Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Previewing the Portland Timbers Most Winnable Road Game, and the Rest of MLS Week 30

This'll make sense by the end (Credit: 3dmetrius)
“This is MLS. The regular season breaks everyone, and afterward some are strong in the broken places. Those are the teams that figure out how to win titles.”
- Matt Doyle, The Armchair Analyst, September 19, 2016
I used to describe Major League Soccer’s regular season (or I did once) as an extended dress rehearsal that leads up to the playoffs. I think the quote above adds a wrinkle to the thought and a good one, in that it hits at some challenges that my shorter version understates. As each of MLS’s 20 teams work to become one of the two casts tapped for the final production (MLS Cup), circumstances force them to throw understudies onto the stage if their first-choice leads fall ill (or just start sucking) and, when both the lead and understudy fail, they suddenly have find entirely new actors, get them caught up on the script, the blocking, etc. As if that’s not complicated enough, some key players get to acting up on the set, so the, uh, money guys (? referees...look, it’s not a perfect analogy) send them off to rehab (fines/suspensions), and that just blows more holes in the cast, and so on. Next thing you know, the sets on fire, the director’s banging the producer, and someone forgot the goddamn breakfast spread.

Anyway, enjoying the MLS regular season is about enjoying that team-molding/team-building process, really, as opposed to the individual match results. It’s working those casts into shape, so they won’t melt under the spotlight when the competition to reach the final production really heats up.

Speaking of process, I’m working toward posting to this space only once a week. I’m not exactly growing the audience (I’d like to thank erratic posting and jumping between platforms for their contribution), and, to be open about it, so long as not all that many people are reading either of them, I’m just more interested in posting other stuff right now. I figure it’s my irrelevance, so I may as well enjoy it. Anyway, I plan on posting on Mondays and to lead with Portland Timbers stuff, while still going global as I reasonably/brief(ish)ly can on the rest. I’m less interested in total coverage than perspective and talking points. I’ll see how that pans out and go on from there. OK, turning now to a fairly regular (and final) preview-only post...

Houston Dynamo v. Portland Timbers
(Saturday, September 24, 2016, 6 p.m. PST)
I might judge Darlington Nagbe ruthlessly as a player, but he sure seems like one hell of a good-hearted man. His comments on Jack Jewsbury’s retirement at the Stand Together Banquet only deepened that impression. And the talented little shit made me cry too. That made me think of something else, namely, that I don’t think that I could bring myself to tell any player, to his (or her) face, that he (or she) should be traded, or even that I think he/she could stand to get a little more game. As such, it’s probably better that I don’t write these posts with the Portland Timbers peaking over my shoulder, because they’d be soft little things (or boring long things). My approach to fandom might lean untraditional, but I sure do like the guys who play for my team...though I would like ‘em a little more if they’d just pick up a goddamn road win...speaking of...

25 minutes of watching, no enduring, the Houston Dynamo this past weekend gave me all the assurance I need that Portland can take them. Badly as Real Salt Lake labored in that loss (in a word, very), Houston didn’t build anything threatening to roll the other way. Opportunistic best describes the win, the result of forcing errors (most damagingly by a slow-thinking Jonathan Stertzer). Houston didn’t press all that consistently, either; they mostly let RSL play, whilst parrying the slow-motion jabs RSL threw at them (and while probably speculating on the precise ratio of stoned v. unstoned RSL players). It took two cups of coffee just to make it through those 25 minutes, I tell you, and I still nodded off repeatedly watching the condensed game.

Houston hasn’t had a great 2016, something one can figure out with only a glance at the standings. They’re not winning at home (the last two of their six wins came on the road; the last home win was in early July), and the absence of star power, or even promising youngsters, lends the team something of a dead end feel. Some recognizable names on their roster – e.g., DaMarcus Beasley and Ricardo Clark –still have it, but, after that, even the names you know have straggled behind their reputations. Will Bruin’s the poster-boy, here: he (generally) ceded his starting spot to Mauro Manotas…and Manotas has an offside problem. If Houston has a secret weapon, it’s probably Alex Lima, or maybe Boniek Garcia, but only on those increasingly rare occasions that he remembers that he’s talented (the fog is getting thicker on that). If you put the names of the players who are doing well (e.g. Clark and Beasley) alongside the names of the guys who are struggling (Bruin, Garcia, plus Cristian Maidana and Andrew Wenger), you have the Dynamo’s issues on a nutshell: they’re physical and they defend well enough, but they’re not much in the attack. So long as Portland keeps a lid on mistakes and manages set-pieces, they should keep Houston bottled up. After that, it’s just about finding a goal...which shifts the conversation to the relevant mystery.

