Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Trapp and Tchani, and What’s Wrong in Columbus

So long as you don't care if it goes in the hole, you're good!

This should go without saying, but because I don’t recall saying this anywhere else, I may as well get it out there now: the Portland Timbers are the only team in Major League Soccer on which I feel meaningfully qualified to comment. Even then, I should confess to civilian status – e.g., I’ve never coached anyone and my outdoor playing experience arguably topped out when I played on a Jewish rec-league in Washington D.C.

Got it? Good. Now, let me explain why Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp should never share the same midfield.

As recently as late last season, I posted previews for Columbus Crew SC that flagged the Tchani/Trapp combo as a one of their strengths. They both have something to recommend them: Trapp hits one hell of an accurate long ball from deep positions and he was good enough at close distribution, too; Tchani, meanwhile, provides an imposing presence in midfield and he strokes a perfectly-weighted pass into the attacking channels better than 75-80% of MLS midfielders. It’s not surprising, then, the Crew SC wants both players on the field.

And that’s where it breaks down for me. Are Trapp’s and Tchani’s skill-sets complementary?

Scratch a Win, Expose the Rot: The Maddening Relativity of Form

Wow. Financial people really are incredible tools.
Because I don't read about soccer much (way too much bum-fluff out there), I've been spending some time just staring at the standings and the Results Map (hereinafter, "The Map") to see if I can’t yank some meaningful trends out of 'em (or maybe just make some up?). The one that came to me over the weekend builds on an argument I made (and disguised well beneath excess verbiage) in my write-up on the Portland Timbers' win over Seattle. The further examples/research/thinking have allowed me to compact this argument into something succinct:
Not all wins are created equal.
Succinct and, as it happens, really obvious. Still, the point is, when any given team is bad enough – say, the Seattle Sounders in recent weeks and/or most of the season – a win against them doesn't say much more about the team that beats them than that they aren't as bad as said terrible team, in this case Seattle. The naked statement above is generic to the point of banality. It only gets interesting when you start applying it to specific Major League Soccer teams.

As noted before, I view The Map as a modern goddamn miracle, and that's my source material for this little exercise (and so many other things). If you run your cursor over a string of results for any given team, it'll light up the final score as well as who that team played and where. In that process, you’ll get a better measure of that team.

Ignacio Piatti: MLS's Most Dangerous?

Have we tried, "cupcakes suck"? I like that look...
Major League Soccer's Week 20 featured a lot of big performances from the league's biggest names – e.g., a hat-trick for the Montreal Impact's Didier Drogba and another hat-trick for Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco (the latter, especially, spelled relief like making it to the toilet in time). Elsewhere, the New York Red Bulls' Sacha Kljestan tormented New York City FC until Frank Lampard could stand it no more!

I've already hinted at this in the write-up on Montreal's big win over the Philadelphia Union, but I wanted to state it plainly here: Ignacio Piatti is the most dangerous player in MLS right now. That's a subtly different question than the MVP – where candidates reasonably abound (e.g. Giovinco, Kljestan, the Portland Timbers' Diego Valeri, or, as argued here, even Sam Cronin fits, so long as you're talking about the most important player on a good team) – and Piatti's definitely part of that conversation as well; it's just that it's a different conversation. To get at the "most dangerous" label, I'll contrast him with Valeri, another clear and justified talent.

First, I love Valeri. For me, he's the best Timbers attacker, the guy who's not just good, but a guy who makes another very good player, Fanendo Adi, even better. He does damage in several ways, including, but not limited to, the audacious shot and the killer pass: he's a huge part of what makes Portland good, when they're good. (He also rocks this saintly vibe; very appealing. Wouldn't trade him for anyone in MLS. Honest. Where else can a man that earnest go?)

Monday, July 25, 2016

Clash of (What Passes for MLS’s Version of) Titans

Your vacation lives on! I thank you!

[The third and final game I watched this weekend pitted the then and current top two teams in MLS against one another, the Colorado Rapids v. FC Dallas.]

When it comes to parsing this year’s (semi-freakish) power match-up, it’s probably best/safest to break it down into discrete parts. There’s sort of a lot to unpack, and from multiple pieces of luggage. Even so, the balance of the chatter falls on the Rapids side of the ball – they’re the bigger transformation, after all – so I’ll end with them.

Oh, and the game ended 1-1. It really looked like the Rapids would hold on, but I guess that’s why Dallas is Dallas. Victor Ulloa cranking an equalizer from eastern freakin’ Colorado falls in line with things like Mauro Diaz’s passing and Fabian Castillo’s (or Michael Barrios’) dribbling.

