With word that Major League Soccer will sit calmly, politely and (ideally) criss-cross-applesauce over the upcoming international weekend, I just realized that I don’t have to produce a Part II to this post, to your relief and mine, I’m sure. There’s even more upside: I’ve been saving this segue to the 2016 season’s final days for at least a month now, and it’s time to dust it off. Eeeee.
First, a little framing ahead of the results for MLS Week…32? I’ve been trying to come up with better framing for what matters most in MLS since before the Portland Timbers stormed MLS Cup last season (ah, memories!). “Getting hot at the right time” always felt a little broad, largely because it is. Here’s a better phrase: how a team hits the playoffs matters, maybe more than anything else. By that measure, I’d say the happiest teams hitting this post-season include: DC United, FC Dallas, and New York Red Bulls; hell, I might even throw in New York City FC, Seattle Sounders and the New England Revolution…assuming they last two make it. Seattle feels good right now, New England too, seeing as they’re playing even ball with everyone above them.
That feels like a good place to start the framing for the particular weekend just passed, because the Eastern Conference’s trio of insurgent campaigns makes for one of the better stories right now. It’s not just DC (who look great) and New England (who definitely feels hotter than their next two opponents), but Columbus Crew SC has also crashed its way into the mix. Columbus 110% has to win their next game (at Chicago) for their next two chances to feel good (and how the hell’d they end up with three road games to end the season?). Then again, just think what they’ll be if they win all those. DC and New England, though, look like real threats to the conference leaders, so, yeah, good times in the East.
Meanwhile, back in the Western Conference…look, don’t any of these teams even want to be good? I mean besides, FC Dallas. Oh, maybe throw Colorado in there, but, damn, are they dreary. As for the rest, between Real Salt Lake and the Los Angeles Galaxy on one tier, and the Timbers and Sporting Kansas City on another, frankly shittier tier, the central question about the West remains: don’t any of you assholes want this? Well, I’ll tell you who wants it: Seattle does.
Study the East really hard, though, and it’s worth putting the same question to the Philadelphia Union and, arguably, the Montreal Impact. I’m mostly convinced the Impact is implodingly awful, even if not quite so guttingly shitty as Orlando City SC, a team that, right now, defines craptastic for MLS in the latter days of 2016. Well, maybe Chicago defines it more sharply, perhaps their limbs fall off when they walk. Then again, Philly’s recent form is every coach’s nightmare. It’s a house of horrors, really, take your pick. Getting back to Orlando, though…
I thought fans would suffer a handful of meaningless games by now, games in which the match up looked pointless and, when it finally came, the result mean shit. That doesn’t happen much in MLS, as a turns out. Going into the weekend, I probably would have pointed to Columbus v. Chicago as meaningless, or even Houston v. NYCFC. I’d say the latter “lived up to its billing,” and for reasons that I’ll get into below, but Columbus’ win over Chicago buried the latter and rendered an afterlife for the former at least plausible (sorry, I’ll cut it out with the former/latter thing). Meanwhile, another two games looked interesting enough going in, only to prove meaningless in the end – here, I’m thinking Toronto FC’s groan-fest against Orlando and Dallas’ thin win over LA.
With most of the rest of the games, the stakes felt high and the games threw gasoline on the drama. There, I’d point to DC’s road win over Toronto, New England beating up the thugs from SKC at home, Seattle’s confirmation (in the full Catholic/Protestant (when denominationally appropriate) manner) away against the Vancouver Whitecaps, and, finally, and as alluded to above, Columbus’ win over Chicago, which shouldn’t have mattered, and it really might not matter in the end, but, because it happened, it did. Or does. Follow me? At any rate, let’s start with those…
The Eastern Insurgencies top the list here, and deservedly so. Of all these teams, DC looks the most self-assured and sound, with five goals scored and one allowed over two wins, one home, one away – and the away win coming against (former?) Supporters’ Shield candidate like Toronto. Toronto serves a decent poster-child for the whole idea of hitting the post-season at a stagger: one point from two home games stinks, especially with the one point you pick up coming against a team in free-fall like Orlando. When you’re playing like that, one of those fucking hideous pile-on goals (DC’s first) surely cause a team to question its competence; but allowing the second, at home, that breaks your back, then your confidence. To DC’s credit, it feels like they can throw anything out there and it’ll work (Nick DeLeon at right back? Yeah, why the hell not?).
