Thursday, September 1, 2016

MLS Snapshot, 09 01 2016: (Loose) Rankings, 10 Topics, Timbers v. FCD Preview

See what I did there? "Review" became "Snapshot," and instead of tying this post to Week [DON'T CARE!], I just typed in the date, today’s date. That one little change just freed me to post on MLS without thinking about the day of the week. I’ll still try to avoid stale content...just less neurotically.

Uh, what else? Generally, I won't talk much about specific results, not unless my timing lands just right, or if there's something that I didn't see or hear someone else pick up on (in my incredibly infrequent forays into the news) (A choice that totally rules out bringing up (for long) Toronto FC’s Game of Total Loss v. the Montreal Impact (see injuries) – but, while we're here, I think they'll weather it; Toronto survived Giovinco's scoring drought and Jozy's back besides; I think they're a little likelier for the Shield than they are for MLS Cup). In the end, I think most games possess a certain je ne sais quoi, res ipsa loquitur, so it's best to just assume that most people have clocked the results and watched all the videos they're going to by the time they find me. By and large, I want this to be a space for stretching the envelope (too far), conflating small data points into burgeoning trends, and Magical Thinking (e.g., creative, and ultimately pointless, leaps).

I'm kidding. I do my best to stay grounded, but I really do love playing with puzzle pieces, even the ones I can't actually get my hands on. With that in mind, here's what I hope, pray, and shall hereafter strive to achieve in these Snapshot posts:

1)  I'll rank the all 20 MLS teams at time of writing under a loose, yet fairly obvious scheme;

2) I’ll kick out 10 topics (more or less) about the week just past, some of them questions, some of them assertions, but all of them intended to start conversations (and any related/barely-tangential off-shoots) rather than end them; and

3) I will talk about the Portland Timbers next opponent to the best of my actual knowledge (as in, I will speak only to what I feel like I know) (and, yes, of course I’m trying to trap you into the general MLS content; I have to try, right?).

This will be how I roll. Till next week probably...then again, maybe this is the one I marry. Also, has anyone out there ever played “Fuck, Marry, Kill” and am I missing something about that game and, here, I mean in terms of socio-cultural awareness? For me, though, it’s just three names and a dead-hearted thought exercise. Entertainment, basically.

Oh, wait. One more thing: I decided that I'm going to put more of my (feeble) Fan Power into pulling for a Supporters' Shield. It's a math/happiness thing – e.g. when your team wins the Shield, you're gonna home happy more often. It's sorta the difference between marriage (Shield) versus one-night stands (MLS Cup). Sure, there's more charge in the latter, but the former lasts longer and you get more reliable orgasms. Logic, people.

Well, all right. Time to get started. Let’s see...what’s first? Ah, yes, rankings. About the system, I’m not saying why I put any given team where I put them (but do feel free to ask; I’ll explain), but I will define the terms that I use to sort them. Nothing dictated the order in which they’re listed but how readily I could place each team. Then again, I sorted them into their places by alphabetical order, so don’t read too much into the intra-category rankings, either. It’s pretty straightforward, you’ll see. This is when the “one good run” logic really starts to kick in, so none of what’s below is static. Except “Dead.” Which seems fitting.

In (Legit Contender)
FC Dallas
New York City FC
New York Red Bulls
Toronto FC

Knocking (Playoff-bound, but not a clear candidate for MLS Cup or going deep)
Colorado Rapids
DC United
Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake
Sporting Kansas City

Out (A decent shot at the playoffs and...)
Los Angeles Galaxy
Montreal Impact
Orlando City SC
Portland Timbers (sorry!)
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders FC

Dead (Not gonna make the party)
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC
Houston Dynamo
New England Revolution
Vancouver Whitecaps

OK, on to the Ten (10!) Topics. Because I won't go all that deep about results and every single team, expect the first two topics to track the horse race in both conferences. After that, it's a free-for-all.

