Saturday, April 22, 2017

Toronto FC 3-1 Chicago Fire: Art and Scaffolding

Yep. Down to the visage of grim concentration.
After watching Toronto FC knock off the Chicago Fire 3-1 in Toronto, I logged out of MLS Live confident that the first headlines I read would hail the return of Sebastian Giovinco. And, yep. That’s entirely understandable because goals win games, after all, and Giovinco played like a man seeking to make whole his wounded professional pride…

…and, side bar, I think that’s what MLS really needs when it comes to foreign players; guys who play as if the stumbles they encounter in MLS somehow invalidates their accomplishments elsewhere. (Another sidebar: or guys like Diego Valeri, who feels a like an orphan who found a home.)

I’m going to lean into another cliché to explain this win: Toronto won this game in the middle of the field. Toronto’s trio – which put Michael Bradley in the hole behind Victor Vazquez and Marky Delgado – simply overwhelmed Chicago’s duo of Dax McCarty and Juninho, with Bastian Schweinsteiger in front of them; congrats to Toronto, too, for being the first MLS team to contain Schweinsteiger…proves it can happen. In recent weeks, Chicago has been able to get the ball in, near, and around the top of a team’s defensive third and keep the ball in there; they worked combinations from there (like this) that led to goals. Toronto’s midfield – and especially its back three – stepped aggressively to keep that area clear; any time it got in there, their defense swarmed to either pick the ball clean or force a bad pass.

Chicago couldn’t get a damn thing going as a result. The broadcast threw up another cliché – e.g., that Chicago was “having trouble getting hold of the ball” – and I landed on a more nuanced connotation for that concept, one broader than possession. Think of it as “handle” in basketball, something closer to a lack of control; Toronto basically strangled off Chicago’s preferred paths to goal and that killed them. A moment came around the 60th minute when Schweinsteiger made a clear attempt to haul the game onto his shoulders, but Toronto swallowed that up too. Pretty impressive outing.

Monday, April 17, 2017

MLS Week 7 Review: The Good, The Bad, The Tough

MLS. Only with fewer restraining variables.
First, the data dump.

Philadelphia Union 0-2 New York City FC
Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 Seattle Sounders
San Jose Earthquakes 1-1 FC Dallas
Montreal Impact 2-1 Atlanta United FC
Orlando City SC 2-1 Los Angeles Galaxy
Chicago Fire 3-0 New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls 2-0 DC United
Columbus Crew SC 2-1 Toronto FC
Houston Dynamo 2-2 Minnesota United FC
Colorado Rapids 1-2 Real Salt Lake
Portland Timbers 0-1 Sporting Kansas City

Those are all the games played and entered into the official record in Major League Soccer’s Week 6.5 (look, I know it’s annoying, but the calendar self-corrects, I think, Week 12). The question is what to make of them. To take a wild stab at that…

Tangoing Narratives
The low-hanging stories noted the weekend full of comebacks and late (sometimes late, late) goals. It’s not so much that both of those things aren’t some combination of fun and important, but San Jose has to squint tight to see inspiration in its late equalizer and David Villa’s amounts to a genius fuck-around and little more, but teams like Montreal, Orlando and Real Salt Lake came by the little spring in their steps honestly. I have solid arguments for all the above (San Jose needed every one of those 90 minutes for that one goal, Philadelphia is depressingly terrible [sad emoji], any win over the heretofore nettlesome Atlanta earns a little bump (especially when well corralled; red card helped), LA has the rep, even as they’re riding it beyond its legs, and any sign RSL can win sans snow is a good thing, respectively), but, all the usual caveats apply: we’re only 6 games into the season (for most teams…hold on…still wrapping my head around how…5 teams have played 7 games…MMMaatttthhhh……….), and, as always, MLS is a random-number generator in league form – and ain’t it a downer that I can’t get some crack about 20-sided dice in here? (22 teams…who does your branding, MLS?)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Portland Timbers 0-1 Sporting Kansas City: Say, That's Not Right (But It Is)

First, some context: my wife and I had gone on a date prior to the game, and that put me about two sheets to the wind at kickoff. I made it through the game, and then some, but I think I wrapped myself in Sheet 4 or 5 somewhere in there and, in every sense except actually being asleep, called it a night. With that in mind, I’m going to approach this from an impressionist angle.

A feeling sums up the Portland Timbers’ 0-1 loss at home to Sporting Kansas City: a sense of vague yet persistent frustration. Every time a Portland player faced an obstacle, he did it knowing that another obstacle stood beyond that one, and so on to what felt like infinity for some damn reason (or maybe Sheet 3, but I digress). By game’s end, most Timbers players looked not so much tired, as weary*. Enervation in game form: that’s what Saturday’s loss felt like. Running, but never moving, Sisyphus putting his shoulder to the rock again, etc.

Something told me that Portland would never score. I can’t even peg the time this occurred to me – did that come to me before or after KC scored their goal? – but I think I’d experience the former as resignation and the latter as despair, and how far are those two things, really? No team in MLS has had much luck breaking down KC this season, but the Timbers seemed likelier than most teams to do it. Instead, we got a double-layered shit sandwich: a loss at home against a Western Conference rival and an indication that KC’s has both the system and the intent to put their opponents in a submission hold for the length of the 2017 season. They’ll choke off games, basically, and that’s boring, but effective. And boring.

