Wednesday, March 1, 2017

MLS Barometer 2017: Western Conference (Yes, Even Portland Timbers)

Checking on reloads. Important ones, too.
Welcome to the Tour de Blogues Locale (or, in American, Tour of Local Blogs): Western Conference Edition, in which I duck into the SB Nation blogs for each of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference teams to report on what one iteration of the locals are saying about their MLS team and their prospects for the 2017 season. Sure, I’ll probably clutter up those observations with my own commentary, even as I specifically set aside a space for me to blab…what can I say? We’re all fallible, we’re all mortal and, sometimes, we don’t smell our best. Moving on…

This is a Western Conference season preview, but it also prefigures the same frame for how I plan on managing Total League Coverage this season. Barring a (likely) change of heart, those local sites, plus Matt “The Armchair Analyst/Fellow Bald Warrior” Doyle’s weekly round-ups, will be my only reading sources this season (for the league-wide stuff, at least; all bets are off on Portland Timbers content, because, hometown!). I’ll continue to stress-test my marriage (love you, honey! Kisses!) by watching a few (or a couple) games every week, plus all the condensed games, when and as MLS Live trickles out the content.

We’ll see how long this format holds up. I’m betting it’ll be dead and replaced by Week 5, but let’s try optimism this year, right? I welcome the posting of over/under bets on this, either on my twitter feed or in the comments (seriously, go with the twitter feed; you shouldn’t have to create a google account just to tell me you think I’m neurotic, stupid, or both).

With that out of the way, let’s lather up and check in all those SB Nation blogs. (NOTE: If you can pass on a better local source – even if it’s your own site – I’m willing to replace the SB Nation blogs as sources…so long as whatever it is you pass on is better.)

Colorado Rapids
Source: (Ron) Burgundy Wave
Rapids fans direct a lot of their obsessing toward the offense – which makes sense after holding one slim lead after another through 2016. The speculation that spills into Burgundy Wave sorta gets all over the place: for instance, they’re excited about the potential partnership between Alan Gordon and Nana Adjei Boateng (even while they’re later asking whether Boateng can displace Michael Azira?); both Dillon Serna and Chris Calvert got little shouts in one article (Calvert, in particular, was a source of perpetual fascination in the early preseason (kid scored 4)); they’re hoping for 10 + goals from Shkelzen Gashi, but there’s also that nagging phrase that Rapids fans probably have on auto-type: “Kevin Doyle had a couple of shots” (you should notice an absence in there). Their write-up for the 3-1 win over New England probably best, and most accurately, captures where I expect Rapids’ fans heads are just now (see the sub-head, feel the relief). Uh, let’s see: they still seem high on the defense, though worries crept in here and there, but, if you tick through the names of players in the write-up over the win over New York City FC, you’ll see a defense with a plan and plenty of capable players. Including, it seems, Kortne Ford (homegrown kid).
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: Defense is the rock on which this team is built, so the signs of cracks that showed in their preseason games are the (potential) story till further notice. The attacking talent didn’t improve enough – e.g. Boateng and Gordon, no matter the alleged connection - to write another script.

FC Dallas
Source: Big D(ick) Soccer (Fine, just Big D Soccer; “D” has been irrevocably compromised)
Big D Soccer made this preview pretty easy (thanks!), thanks to breakdowns of both the defensive and attacking units (lack of overlap was weird, though, especially given the pride of place they give to Carlos Gruezo in making both sides work). The attacking piece is the more cautious of the two (which I like), but the piece on the defense flags the bigger talking points – e.g., the virtuous duels for the starter’s role at fullback (Maynor Figueroa v. Anibal Chala at left back; Atiba Harris v. Hernan Grana at right back), plus the question of depth at centerback (which they never pose, but that's big enough to me that Walker Hume doesn’t feel like an adequate answer yet). Of more interest, however, and because it’s a game that actually counted, FC Dallas’ rout over Panama’s Arabe Unido hinted that it might be time to screw the caution in the attack, and to tell the lack of depth in defense to go pound sand (between the write-ups, the player grade one feels more thorough).
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: They really do feel like Shield and Cup favorites till further notice or injury to the backline. Javier Morales might not last the season, but Dallas has enough capable players, and strong enough defense, to beat any team in the West, or MLS as a whole.

