Wednesday, February 22, 2017

MLS Barometer: Eastern Conference 2017

Doin' this shit old school.
As promised a few days back, I went through the (low-hanging; aka, SB Nation) local blogs to clock how each of them feel about the off-season rebuild in their market – and, by translation, how they feel about 2017 as a whole. I had my doubts (or outdated bookmarks), but I found an SB Nation blog for each of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference teams, which, courtesy of a visit from personal sanity, are the only teams I’ll discuss in this post. C’mon, 11 teams feels ample.

And that’s all the preamble I need, I guess. Um. Let’s go alphabetically.

Atlanta United FC
Source: Dirty South Soccer (great name, btw)
I relied on a few articles for this one: a roster projection, something that looks like a regular feature running under “tactics board,” plus a preseason match report for a game against an opponent (Chattanooga FC) that Atlanta fairly clear out-classed (think it was 5-0). Not surprisingly, a lot of the focus for all these goes to Miguel Almiron – and, in fairness, some of those gif/clips explain the buzz. A couple other things get flagged – e.g. Yamil Asad scored a beauty, Andrew Carleton looks all right – but even the “tactics board” post centers on Almiron, if around some talk about how it looks like Atlanta will use their fullbacks (not too far off Columbus Crew SC, under Gregg Berhalter from the sound of it). If there’s anything keeping Atlanta fans up at night (besides the heat, amirite?), it’s the defense; the match report actually framed this as something like the basic work of getting defenders and goalkeeper on the same page.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: I see a steep drop off after the starting eleven. People are broadly hyped about Atlanta and that’s fine, but they look an injury or two away from a stall to me. To put this in human form: would you willingly start Jeff Larentowicz in an MLS game? If you answer “no,” you see the issue.

Chicago Fire
This blog loves its roundtables, so much so that it’s sometimes hard to figure out where to find the (somewhat specific content) one’s after. For all that, I think Hot Time is where I am: reasonably convinced that Chicago did the offseason rebuild right enough, and to the point where “[Velko Paunovic, aka] Pauno actually has some options.” Chicago has gone unbeaten in the 2017 preseason, and that only solidifies the sense of things moving in a positive direction, but there are lingering (if quickly dismissed) doubts about Dax McCarty’s devotion to the cause (they’re all in agreement that he’s too much of a pro to go hack), but the one negative recurring theme surrounds the right back position. One pundit in one of the roundtables points out that Chicago’s new system will require “a lot less” of the Fire’s fullbacks in 2017, so it’s worth wondering why they’re all so stressed out, but it’s there.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: My opinions on Chicago are not to be trusted, generally (still, that 4-1 win over Montreal?), but I think they not only have a good starting set for the attack, they also have reasonable back-ups/change-ups when it comes to subs. The defense is a concern, too, but Juninho and Dax should help there.

Columbus Crew SC
These poor deprived souls have, at time of (my) reading, been deprived of seeing their team play directly, so they’re going on official reports (never to be trusted) and quotes from Berhalter (who has ample motivation to fudge). For all that, a couple things stand out: 1) Crew SC went nuts in terms of building up its spine (more here), whether it’s newly-arrived defender Jonathan Mensah or new (and both defensive apparently) midfielders Muhammad Abu and Artur (just, Artur). If Columbus added to the attack, that came by way of right back Jukka Raitala (gotta be Finnish, right?). For all the sense that Columbus will bounce back after a terrible 2016, even Massive Report sees cause for caution: Adam Jahn and Ola Kamara (good as he is) are the only two forwards on the roster; add another year to “Pipa” Higuain’s legs and it’s fair to wonder how many goals Columbus’ attack will muster in front of what should be a much better defense.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: By way of supplementing Massive Report, those new midfielders will have to boast some semblance of attacking upside to cover for how thin Columbus is up top. If you watched Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram (for a portion of) last year, you should appreciate that production is something less than a given.

