Tuesday, September 13, 2016

MLS Review, Week 27, 09 12 2016: Global Player Management, Best GKs, and Weird Players on Your Roster

No. It's nothing. Just how MLS sets up its playoffs.
Only one thing to lead with tonight: I want substitutions and, more importantly, injuries (dunno, like Sebastian "Fucking" Giovinco going down a couple weeks back?) included in the 20-minute games. I mean, how am I supposed to avoid reading anything about soccer when this basic, essential information never comes out? Wait, what? So you’re telling me that I can’t get out of this? Goddammit...

Wait, one more: thank you, New England, for that great, big yellow reminder of the bad old days, the goddamn football lines days. Get your own goddamn stadium, Bob Kraft. You've got the goddamn money.

On the plus side, check it out: same format two weeks running. Hey...this one might stick...

Week 27: Results That Mattered (In Brief)
Sure, Orlando City SC started the week by tearing through the Montreal Impact, but that whole affair had enough of a ball rolling downhill vibe to make the equally lopsided loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy (complete with this classy peach; and wouldn't you assume that Alan Gordon and Jelle Van Damme get along just swell?) feel closer to the Floridians actual level; LA, meanwhile, saw the generally stable Brian Rowe reduce (one link/name per gaffe) what could have been a stellar week into a merely great one, not that LA looks like anything but rolling all the sudden (first choice defense helped tons-ish); more than a few games turned on struggling teams showing why they’re struggling, as the Philadelphia Union did when they drew a Montreal team that they would have beat comfortably had the quality and variety of their attack found a compliment in their (still too young/error-prone back line); the most telling result of the week came when a struggling Vancouver Whitecaps team rolled over a dying Columbus Crew team (seriously, Gregg Berhalter’s the next coach to go), a game that not only saw Erik Hurtado finally presented with a ball that not even he could miss, but one that the commentating crew perfectly/accidentally summed up the broad situation for both teams when they noted that “a tie doesn’t really help either of these teams”; going the other way, New York City FC finally had the loss everyone expected of them against the New England Revolution (and in some style for the home team), a detail that’s only slightly less surprising than the fact that NYCFC has been mostly healthy for as long as they have with so many broken hips waiting to happen on that roster; elsewhere, the Chicago Fire’s Sean Johnson single-handedly undermined his team’s (contemporarily pointless) revival with an inexcusably stupid outlet pass and Oscar Pareja went nothing-or-double on FC Dallas’ perfect home record against the Colorado Rapids and the Rapids won, Dominique Badji shit all over that, and is playing with Tim Howard like playing with a SUPER-athletic version of your dad (e.g. permanent inadequacy?); don’t let the Seattle Sounders’ draw versus/at the San Jose Earthquakes fool you, because they stole that point on a fluky free kick (and from a player who was, per the 20-minute version, largely invisible throughout; and, finally, Bill Hamid is god, don’t you ever, ever forget it, because the New York Red Bulls, who well, truly and broadly outplayed DC United on Sunday but still drew them 2-2, never will.

The Results That, Honestly, No One But Their Fans Give One Wet Shit About
Sporting Kansas City 3-3 Houston Dynamo
Portland Timbers 1-0 Real Salt Lake (well, it did and it didn’t; more here)

OK, moving on to the “ranking” segment. I changed the names of the groupings below with an eye to better fitting each MLS club into the grand scheme of the 2016 season. Rather than get too cute with this (bad habit), I just explain the terms as I mean them next to each title.

Great (Almost certainly in the playoffs and good enough to reach MLS Cup)
FC Dallas
New York City FC
New York Red Bulls
Toronto FC
Los Angeles Galaxy

Good (Good for playoffs, less good for MLS Cup)
DC United
Colorado Rapids
Real Salt Lake
Sporting Kansas City
Philadelphia Union
Portland Timbers

Bloat (Might go home early (no playoffs) or late, but they’re mostly filling bloated playoffs)
New England Revolution
Montreal Impact
Orlando City SC
Seattle Sounders FC
Vancouver Whitecaps

Dead (Nothing left, but making another team feel as shitty as they do)
Chicago Fire
San Jose Earthquakes
Columbus Crew SC
Houston Dynamo

That’s how I see them, loosely, even as I acknowledge that some of it probably reads as downright weird – e.g., why DC, a team currently outside the playoffs rates higher than Montreal, and equal to Philadelphia. I respond (right or wrong) by pointing to trends and structure: DC is hardly tearing it up (two wins, two loses, six draws in their last 10, 12 points), but their “bones” look better than the other two, and Montreal...well, they’re sinking (three wins, four losses and three draws...wait, 12 points). Then again, for all the crapping I did on Philly above, their (narrowly) out-performing DC generally (three wins, four draws, three losses; 13 points). There’s also the thing with keeping Seattle in the “Bubble” mix while casting aside San Jose, something that’s especially odd given that San Jose should have won that game, and on a couple levels. The thing is, they didn’t. And results matter now.

