Saturday, September 17, 2016

Portland v. Philly Preview (And Obsessing Over Nagbe) and MLS Snapshot 09 17 2016

A glimpse behind the scenes.
Still tinkering around the goddamn lab, moving around chemicals, playing with lasers, etc.; I'm basically trying to invent a method that will allow me to provide good coverage of Major League Soccer, while watching more than I read and posting shorter.

And, yes, this is an extraordinarily stupid predicament. But I have a special purpose. I just know it.

At any rate, I want to get back to previewing the weekend stuff, not so much to say what’ll happen (because, it won’t), but to look at trends for each of MLS’s 20 teams (or where they exist). These might predict results, but they’re more interesting insofar as they continue narratives, and more interesting still when they disrupt them. Anyway, Starting with the fresh, local angle...say, did you hear about that dogfight down the road?

Portland Timbers (10-11-8) v. Philadelphia Union (11-10-8)
(3 p.m. PST, Saturday, September 17)
The fact that the MLS Show (or whatever they call that particular iteration of the studio show with Russ Thaler and Calen Carr) brought up Darlington Nagbe – specifically, citing his one goal on the season (true), followed by the question of “what does he have to do” to guide/push/encourage/urge/drag the Portland Timbers into the post-season – deep breath – that allows me to pretend that I’m responding to that point as opposed to picking at a scab that I’ve removed, oh, 20 times over the past two seasons. Calen Carr then went on to identify Nagbe as part of Portland’s top three players – e.g. the triumvirate of Nagbe, Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi.

The great big fallacy in there is this: Nagbe does not lead. Apart from the spell to start 2015, when Valeri's absence foisted the responsibility upon him, Nagbe has never lead the team. He might be the Timbers' most talented player, but, when he takes the field, he just goes out there and does...that. "That" works better in some games than in others, but it's always just...that – e.g., an essentially random series of events, some of them combining power and elegance at a level that's rare in MLS. But, broadly, it is and remains...that.
The question is how to accommodate that. In all honesty, Nagbe's best role as is a calming presence; he gets the ball, holds onto it, and finds a teammate in good spot. Not a great one every time, but a good one and reliably. And so, for the...what'd I say up there? So, for the 20th time, I want Nagbe central, generally behind the attack. I'm seeing him at the middle of the middle line in a 4-3-3, with two defensive-minded midfielders on either side, players charged with covering the channels defensively; they'll cheat inside to help Nagbe, who will also be covered by a central defender who aggressively defends the space behind him as needed. If this sound like a 4-2-3-1, it is and it isn't. I want Valeri up higher, and Melano, and I want Nagbe yo-yo-ing up and down the center all day.

Now, will this happen today against the visiting Philadelphia Union? Probably not. Here’s what I expect there.

Portland should be able to score on Philly. I'm not saying the will score, only that they CAN, because Philly's one of the league's more giving defensive teams. The Union has been worse defensively in the second half of the season, something that I put down to opposing coaches benefitting from a full season to find the weaknesses in that green back line. Those weaknesses exist, as it turns out. Adi, especially, should benefit, because I think he's larger and more mobile than the Union’s defenders often see. The Union's best chance, as I see it, comes with turning this game into a shoot-out; not only can they start good attacking players, they can bring an exciting and troubling variety off the bench (see: Ilsinho, Johan Alberg); they've got a good dead-ball guy in Tranquillo Barnetta; finally, C. J. Sapong has...well, pretty well totally dried up in terms of scoring, but he'll still be a pain in the ass to manage.

One last point: they Union went out and got a "calming presence" of their own in Alejandro Bedoya. If you've seen Bedoya shoot, you should get the connection there. I think Bedoya's a more aggressive hard nose player, a tone-setter in the glimpses I've seen of him, so that’s a little difference, but he's mostly about finding the ball and getting if forward. All in all, I think both teams are better off forcing the game on the other, and keeping it away from a pair of defenses that tend to panic during spells of emergency defending. And they’re both set up for it, too.