DC United
As someone who bought all the way into DC United toward the end of 2016, catching up on their offseason made for a sobering read. It’s not that DC will be awful in 2017, or that they’ll revert to the sad sterility of “Benny Ball”; it’s more the way some real questions have started to pile up. Among them: 1) Sean Franklin might pair with Steve Birnbaum, because that’s the best option (due to Bobby Boswell’s age and Kofi Opare’s sporadic health), and is that good, no, seriously, is that good; 2) it’s a choice between a young buck (Ian Harkes) and two serviceable options (Rob Vincent, Julian Buescher) to pair with an (aging) Marcelo Sarvas in central midfield; 3) those wingers, who came on so very well last season, aren’t getting any younger (I’m looking at Lloyd Sam, Sebastian LeToux and Lamar Neagle, as much as personal fave Patrick Nyarko). A preseason “minutes tracker” seems to point to the ultimate resolution of some of these ideas – and also to Nick DeLeon continuing at right back (where he looked pretty OK).
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: They have a good system and smart players in it – young ones too (Luciano Acosta, Patrick Mullins) here and there. DC could go either way, in my mind, but the above caveats definitely loom.

Montreal Impact
I flagged a 4-1 loss to Chicago above, but a match report on the local SB site either blew that off or sounded the alarm; honestly, I’m not sure. Montreal later went on to beat up on DC, but that’s the same team they dumped out of the 2016 playoffs, and against most tells, so maybe that’s just the psychic scars showing? I had more success with this site than most, which is to say Mount Royal raised some damned interesting questions. Among them: what will Andres Romero (who I’ve always liked) make of his (potential) comeback year; what role will new kids Louis Beland-Goyette, Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla (winger!), and Adrian Arregui play in the coming season? And what about Blerim Dzemaili, a player brought in to cover the (no offense) aged weakness of Montreal’s spine? That last one’s actually a great debate, but there’s one more thing worth noting: Ignacio Piatti, Matteo Mancosu and Dominic Oduro all looked great in that outing against DC reportedly. And, yeah, the Chicago game sounded like an early season brain-fart, so…
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: The way these guys collapsed against Toronto went against everything I assumed about this team (e.g., strong defense and counter). Another year on that defense’s legs might further press assumptions. Then again, I always doubt Montreal…and not just because of poutine.

New England Revolution
A couple tweets and posts I put up a couple months back point to the folly of assuming that solving a team’s problem requires nothing more than finding a player to fill a position of need. That’s most of what I thought when I read that neither Xavier Kouassi nor Benjamin Angoua project as being ready for Regular Season Game 1. I can think of no better way to sum up the mass of unknowns surrounding New England than the “10 Thoughts” post I linked to a couple weeks back: the idea of playing Kelyn Rowe as a No. 10 is just the beginning. With all that mess, it’s no surprise that New England isn’t having a great preseason, but that’s not predictive of the season ahead. At least not definitively. Still, there are a lot of questions here…not even the ones about Femi Hollinger-Janzen’s comings-and-goings with the club.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: This team needs a brain somewhere on the field, either in the attack, or in the heart of defense, but these guys haven’t felt anything but rudderless for a couple years. Lee Nguyen, for all his talent, doesn’t look like that guy. Big problem…

New York City FC
I think the story with NYCFC begins and ends with their permanent parade of signings – though, here, I want to pause to say, Jonathan Stertzer? That guy? Best of luck to him and the club, honestly, and god bless him for finishing off a preseason chance, but I wouldn’t have signed that guy based on his days with Real Salt Lake. Still, there’s Alexander Ring (there’s a brutal frame re: Mix Diskerud in there), Yangel Herrera, Rodney Wallace (fuckers), and, not latest, but probably greatest, Maxi Moralez, who may pan out or flame out; no one knows. There’s this kid floating around in the mix – a 16-year-old named James Sands – who might make things deeply interesting, but, if you read about how NYCFC came across their two preseason losses against MLS clubs, you’ll see a familiar theme – e.g. defensive miscues. And that’s got the power to cancel out a number of flashy signings.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: I left off newly-signed ‘keeper, Sean Johnson, but he’s also an afterthought if that defense doesn’t get its shit together. I bet they’ll be good, but I’ll also bet they could be better with a little more focus on defense.

New York Red Bulls
Source (sort of): Once a Metro
Once a Metro simply does not have great Red Bulls content, or at least not content I can find (with the effort I’m willing to put in): they seem obsessed with Red Bulls II, what former players are up to, and wondering what the fuck got head coach Jesse Marsch ahead of his most recent press conference. What I can say is that the Red Bulls have yet to lose in preseason, and, that the one time I saw them play, they thoroughly outplayed the other team, who shall go, uh, unnamed.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: This one’s pretty simple: New York OG (the Red Bulls) has a good system, players who understand the system, plus a couple of next-level guys like Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan to see them through. They’ll be good in 2017. Probably. They could be great if their defense solidifies…which could mean the attack could suffer. This is somewhat circular, as I’m sure you see…