What can I say? I like speculation...and, to close out, here are 10 more things I like/hate:

1) Best GKs in MLS
It was well before DC clawed the rest of the way back into that draw against the Red Bulls that Taylor Twellman set Bill Hamid apart as something special within the universe of MLS goalkeepers. Nick Rimando made that cut, too (and for good reason; as I tweeted today, some Portland parents will be able to terrify their children into behaving by telling them that “Rimando will get them” if they don’t), but that only got me wondering about what other MLS teams have ‘keepers on the same level. For me, the more remarkable detail comes with the guys who are falling off, e.g. the ‘Caps David Ousted and, lately, even the Union’s Andre Blake; these guys are still solid, the latter especially has huge upside, but, more than any other, ‘keeper is a position where the colossal fuck-ups stick around. Outside Hamid (who is a legit freak), I think the list of the true saviors is pretty damn short. Maybe Andre Blake, but he’s showing some wear (I still have faith, kid!). I dunno, maybe Luis Robles? The point is, it’s a select group, so teams that have that lock-down ‘keeper should feel blessed.

2) Shelf-Life and Revival
A phrase that kept popping up in New England’s win over NYCFC was this: “That was the first goal since _______ for _______.” That’s as decent, if broad, a shorthand as you’re going to find for what went wrong with the Revs this year and, arguably last: “underperformance,” in a word. It’s less surprising when perennial strugglers like, say, Juan Agudelo...well, struggle (and credit to him for recognizing just how badly NYCFC organized on this one), but what happened to a sky’s-the-limit player like Lee Nguyen between 2014 and today? Or even supporting cast studs like Kelyn Rowe (who also had a game) and Diego Fagundez (who didn’t have so much a game, as a moment, again, courtesy (in part) of Agudelo). Good players are the guys who do it year after year after year, your Bradley Wright-Phillips’ and your Chris Wondolowskis (I love that phrasing, like there are dozens of them all over). The real question, though, is when and how New England’s once-Golden generation reclaims its potential. That win over NYCFC, and their second goal in particular, hasn’t happened so much since, well, 2014.

3) On the (Short/Long?) Road to Respectability
Like more than a few players in MLS, Fabian Herbers was a terror against Montreal (watched all of that one) until that final, defining moment when he wasn’t – e.g. when it was time for the kill. Herbers stands in neatly for the Union as a whole, a team that’s young, full of promise...and that’s where it ends, with the promise. Philly might very well have the best stable of game-changing players off the bench – e.g. Ilsinho (who came into 2016 heavy, but, so, when he can make that many men look silly), the clinical Roland Alberg, and, now, Charlie Davies. That’s just 1) off the bench, and 2) a shit-stack of variety. Those are some of the best subs in the league. The Union also added veteran sacrifice/savvy in Alejandro Bedoya, a player who looks like he checks a lot of the key “leadership” boxes that the Union needs. But that’s the rub: it’s not just Herbers, but the entire goddamn defense that has to come good before Philly can become a fixture in the Eastern Conference. It’s a cool project, though, because that’s what they’re after. Pulling it off, figuring out when to pull the plug and on whom when the inevitable sophomore slump comes? That’s going to take a shit-ton of brain power. Good times, though. I mean, what’s not to love?

4) Houston’s Salvage Project
Coming at it now, from the other side, when you look at the Dynamo’s doomed, yet improving roster, who do you keep from that bunch? I mean, this is a tough, tough roster to decipher, and not just because so many of its key players are older – e.g. Ricardo Clark, DaMarcus Beasley, or even Boniek Garcia. Then there’s the defense, a collection of guys that took Collen Warner to make ‘em work even close to effectively. So, I guess that’s your starting point: Warner, but who else? For me, you start with Alex Lima, who has been the brightest spot for them; after that it’s Will Bruin, Raul Rodriguez (who, for the record, I used to hate), Clark till he’s 35, Sebastian Igbeagha (why not?), Sheanon Williams and Joe Willis. The rest aren’t irredeemable, average don’t always play average (see, David Horst), but, like Philly (and probably every club in MLS) there’s a core here, and one young enough to build toward something…replacing Clark and Beasley, though, that’s the first step. God knows how you do it, but carefully.