For all the details above, Portland should win this one. Scratch that, they need to win this one. I've seen the road record...

OK, moving on to the rest. Briefly. As in just the barest (possible) talking points. Before that, I want to talk about a point of interest that Stumptown Footy put up this past week. They clocked the Western Conference stretch-run by looking at each of several teams' end-of-season schedule, with the focus on one detail: the "Average Opposition Points Per Game" stat for each team. On that, here's what’s weird: the collection of averages for Western Conference teams 5-9 ranges from 1.31 to 1.45 points per game. If you lift the San Jose Earthquakes from that sample, the range shrinks to 1.31 to 1.39. While I wouldn't go so far as to outright dismiss those numbers – not least because, I'm numbers-dumb (by which I mean stats read like Greek to me, only written in the Navajo alphabet) – I would still argue that San Jose's biggest problem is that they are San Jose, as in they're just not good, neither lately nor the season as a whole. Sure, it matters if your opposition is better. But being a sucky team matters more.

And that's a lot of how I'm framing the stuff below. "Form" and the various things that go into giving it meaning (e.g. a team's road record) gives you a better read on a team's chances, or at least I think so. And yet, of course, there will always be freak results and bad days. It's when the word "freak" falls away from the word "results" where things become clear. And MLS really sucks at that.

Anyway, frames for all of Week 28's (remaining) match-ups are below, with a couple salient details listed for each (contrary to what I said above, I do hope that I'll get better about reading The (Stupid) Kick-Off. So I have more info-perspective to share.)

Chicago Fire (6-13-8) v. DC United (7-9-12)
(Already happened...again, working on my timing; DC clawed back another 2-2)
The key point in my short version context for this one focused on Chicago, how they don't need wins so much as signs of progress, how a win at home against DC would equal that. DC, meanwhile, has a 2016 track record as “cagey” on the road. And, sure enough, DC’s 1-5-8 road record became a 1-5-9, again on a late, late goal. Also of significance: the Fire again coughed up the kind of goal that a team can’t, not so long as they want to remain competitive. The Fire are improving, though (I believe, perhaps to the point of distortion): Arturo Alvarez is running the offense pretty nicely and their (huge, gangly) new forward, David Arshakyan, looked all right. Patrick Mullins isn't helping (hand-up on that one), but DC are damned resilient, gutting out road results with enough confidence to survive a home-and-away series. They just have to get to the point where that matters...

Seattle Sounders (9-13-5) v. Vancouver Whitecaps (9-13-7)
(1 p.m. PST, Saturday, September 17)
Seattle’s pretty good at home (7-5-1), but Vancouver’s not bad on the road (4-9-2...well, maybe just in context). There is, however, a deeper, more complicated story with the 'Caps. The won last week – and handily - which got one devious fucking monkey of their backs, e.g. that fucking dire winless streak that saw them go 0-5-3. Oh, and the team they beat? A much curs'd Columbus Screw SC. I think the consolation for Vancouver comes with that win over Columbus plus the stack of chances they created (and squandered, mostly Erik Hurtado) against the Red Bulls. So, Vancouver’s maybe improving. Seattle on the other hand, has in fact looked flat since that heart ailment dropped Deuce, but that soft spell also happened largely on the road and, by the time the Timbers kicked the shit out of ‘em, Seattle was also playing a short week, so...I’m going with Seattle in this one. A win, too. And if they don’t win, yeah, that says something.

New York City FC (12-9-8) v. FC Dallas (15-8-6)
(4 p.m. PST, Saturday, September 17)
NYCFC’s road game might be tapering off, but they win when they're at home. At least lately. Les Pigeons' (is that the right nickname?) defense ain't gettin' any better, the team Dallas decides to trot out could go a long way to deciding how much work New York’s defenders need to do. Dallas can either command the U.S. Open Cup winning line-up to drag their weary legs out there, or they can rest them and try to play the same team that ruined Dallas’ perfect home record last weekend. Or they can mix it up…with pretty limitless variety. I think the tinkering and fatigue should give NYCFC the edge, but Dallas give up a goal easily. Sets up like a pretty good game...