Houston Dynamo
Source: Dynamo Theory (my Big Bang Theory gag isn’t worth the effort)
Without question, the Dynamo blew up its roster after 2016…but the stuff that happened between here and there failed to put things back together satisfactorily for at least one of Dynamo Theory’s writers. When he (he, right? right) sets out to lance the various zits on the line-up, he sees a starting eleven full of ploggers, one that lacks a game-changer, or even just a central creator (think he lowers the bar all the way down to “passing midfielder), to make all those zippy wingers come good. The broad idea of falling too far from quality comes up a lot – and with a big hairy unknown tangling up the space between Juan David Cabezas (who was shaky at least once) and Alfredo Machado, who’s also new; concerns that the specific players might mush together in a weird way sorta fleshes out the gloom. Spreads it across the whole sunset, really. Still, Houston won the Desert Diamond Cup. Which might be cursed. Still, nine goals scored on the counter…that’s something.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: Of all the local blogs, Dynamo Theory is the most glum by far. From the outside looking in, the turnover and replacement pedigrees looked impressive enough, but the locals aren’t as impressed, apparently. More to the point, they make a good case about the level/age of the local personnel. Houston bears watching, if only to see where the winds blow.  

Los Angeles Galaxy
Source: LAG Confidential (guys, c’mon. so boring)
LA tends to start slow, but something about the usual feels…deeper, I guess? It could be the meager write-ups one gets out of LAG Confidential – and that could be why the most interesting thing I can write about LA is that they are “Jack McBean” desperate, as in hanging some amount of hope on McBean stepping up (and yet, they make a good case). It’s all fairly thin match reports after that, pieces where it’s up to the reader to notice the details (e.g. the Emmaneul Boateng/Jose Villareal connection, which combined for two goals this preseason). I got to watch a full 90 for LA – this was last Saturday’s loss to Portland (in LA, too) – and, no, not their best outing. Things looked up when Romain Alessandrini came on, but…dunno, maybe there’s something to that McBean hype. Or maybe Gyasi Zardes just needs to get well?
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: For what it’s worth, I think that Zardes, whatever his talents, isn’t enough to lead LA’s line. I don’t know what Zardes is, besides not being Fanendo Adi, and I also think that matters…unless Jack McBean comes good. They have talent all over…just not where they need it so much.

Minnesota United FC
Source: E Pluribus Loonum (See?! That's a site name!)
I’ve long had good feelings about Minnesota joining MLS – these are my people on a couple low-key levels – and their super-downer, super-early season preview only confirmed the affinity. Push past the sads, and you’ll pick up good notes on defense (depth and starters; lukewarm on both), the author’s chilly attitude to the midfield as a whole, just…general concern about depth, and the related concern about the relative youth of said depth. Once the rubber hit the road, though, the conversation shifted a little – for instance, the love for their old NASL guys, Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez, evaporated a little by the end of the Simple Invitational; on the plus side, Loons fans see the light on Johan Venegas and Kevin Molino (in spite of the price, which came up); in a specific piece of curiosity, I walked away from Minnesota’s draw against my Timbers way higher on Bashkim Kadrii…they did start him in their first-choice starting XI…still, I went with “player to watch.” Oh, I thought Ibson looked good for them, and I don’t even think E Pluribus Loonum stated his name more than once across the stuff I read. Trust them, I assume they’re watching more closely.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: I read something today about expecting Minnesota to park the bus. For what it’s worth, I think it’ll be park the bus and counter; they got Molino for a reason.