I just sat through the condensed game to fan the fires of memory a little, and here’s where I pick up that asterisk. * Portland’s best chances came late, so my memory failed me a little on that detail (but is that timing issue relevant? you be the judge), but I still maintain there’s a reason my chief mental impression of the night featured Diego Valeri seeming to just scream at referee, Drew Fisher. From the looks of it, it just came out as “WWWAAAAAAHHHHHH!!” It’s like Valeri performance-arted The Scream live, on-field, only instead of wailing about the horror of existence, his felt more like "do you believe this fucking guy?" as a madman's bellow. At least that’s how I remembered it…

Orlando City SC 2-1 Los Angeles Galaxy: Stage Fright?

Don't know what it is either. Just found it under "stage fright."
It’s not even summer and it already sucks to play in Orlando. As the broadcast booth reminded viewers incessantly during the game, Orlando has won every home game in their new stadium; at four games, that’s more than any other team in Major League Soccer history. That’s neat and impressive, certainly, but it’s a stretch to call Orlando a well-oiled machine.

Consider Orlando’s opening goal: Will Johnson can and will make that aggressive run (especially if one told him he could not), but I’d bet he doesn’t score that goal more than once in every 20 attempts. it was a wild shot, basically, one that took a lucky strike to go where it did. Next, consider Orlando’s most dangerous player on the day, Carlos Rivas. The more I watched Rivas – a fast player, certainly, but one whose speed papers over his technical deficiencies – the more he felt like a human embodiment of Orlando as a team; he, like them, is capable, but he’s not even sort of elegant. All in all, Orlando has a plan to beat opponents, but it feels closer to accurate to describe said plan as “concocted,” as opposed to “constructed.”

The Los Angeles Galaxy was the team they beat (2-1…am I just getting to that?), but it was close and came late, which just means it followed a familiar script for this weekend (lots o’ late goals). Cyle Larin bagged the winner around the 90th minute by overpowering Jermaine Jones in the area – and that also felt fitting. Jones spent too much of this game distracted by bullshit to the point of near-disengagement, so one final switch off wrapped things up nicely (or, in fairness, maybe Larin’s just too damn big for Jones). Jones, along with the rest of LA took far too long to get started; they might have even owed their late little roll to a couple personnel and formation changes by Orlando’s Jason Kreis (lookin’ at Luis Gil for Cristian Higuita, in particular). Whatever caused it, a handful of players bestirred themselves to give Romain Alessandrini – who has been LA’s only reliable danger-man – some goddamn help out there. Yes, even Giovani dos Santos.

If that sounds hard on the latter, blame anyone who talked up how LA would become dos Santos’ team in 2017. On the evidence (and with one big exception), he doesn’t seem to want it. If there’s a strange sub-plot in this whole thing, it’s the fact that LA looked better, more polished on those occasions when they did things well. Orlando, for their part, scored just one more goal and that’s what matters.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 Seattle Sounders: On Keeping the Dam Whole

Like this, only shoved into a dam.
More games should end like this one did. The Seattle Sounder pushed against the Vancouver Whitecaps’ defense with what looked like the pressure of water pouring through a crack in a dam, but the defense held using the familiar tactic of stuffing body after body after body into the crack (again, soccer shows the way; we can only pray that hydro-engineers will listen) and the ‘Caps held on to beat the Sounders 2-1. When it wasn’t David Ousted (who’s doing better, even if he’s still shaky by his former standards), it was Tim Parker and Kendall Waston. Or even Sheanon Williams.

From the Seattle Sounders standpoint, though, they need to ask themselves why they held back for as long as they did. Seattle can answer that however they like, but I’d like to nominate a one-word answer: complacency. Vancouver started as the visibly weaker team; Seattle, meanwhile, looked fluid and comfortable, their players moving the ball easily in a way that showed a shared understanding of where the other players should be and where they want the ball. As Vancouver eased into the game – aka, once they stopped just passing the ball to the touchline or even the nearest Sounder – they started to take it over. What’s more, ‘Caps players started picking off Seattle’s passes – and that’s how Seattle’s strength – i.e., knowing where to find their players – became a weakness. It got to where Vancouver’s players knew where to find them too.

Seattle took too long to adjust; their late dominance might have been an illusion, the product of Vancouver bunkering to defend their lead (and was that the right choice? Did weary legs dictate the choice?). And I think that’s what I mean by complacency: it’s the theory that Seattle (perhaps like the Portland Timbers in 2016) came into the season sticking with the overall approach that won them MLS Cup. That ties into the cliché about championship teams having targets on their backs, a concept I’ve never really attached any meaning to till now. Maybe opposing teams do study the champs a little more carefully. And that obliges the champs to keep things fresh. Or to see that crown get knocked off their heads.

Anyway, that’s just a theory. This was a good win for Vancouver, an unlikely team that now has two big “on-paper” wins under the belt in this young season (Seattle this week, and the Los Angeles Galaxy a couple weeks back). As for Seattle, look, I could be writing an entirely different post if either of Clint Dempsey’s shots off the woodwork went in, or if Ousted didn’t make two back-to-back saves early in the second. None of that came off: Dempsey was the only positive in the Sounders attack for too long, and that’s how you lose games.

