Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Major League Soccer 2016/17 Reset. Yeah, All of 'Em, I'm Doing All of 'Em!

Mentor. Enemy.
When it comes to Major League Soccer, I pretty much lose every year. So does everyone else, really – handicapping the league is horse racing and cat herding rolled into one and that’s often chalked up to “MLS being MLS.” That’s quitter talk, though, because by reducing the probabilities against their inverse occurrences, and cross-referencing those against statistical anomalies, then overlaying all that with a graphic representation of OPTA graphics, we can predict which team will win both MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield within a margin of error that most 2000s-edition computers would envy if they weren’t stupid boxes of stupid wires…

…or I watched Sherlock a couple nights back and cribbed that idea, plus four or five words (or three; or two) from one of the several monologues Cumberbitch gave in the episode. Which wasn’t bad.

I’m actually getting at a knot I’ll be pulling at all season – e.g., how to best look past all the predictions about what should happen to think more clearly about what is likely to happen, a subtle, probably false distinction, but I’m holding onto it with both hands for now. I’m not saying I’ll pull it off, but I feel like I took a baby step toward a better, clearer noise-versus-signal approach toward the end of 2016, and hope to take another step this year. And, like most babies, I will have my face-plants (hopefully, without any trips to the E.R.).

One thought I’ll be emphasizing, at least till the 2017 season kicks off, is that I will treat both Cup and Shield as separate but equal trophies – and, yes, your own opinions on that (and the dubiousness of that phrasing) be damned. Much, much more on this later (elsewhere, actually), but, broadly, of course every team in MLS will say they’re out to win all three (real) trophies (as in, if you care about the rivalry cups, you, sir or madam, are one cheap date), but a time will come when the Shield is out of reach and, as I see it, a team in that situation should shape their approach to the regular season with clear, cold eyes to winning the Cup.

What I want to do, here, today, with this post, is reset the conversation on all 20 MLS teams to what we know – e.g. to re-center to what happened last year. I’ll do that by posting links to whatever looking back/forward pieces (e.g. 2016 season reviews, plus any “Our List of Needs” posts) I found on some relatively easy-to-find soccer sites (SB Nation blogs and Last Word on Soccer, who turned out to be crazy easy to find). As for trades, transfers and acquisitions, I’ll be treating them as unknowns, even as I’ll be referencing The Armchair Analyst’s permanent floating roster construction article throughout. I’m relying more on links than my own commentary for the simple reason that all those fan sites watch their own team way closer than I do. I’ll add notes and arguments where appropriate.

As to the order of teams, there’s no significance to it. It happens to follow how I bookmarked each of SB Nation’s teams sites, when I did that last year. True story.

Seattle Sounders
Personal Addendum: Though I’m a Timbers fan, I will never deny the Sounders the credit they deserve for choking out Toronto FC to win the Cup – but that also supports a case that their formula for success leaned on a defensive/opportunist alignment, led by Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan destroying more than they created. In that context, Nicolas Lodeiro’s arrival comes perilously close to divine intervention, even as Sounders fans have every right to dream what might have been had Clint Dempsey’s heart not fluttered. Still, Dempsey’s age/potential, as well as Chad Marshall’s and Alonso’s, put an expiration date on this team. Further, as Last Word on Soccer’s (hereafter, LWoS) review points out, they’re thin all over, but, to their credit, the Sounders are definitely not resting on their laurels (e.g. they have high profile targets).

Real Salt Lake
Personal Addendum: LWoS dubbed 2016 “a step in the right direction,” but that’s madness. This team relies on enough old parts to leave open the question of Jeff Cassar’s quality as a coach (I lean toward “low” personally). They cleared out some underperforming players – e.g. Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez left (may I never type that name again), and Javier Morales’ progression to the inevitable became FC Dallas’s problem, but Kyle Beckerman? 34? Justen Glad played five years over his age in central defense in 2016, but he needs a partner, and RSL is/was steady all over, just steady. The arrival of Slovakian midfielder (no. 10?) Albert Rusnack says they see the problem, but a solution ain’t a solution till it comes off. They need someone to push/back up Yura Movsisyan, which makes Joao Plata one of their few uncomplicated pieces.