Columbus really only deserves honorable mention in this group, because they have only nine points left to earn and they need seven of them, plus a total stall by Philly to get there. It’s a shame, really, because, one of the alleged failings for Columbus this season included slow-downs in production by Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay (and one of those was rectified this past weekend, by way of a definitive Meram-special). New England, though, is on an undeniable tear and that's a lot of what Columbus is up against. SKC helped the Revs by their ongoing reliance on the strategy of jamming a square peg through a round hole (this happened between their equalizer and the own-goal the Revs forced, plus the insurance goal), but, when it comes to Columbus, the phrase “too little, too late” springs to mind for both players and team. The same can’t be said for New England, not with Philly slumping (though Montreal’s pair of back-to-back wins probably saved their Quebecois asses!). The key differences there include Philly having one soft spot (v. Orlando), while New England has two (at (doomed) Chicago, v. Montreal); and if Kei Kamara has just one more good game (see, “insurance goal” link above), or if New England as a whole keeps playing the way they have, it’s hard (though not impossible, because MLS) to see how the Revs get locked out.
If teams rising from the depths to catch the up-currents at the right time tells a meaningful story, then Seattle has to join this conversation. Four straight wins, home and away split evenly, two of them in the same goddamn week (and one of them after a weekend where your draft pick, the guy you sold your season tickets on, blows up?): yeah, life looks good up in Seattle right now, as good as it does for any team in the Western Conference. Sure, it took a pair of (dire) mistakes from the ‘Caps – and Pedro Morales punctuated an unhelpful season with a pointlessly unhelpful moment in a crucial game - but good teams make their own luck, and faith builds on faith. Even if the goal he scored relied on sleepwalk-defending (Matias, buddy. C’mon), Osvaldo Alonso looked great against Vancouver, and him rounding into form, Roman Torres coming back, Brad Evans coming back (looking like a drunk, but still, scoring), and with Nicolas Lodeiro still in their arsenal. Shit. Just shit.
Seeing as the order doesn’t matter a ton on the last games, I think I’ll just start with the game that simmered with playoff intensity: Red Bulls' 3-2 win over Philly. I tuned in for, oh, 65-70 of the full 90 and, as tweeted in the moment, that game entertained like a roller coaster with go-go dancers and best music you ever heard blasting over the PA. These teams mirror one another’s worst habits – e.g. free-scoring, free-choking - but there never was a question of who would win, even when Philly went up early, and drew level after going down. Even with Philly’s Andre Blake heroing the shit out of this game, the result always favored The Team That Doesn’t Lose, aka the Red Bulls. And nothing defined the loss like the utterly errant headed goal the Union gifted to Dax McCarty.
As for the rest of the results, I guess the ones that matter most include Portland’s, well, stupid fucking boring, and like-a-herpes-rash terrible loss to Colorado, I mean, what a shit-show (elaborated upon, here), but full credit to Colorado and, again, can I just explain why I see a player like Sam Cronin as an MVP? I say that because he defines how Colorado plays, for good or ill. For instance, his omnipresence in defense makes him close to a third (fourth?) central defender for the Rapids, while, at the same time, he’s pushed into the attack a fair amount, where he produces…less than a fair amount. Basically, there’s a reason why Colorado’s ceiling sits so low, but they're getting results, might even win the Shield. And Cronin was the biggest part of that, at least arguably. Just sayin'. As for Portland…look, just hit that “here” link above, I said more than enough.
San Jose, now there’s an interesting case. They started Week 32 by losing by winning at Montreal (e.g. carrying the game, but losing it by goals; which is losing it), and ended it with a question-begging win over RSL. For instance, did Simon Dawkins accidentally define the ‘Quakes’ season, by which I mean, had he shown up more often (as he did against RSL; and that's just pretty, honestly), would he have given San Jose a better season. Also, why didn’t San Jose use Anibal Godoy as an attacking player more often, because they already know what Khari Stephenson can do on a good night, and why the Hell doesn’t Shea Salinas start every game, no seriously? As for RSL, they’re among the most confidence-crippled teams coming into the MLS post-season. In spite of the press (not my fault; I’m too small to matter), the Armenian Burrito Plata never came out of the kitchen, so RSL’s offensive potency never went fully erect (sorry). RSL’s defensive mess/confusion shows more and more down the stretch. This team has no answers right now, only probing.