Orlando City SC
Source: The Mane Land
The thing that stands out about Orlando’s midfield is its mild incoherence – especially with Cristian Higuita going down to injury. If you look at The Mane Land’s projected starting eleven, on the other hand, you’ll see a team that should at least function – e.g. Kaka will act as a second forward, so all those (sorry) “sub-creative” midfield players (Will Johnson, Brek Shea, Matias Perez-Garcia) only need to feed him the ball – but what happens if/when Kaka (let’s face it) inevitably misses a game or five? The defense doesn’t pencil out either – Jonathan Spector seems OK, but I don’t recall that Aja kid making many Best XI’s – but the weirdest thing comes with an article on Orlando’s preseason results that somehow avoids actually talking about those results. I get it on some level – they had no video feed (again, Timbers fans, please realize how good we’ve got it) – but why post what amounts to a three paragraph exhale of stale CO2? (Also, for the record, Orlando lost to Toronto FC 1-3 (i.e., in Orlando), and they drew 3-3 with Philadelphia Union). All in all, I don’t get a huge sense of confidence out of The Mane Land.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: I’m not sure Orlando ever had a plan beyond, “sign Kaka.” The most intriguing thing in all of this is something I omitted: the heretofore entirely untested notion that a season tomatch his stature from Antonio Nocerino will fix what ails this club. Orlando has played to the bubble in each of its (three?) seasons, and it’s hard to see them going beyond that in 2017, not without a mystery man coming forward (The Nocerino Scenario), or new blood.

Philadelphia Union
I want to start by saying I like the approach to the match report for Chicago’s 1-0 win over Philly; the back-and-forth frame makes for a fun read. The Brotherly Game also wrote up the 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies (and, whoa, whoa, whoa…what’s with this “other people/filthy readers” providing the player ratings?), but I think their biggest mysteries surround a couple players they’ve signed (e.g., Jay Simpson (aka, “maybe BWP?”), Fafa Picault, and Haris Medunjanin (good number of caps for that guy (for Bosnia; not bad, right?)), along with what they’re going to do about defensive/personnel depth? Per The Brotherly Game’s write-up, only Keegan Rosenberry and Richie Marquez have spots locked down, and the only new guy they signed is Oguchi Onyewu, a player most people weren’t even sure the Union would sign when he came on as a trialist. All in all, the Union presents as a team waiting on a narrative; I’m sure their fans are thrilled…
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: I see Philly as a team that picks up good and useful players, while also being perpetually a player (or two) short of a fully-functioning team. In other words, they’ll come good to the extent that Medunjanin gives shape to their midfield, or if Simpson takes up the scoring slack that C. J. Sapong never quite managed, or if Onyewu has a beast season.

Toronto FC
I’d say the general book on TFC reads roughly like so: this was/is a team that’s maybe two players short of winning it all – and I mean all: Toronto were in plausible Supporters’ Shield contention till late, and they came within penalty kicks (right? I didn’t black out an entire event?) of winning MLS Cup. They’ll return most of their best players and Drew Moor ain’t done yet, they’ve still got solid fullbacks (Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour), plus a waning-prime captain (Michael Bradley) and a (recently) dominant waxing-prime forward, so, yeah, TFC just needed a couple twitches toward the good side of things and they should be good. Right? On paper, they’ve found another anchor for their defense in Chris Mavinga (srsly, pedigree doesn’t always matter, but he’s got the right CV; and this gets at why/how he could matter), and, and, TFC splashed out for a player who…well, they both have the same rough narrative; semi-reclamations, if pulled from the dumpsters under the swankiest condos, but, put it this way; I’m not totally clear on how Victor Vazquez fits into TFC’s scheme, and I’m not saying he won’t fit. What I am saying is, he enjoyed his best success with “Barcelona B” and “Club Brugge.” These are not global glamour outfits. A step above MLS? Probably. The question is, how big a step? The follow up is, how much of a step do TFC need? My guess is a Mazinga-sized one, assuming he works out.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: This is a good team. Barring something broken or weird, they should make the playoffs. And, barring something broken or weird – and this is with the weight of all the other teams above this – Toronto looks as good as any team in the Eastern Conference, and probably better than most.

OK, that’s the Eastern Conference edition. I’ll be back…guessing Sunday (or Monday) with the Western Conference edition.

No comments:

Post a Comment