DC United
Personal Addendum: DC’s home collapse to the Montreal Impact in the 2016 playoffs hit me like a sucker punch – especially after witnessing Montreal’s later, dueling slugfests versus Toronto FC. Still, yeah, maybe I was high on this team on both levels. With the permanent re-signing of Luciano Acosta, their attacking core has a year or two left in it easily, and clever shifts (e.g. Nick DeLeon to right back) read like a great, great foundation. If I have a concern, it’s in the middle with the combined ages of Bobby Boswell and Marcelo Sarvas. Still, Steve Birnbaum re-signed (and didn’t leave…yet), they have really fun fullbacks, so this feels a team that could make real noise with just one 10-goal forward and padding all over the field.

Philadelphia Union
LWoS 2016 Season Review (decidedly longer and more negative)
Personal Addendum: Replacing Tranquillo Barnetta won’t come easy; that’s first. But, as The Armchair Analyst notes, the Union have been quiet so far. The revival of Chris Pontius is nice (certainly) and they’ve still got Roland “Multi-Goal” Alberg in the back pocket, but Ilsinho can’t have a ton left and C. J. Sapong continues to do everything well enough except score goals. With Maurice Edu threatening to never find the field again and Brian Carroll just about to limp off it forever, dthe Union seems to have a lot of work to do. The bigger concern should be the way the young defense looked young and that, in MLS, sophomore slumps are a thing. This team has several good pieces, but I’m counting a lot of ways for this team to regress. And still, all quiet on the front office…front.

New York Red Bulls
Once a Metro 2016 Review (still reading this one…long; very good, too)
LWoS 2016 Season Review (also, curiously verbose…blame Brooklyn?)
Personal Addendum: If DC’s collapse was a sucker punch, the Red Bulls crash felt like a kick to the pills; got ‘em both, too (Kingpin!). OG New York came reasonably close to writing a story of total redemption; had they won Shield, Cup, or god forbid, both, and after their profoundly shitty start, they could have gone down as one of the greats. Instead, they went limp against Montreal – again, the same team that Toronto couldn’t stop scoring on – and the shooting star blazed out early. If you read the reviews linked to above, you’ll hear one major theme: complacency. Maybe, and fair point. Still, per local opinion, they’re just a game-spreading winger, and some padding aside for a real run – at both trophies (and the other one).

Vancouver Whitecaps
Personal Addendum: No team frustrated me as much as Vancouver did last season…did they fire Carl Robinson? No? Wow. Until one of those reviews mentioned Vancouver’s 2015, I had no idea just how bad this year went for the ‘Caps. When a team looks that unsure, just stiff (see, U.S. Men’s National Team), I start asking about the coach. Pedro Morales went, but that seemed all right, whole thing felt toxic…their fullbacks stank, I felt like they played to absorb, but without the defense to do it. I don’t know. Sure, on the last day of the season they handed the Timbers’ their asses, plus three more as a bonus, but, when I try to remember their season, all I see is that horror injury to Masato Kudo. Lost sleep on that thing. I’m not sure this team needs new players, so much as a session with a phone book (de-programming? From cults? No?).

Houston Dynamo
Personal Addendum: A personal pathology for rooting for the underdog explains why I sometimes see good things in a team, even when said team is lousy with bad players. For all its steady players, and damn hard (sometimes good) strivers (e.g. Rico Clark), Houston sits on the wrong end of MLS’ talent bench. The Armchair Analyst notes some activity and calls it a total rebuild, and that seems fitting/needed. Will Bruin’s departure brings an end to some amount of…not so much “thrills,” as “events” (e.g., goals), but they have a couple good starting blocks (Alex Lima was a personal obsession), to give institutional memory to a foundational (e.g. two year) rebuild. This team feels like it has as far to go as any in MLS.