Another reason why Dallas is Dallas? Chris Hedges and Walker Zimmerman. These are both good players, really good players. What sometimes gets lost with those two is just how young they are: 26 and 23, respectively. Barring a transfer (something I can see for Zimmerman before Hedges), that tandem has a long future together. In the here and now, though, having them back there buys your team time, maybe even an entire half, to scratch back into a game against a Colorado defense that gives up very, very little.

On the Sounders. Just for the Record.

This wasn't intended as an addendum to my tribute to the present Greatness of the New York rivalry, but it sort of played out as one. It also won't go on for long, because it's not a complicated thing to parse, no image needed, etc.

The Seattle Sounders are bad. I understand that I'm probably the 20th person to tell you the same thing this weekend, but, holy shit, they're like really, really bad. How bad? I have more on this later, when I talk about teams who are so bad that you almost have to throw out wins against them.

It gets weirder, actually, because when I saw the Sounders starting line-up going into what would become a 3-0 loss/suctioning of the spirit, it struck me as decent, maybe even decent enough to get a result. Having Dempsey under Morris seemed smart given their skill-sets, and putting Herculez Gomez opposite Andreas Ivanschitz made some kind of sense; Osvaldo Alonso didn't play (don't know why, don't care; not relevant), but Cristian Roldan and Erik Friberg felt competent, the defense, which has been good, was still there, and so on.

You can line up Argentina's starters and you'll never get a win if your team plays the way Seattle did on Sunday. Sporting Kansas City (oh yeah, that was the opponent, btw!) almost always outworks the opposition, but Seattle looked an awful, uncoordinated mess defensively: their players trailed their marks and the movement on the field generally, which translated to almost no pressure on the ball. Small wonder SKC could pick out players on their crosses. By the second half, everyone on the team was tuned out enough to reduce the game to skills drill for SKC – a shooting drill in particular.

It was either last week or the week before that Stumptown Footy's Chris Rifer tweeted the question of whether or not Seattle's coach Sigi Schmid would last through August. I replied that I thought he would, but, after that entirely dispirited shit-show, I'm not sure. When a team can't even muster the desire to defend its pride - and that translates to defending a beleaguered coach's job, that says something. Sigi could very well be done...

Best Damn Game of the Weekend (BDGotW): New Jersey Smacks Around New York

Fun! Just keep your hands where I can see 'em.
Major League Soccer's Week 20 featured a trio of routs (briefly, what Montreal did to Philly, and TFC’s, or rather Sebastian Giovinco's, destruction-by-free-kick of DC), but, for sheer entertainment value, for emotions heightened to high, permanent "eeeeee!", for just sheer fun, none of them topped the New York Derby. I didn't have the pleasure of watching the whole thing (on which, sad), but it turns out that New York City FC bloodying the New York Red Bulls earlier this month was just what this match-up needed!

The Red Bulls opened playing loose, just running head-long all over as if the goal of soccer was just getting tired. I know this feeling well thanks to all those times I responded to the own-goals I scored by trying VERY, VERY HARD TO MAKE IT BETTER. Their eagerness to repair the damage from that early July loss showed in every over-hit pass and the way players chased those not so much like they wanted the ball to play it, but to jump on it again and again and again, until it was flat. Until it knew their shame and embarrassment for letting even a sliver of blue into New York.

It looked desperate stuff and felt the same, basically, and one got the feeling that they wouldn't settle into the game until they scored – and that's when all the freneticism paid off. The Red Bulls picked off a pass coming out of NYCFC's defensive third and, between NYCFC's distorted defensive line and a flat diagonal from Sacha Kljestan to Bradley Wright-Phillips, they stuffed the mistake straight down their throats. That theme carried through the game until the Red Bulls came out 4-1 winners.

Montreal, Philadelphia, Pontius, Piatti (Tinker, Tailor...)

Y'know, I'm seeing the likeness now.
[Montreal Impact v. Philadelphia Union was one of three games I took in this weekend. If I'm watching 'em, shouldn't I be writing about them? Otherwise, why was I watching it?]

Hey, let's throw another log on the raging bonfire of Everything I've Gotten Wrong. Last week (was it last week? nope; there it is), I dubbed the Philadelphia Union the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. This past Saturday, the Montreal Impact kicked one leg after another out from under the platform. Then they kicked Philly's prostrate body one more time for good measure.