OK, let’s close this out with some notes on both teams.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

MLS Week 5.5 (or 6) Review: Relativity, Near and Far

“a game like this was the difference between traveling to Ohio in 2015 vs. HOSTING MLS CUP. I'm ready to get weird.”
- Ben Stern, @BumpKickSpike
That tweet not only neatly finishes a thought I left unfinished in my write-up on the Portland Timbers’ 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union, it contains the essentials of the point I want to make about Major League Soccer, Week 5.5 (yeah, yeah, Week 6; no, I haven’t let it go).

Using the power of denial (vested in me, and us all, by the President of the United States), I argued in that post that the Timbers have always been good on the road. That wasn’t true in 2016, of course, but it holds a full bucket of water both in the year referenced above (2015) and in 2014, when the Timbers went 7-6-4 on the road. They also didn’t make the playoffs that season, that due mostly to a maddening inability to put up Ws at home (so many ties; and, since I looked, 2013 was sorta freaky, too, seeing as Portland came within a gasp of winning the Supporters’ Shield with a 3-4-10 road record; call it a pint in a bucket).

I didn’t note it up top (in order to connect it to this point), but Portland’s road record in 2015 was 7-8-2. To read the tea leaves he left behind (and, please, correct the record if I’m boning this, sir), Mr. BumpKickSpike doesn’t explicitly argue from the Timbers road record – I think his actual example references not dropping stupid points (jesus…again, sorry Philly; you’re an unofficial adoptee this season, I swear) – but my reference to road records hints at the maddening webs of vagaries that define success and failure in Our Special Little League, MLS.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Philadelphia Union 1-3 Portland Timbers: Situation...Just Normal

We got a good thing going...
I just watched the condensed version of the Portland Timbers depressing (for some) 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union (yeah, it’s those guys I’m talking about). I wanted to tour the details one more time, even as I don’t think anyone can bend, shape and squeeze them into any kind of revelatory permanence. By that I mean, this one’s all about the narrative, because the details don’t look to have changed all that much.

To quickly review those details, however, Darlington Nagbe scored, and that’s always nice; Fanendo Adi scored again (still nice, but less surprising), to become the Portland Timbers all-time leading scorer (just give him the damn ball, guys); after that, Diego Valeri did something lethally important, Jake Gleeson made (I think) a couple confident saves, and that’s good (even if I can only recall the one), I had a blast watching Adi battle Oguchi Onyewu, was it just me or did David Guzman finally look a little sloppy out there (and, holy shit, wouldn’t that be a big deal?), Philadelphia has some good pieces, sure, but they’re not fitting into the same puzzle yet, and, when it gets right down to it, isn’t that the difference between Portland and Philly right now? That sense of, to pick up another metaphor, of the dancers knowing their steps?

That’s where it ends: a better team beat one that’s still struggling (pulling for ya, Philly; I’m totally on part of your side), but isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? For all its silver linings, both old and new, yesterday….shit, Saturday’s (two days out, now) win doesn’t mean anything besides three arguably unexpected points for the Timbers. With the emphasis on “arguably,” because Philly has been grasping after nothing all season long. I’ll get to that in exactly two paragraphs, but, first, I’ve got to wrap up this larger thought on the Timbers.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Toronto FC 2-2 Atlanta United FC: A Report (With Big Digressions on Video Review and the High Press)

Hoplite. Before and after.
I’ll start this one with a statement: MLS, and soccer as a sport, needs to figure out how they want to cope with the rise of video technology – specifically how much they want to let it into the game. Yeah, I sound late to the party, but I think it’s live more now than ever, and more subtly. Of course I’m referencing the sending off of Atlanta United’s Yamil Asad for knocking Eric Zavaleta in the back of the head in Atlanta’s 2-2 road draw at Toronto FC. The lag was long enough to make it look like the referee flashed red only after a chorus of rage rained down from the crowd, maybe even after he caught video of Asad’s dubiously raised elbow.

I know video technology is coming, but I still think its introduction begs questions that are more dichotomous than its advocates want to admit. Assuming yesterday’s ref (David Gantar (clearly from Planet Awesome)) responded to pressure from the crowd, what does that detail, specifically, mean to the larger problem (yeah, I see it as a problem) of video review? I think there’s a lot of ambient faith that soccer fans get pissy when someone interrupts their collective flow. Maybe, that’s all I’m saying. What I’m arguing is that, the more people bitch about every last failure that any given referee will inevitably make, the more readily those gripes translate as pressure to “clean up” more and more parts of the game, Dr. Frankenstein didn’t want to create a monster, etc. (come, there’s a slippery slope to ride down!)

The underlying logic to video review gets at a symptom: the unspoken desire for a perfectly officiated game. Consider, however, the incentives. Once video review for certain circumstances comes into play, a referee has every reason to just blow the whistle and let video sort it out momentous decisions. The trick is, the referee has to patrol the rest of the game relying entirely on his own judgment and, personally, I think the mindset of relying on video will bleed through

I’ll be the first to admit this makes for a two-step argument, but I think it holds, so here goes: the second greatest service that any referee can bring to any game is consistency in the way he/she calls fouls, and generally handles shit (The first greatest: barring violence from the game to the extent possible). It is my strong belief that anything that causes a ref to second guess himself undermines said second greatest service.