Colorado Rapids
Personal Addendum: Last Word on Soccer’s guy went with “best season in team history,” and I salute the position, even as I’m not 100% I can support it. If nothing else, the 2016 Rapids were an enormous pain in the ass to play against, and often enough to be a pain in the ass to the end; just ask Seattle about their hardest playoffs series. With a couple Montreal Impact-esque upgrades (e.g., Ignacio Piatti-esque), the Rapids could be lethal next year. Either the Rapids unearthed a couple gems last season (thinking Jared Watts, Axel Sjoberg, and, arguably, Michael Azira), or they won by making twice as much success out of middling talent. They have two years minimum with that core, so a little talent could go a long, long way.

Chicago Fire
LWoS 2016 Season Review (kinda youth obsessed)
Personal Addendum: You will never see a better explanation for the present Chicago Fire – or the same rough idea as applies to any soccer team on the planet, really – than Hot Time’s “Review of Overall Situation’s” myriad of question-mark-riddled formations. Read the same outlet’s “Righteous Fit” and you’ll see something else that makes perfect sense: Fire fans are pissed. The Fire front office felt enough heat (no, I’m neither explaining, nor using the pun) to bring in Nemanja Nikolic, who, won’t lie, I know nothing about. You don’t know the depths till you’ve been forced to do the numbers (e.g. Fire fans know they’ve finished dead last two seasons in a row, #unprecedented), but I saw good things at the end of last season for the Fire, and so did LWoS. One more good signing, and, you have my delusional backing, if nothing else.

Sporting Kanas City
LWoS 2016 Season Review, the only one I can find
Personal Addendum: Could find only one review. So, I’m not alone in not caring about this team? And, jesus, even the blogger writes with a chip on his shoulder. Fitting. He does get one thing right: SKC boasts a mighty core, and one with at least two more seasons in it. They have a good forward – potential super-next-level second banana in Dom Dwyer…seriously, that guy with a great forward/good winger, and Benny Feilhaber feeding ‘em? Look, this team is just so ruggedly serviceable, and aggressive, all over that they’re always just one or two special players away from turning all that toil into something worth watching. The same applies. For now. If, as The Armchair Analyst points out, the Matt Besler/Ike Opara pairing holds up, they’ll be solid. Dourly solid. Sigh.

FC Dallas
Big D Soccer on Dallas Freakin’ Glee Train (nah, happy for you guys; doin’ it right)
Personal Addendum: Lessons Learned Guy, you are my platonic soulmate (cuddling, totally OK), but the only question from Dallas’ 2016 season that will live forever is, what if Mauro Diaz hadn’t got injured? Well, yeah, the first leg playoff death against Seattle played around Diaz’ preferred spots, but some players make gravity shift and Diaz is one of them. Still, those were total defensive meltdowns. And, yes, this team still needs a forward/striker/ball-in-net guy. For all that, this team held together, it’s young and improving – and, as discussed in the “5 Happy Things” post, it’s a freakin’ glee-train down there - so, there’s no reason to expect Dallas to not be a juggernaut for the next two, three years. If they level up (already have, on paper), and with perfect, clear, thinking, they might get the double that eluded them this year, next year.

New England Revolution
Personal Addendum: “…the Revs front office, which has yet to acquire a player to fill any of the club’s roster holes.” Yeah, that’s pretty much what you need to know (from the “Smile Till You Cry” link above). Things actually get darker on the “It’s All Shit” review’s side of the street (where I reside, two doors down), where they question half the premises from the “Smile” post. All in all, there’s no question the Revs improved down the stretch (only to choke horribly; see, Timbers, Portland), but they’ve got some chairs to rearrange. Xavier Kouassi’s name comes up a lot, and he would definitely fill a hole (assuming he’s worth the DP tag) that could very well unleash the usual suspects – e.g. Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen, Diego Fagundez, and, dare they dream, Juan Agudelo. Now all they need is a defense. No, no, like the whole thing.