Jesus, was that a brutal loss. By the end of the 5-1 rout, the Impact was toying with the Union. (Albeit with a few liters less piss-and-vinegar than Sacha Kljestan poured on New York City FC in another of this weekend's routs). It wasn't all terrible news for Philly – Keegan Rosenberry showed flashes of one-on-one defending brilliance and Josh Yaro stepped up sharply and smartly as you like a couple times; both good signs – but one key problem stood out from the Union's point of view: they simply could not keep Montreal's attackers in front of them. The Impact went vertical at will (am I using that word right? I know I didn't coin it, so, relevant), by which I mean they repeatedly found ways to run straight at the Union's defenders and to send them reeling toward their own goal.

Portland v. LA: The Open Secret to LA's Success

That one that hit the easel? That's me on Vancouver.
[Portland Timbers v. Los Angeles Galaxy was one of three games I took in this weekend (on that, didn't go well). I'm trying to do better about writing up the empirical stuff.]

I wrote up Portland versus LA elsewhere, if mostly from the Timbers' point of view, but even that post was lousy with the central truth about LA: they are one hell of a sound defensive team. Small wonder, then, that they're crawling up the Western Conference standings, small wonder they're rocking a now-four-game winning streak. As noted in that post, LA has allowed three goals in their past eight games, a tally that pencils out to 0.375 goals per game. In other words, good.

Just 19 goals allowed so far, less than a goal a game. They have 34 goals for on the other side of the ledger; only five Major League Soccer teams have more...all of which rolls into a theme I'll discuss in the weekly post when that goes up – e.g. how very, very wrong I can sometimes be when I speak/write. Think I said something about LA "not being all that good" a couple weeks ago, and in a public, recorded forum, so, yeah...

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Ben Olsen Will Not Die

First, we exchanged information. Then we talked about Ben Olsen...
Sometime during the broadcast of DC United’s grim loss to the Philadelphia Union this weekend, the color commentator (I think) casually let slip that Ben Olsen has been coaching DC for six years.

[Cue sound of record scratching and a 13-car pile-up just outside the window.]

SIX FREAKIN’ YEARS? Ben Olsen? Benny-Ball is almost done with kindergarten? When I dropped this into the podcast, the way Cody responded told me I wasn’t alone in finding this...well, unbelievable.

We attempted a brief segment on coaches - e.g. what gets a coach fired and, most critically, who’s the next guy to fall off a hot seat) – but we only hinted at how Olsen fits into that discussion. The answer: he doesn’t. On some levels, he sits outside of it.

Clint Dempsey & Hero Theory

Clint Dempsey's self-visualization.

This post has an Alpha, an Omega, and shit-ton of Greek letters in between, at least conceptually. Still, I hope to keep it brief…

When I watched the Seattle Sounder’s midnight-of-the-soul-loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy (because close enough), a couple things stood out – among them, LA’s sometimes impressive efficiency, and on both sides of the ball. There was something about the Sounders, though, the way Clint Dempsey appears to operate on the assumption that his teammates are second-best to him in all ways, a reality that, obviously, obliges him to handle everything from getting the ball out of the back, to approach play, to finally scoring the sweet, sweet goal that sends the fans home singing!

I picked up the phrase “hero-ball” somewhere – again, probably from Matt Doyle (because that’s all I read) - but that’s all the attribution that I have time for. I’m condensing it to “hero” here because it fits better. Now, to my point…

After recording the Dangerous Balls Podcast, I thought harder about what the “hero” concept means to me. Some players – and, here, yes, absolutely, I would include Dempsey, but also the Colorado Rapids’ Jermaine Jones and Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco – want to put the game on their shoulders and carry it to victory. It’s just in their nature. Sometimes, this pans out – see, Giovinco through all of 2015 and up until…is it six games ago? See Jones’ (pre-meltdown) time in New England (e.g. before his messiah complex caught up with him?), and see Dempsey in the good games in the Copa America Centenario and through the Oba-Deuce year(s).

There’s an aside in all of this: coaches love “hero” players, at least so long as they can pull it off and probably for a few years after. It simplifies a coach’s job when a player can, say, both start and finish a play the way Dempsey sometimes can, or when Jones provides enough presence in midfield to make it effectively a vast no-go zone for the other team. Sounders’ coach Sigi Schmid enjoyed two years of looking like a genius for no better reason than writing “Dempsey” and “Martins” into the starting line-up. Really good players are short-cuts, basically, players with enough talent and sense/belief in what they can do to sort of dictate a new game-plan for their coach; it saves him from thinking, wins them more money, adulation and random hate for five lifetimes, etc. I'm not saying it's win, win, win. I am, however, saying that Klinsmann defaulted to this this past June…the lazy fuck.

