Sunday, November 27, 2016

MLS: Seattle Clips Colorado (and Re-Ranking MLS Shields/Trophies)

Presently going for foreign language Emmy for this site.

I’m about to stomp on an enormous vat of sour grapes, but you, you are my guest. It would be rude to talk about anything other than what we came to talk about. Come. Come inside. Sit.

So, the Seattle Sounders did it, they beat the Colorado Rapids over two games and in two venues, 1-0 in Colorado today and 2-1 in Seattle last…whenever that happened. The score-line speaks the truth: the Sounders were the better team, even if just at this point in the season (wait for it). A list of reasons unfolds below, and it’s the same list that gets at why Seattle feels like a decent horse to back for lift MLS Cup on…December 10? (Jesus fucking christ, Major League Soccer, is this the playoffs or tantric sex? Can we…you know? I mean, is there some kind of award for dragging this shit out, an Emmy for delayed gratification?)

I’m going to start with Seattle, because flow (oh, I have plans, plans for all of you!). However you feel about it, Seattle is a well-constructed team. Finally. In defense, Roman Torres and Chad Marshall make for a solid, sufficiently dynamic, yet big central defensive pairing, and they have rock-solid starting fullbacks on both sides in Tyrone Mears (who is, quietly, one of MLS’s better right backs) and Joevin Jones (a fucking fast defender, and a smart one). Cristian Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso have set up a pretty sound shop in front of that back four, a shop that, as I saw it, first contained, then pushed back against Colorado’s central pairing, one hobbled today by the absence of its brain and body – e.g., Sam Cronin (could he have mattered today? Mm….look where Nelson Valdez was when he released the ball to Morris…link below).

The above list of players provides as a good foundation as any team could want in that it absorbs all the failures that the people in front of it make on their grasping way to goal; better still, it can also absorb and channel 50 minutes of pressure from another team into other, more useless gulleys, as it did in the first half today when Colorado posted 11 shots to Seattle’s one. Did any of those shots sincerely threaten the Sounders’ goal? Nope. One or two came close, but there’s a lot of good and bad rolled up into shooting through (or over) traffic, but most of it bad. Bodies in the way are, after all, bodies in the way.

Anyway, back to the foundation: when that’s around to keep things out, your offense has the chance to try, try and try again to get a goal. I’ve never experienced anything like that – i.e. knowing that, if/when I fuck up, there’ll be someone there to catch me (well, not totally true; I have good parents; won’t lie; never happened on the soccer field, tho) – and I think that’s liberating in the best way. It helps that Jordan Morris, the rookie sensation, came back to cover on defense plenty today – especially when Colorado was pressing. With the wings not working for them, Colorado pinched their attack central, and that worked like a funnel-spider’s web, so…

Morris also scored Seattle’s lone goal, and that shot commanded (by the grace of God!) that Colorado score two goals to produce the draw, something the Rapids have managed only…oh, 11 times this season. So, not that rare (source). More credit to Seattle, I guess. Morris scored off a feed from Nelson Valdez, a designated player/forward playing the end of 2016 like it was a contract year (is it?), and Morris weathered one hell of a beating today to boot (seriously, how’s the…is it the right knee, son?) and he deserved that goal. His usual partner in crime, Nicolas Lodeiro, didn’t do so much, but that’s to the point about the safety net; it lets the people above (or in front of) them to fail time and again on the way to finding a goal. On a day when the team needs just one goal to put the series beyond anything less than (somewhat) mathematical reach, that’s one hell of a blessing.

With that, let’s return to the Colorado Rapids. Maybe Cronin would have mattered, played a smarter, surer ball upfield than Dillon Powers; maybe Dominique Badji and Marlon Hairston start over Sebastian LeToux and make things go a little faster from the get-go (or maybe not; LeToux wasn’t bad), but not a TON separated the team Colorado fielded tonight from what they trotted out for most of the season (right?). And that team outplayed Seattle all night by any measure I can think of (see? (that's the boxscore, guys!)), Seattle won only “duels won,” and narrowly), and they out-shot the Sounders by a pretty damn insane margin (16 to 5). Wait, whoops! Seattle topped Colorado in one other, critical measure: shots on goal, a competition they won 3-0. And that’s probably the story.

I never underestimate the art of “getting in people’s way” – an art that, when done well, becomes defending. Colorado excels at getting in people’s way. That’s why, when I wrote up both MLS Conference Finals series in the gap in between games, I spoke of Colorado as Michael Azira in team form. Their formula isn’t so different from Seattle’s – i.e., buy time till your offense can produce - but the difference comes with the, um, difference makers. While Seattle’s supporting cast includes (sorry) mediocrities like Andreas Ivanschitz or Nelson “Contract Year” Valdez (or even the absent Erik “Freebird” Friberg (if you’ve never used that chant, Seattle, there are no excuses)), it also boasts (justified) Rookie of the Year Morris and (justified) Newcomer of the Year Nicolas Lodeiro. Against that, Colorado offers up Shkelzen Gashi, a one-legged, free-kick specialist, and Kevin “Three Goals” Doyle. Their supporting cast includes Sebastian LeToux, Dominique Badji (when they start him), Jermaine Jones (when available), Marlon Hairtson and Dillon Powers, when…look, it’s just not the same. (And, against that, Portland put Fanendo Adi and Diego Valeri...and it did us no good.)