San Jose Earthquakes
Five Conundra for 2017 (long, but damned solid)
Personal Addendum: I will never understand the fascination with Tommy Thompson till he does something. Honestly, and with respect, I don’t think I’ve seen him come close to even an assist (and that “Conundra” post is smart on how to manage this). He’s also a handy shoe-horn for this team’s creative void – and, trust me, I hate using that phrase more than you know. Solid and aging at the back (tick, tick, tick), and proletarian in midfield (that said, I’d give Anibal Godoy a partner in a double pivot, beef up the wings and see what happens), and starved up top, yes, the ‘Quakes have work to do. And young bodies for aging bodies to replace at the back. Another two-year project in the making…

Toronto FC
Personal Addendum: When you wind up the favorite to win MLS Cup, not to mention a team in contention for the Shield till damn near the death, you’ve clearly done a few things right. The core will come back too, and damned hungry, but…still, you lost the final, at home. Now what? As the Armchair Analyst points out, Drew Moor ain’t exactly Benjamin-Buttoning (trademark), so, and Nick Hagglund feels more like the brash rookie than a wily vet, so I’d like to think, like most people I’m guessing, that TFC should shore up the backline – and, in my mind, stat. They’re, like, one player away from something solid. Elsewhere, I don’t think Will Johnson’s irreplaceable or anything – Tsubasa Endoh seemed like one of a trio of options – so I’d try to find one more difference maker, even if it’s a small difference. They’ve got two, maybe three years with this attacking core, before the wheels start wobbling, if not falling off…

Los Angeles Galaxy
Personal Addendum: Holy fucking churn: losing your head coach/legend to a temporary gig at the national team, plus your leading scorer/head angry-father figure (Robbie Keane) will be hard to replace…for any but a connected, stinking rich club with just enough profile and a glamour location in its back pocket. All questions about LA turn on the actual quality of that core. Gyasi Zardes will be back, he’ll probably provide a 10 goal, 5 assist-range performance, and that’s good, they have a good, confident back four, and Giovani dos Santos will…? Same with Sebastian Lletget in central midfield. LA’s a weird team in that, when they do well, history forces you to assume they’ll keep doing it. With them feeling some amount of short on personnel (NOTE: Jermaine Jones, not enough), and a new coach, um…I’m still looking for something from this bunch.

Columbus Crew SC
Personal Addendum: I’m in the Parade of Disappointments on two questions: Tony Tchani does not fit (not with Wil Trapp and Federico Higuain) and, especially, on Gregg Berhalter (who I think should be canned)…even as The Armchair Analyst predicts great things for Columbus in 2017 (um….). (Kudos to the Parade of Disappointments casts a wide enough net to answer all charges.) The club lost (Michael Parkhurst) and added (Jonathan Mensah) a centerback, and a reportedly centerback-heavy draft might land them a second starter, but the mess in front of that space needs to be sorted out (perhaps Nicolai Naess instead of Trapp/trade for high value?) before they’re more than victims to a firing squad. Another year of Higuain wouldn’t thrill me, but, keep Ola Kamara and this team might find enough goals if they can stop leaking ‘em.

Montreal Impact
Personal Addendum: For what it’s worth, I think both these above sites are overly bull-ish on Montreal’s 2017. They’re too old and too slow, and in too many places, to be anything but a Cup team and, even then, I think they need fresh personnel. The Armchair Analyst expects more modest, scaled signings going forward, but I’m also not seeing them go big on homegrown signings. So…players to be named later? It wasn’t just the TFC series, but several games down the stretch, where Montreal struggled mightily at home, that makes me question their actual solidity. Re-signing Piatti (so long as they can hold him) and Dominic Oduro (solid) will nail down a lot of what they need, but that’s something short of contending for either trophy.