What happened against LA, though, highlighted the increasingly real limits to the Dempsey’s “hero” time. The way he showed to receive the ball in the middle third limited his useful availability in the final third where the Sounders needed someone to link play, or, if nothing else, another runner in the box. Here, it’s less that he’s no longer capable of doing something he once did (think it’s true, though, just sayin’), than he’s undercutting some important work that his current and future teammates need to learn – e.g. how to get the ball to either him, or literally any other attacking player/fullback going forward. And, yes, it goes without saying that covering all that ground will get harder for Dempsey with each passing year.

Sometimes, the best way to help another player is to let him learn his job. So, yeah, back off, Clint.

Philadelphia, and Taking One’s Chances in the Shooting Gallery

Opposition defenses feel this, with even less comfort.
In my last "todo MLS" post, I clocked the warning signs that the long season and a little special attention might be catching up with the Philadelphia Union's stout-of-heart, green-in-age defensive outfit. Exhibit A in this argument came with the blind-side losses to the Vancouver Whitecaps in Philly and to New York City FC in New York, to games where the Union scored two goals and coughed up three. It looked like a pattern: after all, even Andre Blake, the man most likely to in conversations involving, say, Nick Rimando or Bill Hamid, slipped up a couple times.

That same game contained the seed of the flipside argument for how Philly survives into the playoffs (and maybe even goes deep): they score more than they give up – something they did against the Chicago Fire just a few weeks before. Yeah, yeah, that failed against the 'Caps; I have seen the Union's attack when it's firing and it's a lethal, glorious thing.

Philly fully embraced a "shooting gallery" approach to their games in June. They went 2-2-0 over the month, scoring goals, coughing 'em up, with eleven falling on either side of the ledger. No doubt, it took some quantity of cigarettes and booze to steady their nerves, but, when they considered those games, I like to believe that every man on the Union's roster knew he had lived that month, and well.

NYCFC and the Power of Modest Adjustments

Irrelevant. Also, accidentally awesome result from a search titled, "Plans Gone Wrong."

Late last season, the Portland Timbers may or may not have made The Switch, aka, the subtle little coaching decision that set them off on two months’ worth of success and, ultimately, an MLS Cup. I’ve torn this idea apart in earlier posts, so elaborating on it now, well past the date of its relevance…my point is, Portland has moved on, for good or ill, and so shall I.

When mid-season loomed into view, and with results not being all they could be, a few teams adjusted how they fielded their players in order to fix this eternally-recurring slip here or boost this danger there. Here, I want to focus on the teams who made one specific move to shore up their respective defenses, specifically by moving to the 4-1-4-1. A couple teams have gone this way, DC United by dropping Marcelo Sarvas behind Nick DeLeon and (on a good day) Luciano Acosta, and the Houston Dynamo did it by parking Collen Warner on top of their oft-shaky back four. One other team went this way and with far, far better results than the two just named: here, I’m talking about New York City FC and Andoni Iraola.

As Cody pointed out during the podcast, this wasn’t a complicated choice. So long as NYCFC insists on fielding the elderly (Andrea Pirlo/Frank Lampard), they’re going to need cover, i.e. someone to do the running they won’t, or can’t so long as they want to remain forward-looking and/or relevant. It’s working pretty well so far – four straight games worth of better-than-OK results (also called wins) – prior to NYCFC’s recent loss to Sporting KC…of which, I know nothing.

Monday, July 11, 2016

RSL: Revenant Salt Lake

As with RSL v. Montreal, we are all winners here.
The very end of Real Salt Lake's crunching draw/near-win against the Montreal Impact featured a nails-'n'-claws duel between Laurent Ciman and Yura Movsisyan. Nothing came of it in the end, which is to say Ciman won the duel, but that's the kind of battle that makes any game of soccer worth watching. In my notes, I recorded this as "Godzilla v. King Kong." (What? Fuck you, I'm not old!)