But enough of that…to the game!

Monday, April 3, 2017

MLS Week 4.5 (aka, 3/31 to 4/2) Review: Still Just a Big Pile of Crap

They'll build something out of it some day, instead of just laying in it. Like MLS.
And…we’re back to comprehensive coverage for Major League Soccer Week 4.5* – something that will happen on any weekend I can get enough of my shit together to manage it (and, honestly, my shit is like cats, every trip to the bathroom, an adventure). (* As noted here and there, I refuse to call this Week 5, because most MLS teams only played their fourth game this weekend, and, no, I'm not letting anyone forget it; I built my own calendar, and will be following that throughout the season).

So, time for the usual caveats – e.g., it’s early in the 2017 season, and therefore impossible to tell which teams built for the long-haul (Supporters’ Shield) and which will pull it all together for the late-season smash-and-grab and/or crown a winning season with the trophy everyone values most (if only by way of ready translation, aka, MLS Cup). I’ll be getting more into that aspect as the season gets to where it has lasted long enough to tell us something beyond the circumstantial.

One practice that will come back, at least to the extent possible, is checking in with each team’s local SB Nation blog. The first attempt already failed (e.g. The Blue Testament, which again, with a one-word change is what I call my poops) because they only run match reports and, again, I hate those things on the grounds that it takes a very, very special writer to make a chronology of events read as anything but.

Think that’s all for this week. Come may, I might start trying to top these things with some form of power rankings/progress report at least once a month. For now, though, and as noted above, I feel like we don’t know much about any team in MLS except that the smart money should still chase FC Dallas, Columbus Crew SC has gone some distance to proving my preseason assumptions wrong (thought they'd suck; they don't), and it’s possible that Sporting Kansas City will be even more torturously dull this season than last. Oh, and Atlanta is fast.  OK, let’s talk games, all of ‘em.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Portland Timbers 1-1 New England Revolution: We Might Be Their Ceiling, But What Are We?

Same thing, only not elated. (Also, my apologies on the sizing, but I committed.)

I won’t beat around the bush. The Portland Timbers' 1-1 draw against the New England Revolution just left me feeling funny. Not ha ha funny, but not bad funny either. Here, “funny” just means weird, as if some solid object in the corner of my eye looks different than it normally does.

Maybe it’s that simple. After the Timbers first three games of the season made it reasonable to dream of a Supporters’ Shield delivered by the pantheon of False Gods of the Holidays (say, The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Jack Skellington, Uncle Sam, a crying, headless turkey, and…fuck, I dunno, a fire-proof flag?), the last two games underlined the more plausible case – i.e., that none of this will be easy. Because it never is.

It could also be that so much of tonight felt so good. I mean, Portland had this, and the Revolution didn’t do shit, really, till they scored their heartbreaking equalizer – and, guys, Jake Gleeson, that’s all I’m saying. And I was, I mean, I am a big, big fan (but, Jake, srsly, with limits). Sure, New England ratcheted up the pressure throughout the game, but the break-through never really felt like it would come, at least not until it did. But it did, so…

Think of your favorite moment from this game. No, besides Diego Valeri’s Goal-of-the-Year-Burn-the-Ballots-NOW-Assholes volley to give Portland the early, and, for much of the night, plausibly impermeable lead. Review the evening and think about the thing you saw that made the Portland Timbers feel like an elite team, the Seal Team 6 of MLS…I mean insofar as the league allows that kind of thing. Here’s mine: Diego Guzman turning pirouettes inside (I swear) the Timbers’ 6-yard box, on his way to playing the ball crisply out of danger with the insouciance of a tight-rope walker wearing clown shoes. Guys, we have something else special on our hands now, and one of the great game-busting mechanisms in the (not universal; see, tonight) high-press era. More on that later, for I have a continuation and a counter-point to make….

Vancouver Whitecaps 4-2 Los Angeles Galaxy: When a Party Breaks Out at a Funeral

Just takes a little levity.
My big take-away from their 4-2 comeback win is that the Vancouver Whitecaps can be good. It also makes some commentary on the Los Angeles Galaxy, not much of it positive, either. As their season goes forward, just…consider the possibility that Curt Onalfo picked up the band hand that Bruce Arena laid down when he walked away to the U.S. Men’s National Team.

The more interesting thing about this game is how represents a study in belief. I mean that on two levels too, as in belief within the team and belief among the fans. When LA scored two in the first half’s middle passage and took the lead, BC Place took on that funereal “glow” familiar to fans of all struggling teams; it’s that awful thought, “shit, here we go again.” A taste of bitterness would have piled on to that sentiment of dread this time around, thanks to the ref (badly) missing a clear penalty kick call when Jelle Van Damme dropped the incredibly-fun-to-watch Alphono Davies almost immediately after the ‘Caps went up (uh, there's no video for this, why?).

Even if they looked snake-bit late in the first half, Vancouver turned it all around, leaving LA with bigger questions, and of the wrong kind.

