrible sentence). I have questions about their defense, too, but I'm not quite sure how to phrase them yet...think it's about Matt Besler...

Notes on Houston
So goes Ricardo Clark, so goes Houston. It's probably not that simple, but it's close. I can't think of many players in MLS in this 2015, who feel quite so central to their club's success than Clark to Houston. Other players matter (bear with me; I'll pick this up later*), but, for my money, Clark drives Houston on both sides of the ball. The better story than that? DaMarcus Beasley at left back? How cool is that? He beat a nicely-rated, if recovering right back like Chance Myers tonight, coming (defending?) and going (attacking?). Add in Nathan Sturgis – who prowled the midfield with ninja-esque invisibility and (most of the time) effectiveness – and you see why Houston has "solid" down. Attacking, though, is tricky. Some weeks, Barnes has looked as good as any attacking player in MLS. Will Bruin has a sincerely respectable haul of goals, but is it often enough with those two? And how much better would it be if, say, Erick "Cubo" Torres score one or two of those goals where Bruin gets in behind, but with too much field between him and the goal? A lot could depend on that one...

Timbers Draw in Super-Suburbia: Is This Acceptance?

When we needed to boogie...we got this.
Between the time Major League Soccer first shrunk (e.g., contraction, around 2000, yeah?) then expanded (like, 2005, to ongoing), if you asked me to name a match-up that I would never regret missing, the reply came quick and sure: the Kansas City Wizards v. the San Jose Earthquakes. Something about that pairing read...just awful to me, so bad that I think my vision went blurry anytime my eyes fell upon it.

A lot of things have changed since then – San Jose left California, came back after a Texas sojourn; the Wizards' organization finally grasped how silly their name sounded and changed it, etc. I've even grown to appreciate Kansas City's blunt-nose style, especially now that it's cleaned up a little, but San Jose. Damn. Just find it hard to get up for any game against, or involving, San Jose. And, this afternoon's draw against the Portland Timbers? Didn't help.

Some portion of blame for the snooze-fest goes to Portland, of course. It takes two to trip through the tango and neither team managed to get the footwork right today. Adequacy. I saw a lot of adequacy out there, and on both sides of the ball. The Timbers were more adequate for me...wait; is it less adequate? What I mean to say is the Timbers looked better to me, but not quite enough to be good. Or maybe the Timbers tickled the bottom of competence, and that’s better than adequate, surely? Right?

To put it another way, the Timbers did more to win, and it would have been fine had they won, but, all the same, I'm not surprised that they didn't win tonight. I mean, playing like that? Nah.