Ten (10!) Topics
1) Who Wants It in the West? I Mean, Actually?
This past weekend not only made the Western Conference picture a lot more complicated, it also posed a question one never expects to hear in professional sports: do any of those teams even want it? I’m going to pull Dallas out of the sample (for reasons glumly acknowledged below), but, for the rest, let’s look at the past...oh, half dozen games for the West’s contenders (so not Houston) (also, where the HELL is the Results Map?!?). It’s hard to crunch the data concisely here, but what I can say is that only three Western teams have played well over those six games: RSL (12 points from 18), SKC (10 points), and Seattle (11 points). Further, I’d argue that only four of the six teams can complain of the West cannibalizing itself Revenant-(DiCaprio)-style – i.e. that the larger balance of each team’s games came against Western Conference opponents: SKC, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver (note overlaps where they occur, for they might matter). There’s not even a clear correlation between facing a lot of Eastern Conference teams and success: RSL, LA, and San Jose played against Eastern teams literally as often as they’ve played against Western teams and that “hurt” two teams and “helped” the other. So, here’s one take-away: the West may not be so dominant anymore. The other, bigger one: RSL looks like the only team finding it’s form, while all the rest – LA, San Jose, Colorado, even Portland, and, cover your eyes, children, Vancouver (srsly, two points from 18?) – all look like they’re warming up when they should be taking the field to make a difference (sweet sub analogy!). What’s all that mean? What you’re looking for is the team that catches fire (e.g. Portland beating Dallas after what they did to Seattle, a result that would absolutely shift them to “Knocking”).

2) In the East, Seven Teams Honestly Contending
Yeah, yeah, I see the 12 point gap (now 13 points, 11:18, 09 01 2016) between the top of the Eastern Conference (Toronto FC) and the best team on the outside looking in (that’d be Orlando). For all that, I think that any of those teams can reach the final so long as they make the playoffs (though, as implied above, I think some have better bones for making a real run than others). The biggest gap comes between DC and Montreal but, personally, I think we’re all looking at the best team that DC has produced since they won the East in 2014. That’s less about what they just did to Chicago (especially after what just happened against NYCFC), than what I see in the new blood on that roster – e.g., players younger and just as good as the talent they replaced, if not better. And that’s the worst of the bunch, well, outside Orlando, a team that I still feel like is a couple years, and shedding a certain DP, away from becoming a real, stable team. With everyone else, though, I feel like any team can beat any of the other ones, even more than in the West. Once you add in “anomalies” like Orlando beating NYCFC, or Montreal beating Toronto, the Eastern conference feels like what it is: FOOD FIGHT!

3) Dempsey
Clint Dempsey was my favorite American player for years. Seeing him pull rave green over his chest deranged me (more than) a little, but I’ve always respected Dempsey for the palpable dedication and artistry that he put into his craft for club and country. On a personal level, seeing a player like Dempsey go out like that – e.g., with something weird and too early - just feels wrong, like Eddie Johnson all over. On the field, though, it’s more complicated. As suggested in my post on the Portland/Seattle game, I believe that Seattle can figure out effective life after Dempsey – especially in light of all prior comments about the West. By that I mean, I don’t expect Seattle to look as lost as they did this past weekend (they looked like a family coping with a medical emergency in that first half). As for the U.S. Men’s Team, they should (or better) be fine over the next couple games, but I’m still inclined to see this as a blessing in disguise. The U.S. needs to create, then build a viable, starting pairing (or system) for Russia 2018 now.

4) About Andrew Wenger (and a Lot of MLS Players)
"You know what he's gonna do. He's gonna beat his man and whip it across the box."
- I dunno. A guy?

Obviously, after that Wenger went on to score in that same game. It’s still not a terrible point. Wenger had enough eyes on him when he joined MLS that it’s probably a bit of a blow that he’s spending of his professional career on the Journeyman-PLUS! Package (e.g. not just moving between teams, but moving to different positions all over the field). MLS is littered with guys like that, players the other team can game-plan for in one sentence – e.g. (for Wenger), baiting him to the end-line and daring him to do something when he gets there. That said, I think any good player can find a system/combination of players that will free his inner Him (or Her) to be all He (or She) can be. Wenger reads like a guy who just needs to figure something out; or to have someone turn him on to it. He reminds me of Rodney Wallace. That’s the kind of player I think Wenger can be. And that’s a piece of a championship team right there.