For all that, the “who’s that?” list of players that Colorado put out all season finished 10 points and with a +6 advantage in thrown in. The Rapids were good all year…well, mostly. June 22 to August 3 didn’t look so hot, but the Rapids started and ended the year pretty goddamn well, and they handled a tough team (the Los Angeles Galaxy) in their first playoff round. Seattle, meanwhile, stunk up the league for months this season. Even if they closed like fucking bosses (9-4-4 in the second half the season), they went 5-10-2 in the first half, i.e., relegation-level soccer. And even with the good run, they finished at .500…the people we let into the club these days. Honestly…

Commencing the sour grapes segment...

Look, all this does seem unfair, at least when you look at it from, say, the outside of your team winning “the title.” When all (the good parts) of Portland were celebrating the Timbers lifting MLS Cup last year, fans across MLS were probably moaning about the thorough averageness of Portland over the course of 2015. Look, I’ve watched a lot of sports in my life and, while I might have forgotten a few things (scratch that, I’ve forgotten, like, 100), I’ve never seen a league that rewards mediocrity quite like Major League Soccer. It’s slogan should be, “MLS: The Cat with 23 Lives.”

If Seattle holds on to (most of) this team for next year, and throw in a couple upgrades, they will be very competitive in 2017. Wait, what? Will be? They should be very competitive in 2017 (because, MLS). All the same, here’s a question: competitive how?

I just did a little research on how often the Supporters’ Shield winner picks up MLS Cup as well. It’s not as rare as you might think – e.g., DC United won both in 1997, Sporting Kansas City in 2000, the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2002 and 2011, and Columbus Crew in 2008 (source, source) – but when something happens 1/4(-ish) of the time, it has some value. It’s also becoming more rare (maybe; give it time), by which I mean, 1997, 2000 and 2002 makes for a pretty tight grouping; 2008, 2011, and ____, less so. With that in mind, will all of the MLS competitions become more like horse racing - think winning the Preakness Stakes versus winning Belmont, something that bedeviled everyone for decades till American Pharaoh’s connections sorted it out in 2015 (SEE?! Everything pre-Trump was a fucking Golden Age!)?

None of this is to take away from Seattle, in the event they win MLS Cup this year. They figured their shit out at the right time, almost exactly like Portland did last season (I said almost), and that is the secret to winning MLS Cup, at least so long as you keep within touch. You could see what it meant to Osvaldo Alonso at the end of the game and, hell no, I’m not going to begrudge him that; I mean, damn, he looked so fucking happy! Still, there’s a shift in my thinking that’s been going on for a while and, in keeping with the general “thesis/antithesis/synthesis” paradigm, I have overstated the idea in the past.

Anyone who cares (I don’t) can scroll down my feed and find a poll that asked MLS fans (eh, who’m I kidding? It’s all Timbers people) if they’d rather win MLS Cup or the Supporters’ Shield. As always happens (I think), MLS Cup won that poll with bells on, and a huge middle finger flipped back at the Supporters’ Shield. I think I phrased it badly back then, or, rather, I might have reached a new conclusion at this point by thinking a little deeper. As I said then, I’d rather win the Shield (on the logic that, in the grand scheme, that would make for a happier season). I stand by that idea (see parentheses), too, because it’s true: if your team wins the Shield, you go home from regular season games happy way more often than not, because MLS. It's also the bigger accomplishment...and...definer of future...success. Shit. Shouldn't have picked that up this deep in. Don't worry...moving on. Most people will always view the team that wins MLS Cup as champion for the given season. And that’s fine. For all that, I have a separate thought.

How did I feel for most of Portland’s 2015 campaign? In a word, anxious. Seriously, had you asked most Timbers fans in August whether they thought their team would make the playoffs, they would have smiled bravely for five tics, said no, then started crying (seriously, I’m a little worried about us). Was it a good year? No, not really. I’ve heard great things about September through November, though, great things…

With that, it should be obvious that I’m not shitting on the idea of Seattle winning MLS Cup. As noted above, I think they’re as good for it as any team in MLS. What I am thinking, though, is that, next year, I will treat all three (real) trophies available to MLS Clubs (local Cups just…really?) as very different things, all while recognizing that any team that has all three within their realistic grasp at any time (e.g., FC Dallas 2015) is chasing greatness. The regular season – e.g., winning the Supporters’ Shield - will be one thing, while winning the U.S. Open Cup and winning MLS Cup will be nothing more or less than winning a tournament (with regular consistent rules; all good).

And, assuming MLS clubs start winning the CONCACAF Champions League, I’ll have something else to manage. Pretty sure I have time on that one…

So, yeah, Seattle won tonight. And they deserved too. Donald Trump is president-elect, and he didn’t deserve that…

…the only thing that connects the two events above is that they happened in the same year. Is that the Mark of the Beast? Not sure…never seen it…

Anyway, again, next year: different focus for the regular season. It’s all about the Shield.

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