Vancouver Whitecaps
- I’ll get to the big stuff later, but there was this moment around the 39th that I just want to flag. Cristian Bolanos almost fed Davies, and if they can get to where Davies looks for that kind of pass, they’ll have something. Something....deadly.
- The kind of thing that will hurt them? Erik Hurtado deciding to try to chip the ‘keeper from midfield…only to have even the attempt fall short. Know yer limits, kid, and find Christian Techera next time…
- Not least because LA lost Techera again and again and again. This killed ‘em on the equalizer (so much space; is it his height?), but the ‘Caps found a lot of ways to run through LA’s lines, none of them more than Techera.
- Except for the first,Vancouver’s goals all came after some substitutions – e.g. Fredy Montero for Hurtado and Tony Tchani for Andrew Jacobson. I have two contrasting reads on that: first, while Montero might not be the solution, he’s an upgrade over Hurtado; more crucially, Montero could allow Vancouver to play tighter in the attack – e.g., to allow more of what I talked about up top with Bolanos and Davies. Hurtado is a late-game sub, not a starter.
- Second, I don’t think Tchani improved on Jacobson, so I’m less inclined to read anything into that, but that’s at the heart of a big question for Craig Robinson: who does he start between Tchani, Jacobson and yesterday’s brace-grabbing hero, Matias Laba?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

New York City FC 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes: Scrappy, Yet Just

You seen Godoy?
That wasn’t the prettiest game, by any means; in fact, the first goal, scored by the San Jose Earthquakes, set the tone nicely, in that it came as the New York City FC’s winner would – e.g. pressure forcing an error, thereby creating a goal. Wow, is that a mess of words and punctuation.

For all that, New York deserved its 2-1 win, and, to swing back to a pre-game tweet, I don’t see much to fear from the specific iteration of San Jose that played today. Their defense held up admirably under, oh, 500 pounds’ of pressure from New York, even with San Jose’s midfield too separated, but with San Jose’s attack struggling to get going, they got overwhelmed in the end.

Now, some specifics on both teams.

New York City FC
- It’s been said countless times, but it bears repeating: David Villa (two assists) was one hell of a signing, both for NYCFC and MLS. He made something out of a mushy cross to set up NYCFC’s momentum-sucking equalizer.
- I have two notes on the “middle 3” of NYCFC’s 4-3-3. First, Alex Ring and Maxi Moralez bring enough to let the 37-year-old Andrea Pirlo play just about the only game he can, by way of aggression/eating ground and an ever-available passing combination outlet, respectively. Ring, in particular, gives two-way cover for the Italian legend, but, second, you really have to ask whether it’s worth it. Tommy McNamara scored NYCFC’s winner thanks to a run I’m not sure Pirlo would ever make. (And, I gotta say, Villa seems to LOVE playing with Wallace...see the celebration.)
- In spite of Alexander Callens (admittedly forced) error on San Jose’s lone goal (I'll lard up the links once I can get to them sans spoilers), between him, Maxime Chanot, and Frederic Brillant, NYCFC looks like it has a pretty damned solid CB rotation for 2017.
- Rodney Wallace gets deserved praise for his solid two-way play, but it’s having Roland Matarrita behind him that makes NYCFC’s left as strong as it is. San Jose couldn’t get a damn thing going down that side…which makes for a great segue.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Columbus Crew SC 3-2 Portland Timbers: Slow Reflexes and Broken Ladders; MLS Week 4 (Hangover)

David? Darling?
True story, I failed the oft-tricky Eastern Time v. Pacific Time test this past weekend, so I missed catching the Portland Timbers v. Columbus Crew SC live. Whatever. It was a short, stupid weekend regardless, so the whole thing felt half-assed, and I’m going all over the record on this point:

MLS Week 4 is not over until at least the majority of Major League Soccer’s teams have played their 4th game of season. So, no, this was not MLS Week 4, this was farce dry-humping a charade, and I refuse to have any part of it.

Except now, when I talk about it. At some length.

By the time this post goes up, I’ll probably be, oh, an hour, maybe an hour and a half, after finally sitting through the full 90 minutes (plus stoppage) of the Timbers weird, but not crushing, 3-2 loss to Columbus. I’ll spend the balance of this post going over what I saw in that game, but I’m going to start with this weekend’s – let’s call it what it is – smattering of MLS Results during what this shite…I mean, site (hmm) has decided to officially call MLS Week 3 MLS Hangover .

The whole thing (and the backstory as to how I cocked up catching the Timbers game) kicked off with the U.S. Men’s 6-0 win over Honduras in a World Cup qualifier that brought the U.S. soccer community ten fistfuls of Rolaids worth of relief. I tweeted a couple thoughts that aren’t novel enough to repeat here, but my personal bottom line is that, if Arena…wait, hold on. Shit. OK, I have another embarrassing announcement to make: my head is so far up the ass of someone who is very, very far away from the CONCACAF qualifying schedule that I didn’t really fully realize how loosely people were apply “must-win” to the Honduras match.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

New England Revolution 5-2 Minnesota United FC: I Can't Scout Under These Conditions

Minnesota is ruining science.
Until further notice, it makes sense to set results against Minnesota United FC outside the normal run of results. Their defense is that bad, worse even than the (holy shit!) 18 goals they’ve allowed this season. That’s over four games, or a faint-inducing 4.5 goals conceded per game.