I put out a poll before last Saturday's evening games kicked off, one where I asked what games people would like me to watch and report on. Sadly (perhaps even stupidly...um, no offense?) people directed me to watch New England Revolution v. Columbus Crew SC. While that game was better than the one I chose on my own (Seattle Sounders v. Los Angeles Galaxy), and even better than my default (all Portland Timbers games, which, against the New York Red Bulls...it was sub-epic), it didn't pique my interest nearly as much as the 20-minute highlight reel of RSL v. Montreal. A lot happened in that one, near as I can tell: Montreal looked like the team that started the season, sharper than a Ginsu knife in the counter and capable of as many cuts, etc.

Baggio Husidic & LA: The Dual Mystery

One of these guys is a grip. Might even be a key one.
Pop Quiz: If his name wasn't in the title, how many times would someone have to ask you to name a player for the Los Angeles Galaxy before you'd get to Baggio Husidic? For what it's worth, I think he'd be the 13th or 14th choice for most people, even LA's bigger fans.

Like Hollywood (to make an unfair analogy), I think LA has built its legacy by letting the stars soak up the adulation and gift baskets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars while the key grips (which, here, recalls Dan Gargan, A. J. DelaGarza, and even Marcelo Sarvas) hammers every last goddamn nail into the scenery behind them, the backdrop that lets that beautiful career exist, but, hey, no worries...

Still, what is a Baggio Husidic? I'll tell you who. He's a player with a charmed life, a guy who probably would (and, hey, actually did) die with the Chicago Fire, but who has started in the majority of the past three years' games for the Glamour Team of MLS. It only gets weirder when I tell you what he's not. For instance, he's not a strong tackler (and/or an actual risk to others like Nigel de Jong), he's not a devastating one-on-one dribbler (like, say, Sebastian Lletget), he provides neither goals nor assists in great numbers, he's not some brilliant deep-lying passer who shifts the field in novel, new directions: he's just...Baggio Husidic.

And yet he's seen the field in every game but one this season, and he's started 10 games of 18. If I had to guess, I'd describe Husidic's role like this: he's a player who facilitates (somewhat) close to goal by finding LA's "real" skill players; I'm guessing he participates in their high press, at least whenever LA's uses it, and I'm confident he's suited for that.

New England: A Couple Pieces from Greatness?

It's part of what we all want, isn't it, in our sadness?
I read an article by the The Armchair Analyst, Matt Doyle, in which he broke down the transfer-window needs of every team in Major League Soccer. What he wrote about New York City FC, in particular, really caught my eye:
"Work the phones trying to unload one of their youngish guys with potential (Steven Mendoza, Patrick Mullins, Khiry Shelton) or – if anybody wants him – midfielder Mix Diskerud for a starting-caliber center back."
First of all, Mix...how do you feel about an opportunity where part of the compensation includes an opportunity to get out from under that inflated contract? If so, we can talk. If not...

Odd as it might be to argue this the week after a team picked up an encouragingly comprehensive win, but, if you switch around a couple names, that same argument applies to the New England Revolution and, as I see it, with bells on. Doyle's piece goes on to argue in favor of bringing back an out-of-contract A. J. Soares, but that's just something I'd encourage most MLS teams to consider (yes, even Portland).

Mysterious Movements, and the Alleged Coming Storm

We have many Lloyd Sams. Octavio Riveros are in the back...
So, I was about to write a straightforward declarative as to when the MLS Summer Transfer Window opened this June/July, but, when I googled it, I found the usual goddamn bible we've all come to expect when it comes to MLS rules. Trying again...

...and, there we are, July 4 to August 3. So, a month (31 days in July, right?).

So far it's been quiet, after a slow opening week, teams are finally stocking up on new (probably necessary) players – e.g. a defender for the Vancouver Whitecaps (who also need things elsewhere), a defender for the Houston Dynamo (who very, very much need next-level defenders...again, among other things). Parse each of those moves as you will...

That said, the most bizarre move so far saw New York Red Bulls' Lloyd Sam get shipped to DC United. Against his will, from what I once gathered...though I lost the confessional/third-party tweet to confirm it. Held up strictly as a departure – e.g. Sam leaving New York in a vacuum (which, per official statements, it ain't) – the move makes little sense. Sam might not have been the best player in MLS, but he produced steadily, if slowly. As to New York's first game without Sam, last Sunday's draw at home versus the Portland Timbers, they pulled off a few waltzses up Portland's gut (if into a bearded wall), but one can't help but wonder what a little veteran savvy might have meant against Zarek Valentin, even if late in the game; he's a player, after all, who has proved to be better just about everywhere but left back (or am I switching my left and right again?).