Sunday, November 6, 2016

MLS Conference Semifinals Wrap: On Joining the Chess Club

This would be better, more epic, but we live in the world in which we live.

Well, that happened. The games started, the games ended, stuff happened. The end. For four teams, anyway.

The better question is, was I entertained? Going in, Colorado Rapids v. Los Angeles Galaxy looked like the tallest order entertainment-wise – i.e., could LA muster enough attack on the road to make Colorado sweat, and can the Rapids even freakin’ score? – but, for people with an appreciation for watching chess played very, very slowly, and, at times, badly (see; the Marlon Hairston wing experiment*), it wasn’t torture or anything. Colorado answered their question and LA didn’t, so the Rapids roll on with a 1-1 home draw, finished off with penalty kicks.

As for the games involving both of Major League Soccer’s New York franchises, my kids still have questions about those that and, as a loving parent, I’m not sure I know how to answer…

…I kid. Both New York teams got rolled like white-collar drunks (would that the world worked the same way). Because I had daydreams of MLS’s first subway series, yeah, I’m a little pissed that neither New York team managed to get a toe-hold in either game. No, not even a pinky nail (and disgusting) The New York Red Bulls had the better chance, see, the kick; penalty, for Sacha Kljestan. But he shanked it, got tagged in his considerable proboscis for his efforts, and, after two Ignacio Piatti goals landed on either side of a goal from Bradley Wright-Phillips that was almost two games too long coming, the Montreal Impact handed the Red Bulls their second loss in a row, 2-1 this time and in New York. Montreal deserved the series, no question, especially after New York had some serious good times late in the season (e.g. the streak without a loss), the kind that, for all the cracks, fill people with belief that good will triumph over evil…

…yeah, not so much out there in Harrison.

The other New York game…hold on, are the kids gone? OK, it was bad. Early, often, late…it was watching your best friend vomit and pee on himself while he’s crying about his break up…

Sorry, that was stream of consciousness (kind of fun, too), but, no, New York City FC played that game as if they got paid to throw it. Before you say if Election 2016 has shown us anything it’s the peril of promoting conspiracies, I say to you, what the hell was Maxime Chanot doing with a clearance toward goal when he didn’t have to make it? And four goals down? Also, how to explain two back-passes to Toronto players in or near Zone 14 (one of them Sebastian Fucking Giovinco) and wide open spaces, passes that would do any attack proud? And, when you’re struggling for bright sides in the depths of the couch cushion, and you come out with, hey, at least Sebastian Giovinco didn’t get his hat trick, #lastshredofdignity. And then Sebastian Giovinco got his hat trick with that freaky dipping thing he fired past that huge Scandinavian guy, whose name escapes me. #JoshSaundersForever. (I’m kidding. I’ll stop with the hashtag gag.)

And, finally, the second result in the Western Conference might have proved the (two-year-)old adage that the Eastern Conference is the more vulnerable. FC Dallas defended its home ground even more resolutely than Colorado with a 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders…but it availed them nothing. Those dastardly twenty second-half minutes in Seattle left a stain (pick yer substance) too damn rubbed in to wash out. Dallas clearly looked the better team today, chipped in two goals and generally had Seattle on the back foot, but that didn’t matter against the backdrop of the as heretofore biggest fuck-up of #MLSPlayoffs2016 (sorry; and I mean coughing up those three goals).

Anyway, there were good goals out there today, great ones, too. But the real stories about today revolved around narratives. As noted above, Colorado answered the question put to them (yes, we can score, and how! (see link above under "great ones"); further, they reinforced their defining story line – e.g., the one about being goddamn near impossible to score against, especially at home (seriously, watch the pieces shift and snap together as the ball goes from side to side; Seattle will have to play vertically, or switch way faster to get around/through Colorado). So, what were the rest of the stories?

New York Red Bulls: Can they protect their glass jaw?
Answer: Nope, not against Ignacio Piatti. (And there’s some injustice here, in that Chris Duvall put out his share of fires during the game, but he got burned for the first, back-breaking goal by Piatti).

One more thing on the Red Bulls: Montreal absolutely reduced New York to crosses, and away from their upside – i.e., those swift, interchanging passes New York uses to break down any defense that doesn’t track each and every run. It’s brutal when it works, and maddening when it doesn’t. So that’s  the Red Bulls out, and Montreal walking away with someone else’s wallet.

One more, one more thing: it was a genuine pleasure watching Bradley Wright-Phillips and Laurent Ciman duel today. That’s good stuff that the league needs more of.

Montreal Impact: Can they withstand a storm?
Answer: Yep, and, golly, if they don’t look like the team that came as close as any team in MLS history to winning the CONCACAF Champions League. When a team knows what it’s about, it’s dangerous. Related/unrelated, I’ve been tinkering with this formation concept that I call the 4-2-WTF, an idea that basically amounts to clearly defined roles for some collection of players, but complete chaos up above. I’d say Montreal’s doing something closer to a 4-3-WTF, but that works when you’ve got an open-spaced/closed-quarters maestro like Piatti running around out there.

To put this another way, Montreal has returned to the defensive scheme that worked so brilliantly in the earliest days of the season. If the final pits them against Colorado, it’ll look like soccer did to Kent Brockman in that one episode of The Simpsons.