OK, as for the rest, Orlando v. Montreal looked pretty damn boring. Kaka ran wild early, and he had a couple nice moments late when Julio Baptista came on, still; Orlando might have looked the better team, even clearly, but they never looked like they’d score (Cyle Larin had a great shot, tho). All it took, in the end, was a couple good performances by guys like Ambrose Oyongo and Wandrile Lefevre, somewhat anonymous ploggers in the grand scheme of the team, and even smaller on the league stage. Boom, 0-1 win (?) to Montreal. I don’t think any team’s in free-fall quite like Orlando…well, except maybe RSL. Well, Philly’s pretty shitty, too, and so’s Chicago. At any rate, this matters because Montreal owes its success to some narrow circumstances. Put another way when they beat Toronto in Montreal. Where they’ve been bad. And that’s weird. It’s just weird.
Finally, Dallas beat LA 1-0 by keeping them the hell away from their goal and by dominating, like, 20 minutes of the game, then sending that big oaf Walker Zimmerman in to score. And probably to make weird faces. If you're looking for something stronger, more defining, consider how Michael Barrios terrorized the crap out of LA's old dudes. At any rate, Dallas is good. The standings show it. Also, LA has only two wins in their last 12 games. And those happened v. Columbus and v. Orlando. Pretty sure that says something.
Due to time/flow constraints, I’m going to close this post with a random number of observations. Won’t take long. Promise.
- I think Columbus has a dilemma with Gregg Berhalter, and I mean behind the two “g’s” in his first name. With Crew SC ending strong enough, can they fire him before the end of next year? Should they?
- Was the arrival of the “youth movement” – e.g. Jay Chapman, Jonathan Osorio, Marky Delgado, and…others, the false flag of Toronto FC’s summer of love?
- Can you see the current NYCFC club in the CONCACAF Champions’ League? Me neither.
- Call Dilly Duka my primary argument for squad rotation. A guy that marginal needs more playing time, more reps. That goes double when a team knows a key player (Federico Higuain) as well as they do. What happens when Higuain goes down (as he has). And Duka scored. From a central role. And he’s playing behind Tony Tchani (who is where? concussed?). Duka looked good in spite of it all, but how much better could he have looked.
- Oh, while I’m on it, Philly’s two injuries against the Red Bulls seemed bad. I should check on those. (At a glance, they look pretty meaningless.)
- I’m utterly fascinated to see how Jason Kreis’ journey pans out. We know what he did with RSL, we know what happened at NYCFC (as well as what's happening after under Patrick Vieira), now we get to see what happens in Orlando. The Floridians ain't soarin' (as pointed out above), but I have to think he’s the guy telling them to play that (again, disastrous; the central defenders, especially, fell behind the play twice, at least) high line (bit again; twice, too), but I also think he’ll get a shot at a re-haul. Still, how long does he have? Two more questions related thereto…
- While in Orlando, does Kreis go with the “DP-model” (e.g. Kaka, Baptista) or the team-based model (e.g. RSL, lots of teams)? I’m guessing he goes team-based.
- How long are the following coaches leashes (listed in order of their expected demise): Craig Robinson, Berhalter, Mauro Biello, Jim Curtin, Dominic Kinnear, Jay Heaps, Caleb Porter, Ben Olsen? I see bloody thrones in the year ahead…
- Finally, if I advised an MLS team (c’mon, Caleb; just pick up the damn phone), I would tell them they should never buy a DP over 34, not unless using his name getting asses in seats is literally all you expect to get from the season ahead. Put another way, and tying in a number of points above, if you’re not planning for at least two years out, at least two years, why bother?
OK, all for next week. I’ll squeeze in a preview post next week sometime. Off for the weekend, YAY!!