Monday, October 31, 2016

MLS Conference Semifinals: An Assessment at the Break

As much as I like the playoffs better (and with how much more I’d like with the Portland Timbers still in it now officially noted), they don’t provide much space for analysis. A bunch of things happen over each 90-minute stretch (plus stoppage time), generally/interchangeably the same kinds of things that happen over 90-minute stretches (plus stoppage time) throughout the regular season, but there’s not a hell of a lot to say about coughing up three goals in 20 minutes than, “well, guess they’ll have to score four goals next Sunday.”

That’s FC Dallas’ situation, of course, after having a team-wide episode of “The Vapors” against the Seattle Sounders to start the second half. Sure, you can explore what went wrong on each of the goals (rough night for Maynor Figueroa, but the central defense wasn’t central on Seattle’s first two), but even if Dallas can fix those glitches on the return leg, it’s likely to have the same effect as pouring a glass of water on the ashes of your house after it burned down. I’m not a Dallas fan, so I’m left imagining how slowly time passed for them as Nicolas Lodeiro’s long run outside their defense reached its inevitable, agonizing climax. Personally, I had enough time for a sip of beer on either side of thinking “he’s not gonna miss that.”

That’s a huge win for Seattle, obviously, and a huge hole for Dallas. The only question left is, can Dallas make up the scorched ground? Not based on what they gave last night. Seattle held the edge all night, for one, but the blunter reality came with how much trouble Dallas had going forward. To borrow a term from’s Matt Doyle, Dallas is missing their unicorn, Mauro Diaz. Things didn’t look great when Mauro Diaz went down or anything, but his absence didn’t kill them all on its own. Now, however, when they need to find a way forward and a minimum of three times, too? No better time for magical beasts.

As for Seattle, they’re a great bet over the next 90 minutes – wouldn’t surprise me if they won in Dallas even – but dubbing them a juggernaut doesn’t hold up either.  They benefitted from a couple HUGE let-offs against Sporting Kansas City, e.g. SKC had a goal called back for offside, while their lone goal was offside, and more than SKC's, plus the question of whether or not Osvaldo Alonso should have stayed in the field. What might have been without Alonso on Sunday is a fun hypothetical, but, with both results in the books, it hardly matters. All I’m saying is that Seattle owes its current spot in the cat-bird seat to a few bad calls and twenty minutes of really shitty defending by Dallas (also, KC got reacquainted with the goal posts again). Unless Dallas makes history, Seattle will have to start fresh against either the Los Angeles Galaxy or the Colorado Rapids and I’d put money on either series looking more like what happened in KC.

So, that’s the biggest story and (probably) deadest series of the weekend. What about the rest? In order of degree of difficulty…

New York City FC developed a reputation for playing on the front foot, but they had a hell of a time leaning in against Toronto FC. Their uneven share of emergency defending stood out most over the 20-minute version of this game, but I’m not sure whether to chalk that up to formation/tactical choices, or the absences that (might have) forced those choices. How much do Andrea Pirlo’s head-of-a-pin outlet passes mean to the quality of their attack, or how much does it force a defense to stay honest? How much did it matter that NYCFC’s best chances fell to R. J. Allen on Sunday (because dude’s a fullback)? However it happened, they didn’t look like themselves, but they did survive…even if the 2-0 loss leaves them hanging over the abyss by one hand (beats Dallas’ fingertips), but, of all the teams in MLS, NYCFC has a better chance than most of coming back from 2-0 down…or of letting in a goal or two or three going the other way. Between Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco and one of the league’s better defenses, the stuff after the ellipses feels a lot more likely than the stuff before it.

Happily, the other two match-ups feel very much like anybody’s game. Full credit (and just a smidgen of hate) to the Montreal Impact for hitting the right buttons at (just!) the right moment. Their win over DC United at midweek had the same “great-day-at-the-office” feel as Seattle’s win over Dallas (e.g., mistakes (asleep) by the opposition (way too much space) made it larger), but, unlike Seattle, Montreal don’t benefit from their blowout. They carry a slim one-goal lead into the second leg against a New York Red Bulls team that looked better in every department - except the one that makes beautiful goals (nice crack, Mr. Mancosu). New York met their quota for forcing turnovers – the one where Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins and Sacha Kljestan combined to pick the ball off Ignacio Piatti speaks to how suffocating the pressure can be – and they got the ball in Montreal’s 18 time and again, but they could never punch through to goal; for a compelling sample, please see Bradley Wright Phillips late, late miss (check this clip at about 3:20 mark). I think most people expect more of the same – and I mean that literally; the Red Bulls piling on pressure and Montreal absorbing it – and that, as much as anything, speaks to the task ahead for New York.

It’ll be tough, certainly – scoring goals is hard, y’all! - but a player like Alex Muyl gets at what makes the Red Bulls a reasonable bet. Muyl’s a first year player, just 21 years old, but he fits into New York’s system because he’s both technically strong and, more significantly, smart. Having players with those same quality throughout the team fosters a mutual faith within the team that makes it possible to pull off more intricate passes, more complicated combination play, and so on. Those attributes allow inventiveness, in other words. The same thing showed up with Lodeiro when Seattle started rolling: Jordan Morris dropped this blind heel-pass into a tiny sliver of space that could only have come good if he knows Lodeiro will continue his run. And he did. Still, I’d take New York’s attack over Seattle’s most days, but Seattle has something that New York would kill for – and might have to kill for when the final whistle blows next Sunday: a sound defense. If there’s a series likely to turn on an away goal, it’s New York v. Montreal.

Finally, there’s LA v. Colorado, a good game won on an ugly goal. Still, credit the goal to Jelle Van Damme, a player I’m still kicking myself for underestimating over the first half of the regular season (or, rather, I got so caught up in his cheap fouls that I missed his considerable and varied upside); he’s a solution on both sides of the field, and players like that win teams games, even championships. Colorado required big moments from Tim Howard and Jared Watts to stay in this one, but not too many of them; this was no rout or anything. Of all the conference semifinals, this series stuck closest to the script. The Rapids managed the game well enough, but the question with them hasn’t changed: can they score? And they need to – twice now. Maybe that’s why Pablo Mastroeni opted to rest Marlon Hairston, or maybe that he was left out as a game-changer.

That’s it. I’m mostly happy about the playoffs so far, feel like the right teams are winning, etc. I’m also glad that two of the series still look like entertainment (in other words, I know who I’ll be watching next weekend). And, can I say again that I want Portland to either get Jared Watts or to find some close version of him? The Timbers need his kind of mobility back there…

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