Orlando City (7-8-13) SC v. Columbus Crew SC (5-11-11)
(4:30 p.m. PST, Saturday, September 17)
All you need to know is this: Columbus is tied at "awful" with teams slogging through shit-show seasons like Houston and Chicago; the only difference is that Columbus is better on offense and worse on defense than both teams – which is probably why they’re still tied in the standings. In other words, this looks like a gift for Orlando. The Floridians didn't do awful through a tough August schedule (2-3-2), but the owe their spot on the right side of the red rope to exactly two wins. One’s a blowout win over/at Montreal, if that makes a difference.

Montreal Impact (9-8-11) v. New England Revolution (8-12-9)
(4:30 p.m. PST, Saturday, September 17)
There’s a lot going on with this one, so it’s sorta fascinating. First, take most of what you've heard about New England having sorted things out with a grain of salt: their "momentum" came from two wins...that came after an 0-5-1 stretch, one that started with some blowouts. Still, those last two wins were pretty big, Colorado and NYCFC, etc. Those were also both at home, so... It's when Montreal comes in that things get really goofy: they have been shit at home, 0-2-1 in their last three, and they ended three goals behind in both loses. So, what we could see here is a(nother) defensive collapse by Montreal...which will inflate/perpetuate a narrative about New England – e.g. that's they’ve figured it out. Then again, as with the thing about being racist versus acting racist, the distinction doesn’t matter after a while. Maybe the Revs have turned the corner?

Colorado Rapids (12-5-10) v. San Jose Earthquakes (7-8-12)
(6 p.m. PST, Saturday, September 17)
Holy shit, will this game be boring. I took a shot at San Jose above, but, honestly, it's worse: they've won exactly twice since mid-May (but, hey, one of those wins came on the road, so smile, 'Quakes fans!). The deeper, duller reality, though, is that San Jose's offense....well, it just sucks. They're scored 27 goals, or one thin goal per game. Add the Rapids defense (league best), the Rapids home record (9-0-4), and San Jose's road record (1-6-6), and a draw looks like the ceiling for the 'Quakes. Looks like it’ll all come down to whether the Rapids can score…which they seem to do. This has the weekend’s most predictable, dullest 1-0 win written all over it. So watch this one freak out...

Real Salt Lake (12-9-8) v. Houston Dynamo (5-11-11)
(6:30 p.m. PST, Saturday, September 17)
Houston shares San Jose's ignominious record: just two wins in MLS regular season play since mid-May; they match down even to one of their two wins coming on the road (and there's your silver lining Houston fans; squint harder, maybe?). Sure, RSL's defense can struggle, but between playing at home (where they are 8-0-6) and Houston's punchless attack (32 goals total) this game is 100% RSL's to lose. The most impressive thing about RSL: they're picking up their home wins against MLS's "realer" teams (e.g. Dallas, Colorado, and they drew LA).

Sporting Kansas City (11-12-8) v. Los Angeles Galaxy (11-4-14)
(11 a.m. PST, Sunday, September 18)
SKC has home advantage, but still reads as SKC's weak-esque offense against LA's stout defense. A couple details challenge rumors of a "red hot" LA: they're scoring more, but they're beating your better teams, either: they've had six wins since July and all those games came against teams below, or riding the red line. All of them. And only two of those wins came on the road. After that, it’s draw galore. And that’s what I expect to see here.

Toronto FC (13-8-7) v. New York Red Bulls (12-9-8)
(2 p.m. PST, Sunday, September 18)
A sorta top of the table match-up, really: the Red Bulls are unbeaten since July; even on the road they're scoring – just not enough to win. Still, 1-0-4 in away with multi-goal games making for a lot of those draws is nothing to dismiss. They put on a clinic against DC last weekend, too. Toronto, though, has been otherworldly: they’re 8-2-3 since the start of July, and that’s a good balance of home (7 games) and away (6). Yeah, they just lost Sebastian Giovinco, but they held off an improving Chicago (and picked up a gift).

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