How did one of the 2015’s best road teams become one of 2016’s worst? Failing to get goals certainly looks like the problem, or part of it. Portland has scored just 11 goals in 14 road games – and they scored more than one goal exactly once (on the plus side, at least they pulled out of not scoring at all). Portland’s not quite bleeding road goals – even though 26 goals conceded ain’t great – but there’s a recent, mildly worrisome uptick (possibly confidence-or-lack-thereof-driven) in which the team lost by two goals (versus Seattle Sounders and versus FC Dallas). So, to put all that together, and toss in some details, the numbers translate to something like this: less than one goal per game on the road means less than the fact that Portland has actually scored in all but three road games this season and that might do just fine against Houston, a team that, broadly, looks unlikely to add to those 26 road goals allowed. In other words, if Portland can’t beat Houston on the road, they’re unlikely to beat any team this year, and, by the way, oh, shit.

On the personnel side for Portland, if you’re expecting another instant classic from Darren Mattocks, well, god bless, and I’m moved by your optimism. I’m in the Mattocks camp, at this point (sorry, Lucas; and, no, this isn’t recency bias; I’ve been cool on Melano for ages), so I guess that’s that. My chief thought, though, is that wing production would help a lot, so I’m happy to take it from wherever, because spreading Houston’s central defenders, who are neither the best nor the fastest, would certainly help. I’m not counting on wing production, though, and think Portland has enough firepower without it to takedown Houston. And, in case it’s not clear, I have full faith in Portland’s defense set-up against Houston; again, defend set-pieces, and keeping Lima from the kind of long-range chances that will draw Portland out and thereby open up gaps between the defense and the attack. As much as Houston might want this game, they’re not playing for much right now, so Portland needs to own the intensity in this one. They better own the intensity in this one. Or I’ll start saying mean things. Maybe even in the same room.

OK, onto the rest of Week 30’s (?) games...and, for the record, I think this thing of paying closer attention to patterns of results, home and away records, the number of goals that teams have scored or allowed has been clarifying. Just a thought/theory.

New York City FC v. Chicago Fire
(Friday, September 23, 5 p.m. PST)
NYCYC’s strong home record didn’t carry them to a win over league-best Dallas last weekend (came close and, entertaining!), but, Dallas. The key question is how much they owed that record to Frank Lampard’s reliable scoring – which they won’t have for a wee stretch. Chicago is harder to read. I’ll cling to my belief that they’re improving until events pry away my fingers, and I liked what I saw of that big gawky Armenian forward (David Arshakyan; makes Michael deLeeuw potential absence sting a little less), but with the Fire only marginally better on the road than Portland (let that sink in), and with all the weapons NYCFC has, this one should play out as a survival scenario for Chicago. They have the defense to hang in at least, but it’s still a big ask. Baby steps, baby steps.

Toronto FC v. Philadelphia Union
(Saturday, September 24, 2016, 2 p.m. PST)
Will TFC have Sebastian Giovinco for this one? Does it matter? The real question is whether the Union can run up the score enough to cover that sputtering defense. Things get interesting here: TFC’s defensive numbers look great (just 32 allowed), but they’re able to cough up goals in bunches (19 of those goals came in seven of their 29 games, 13 came in four, including last weekend against the Red Bulls). A tolerable home/away equation gives Philly another thin little thread of hope (e.g. TFC 7-2-4 at home, Philly 3-8-4 on the road), but Toronto’s balanced enough, Philly’s slowing down enough, and with TFC stuffing the other side often enough, Union fans probably ought to brace for the third loss in four games.

New York Red Bulls v. Montreal Impact
(Saturday, September 24, 2016, 4 p.m. PST)
The Red Bulls are clearly the better team, and they’re playing some of the best attacking soccer in MLS, if not the best. Montreal, meanwhile, win less often than they used to and, when they don’t win, more of those games end in losses these days than in draws. Montreal might find comfort in New York’s now well-documented penchant for blowing leads, there’s also the fun twist that Montreal has lately performed better on the road than at home. This looks like the Red Bulls’ game to lose, not least because I sometimes get the feeling Montreal’s a little unstable just now.

DC United v. Orlando City SC
(Saturday, September 24, 2016, 4 p.m. PST)
With both teams tearing at each other to climb over the red velvet playoff rope, the immediate stakes in this one are surely among the highest of the weekend. With DC a bit on the soft side at home (6-4-4), the central mystery here centers around Orlando’s mood/mindset when they show up. The Floridians have been blown out over their last two (four goals allowed in each), something that can focus the mind or scatter it. Based on what I view as their immaturity, I lean toward the latter. They probably can get away with a high-line/press against DC, though, because Ethan Finlay won’t be around to punish ‘em, and maybe that’ll help. I think Orlando takes chances in this one, or they start diverting some thought to what happens in 2017 and/or after Kaka.