New York City FC: Can they run the score up high enough?
Answer: So…do the players just hate Patrick Vieira, or….?
The weird thing about this game is that Frank Lampard – and hats off to him, especially after his tricky tenure in MLS – looked as dangerous as anyone for NYCFC. I saw David Villa put a couple shots near-ish to goal, and Andy Pirlo had some moments (and some failures) over the 20-minute condensed thing, but the only other guy who showed up was J. R. Allen…and the cameos didn’t help the film. The fact is, NYCFC got run over, and by a better team.

If the end-season of MLS points to any lesson, it’s that unbalanced teams get undone in the end. New York City FC has too much age in its spine, a detail that allows them to be ruthlessly competent, but to take over a game? It’s not like old times, guys, but congrats on vindicating the hell out of 2015. The New York Red Bulls tilted the field forever forward, but they couldn’t handle the counter-punches, the times when Piatti hit back (or DC United, or, intriguingly, Toronto).

Toronto FC: Can they break the curse?
Answer: Yes. I have nothing to add.
OK, yes. That 3-5-2 looks really good right now. I don’t think Toronto has faced any great tests as yet, but….well, that’s the Eastern Conference, right? Either Montreal puts up a fight or they don’t. I think the bigger point is that the Eastern Conference Final will feature two fairly smothering midfields topped by two corps of attacking talent – e.g. Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco and…Touissant Ricketts? Jonathan Osorio?; versus Ignacio Piatti and Matteo Mancosu, and…Didier Drogba? Dominic Oduro? I can keep naming guys, but…

The Eastern Conference Final should be tight. Toronto won’t push the game like the Red Bulls, because no one can do it like them (not that it mattered), but Toronto will also be harder to break down and, depending on where the line of engagement winds up, this game, no, the entire series might be a midfield scrum with the ball squirting out to one side of the other periodically. Maybe Toronto tears it open, or maybe Montreal pulls off an early sneak attack, but, barring either scenario a World War I-esque slog will decide the East. Barring the Canadians arriving...

The Western Conference final has a little more potential, but just about all o’ that depends on the guys in Rave Green. I don’t know the extent of Shkelzen Gashi’s ankle injury (and I’m not gonna look either), but him going down isn’t really the end for the Rapids, so much as the start of a new approach. Gashi is/was a weird player, someone not eager to lead the line, but also a better shooter than a passer from a deeper role. If Gashi didn’t end the season as the Rapids leading goal scorer, I don’t know who did, but he was close, he took a lot of their free kicks and, in his weird way, Gashi was a complicated player for other teams to manage.

Assuming he’s gone (looked pretty bad), Colorado has the guys to replace him, they just do different things. Sebastian LeToux played alongside Gashi today, but he’s probably the most analogous player if they want to go that way. Incredibly, Kevin Doyle doubled down on his version of doing everything a forward does well except score (the guy even almost pooched his penalty in the shootout), while both Dominique Badji and Dillon Powers came on and…continued to come close and frustrate, respectively. Marlon Hairston looked best in every position except the one where Colorado needs him – e.g. to provide width on either side. Late (late) in the game, Colorado attempted to get more width in the attack, * pulling Hairston out wide right to go one-on-one against Ashley Cole (deep cut, right?). It didn’t go…terribly, but Colorado enjoyed none of the smooth penetration they enjoyed earlier…when Hairston was managing transition.

I read somewhere (think it was Matt Doyle) that Colorado attacks narrow, and that held for a lot of today. That set up favors Gashi, a player who loves bombing from range, but it continued after he left, along with the logic for continuing it. Colorado tried the wide stuff later, and it yielded a couple chances, but the game went to penalty kicks all the same. Kicks that Colorado ultimately won, and comfortably, and that's worth putting a pin in…(as in, this team looks pretty solid for winning penalty kick shoot-outs).

Seattle Sounders: Would they take the next step in the path toward Juggernaut?
Answer: No, Dallas looked the better team, but they didn’t get played off the park, either.
Where to set the bar for Seattle got complicated by the hype from that first leg. I think there’s an eagerness to get excited about the Nicolas Lodeiro/Jordan Morris partnership that comes preciously close seeing signs of it in tea leaves. It’s a thing of beauty when it works, but Dallas not only contained Seattle attack fairly well on Sunday, they put up enough chances to have the potential to win it…even if said potential stuck firmly in the realm of the theoretical (see, the decent/blown chances for Walker Zimmerman).

Seattle has more options than that, and that’s significant. Based on the 20-minute game, Joevin Jones pushed the attack as well as any Sounder tonight, and Nelson Valdez continues to find good runs. Tyrone Mears is no one to dismiss either. That’s all well and good, but, holy shit, is Colorado hard to break down. Sure, teams have done it, but not a lot of them. And at home? Forget about it. Their home defensive record is the stuff of legends. Or a sleep aid, but I digress.

As with the LA series, Colorado’s fate turns on keeping the series close. The only team that can stop them from doing that is Seattle. But Colorado’s really hard to score on, so it all gets very circular…

Anyway, I think both of these series shape up as defensive duels, if for different reasons. Seattle and Toronto bring the better aesthetics, Montreal the elegant counterstroke, Colorado the stubborn refusal and eye for the main chance. These games won’t be bad to watch – all the teams have proved they’re good right now – but I’m not counting on open-ended dazzlers. Just more chess.

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