I just, oh, 2/3 watched the New England Revolution beat Minnesota 5-2 (you can get most the information noted herein by bouncing around in there), and that 1/3-level distraction owes pretty much everything to the point made above. This thing ended as a contest at the half, so, when given the chance to read about the shit-show that is Southern manufacturing (Note: depressing), I didn’t mind the distraction so much. It only occurred to me around the 70th minute that I was watching the Portland Timbers’ next opponent after Columbus Crew SC today, but I don’t think a game this screwy gives much in the way of insight…

…but, I’m here, and now you’re here, so I may as well say something. Here goes.

Scouting New England
- With allowances for what I’m now calling the Vadim Demidov rule, Juan Agudelo had a great game. He scored two goals and drew a penalty (against Demidov), but his first was a headed tap-in, and his second owes at least a little to bad goalkeeping by Bobby Shuttleworth.
- Diego Fagundez impressed me today as much as anyone, and mostly with the range and quality of his passing. While not even sort of perfect, his feed to Lee Nguyen (of whom, meh) for New England’s 2nd broke a bad spell for the Revs that saw them playing too wide. Minnesota also struggled to contain his runs, letting him break the midfield line again and again and again (and again).
- I like where I’m seeing Kelyn Rowe for New England. He’s a pugnacious little shit, so I think playing him more centrally, and a little deeper suits him.
- Given how freakishly lopsided this game was, the breakdowns in New England’s defense should have them worried/Timbers fans salivating. I’m talking less about that first goal – which required a deflection from the gods – than the second set-piece goal, or the couple times ‘keeper Cody Cropper bobbled crosses. Cropper did come up with a big save, but the way that ball bobbled around didn't look so good. With Portland’s attack putting defenses in a blender, that doesn’t augur well for New England’s upcoming visit to the Rose City.

Pitying Minnesota
So far, this team has set out to answer the question, is there an MLS level? And they are answering in a strong positive. I could note that Bashkim Kadrii managed a couple decent crosses in the first half (but not enough of them, clearly, seeing as he got subbed at the half), but nothing really matters for Minnesota till they get their defense in order. And I mean all of their defense, because the problems run far, far, deeper than Demidov, or even just the back four. The midfield separated from the defense repeatedly in the first half, which left Revolution attackers running free in the space in between…and Minnesota just can’t do that, not with defenders that are that bad/slow/shitty.

Because Minnesota can’t just bring in defenders willy-nilly, this team needs to change how they defend. And urgently. Even if it’s just stacking the two banks of four inside the 18, they simply have to stop bleeding goals or they are going to have a shitty, shitty, shitty – and, one more – SHITTY season. Unless I miss my count, they’re sitting on a -12 goal differential. Four games in. That is disastrous.

Monday, March 20, 2017

MLS Week 3 Review: I Don't Know, Man...It's Just a Buncha Shit!

Moments do matter...

Because life got the better of me over the course of Major League Soccer’s Week 3, I only managed to catch the Portland Timbers inspiring 4-2 win over the Houston Dynamo…and because I ate yummy (expensive) food, and was given the chance to watch the Timbers win in loud, live sound, I regret nothing.

I blabbed about both teams plenty here (though mostly about the Timbers), but all the other games will get all the treatment I can give them – e.g. whatever I can make out from my notes of watching them play for 20 minutes, plus whatever other stuff I can find before posting this thing (which, when you read it, will all have happened…in the past! (We play with time here, at Conifers & Citrus; it’s like Looper, but we’re all much, much uglier)).

Also, in keeping with another tradition, every week means a tweak to the format. I’m going to give a couple thoughts on each of the games (I can do this…short synopses, Bull, SHORT!), and then close out again with five topics that slip in and out of some grand theme.

OK, looking at my notes….WHAT?! Jesus, who wrote these things?! (I know not the hand, for it is not my own.)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Portland Timbers 4-2 Houston Dynamo: Referees and Comeback's a Bitch

Referees pictured at right, toward the top...

I can’t speak for the rest of Providence Park, but, the second the halftime whistle blew, my little corner of it positively raged at the referee (Alex Chapman, right?). So many middle fingers; didn’t think there were enough hands to hold all of ‘em. And  yet, a couple notes on this.

First, referees are as the gods; we are but their playthings. To put that another way, try to think of them the same way the ancient Greek thought of their gods – i.e., as capricious beings meddling in the affairs of mortals – and you’ll keep your blood pressure in check, your face won’t develop lines later in life because you’ll twist it into contortions less often, etc. I guess this makes the crowd a Greek chorus of the crowd, and the players the armies at the foot of Troy’s walls…c’mon, we’ve all read The Iliad, yes?

As for the job of refereeing itself, I view keeping a lid on potential violence during a game as their primary mission. After that, I assume they all try get things right, but I also understand that they’ll bone a few calls most games, and it is what it is. All in all, it’s a shitty, thankless job that both fans and players make worse. A world without referees is a world without soccer, so can we all move on from this particular whining point?

OK, next point…hold on…gotta climb down from my high horse…

Second, in most cases a referee can only hurt a team when they’ve left themselves in a position to be hurt. And that’s at least a bit of what happened last night in the Portland Timbers' (eventual) 4-2 win over the Houston Dynamo: the Timbers coughed up free kicks all around their 18, and most of the fouls were legit – including the one that lead to Houston’s penalty kick. Roy Miller got his leg around Erick “Cubo” Torres, a call was reasonably made, etc.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

MLS Week 2 Review: Of Rebuilds and Blowouts

Step 1. Have the baby...or you can't ruin her 14th.
As anyone who hit my Major League Soccer Week 1 Review, I went global on that thing. That was a big part of why that post went up Wednesday. Not the only part, but a big one.