Vancouver Whitecaps v. Colorado Rapids
(Saturday, September 24, 2016, 4 p.m. PST)
In terms of their broad narrative, the Rapids’ defense has sprung a few leaks; that combined with a grasping offense accounts for their little tumble from at or near the top. For all that, the Rapids go into this game with latitude to play for a draw, and, with the ‘Caps bound to push the game, a solid shot at stealing a win. The ‘Caps tip toward mediocre numbers on both goals scored (37) and goals allowed (46), a detail that hints that they’re ill-equipped to push a game, but desperate times and all that. If you throw in one of MLS’s worst home records (4-5-4), this game looks a lot like Vancouver backing nto a buzzsaw.

Real Salt Lake v. FC Dallas
(Saturday, September 24, 2016, 6:30 p.m. PST)
As noted above, RSL was just awful last weekend. At home, too. Against Houston. Their perfect home record died a horrible death, basically, and, oh look, here comes Dallas to steal another rock or two from Fortress Rio Tinto. I’m not sure it’s that simple, actually. While Dallas’ last two haven’t been perfect, wee X-factors cover both – e.g. a rested squad in the Colorado loss and road trips to Yankee’s Stadium no longer being gimmes. Going the other way, RSL beat Dallas (and Colorado) at home not so long ago. Their last two games, though...and that’s how this game, now crawling with X-factors, shapes up as pretty wide open. RSL’s spot in the standings buys them some time and space, something that should help them in that Dallas won’t be able to break toward the details in RSL’s complicated centerback situation. Anything but a win for RSL opens up the possibility of the Timbers riding their bumpers and flashing their lights to pass. Should be a good one, but it definitely matters more to RSL.

San Jose Earthquakes v. Sporting Kansas City
(Saturday, September 24, 2016, 7:30 p.m. PST)
This game, on the other hand? Probably not so good. It also promises to be underwhelming aesthetically, given that both teams play in the same rough, direct manner, only with SKC playing it a little rougher. To whet the appetite a little more, the ‘Quakes haven’t won in five and SKC hasn’t in three. San Jose has scored six over their last 10 games, so, if you’re looking for either team to do anything, the smart money goes to SKC (or demands serious odds for San Jose). The time is now for San Jose, who still has two games in hand on most of the West. Speaking for myself, and with real respect for Chris Wondolowski, I think it’s gonna take something weird for the ‘Quakes to take the three points from this one. A disheartening goal-less draw feels likelier.

Los Angeles Galaxy v. Seattle Sounders FC
(Sunday, September 25, 2016, 1 p.m. PST)
Think of the great dollops of drool that dribbled down the schedulers chins when they put this match-up on the schedule. Eh, so much for that: from what I hear, Clint Dempsey had to back out of training again, which leaves Seattle reliant on a fairly basic attack to break down one of MLS’s better defenses (and, for what it’s worth, I think this guy is right in calling Morris the true lynchpin). LA, on the other hand, has filed their September with goals (11 of ‘em) so the weight of the defending should fall to Seattle’s side. Oh, and looky here: LA is undefeated at home. Seattle still has two games in hand and, glancing at their schedule, they have two games with high potential to evaporate those as yet unused credits – this one and Dallas in the penultimate game of the season. Given (my impression of) these clubs’ competitive history (can't find it readily, don't care enough to try), Seattle might want to put a couple more apples into trying to beat Dallas. As if that’s possible.

Columbus Crew SC v. New England Revolution
(Sunday, September 25, 2016, 4 p.m. PST)
Columbus has picked up a tidy little collection of green Ws recently – one of them against New England in New England – but those Ws splash in a little puddle of red Ls. They’re up and they’re down, basically. As for New England, I said last week that winning over Montreal wouldn’t prove so much, because Montreal, at home, but three straight wins – decent ones, too – has a way of getting a club to believe. Without being able to back it up firmly, I get the impression that improved attacking displays has taken the pressure of a still-makeshift back line, a shift I’ve heard some people put down a midfield diamond. Based on what Crew SC did to Orlando last weekend, things could get interesting if the Revs push too high. The most interesting result, to my mind, would be a New England win. If the other results I’m expecting come together, the bottom half of the Eastern Conference picture would get all beautiful and blurry.

OK, that’s it for this week. I’ll be back next Monday with a fresh monstrosity of thrown-together parts.

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