Orlando City SC
Personal Addendum: “…Nothing more than a fourth-round SuperDraft pick - with Orlando City still covering about half of his salary.” Think that came out of the Red Bulls’ year in review, and related to the Aurelien Collin-for-funny-money deal, but it gets at something I think, and sometimes read about Orlando’s roster construction – i.e., it’s all over the place. To go literary, that suggests that the kind of indiscipline that shows on the field bleeds into the front office (wait, no, totally; see LWoS’s piece). Against that, Will Johnson looks like a good signing (as does Gregory Certic…maybe, and who?), but, for all that they’ve got a great attacking trio in Kaka, Cyle Larin and (when healthy) Kevin Molino (and, when switched on and played higher, Brek Shea), this team still feels like it hasn’t broken expansion escape velocity. Honest note: after mistaking a “State of the Mane Land” post for a season in review, I realized it was a blog about the blog, something I try only dabble in (lie to me, darling), but the saddest thing about “Three Bold Predictions” is seeing them talk up Antonio Nocerino, whose singing I would, at this point, struggle to embrace. Better luck, and more coherence, next year, y’all!

New York City FC
Personal Addendum: Patrick Vieira was a completely nifty addition to the MLS coaching corps, even if he boned the final (e.g. the playoffs) – then again, was there a team better designed to beat NYCFC than the Red Bulls? The only review I read on NYCFC (forward sources, and on all teams if you love them) praised the talent for NYCFC’s forwards going forward…but doesn’t that address the other complaint – e.g., the defensive shape? It’s cool because NYCFC is a hoot to watch, not least because they cough up goals like a Victorian with consumption. To throw out an idea, this team feels like a great empty bucket waiting to happen, even without Frank Lampard, who…uh, maybe never mind. I hear they went young, and that’s good. I just wouldn’t’ go too far that way in the near-term. And I’d focus on a dynamic defensive pairing.

Portland Timbers
StumpTownFooty’s (anyone else hear the tune of “Jukebox Hero”) Who Stays Who Goes?
Personal Addendum: I have a quibble with a throw-away line from the “Defining Success” post; the Timbers had the points to cover other teams’ games in hand – all they had to do was win ONCE on the road – and they didn’t. So, yeah, getting better is nothing short of required and, yes, Portland’s finding players for the right places, whether it’s David Guzman at No. 6, or bringing in a couple defenders quite recently; I saw talk today (or yesterday) about giving Rennico Clark his shot at central defense, and I’m open-minded on that…but that means the Timbers need a better back up than Jermaine Taylor, because if Clark (or any other long-shot) goes wanting, I want a Plan B that’s Way closer to a Plan A than Taylor. There’s a pretty direct question at the heart of the “Who Stays Who Goes?” post, one for which every Timbers fan should have an answer, if only as a “fuck you, told you so” if 2017 goes as wretchedly sideways as 2016 did. Because this team clearly fell short in 2016, and would again if they stand pat, what’s your minimum requirement for having faith that 2017 will be better, if not glorious?

My answer: I want two starting-caliber central defenders, because I still haven’t fully reconciled to Liam Ridgewell. I want Darren Mattocks to stay, and make whatever new winger the team finds sweat his nights away worrying about his job – even if that new winger is, in fact, an old one. If Portland’s gonna keep Nagbe, I want a structure that lets him stay central and, if that’s not on the cards…look, can the universe just answer one fucking question for me, please? After that, I’m pretty happy, even if I don’t sound it in the year-end thing I put up. The core for this team has a couple years left in it, at least so long as Fanendo Adi sticks around (Diego Valeri sounds like he wants to tie himself to the Portlandia statue). Soccer players seem OK with staying here…it’s just a matter of making it work.

And, with that, I feel reoriented on most things Major, League, and Soccer, ready to put up a bunch of maintenance/speculation posts until we’ve got game, REAL games, to tell us what it all means. Looking forward to this 2017. A little failure heightens pleasure. It’s true. As Esme Patterson once said, “without feeling wrong, how can we know what feeeeelllssssss, right?”

At any rate, I hope some of all y’all will join me. Signing off, till tomorrow…


  1. My typical pre-pre-season nervousness has taken hold: every significant team has appeared to have made bold, season-altering roster changes. The Timbers planners seem to be still on post season break. But, then, I think this way every January... So, self - don't worry, be happy!

  2. But...Roy Miller.

    Yeah, Portland's a little lacking in terms of "wow" just now. Concerning, especially seeing all that ambition in one team to the North...