Portland Timbers
Source: Stumptown Footy (pretty inside, pretty Portland)
I’m going to start by pointing something out: Portland pundits go long on their posts, no matter the setting, present author 100% included. Moving took three games into the preseason – the win over the Vancouver Whitecaps – to get opinions strong enough to work with, and it all started with a barely-willing wink from Caleb Porter, where he lets down his guard and admits that he’s thinking what we’re all thinking: Portland looks good. There are a lot of whys to this: the way Portland’s attack looks like it’ll work (I flagged this, Chris Rifer elaborated on it); how well the Diego Chara/David Guzman pairing already works (for the record, I answered the question with Fanendo Adi), but there’s also Lawrence Olum holding down the role he was called in to play, good news at both fullback positions and so on. The high looks real, people, and I’m not the only one seeing it. Even Caleb, people. Even Caleb. Better not fuck this up…
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: My only real concern with the Timbers at this point is the team’s inability to keep clean sheets. Sure, Portland’s attack looks great and powerful, but it’s safe to assume that it won’t work some days, yes? And on these days, we can’t have the rear-guard personnel sullying the sheets, yes?

Real Salt Lake
Source: RSL (Wash Your Mouth Out With) Soapbox (eh? eh? Fine, RSL Soapbox)
RSL Soapbox is big on “player dossiers.” They also like grouping things together in fives, and lord knows I get the impulse. Dossiers go past my level of detail, so the watchwords for RSL in 2017 truck in variations on the word “young”: “younger,” “youth,” “youth movement,” etc. For all that, the player ratings RSL Soapbox dished out for the loss to LA hints at some limits to all that, but there’s an odd comfort about not just RSL’s youth movement (that, in spite of all the “the time is now” talk about players like Jordan Allen), but about some of the offseason moves that didn't catch the eye – e.g., they’re nuts about Luis Silva, feel like they’ve got a long-term gem in Jose Hernandez, and, if Chris Schuler can pick up 2013 minutes alongside the already impressive Justen Glad...well, I’ll say what they won’t: holy shit. Add to the above the idea that Joao Plata’s back to his best, and that RSL pulled off some savvy shit by landing Chad Barrett…say what you like. I’ve heard crazier stuff. Also, I did see the stuff about life after Kyle Beckerman…that’s coming.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: In all honesty, I think RSL is one, maybe two, years away. If all those trends hold, though, and if Albert Rusnak works out (heretofore inexcusably unmentioned), and if they find a sound replacement for Beckerman…holy shit. I know that’s a lot of questions, but that’s why I went with “holy shit.” It's a long-shot, but the upside could be amazing.

San Jose Earthquakes
Source: Center Line Soccer (I want to hate it, but I don’t)
San Jose’s another team that doesn’t have a lot of readily-available preseason results to scour; they’re more about the rebuild…and there’s a very interesting question in play here: did San Jose rebuild smart, but without anyone noticing (and that's where I got the image!)? I noticed when Marco Urena came in, but that’s down to a half-worthless shorthand that a lot fans hold about time spent in a World Cup translating to quality (e.g., Julian Green). By that I mean, Center Line’s people are more excited about Dutchman Danny Hoesen and Jahmir Hyka (“the Albanian Messi”), and maybe they’re not wrong. Harold Cummings came in for high praise as well – i.e., the smaller, no-less-physical Victor Bernardez – so it’s worth at least pausing to ask whether San Jose won’t pose a bigger problem than expected in 2017. Doesn’t hurt that they not only rolled through the only preseason game I found for them, two of their new guys scored, too.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: If there’s a weak link on this team, it’s Godoy (well, that and the continued faith in Tommy Thompson, who I’ve never seen repay it). The new guys will be interesting, and they may or may not work, but this club’s chief task – even as early as this year - comes with transitioning away from Chris Wondolowski. Simon Dawkins might prove himself – he’s done well in the past – but the question of whether he does it again or not might define San Jose’s 2017.

