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.

I had a relevant point to make here, one about Ryan Hollingshead and his contribution to the cause, one that’s both very energetic and lacking in precision. While dicking around the boxscore just now, I noticed a #12 putting a few shots around Colorado’s goal and from close in. I don’t remember Hollingshead’s shot at all (never mind that he’s #12), which could mean a few things – one of them being that none of Hollingshead’s shots looked like much. I think my point is that a generally clean bill of health has helped Dallas a lot this season. Or, more directly, the fall-off from Castillo to Hollingshead is perhaps steeper than is widely appreciated…though he is a decent right back...

As for Colorado, to restate the biggest mystery of 2016, how the HELL is this happening? As a mental exercise, it’s good to start with the rosters. For instance, are Jared Watts or Axel Sjoberg better than Drew Moor? OK, what about how high Michael Azira stacks up against Marcelo Sarvas? Based on the above, the line of logic should be pretty clear: the Rapids’ shift from the worst team in the Western Conference to one of the contenders didn’t come from clearly (or at least widely understood) upgrades in personnel. Moreover, Kevin Doyle’s upside doesn’t show up much on the stats sheet, no matter how highly I rate him, and, last I checked, Shkelzen Gashi isn’texactly tearing up MLS (mirror-image effect is nice, though). So, what the hell is it? And if you say Jermaine Jones, you’re wrong, nuts, and thinking like a Klinsmann, so don’t, just don’t.

Here’s what I know: until Ulloa banged home that goal on what (hard numbers aside) felt like Dallas’ only real shot on the night, the Rapids looked in control of this game, not firmly, but in control. It’s a credit to Dallas that it ended 1-1 and, look at that, now they have a confidence-builder in their back pocket for the post-season. The other thing I know is that the Rapids defend well enough that they need someone – it can be Jones or Doyle or Marlon Hairston (for the past two games, anyway) – to score and they’re going to be all right likely as not.

I’m going a little over on this one, but, as noted at the top, there’s a lot to unpack. My final thought here is sorta heretical, while also being sensible. Why can’t Sam Cronin be MVP? As noted, oh, probably all season, Cronin’s all over so much of what makes the Rapids effective on both sides of the ball. Every time I watch the Rapids, I never stop seeing Cronin; he’s goddamn lousy in every game they play, sort of like Diego Chara was for the Portland Timbers in 2016, only I think he gets the ball forward more often.

So, how’s a guy like that become MVP? I ask because, of all the constants for Colorado – and, here, I absolutely include another season on the roster for Kevin Doyle - Cronin strikes me as the most important. Yeah, yeah, I know the MVP thing will never happen. It doesn’t make it right.

All in all, though, both teams look like they’ll be some form of sound until the post-season. After that, god knows what happens. Dallas looks the better bet right now – of which, boring, but god knows Saturday didn’t hurt, and they’ve got the better road record, and they look likelier to score those crucial road goals, etc. – but I’m a believer in defenses as the most meaningful driver of success this season. And, there, Colorado has them beat. If they can just get something more out of Gashi or Doyle - or anyone, really - they have something like unstoppable written all over them.

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