Monday, December 12, 2016

The Late (Late) Tackle, 12 12 2016: The Expansion Draft, Data on Cup v. Shield, and an Accidental MLS 2016 Review

At least one metaphor for what MLS needs right now.
A couple items tonight, one actual contemporary commentary, the other clean up from yesterday. In order of urgency…which depends on how one defines urgency, I guess.

The Expansion Draft, and the Portland Timbers, and the Expansion Draft
As has already been discussed on twitter today, and at some length and in some depth, all of Major League Soccer clubs made their (not really) Sophie’s Choice as to which players on their rosters to protect, and which to offer up to…the Germans? (Pretty sure it’s the Germans in Sophie's Choice, but not sure on the iteration of Germans – e.g. the thwarted imperialists, or the actual dickheads (e.g. Nazis)).

At any rate, Portland cast the following to the Huns (jingo!): Dairon “On Loan” Asprilla, Jack “Not Nick” Barmby, Nat “Retired?” Borchers, Kennedy “JK!” Igboananike, Chris “Who?” Klute, Jack “What The Hell?” McInerney, Jermaine “Conifers & Citrus Player of the Year” Taylor, Steven “Please Go” Taylor, Zarek…wow, there are, like, a lot of dudes listed here. OK, the rest are Zarek “Don’t Care” Valentin, Ben “Still here?” Zemanski, Nick “Forgotte…look, never mind. I’m getting closer to “full asshole” with each nickname, so I’ll shut that off before feelings get hurt (and folks start making assumptions). The point is, the Timbers didn’t expose a lot in the way of “key” personnel. Also, that’s not necessarily a comment on the quality of the players exposed. Some of those shitty nicknames notwithstanding, on the other hand...

In all honesty, last season was bad enough that I’d like to think even the “safe players” (bar, seriously, three) experienced a little heart flutter when the list went out. Gentlemen…

As for the Expansion Draft as a whole, I guess the only thing left to ask is which players I would take if I were either Atlanta or Minneapolis FC United (gotta say, the unoriginality/overlap in those team names has its upside). And, here’s that, followed by a brief explanation for each choice.

Collen Warner, Houston Dynamo (quality d-mid, if you need to go defensive, ever)
Marc Burch, Colorado Rapids (a good crossing/passing left back, 2 good years left?)
Jared Watts, Colorado Rapids (I’m stupid high on this kid)
Chris Korb, DC United (right back who can attack, and well enough)
Toisant Ricketts, Toronto FC (an impact sub-forward, for at least a month)
Ken Tribbett, Philadelphia Union (young centerback, looked OK; why not try to level up?)
Dominic Oduro, Montreal Impact (he’s 31, never stops causing problems, even in his off years)
Clint Irwin, Toronto FC (competition at ‘keeper from Day 1)
Zach Lloyd, FC Dallas (29, versatile across defense; good defender who lost his place)
Sheanon Williams, Houston Dynamo (guess I think good fullbacks are hard to find)

As I look at that list above, I see a mix of decent talent (Watts, Korb, and Tribbett, if less so), plus a lot of steady performers, even guys who can change a game here and there (Oduro…mystified that Montreal exposed him; and Ricketts). I don’t think any team dips looks to the Expansion Draft and expects to see stars, so young guys a team can level up; players who look reliable in a given position, and in positions no club is likely to prioritize when scouting; and good flexible guys who know the league and who can cover (Lloyd and Watts): the other guys, I just like for some damn reason. And I left a lot of players I respect off that list. Breaks the heart…moving on...

Testing My Copy for Bullshit
In the finale to yesterday’s post about this site leaning into favoring the Supporters’ Shield over MLS Cup (and reviewing MLS Cup 2016), I posited the following:
“MLS Cup is nothing more or less than the team that gets hot at the right time, and it could be, literally, anyone...which sounds OK when I write it, but, all the same....say, there’s something to track: how well has the MLS Cup winner done in subsequent Champions League campaigns the year after?”
And, further down:
“If you look at the teams who do well year-after-year, and all season long, I’m guessing the track closer to Supporters’ Shield winners than MLS Cup winners. First, duh! Because winning the Supporters’ Shield grows from consistency (STUPID!)…”
(No, not my most mature arguments. Look, it’s 2016, we’re all tired, hitting myself in the head with a brick sounds more appealing than some conversations, and so on.) Still, I totally looked it up, that whole idea about the Shield winner performing better year after year than the Cup winner. I tracked this on two paths…