The impulse to cover it all, while understandable, doesn’t really make sense. Sure, half of this comes from a place of tearful exhaustion (I…tried. Don’t you EVER tell me that I didn’t TRY, damn you!), but, on a practical level, how many interesting things can you really say about, oh, the New York Red Bulls’ 1-0 home win over the Colorado Rapids? I mean, I struggled to squeeze 10 lines total out of that turd (don’t worry; won’t pin the image to that line) between both teams, because, based on the condensed game, New York smothered Colorado’s broadly mediocre attack, Rapids’ ‘keeper Tim Howard made 3-4 good saves (and one great one against New York’s Bradley Wright-Phillips), and New York attained “glory” on an own-goal by Eric Miller. Rah-rah.

As such, I’m cutting that shit out and going with a Top 5 this year, a hard Top 5…wait…shit. I was going to stick all the results somewhere in here, but now I realize that it’s late (midnight is 4 a.m. to the over 40 set), and I don’t wanna do it. Next week, people, next week (Make a note, Judy; we need to tighten our deadlines...). There’s a couple steps to that, however, and frequent visitors surely know my love for long preambles, so here’s that. I’ll run each of the five topics I choose against some form of local media – maybe the official site, maybe just the relevant SB Nation blog, maybe something I find on my own, or that someone suggests on her own – to confirm that I’m not missing something, or that I’m not reading too much signal from a noise I picked up in a condensed replay.

And that’s part two: I’ll write a reviews/analysis/bad-joke collection for any game the Portland Timbers play (See: this week’s 1-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy), plus two other games that I choose – and probably because, sure, it’s a game that interests no one but the local fans, and only half of them, but I take fewer risks with spoilers if I watch that one, so…that’s how you wind up writing up the Chicago Fire’s 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake (not even MLS can spoil the weekend's first game) and Sporting Kansas City’s intrigue-laden goal-less home draw versus FC Dallas (watch the babies, people; the babies).

And, finally, that takes us to Part 2 1/2: because those three games (or two games, on a slow week) get that much attention, I figure I should pull the Top 5 from the games I don’t watch all the way through. Sure, I risk passing on more lightly observed thoughts, but that’s where the local confirmation thing (e.g. running each point past local media) comes in...

…what? Why are you looking at my like the biological father who just brought a Barbie doll to his daughter’s 14th birthday? Christ, man, I’m doing the best I can out here…look, it’s my new girlfriend. She’s just really demanding…

We’ll talk about that later. Here’s this week’s Top 5.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Portland Timbers 1-0 Los Angeles Galaxy: A Parade of False Flags

Early season stupor. Also, unfamiliar.
Tonight, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people of good, clear insight. The Portland Timbers picked up their first road win since 2015 when they beat the Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0, and that’s a big deal. Something else slipped past me, given my anxious state, but the Timbers also kept a clean sheet today. So, thanks to @cobolsky and @brioe162, for being wiser men than me.

Still, that “anxious state” followed me home, and it revealed itself in the way some sort of invisible safety net left the game when David Guzman walked off, holding his left arm all funny. Guzman jacked his shoulder, as we all know now, even as we don’t know how badly, on what wound up being a second-yellow challenge from the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Jelle Van Damme. I watched that specific replay often as they showed it, and I’m still not 100%-clear as to whether Van Damme hit Guzman at knee level, or whether Guzman hurt himself on a leap/dive to get around Van Damme’s lunge. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, I mean, Guzman will take the same amount of time to heal, whether fair or foul, and that’s my biggest take-away from this game.

Things went some form of haywire after Guzman stepped off. Portland’s central defensive arrangement has functioned like a triangle through preseason and Game 1 2017 – e.g. Liam Ridgewell and Lawrence Olum, and with Guzman running in front of them in defense, and dropping between them when Portland had possession. Basically, Guzman really has (near as I can tell, and I can’t promise proximity) played as pure a No. 6 role as Portland will allow, and, once he went off, Portland reverted to Olum and Roy Miller (Ridgewell’s sufficiently creditable replacement) behind Ben Zemanski and Diego Chara, who receded to the back line in order to protect the lead, and the win. The sweet, sweet road win. Smells like honeysuckle on a June night, I tell you…

That was nice, right, sweet reverlry? Now, back to the panic…

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Sporting Kansas City 0-0 FC Dallas, aka a Tense Inter-Generational Indie Comedy

I shit you not, Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming is EXCELLENT.
What Sporting Kansas City v. FC Dallas lacked in heightened moments - ended knotted in zeroes again; like SKC wanna be this year's Colorado - it more than made up for in framing. Call it the bone-dry coming of age comedy to the action movie experience we all expect from spectator sports, but that we get less often than we’d like to admit.

All in all, Dallas had the better game – and not in the way that Sporting’s color commentary kept bitching that they did. Yeah, Dallas played conservative, maybe even safe, but they played the better game: they consistently had defenders where they needed them and they created the best, cleanest chances.