5) David Accam v. Sebastian Lletget (and more pointless comparisons)
I just decided that Chicago’s David Accam is not a terribly bright player. Why? It was a goal he missed, actually, one that played away from type – something that Accam doesn’t do, and that Chicago doesn’t game-plan to allow, often enough. Accam’s speed is, literally, otherworldly; but that only translates to good, but not league-leading numbers. Don’t get me wrong: the Ghanaian is good, so are his numbers, but part of me wonders if he shouldn’t slow down more often. That popped into my head while watching the Galaxy’s Sebastian Llletget. I’d rather Lletget on my roster than Accam. One player (Lletget) played a role in his team, while the other (Accam) operated at a remove. Accam’s huge for Chicago, but he’s more like a bonus player than one who makes them better as a team.

6) When New England Played San Jose; A (Perhaps) Artificial Argument
First, I hate it when the official line-up doesn’t match the one alleged on TV. That broadcast line-up, though, that was exciting: Lee Nguyen lined up deep next to Scott “The Biggest Offensive Threat” Caldwell to guide the attack from a deeper position; Gershon Koffie in central defense, where he can kick-start the attack quicker, Juan Agudelo trying to give a new look on the right wing, Kei Kamara behind Diego Fagundez, which could allow him to start his runs deeper, hit the ball at pace, etc. On one level, it looks like a Revolution team trying (and perhaps too goddamn) hard to change things up: it also looked like experimentation from a team that really needs it, like Jay Heaps re-auditioning for his job. It didn’t work, it might not have even mattered, but...well, it was by no means insane. Maybe New England just needs to shift some pieces around...

7) "Strictly USL" and What That Means
I watched Warren Creavalle’s career die a thousand tiny deaths against SKC (not that it mattered, but  trust me). He was the John Henry to SKC’s relentless high-press machine, a flawed, fallible human killed by a system. I dubbed him "strictly USL" in my notes, which has a pretty specific meaning in my mind, even as it’s more fluid than it suggests. I assume – not suspect, but assume – that there are a couple dozen USL players who fit the profile that I laid out above for Wenger. I don’t believe that Creavalle is one of them. He usually looks better than he did against SKC (though, I’d flag the shit out of how he coped with the press if I were an opposing coach), but he’s never looked great by me.

8) Richie Marquez: MLS’s Highest Upside Defender
There may be better central defenders in MLS, but there aren't many with a higher upside than Philly’s Marquez. Philly's back line isn't the best, but it's not killing them, and it's Marquez who's leading a defense that's regularly 50-75% rookie. And he's 24.

9) Tchani Behind the Forwards; On Freeing Pipa
I don’t think this was a straight line-up disconnect (see #6 above), but I somehow started thinking about what would happen if Columbus started Tchani higher and paired someone else with Wil Trapp (Mohamed Saied, say?). It could free up Federico Higuain, for one, even as I’m damned if I know how. You could play him as a second forward in a 3-5-2, but Higuain does seem a fan of finding the ball. Maybe he could line up right in a 4-2-3-1 (or left, but I think he likes the right as the guy at right on the 3)? This is mostly about Tchani, though; taking a player with a notable reputation for switching off, but who also weights a channel pass to the milligram, and who has a powerful (if wayward) shot (maybe closer) and a good motor and moving him upfield. None of that last stuff is easily replicable. Finding a good, and good-sized defensive midfielder isn't so hard, though. If only for that reason, I'd be test-driving Tchani for a bigger attacking role. Especially with the season Columbus is having.