5) Pareja/Cassar: When to Play with House Money
A couple teams gambled on my theory of squad rotation this past weekend, none more so than Dallas’ Oscar Pareja (who has done this before, and with worse results). I’d argue RSL’s Jeff Cassar did the same when he rested Javier Morales for Jordan Allen, or even Chris Schuler for either Jamison Olave (he was suspended, yes?) or Aaron Maund. Dallas, however, serves as a better poster-boy for the project. Dallas sits atop the Western Conference standings, and the league as a whole, and they play tomorrow night in the U.S. Open Cup final, which means there’s a trophy on the line, and that’s when you need your best players, right? They also had that season-long home undefeated streak in their back pocket, too, but it didn’t pan out, and that only made it more fascinating to watch Dallas throw on one star after another (first, Mauro Diaz, then Mauro Rosales, then Michael Barrios) to keep the home undefeated streak live. Still, they tried to keep it live cheaply as possible, and, well there it is. This bears watching, obviously: if Dallas wins the triple, or even the double, or even just one trophy, what does that say? RSL’s situation was no less interesting – I mean, they have to rest JaviMo – but their margins? Thinner. It’s not an all-purpose solution, the squad rotation thing. That’s all I’m getting at.

6) The Tricky Game of Finding Roles, Solignac Edition
The one thing that stood out in (the greatly condensed version of) Chicago’s loss to Toronto was both the volume and (broad) imprecision of the Fire’s pressure on Toronto. Chicago is, without question, a better team than when they started the season (to what extent, however, do they belong in the conversation at #3 above?), but they’re merely serviceable in too many spots – and no one better fits that conundrum than the oft-starting Luis Solignac. As he’s demonstrated over two teams, he barely qualifies as a striker. And yet, he’s not entirely ineffective, at with the caveat that any team he plays on wants him shooting on goal as little as possible. His movement’s good, he passes well…the whole thing becomes a trick of taking the skills a player has and making them work in a system. All I’m saying is that I don’t know that teams enough teams think about this with sufficient flexibility. Chicago might need some guys, but they don’t need an overhaul. Might be closer than Houston in the end.

7) Ciman Superman (and an Attendant Theory)
This one’s simple: Laurent Ciman chases balls wide too much , he goes forward too much, he (probably) insists on taking free-kicks, etc. The Belgian might very well have more talent in his left hamstring than all but his best teammates have in their entire bodies, but sucking at delegating is sucking at delegating. I feel like a couple coaches have lost their locker rooms, a list that starts with Gregg Berhalter, but one that meanders in the vicinity of Montreal. Between Ciman and Didier Drogba, a man who looks as interested in what he’s doing as I did when I pulled down that epic 2.3 GPA in the third quarter of my sophomore year in college, I wonder if Mauro Biello doesn’t have more ego to manage than he can handle. Ciman would do his team a big damn solid by holding that backline together, y’know, his primary mission?

8) Seattle, San Jose, and Bodies of Work in the West
(This was surprisingly hard for me to parse, but) Seattle went into their road game against San Jose with a 9-13-4 record; San Jose hosted them at 7-8-11. The Western Conference is actually lousy with losing records – e.g. see Vancouver’s 9-13-7, or even SKC’s 11-12-6 – but I still can’t quite put my finger on how the ‘Quakes look like the best of the bunch while not actually being the best of the bunch. Whoops. Forgot one: Portland is a thoroughly middling 10-11-8. What do you call this? Parity? Mediocrity? ‘Quakes excepted (or are they?), just about every one of those clubs had very good reasons to believe things would look better by now. So, why didn’t’ they?

9) It’s Where You Play ‘Em
While this follows a pattern similar to #6, it’s a bit different (if only in my mind). This past week, two players who suited up in Orlando purple – Matias Perez Garcia (MPG), and Brek Shea - looked more comfortable than either of them had in a while. I think I know how/why this applies to Shea – i.e., he’s not that great a defender, plus he’s a better presence closer to goal, he knows it, we know it, so, what’s with the fullback experiment? – but MPG actually makes for the more interesting argument. San Jose tasked MPG with play-making, something he wasn’t bad at, even as he is/was no Diego Valeri (or list your favorite creative player here). What I saw MPG doing this past week, though, and this was over a combined 40 minutes of action, was serve as a decent foil for slick little pass-‘n’-move sequences that split through a pair of teams’ (Montreal and LA) defenses. I understand that there’s a landing process for just about any player, but it is striking how Orlando seems to have found a better fit for MPG than San Jose (who is very system-driven) managed to land on. It’s probably a scouting thing, at least on the front end, but how often do teams miss what they’ve got?

10) Donovan. Goddammit
He came back, he acknowledged that it didn’t go so good, but, well, what to make of it? It’s got potential, even if, in part, it’s just another mystery to sort out in LA’s attack. The thing that’s sorta good/sorta fucked up about the whole thing, at least from LA’s perspective, is that they’ve got a new once-maybe-again-reliable path to/into goal that few teams in the league have game-planned for, and he’s probably likely to hit his stride in, oh, October, maybe November. Thereabouts. Hm.

OK, that’s it. Back next week...

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