This measure worked out pretty well – e.g. look at which team won the Shield, and which the Cup and look at how each of them did over the subsequent CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) campaign. As we all know the hard, bitter experience, very, very few MLS teams ever do well in the CCL, which is why this chart expands rightward to acknowledge exits in the semifinals (#ParticipationRibbon). Bigger picture, and this should be acknowledged first, this is a small sample; not only has the CCL thing fairly recent, I’m not sure clubs aren’t adjusting (even if unconsciously) to a Shield v. Cup mind-set (maybe I’m merely moving with the zeitgeist?). Second, the CCL changed formats starting in 2012, where they went from four four-team groups, to eight three team groups, a change that helped more MLS clubs reach escape the Group Stages, and to generally good effect – except the 2014-15 campaign, which, total shit-show (for Cup and Shield; bravo, DC, who won the U.S. Open Cup (and had the horrible season in the same year) - while likely also abetting a plan to keep the American teams away from the Mexican teams (AH! piranhas!) for as long as possible. It’s working lately. Or MLS clubs are improving…I swear, dicker with the metrics and suddenly you have no idea…

As implied above, the results are inconclusive, but also close enough to my thesis let me pretend I see a trend. Generally, though, the decisive factor was the quality of the relevant MLS club. Historically good teams – e.g., the Columbus Crew team that won Cup and Shield in 2008 (sorry, super late links), then went on to win the Shield in 2009, survived the old format to the quarterfinals; or the RSL team that won the 2009 Cup, but also went on to punch heavy in MLS circles through 2013, at least; the Los Angeles Galaxy clubs that dominated the early 2010s, especially the 2010-2012 editions – all put a decent mark on the CCL, and RSL the best in 2010 (until the Montreal Impact's odd-ball 2014-15 run). In the most recent years, though – a time I’m dating back to 2013 - the Shield-winning team has generally fared better. Sometimes it was a matter of narrowly outperforming the Cup winner, other times (like, say, 2016) it was the Shield team genuinely doing better.

At any rate, this whole swirling mess between Shield, Cup and CCL – and, can I make another motion here, specifically that the CCL spot now reserved for the winner of the U.S. Open Cup goes to the Shield runner-up – will likely evolve. Every team builds with an eye to winning all three trophies – the CCL will remain a pipe-dream till further notice – or…I don’t know, maybe they don’t. Maybe the season just goes on to a point where any given team with enough points suddenly realizes, “guys, get this: we’re in the hunt for the Treble.”

And then their dreams die one by one…moving on.

After taking a look at which teams enjoyed measurable success within MLS, specifically, after Shield and/or Cup winning years, what I can say is, 1) I feel way less down about Portland’s 2016 right now; and 2) before you start, remember that you’re dealing with an ever-so-slightly fucked-up league when it comes to repeatable patterns…and then make your own peace with that.

My point is that I made the mistake of studying this by checking to see how each Cup and Shield winner did in the subsequent season – but in a very specific way that barely relates to MLS’s competitive realities. I checked the standings. That’s it. And it tells you less now than it did at the dawn of the CCL Era. Or, to tie back into a point up top, the better teams – e.g. Columbus 2008-09 and LA 2010-12 bend the data to irrelevance; those were good teams, so they kept winning shit; when the same doesn't hold, e.g. the past couple seasons, maybe, it doesn't. If you look at the standings, and the standings alone, you’ll see the Cup and Shield winners both finishing 3rd in its conference the following year; these teams have actually finish 4th or 5th more often lately, mostly in the playoffs, but barely, and sometimes not.

And that’s where I’ll end this post. There is no great team in Major League Soccer right now. A couple teams feel more ascendant than others – here, I’d drop in FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls, probably Toronto and Seattle – and some clubs have a couple good bricks for a foundation, but, all in all, the margins are tighter. I know that's planned (parity/salary cap), but, as someone who likes having a guiding North Star to help make sense of things, I'm feeling a little rudderless out here. Even the "ascendant" clubs will lose key players in two, three years, which means they'll have to figure out something between here and there, and that's nothing like automatic. Basically, LA 2010-2012 (with an echo in 2014; Cup year) might have been the last consistently able club that MLS has known; RSL 2009-2013 comes in with a loud shout (and arguably as the more talented club), but they're pretty well done now. The question is, does a team rise from the ashes, or does one of the "ascendant" clubs named above win one of the two big trophies in 2017?

If not, next year will end the same as this one: without a clear bar for the rest of the teams to clear.

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