10) I Was Totally, Utterly Wrong about Jelle Van Damme
Sure, he takes the odd cheap shot and, sure, that’s infuriating. But he’s also an enormous presence, an occasionally great passer of the ball; I just watched him lead an attack this weekend, and he’s clearly an important piece to LA’s essentially tight defensive set up. The guy’s an asshole (he tried to bully the ref a bit after the penalty called against, an embarrassing, uncomfortable moment for all concerned), but he’s a highly capable asshole. I’d kill to have him in Portland (and still blush at his errors).

And, finally, the Timbers’ next game. So, who’s up next for Portland? Oh. Oh, fuck. You mean, like, right now? And we can’t trade with another team at this point? OK, then.

Scouting FC Dallas, Away
As much as I believe that the Timbers can beat Dallas, the timing stinks. Like a lot of teams in the league, and especially the Western Conference (more below), Portland hasn’t exactly roared to glory over the past couple months; they went 3-4-3 in MLS play over the past 10, a run that gets at why last weekend’s butt-kicking produced delight and relief in fairly equal portions. Portland’s scoring well enough overall, and kept just ahead of that defensively (+1 goal differential, 13 for, 12 against), but no one’s going to look at that data and feel great or anything. All that looks very average, of course, even that’s only 12 points from 30, but there’s one more detail...and surely you all know there is going. Portland hasn’t won on the road yet this season. In all the away games over that period, the Timbers picked up just two points, but, more importantly, they produced a -5 goal differential, scoring one slim goal over five away games. And, now the Timbers have Dallas. On the road.

As for Dallas, I’ll start by saying that I rate Dallas lower than, oh, just about anyone I know. Now that I’m marching back through their past 10 games (6-2-2, 4-0-1 at home (gulp!), 2-2-1 on the road, 19 goals, for 11 against, but five of those in Seattle’s one blow-out of the season), I’m suddenly unclear as to what supports that rating. Maybe it’s like Monday’s ExtraTime Radio episode argued: sideline amateurs (like me!) are just looking for holes in Dallas’ line-up. I don’t know, maybe it’s that they didn’t look all that great against Houston. Probably coulda lost that one, really. They didn’t, though. So...
My Biggest Concern: Speed versus, well, some really old English defenders.
This, basically. Note where that ball landed (e.g. in the zone Vytas Andriuskevicius sometimes vacates; good size on that kid, though), and think of either Liam Ridgewell or Steven in a foot race with Michael Barrios. Or Maximiliano Urruti. Or think of Urruti harassing those two and/or even Jack Jewsbury. I probably point this out more often than it matters, or maybe it’s just something that always matters, and I should shut up about it, but when a team has players who can hit (Barrios) or feed (Mauro Diaz and, as it turns out, Maynor Figueroa) the channels between the fullbacks and the central defenders, I get nervous. Dallas can do that, so, with that in mind, I want to see Vytas lean toward caution early.
The Salvation: Testing Dallas' patience.
I’m expecting/hoping for a game-state-y kind of affair; I want Portland to compact when Dallas presses (let them do it, in other words, and deny them vertical space), and then counter like there’s a fire behind them when opportunities open up. Any time they can pin Dallas in their end, though, whether it’s due to Dallas needing a breather, or if the ball just sticks to Dallas’ end of the field, I that’s when I think Portland should press. Sure, this leaves them open for exactly the kind of ball that Barrios snared to break Houston, but that’s when Portland should keep some combination of four players home (e.g. Vytas can push up, so long as, say, Jack Jewsbury hangs back to smother it). Call it “Counter and Pin” the idea is to combine caution with trying to dictate smart portions of a road game. I think Portland can do this, maybe even get all three if they can manage to score first.
My Belief: I’m nervous that Portland will pack it in and play for a point, and pray for a relatively risk-free counter. There are worse things.

Shit. Still too long. Still, much more relaxing. This feels like the future (he said last week, and four weeks ago, and five months ago, and right before he deleted that other blog).

The comment section below is for comments and questions. I'm happy to field both.

No comments:

Post a Comment