The other subplot in here is the one alluded to in the first paragraph. Dallas…hold on, but, true story, I’m looking at the graphic line-up for the first time (sorry, people on twitter; I just checked the names, not where they lined up), and now where I saw specific players totally makes sense, for all that, continuing, Dallas didn’t just play back-ups; they played first-year players and a freakin’ 17-year-old kid, Paxton Pomykal. And that’s the thing: KC played veterans, plus a couple guys who, by broad consensus, rate in MLS – e.g. Benny Feilhaber, Dom Dwyer, Roger Espinoza, Matt Besler, etc. Now re-read paragraph 2. And Pomykal? He looked just fine. Even cleaned Benny's clock around the 43rd. So, yeah. Fuck off, old people. Look, even if you think I’m crediting Dallas too much, it’s remarkable that the equivalent of a Dallas B-side played KC to a draw at home.

OK, moving on to talking points now…

Chicago Fire 2-0 Real Salt Lake: It's Just the Mistakes Sometimes

Smooth 'n' creamy.
Well, that was pretty straightforward: Real Salt Lake gifted the Chicago Fire a couple cock-ups, and did a more or less creditable job of keeping out RSL, if abetted by at least one shocking miss by Salt Lake’s Yura Movsisyan, who looks more like an MLS 2.0 guy with each outing. I’d call RSL’s attack more coherent – especially over about 30 minutes in the second half (and is that “tale of two halves thing just something observers don’t even have to note anymore? Doesn’t that seem closer to the norm than wire-to-wire dominance?) – but superior approach play doesn’t win a team games, no matter how superior.

So, that’s that: Chicago scored one weird goal (Nemanja Nikolic’s; Sunday “Sunny” Stephen ruined a pretty damn clear offside call by poking into his path) and a great, if preventable second on an Arturo Alvarez solo mission, and they walked off 2-0 winners. I tell you, man, Alvarez has been Chicago’s most consistent attacker since the middle of 2016. That said, big credit to Dax McCarty for the ball that forced Sunny’s error; cut through two lines like room temperature butter…

Some notes on both teams…like I said, I want to keed these things simple.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

MLS Week 1: A Global Tour (Into Madness)

Like this, only more blood...
I really wanted to post this on Monday, or Tuesday at the latest. I won’t bore with my, uh, let’s go with domestic situation, but the Congress of Vienna has nothing on my household negotiations. Anyway, that’s what happened to Tuesday. It’s the particular methodology of these posts that knocks Monday out of the frame. So, here’s what’s going on.

As in the past, I try to watch three games every week, or at least two; and this year, as with previous years, I’ll watch the condensed games on MLS Live to get to the rest. What’s new and/or the hold-up grows from my decision to keep current on the league by reading content from one blog in each MLS market. Moreover, I want/hope to rely on a certain kind of post – e.g. analysis posts that talk about “lessons learned” or the “[X] Things We Learned about [Local Team] versus [Non-Local Team].” The trouble is, some of those don’t go up until Monday, at least on several of the SB Nation blogs (which are the ones I’m relying on for now; though, again, if you know a better local-market blog, or one that posts analysis same day, please pass it on).

Match reports go up way earlier, but those are a different animal. When all you’ve got is a frame of “this happened, then this happened, then this, and the fans went home happy/sad/confused,” you wind up spending too much time trying to cobble together a full-90 assessment of any given player. You’re also bored, more often than not.  And, finally, when I go the full 90 on any game, I’ll post a short something, about what I did for DC United v. Sporting Kansas City. (And, for the record, as I should have done for Atlanta United FC v. New York Red Bulls, but, won’t lie, got like a lot too relaxed for that one, so next week on that stuff.)

So, yeah, that’s the plan. This being Major League Soccer Week 1, the only thing we know is that every game won or lost this past weekend won’t mean shit in 10 weeks’ time. Not unless it means something, that is. Stay flexible, keep your own counsel…these are good words in these times….

Team-by-team summary below, organized alphabetically. I might switch up the order when someone tickles the other side of my fancy, but…I’m good for now.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

DC United 0-0 Sporting Kansas City: Professionals, Grimly at Work

5 o'clock, 5 o'clock, 5 o'clock, 5 o'clock, 5 o'clock, 5 o'clock...
[This ties in with something I plan to post either tomorrow or Wednesday, depending on how god’s willing, and in which way. He’s cagey…]

DC United versus Sporting Kansas City, a game that knotted in fairly dreary zeroes, was on the TV the entire time I was in the same room, or a room adjacent thereto. I’m solid from about the 30th minute on, but I was preparing what turned out to be a pretty disappointing pot roast up to that point. So, that’s the disclosure portion out of the way…

Both DC and KC field solid professionals – aka, players who don’t fuck up a lot – so disciplined performances all ‘round, both Saturday and generally. Not a lot of daylight to be had between them, then, and this game felt pretty goddamn technical as a result, but for all the wrong reasons.

The name didn’t so much lack for highlights – KC’s ‘keeper, Tim Melia, saved both the shot and a rebound on a penalty kick, fer crissakes – as the ones it provided delivered on the defensive side. To hit this game solely from DC’s perspective, they handled just about everything KC could throw at them, up to and including an imbalance in possession, but a larger distinction showed up on the attacking side, where DC looked just…slower than Kansas City. I mean this last point in a “running in mud” kind of way: every KC player appeared able to run down any DC attacker in three or five strides.