Seattle Sounders FC
Source: Sounders at Heart (fitting; about as creative as their famous “Nuremberg Clap”)
Jesus, fucking Christ, if these guys don’t love themselves. I expected insufferable, but…wow. At any rate (I kid; a lot of their copy is good), the Sounders didn’t have a great preseason, going something like 0-2-3, and with a negative goal differential. In their defense, it looks like they didn’t start “real Sounders” till the final game against Columbus – which they lost. Even in the earlier loss to Atlanta, Sounders at Heart’s pundits found regular season talking points – e.g., the importance of the fullback-midfield pairings, plus the strenuous importance of whatever central/defensive midfield pairing they land on – because, this year, as with last, that will define Seattle’s season. What else? They didn’t bring in a ton of players – e.g., they returned Alvaro Fernandez, and brought in Gustav Svensson (whose versatility, they appreciate) – but that could also explain why they’re SUPER obsessed with Keisuke Honda possible/eventual transfer from AC Milan. Uh, what else? Oh, there was this neat thing about Harry Shipp subbing in for Osvaldo Alonso, which strikes me as having potential, they’re stoked about unleashing Cerberus on the rest of MLS (Dempsey, Lodeiro, Morris), and they like that Henry Wingo kid (among a lot of things).
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: If anything has held back Seattle historically, it’s the limitation of having a guy like Fernandez on the roster – e.g., a player who is neither great, not rises above the bare level of good. Get enough on your roster, and in the wrong places, and you’re parked in Mediocresville for the season. Unless you have Cerberus. Maybe…in all honesty, this Seattle team feels hard to pin down.

Sporting Kansas City
Source: The Blue Testament (too close to what I call my bowel movements)
For a team that didn’t blow the doors off the off-season, Sporting KC made a few moves that have fans believing in 2017. If you pick through each of their defensive and midfield squad previews, you’ll see why (psst…Ilie Sanchez has potential to be sneaky good; but there’s the kind of weirdness you only get by way of intimacy crawling all over this stuff – see the borderline starter/bench, tag-team orgy involving Sanchez, Soni Mustivar, Benny Feilhaber, Roger Espinoza; it’s hot). The bigger names they brought in – Gerso Fernandes and Latif Blessing (a waif, apparently, but fast) – have already suggested collaborations that explain things like Graham Zusi shifting to right back; that goes triple for Gerso, apparently. If you add a (maybe) steady preseason for Dom Dwyer, plus signs of Cameron Porter and Daniel Salloi on the score sheet, KC has a vibe this season…and not necessarily one I like.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: Speaking as someone who generally hates SKC, they really do seem to have sorted things out in a way that only Portland matched. Now, my impression on both could be busts, but the logic really does hold. Sporting does feel real this year…and may I be proven wrong. Not my favorite team…

Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Source: Eighty Six Forever (this will be awesome in 50 years, seriously)
Back on February 10, 2017, this site posted the piercing kind of question a team only asks after a shit season: will this year be better? (And, for the record, this team did only slighty worse than Portland.) If you know the ‘Caps personnel problems well enough, it’s a damned depressing read (the phrase, “I see an uptick,” is actually heartbreaking). After that, though, things get subtly/weirdly better. Vancouver had a low-volume off-season – at least not till late, when they picked up Fredy Montero and Brek Shea (at the cost of losing Giles Barnes, but who could figure out what to do with that guy anyway?) – and, even if they still haven’t had a loud one, things somehow seem to be working out. Whether it’s Kekuta Manneh playing centrally (and in a perhaps over-familiar formation), Yordy Reyna looking like a solution (till injury), or just a thrice-over unlikely 1-1 draw (e.g., Vancouver’s injuries, general impressions between the Red Bulls and Vancouver, overcoming a penalty kick and 30 minutes shorthanded…suddenly feels like four “unlikelies”), Vancouver has this chip-on-the-shoulder vibe…they kind you get from a drunk in a bar, who’s strong and wild enough to land one good punch before skulking off alone.
Conifers & Citrus Addendum: Shea coming in makes Manneh’s move inside line up, but the big question – and I’m not even sure this makes sense – is Cristian Bolanos. This is less about Bolanos, specifically, than my broader sense that Vancouver has more personnel than plan in the attack. Maybe Manneh makes them coherent, maybe Bolanos does. All I know is that SOMEONE needs to.

And, that’s it. I’ll put up something…Friday morning about how I expect each conference to finish. After that, I’m off to Portland’s home opener. Hells, yes.

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