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.)

New York City FC 1-1 Montreal Impact
Rodney Wallace scored a very Rodney Wallace goal (yay!), David Villa not only looks sharp, but he looks like he genuinely likes having Wallace around. For all that, the game only read enormously lopsided in terms of clear-cut chances on goal – which, here, meanssitters” – and, there, New York had enough advantage that they should have won this. And to lose two points on a play that simple…just ain’t responsible. As much as this represented a clear let-off for Montreal, it should also encourage people to pump the brakes a little on NYCFC.

Atlanta United FC 4-0 Chicago Fire
Some wee asterisk has hung on each of Atlanta’s two wins – e.g. they either played a defense that’s an Achilles Heel scaled to dinosaur size, or they played 80 minutes a man up – and that makes it hard to really get their measure. I only know that they can get vertical, and damned quickly. Set aside the draconian nature of Johan Kappelhof’s 11th-minute sending off, however, and I’ll be the first to wonder whether Atlanta’s speed would always have bedeviled Chicago’s slow-ish defense – and I say that feeling like Joao Meira looks like a real fit this season (if a slow one). Also, I think Chicago will improve when things get a little more automatic in and around Dax McCarty and Juninho (Atlanta’s first came when the Fire (again) forced Dax to handle a tricky pass in a bad spot; sorry, damn video starts a tick too late).

Vancouver Whitecaps 0-2 Toronto FC
Unless the 70 minutes I missed featured crisp, purposeful passing, this game looked damned sloppy – and games like that tend to wait on some star to shine. Jozy Altidore took his cue (the red card to Brek Shea (more on the…idiocy in the Topics section), apparently) to notch both an assist, and a muscularly elegant goal. The ‘Caps, meanwhile, has shown signs that they will menace the rest of MLS with just fucking boring games. In a telling contrast with Altidore, Vancouver’s Erik Hurtado had a clear, late chance to take a little sting out of the loss, but Saturday proved to be one of his 30 mediocre outings per season.

DC United 0-2 Columbus Crew SC
When a team’s best players accidentally spends an afternoon as the team’s biggest liability, losses like this happen. Just ask Steve Birnbaum, who coughed up two penalty kicks on Saturday for fouls on Columbus’ Ola Kamara; the second call was kinda crap, by me, but I’m not making the decisions. DC had a moment or two – Patrick Nyarko forced a huge save out of Zac Steffen, and does Lloyd Sam teach a man to value a good cross (and tragic to see him limp off) - but it dried up after. And Jose Ortiz doesn’t even look like an answer at forward. As for Columbus…meh. I spied a moment between Justin Meram and Federico Higuain, but I still don’t think they’re firing right. They can take some comfort knowing that Alex Crognale understudied well for Jonathan Mensah.

Orlando City SC 2-1 Philadelphia Union
When Cyle Larin broke alone toward goal with the game knotted at ones, I leaned forward to write the notes (OK, yes, it was me all along) before he scored, because I knew he’d finish it. And that’s what makes the kid special. Another Orlando player chucked in a special moment, but his name you only hear on the odd Goal of the Week announcement. Still, Joe Bendik’s late-game stuff on Alejandro Bedoya did every bit as much to help Orlando keep all three points (and the post took care of Ilsinho’s shot). Both teams still read as mid-table – which, in MLS, implies flirtation with the red line – but, after this one, I feel like Philly has it worse. Good teams make their own luck, but Philly has to wander a little to find theirs.

FC Dallas 2-1 New England Revolution
Won’t lie: I was a little surprised to see Dallas trot out their starters, what with the schedule they’ve had (MLS: Where Teams Pay for Success with Jetlag), and it looked like they played a bit fatigued – mentally as much as anything. They caught a break when Maynor Figueroa didn't get sent off for trying to break Kei Kamara, but, with his poacher’s brace (TM), Maximiliano Urruti proved key…and the lord smiled a little when he saw Urruti’s soft little shove to (was it?) New England’s Benjamin Angoua’s back on the winner. As for New England, they can still apply sustained pressure, even if they can’t bite as hard as they used to, so the sooner that defense comes on-line, the sooner they can start climbing, save Jay Heaps’ job, etc.

Sporting Kansas City 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes
After Benny Feilhaber’s WUNDER-goal (my early GOTY candidate; you have to sit through multiple replays before you figure out how lopsided Bingham's positioning is), the most entertaining part of this game was the Hate Opera between Dom Dwyer and Jair Marrufo. I kid you not, Dwyer had three plausible calls for a penalty and Marrufo all but flipped him off. High fucking comedy, I tell ya. Sporting KC deserved the win, no question, but a just universe wouldn’t have kicked an unusually shaky David Bingham that hard to give it to them. In fact, that’s a nice sub-plot to San Jose’s early 2017: Bingham looks shaky, while Victor Bernardez looks all right. I slipped a couple deeper cuts in Topics, one for each team.

Colorado Rapids 2-2 Minnesota United FC
Full…wait, no, FULL credit to Minnesota for the draw, because a semi-early defense…just fuck up hinted at another blowout and a pile-on to the existential doom. In a plot twist that should give Rapids fans the crawling heebie-jeebies, Colorado coughed up a pair of defensive setbacks before Marlon Hairston headed home a beauty of a cross by the eternally-underrated/guy with the right hometown Marc Burch, On Colorado’s lapses, the way Christian Ramirez got ahead of Jared Watts whispers of future defensive struggles (also, not Watts' game), something Colorado can’t afford, not when the back of Kevin Doyle’s jersey should read, “He Doesn’t Miss That One By Much.” A first taste of glory for Minnesota, and two points dropped for the Rapids. More on this in topics…

Real Salt Lake 1-2 Los Angeles Galaxy
The biggest fallout from this one rained down on Sandy, Utah today with the firing of head coach Jeff Cassar. It wasn’t hard to see it coming, for he never sat comfortably on the throne, but there are implications of other coaches on hot seats laced throughout this post…and it tilts to the East, at least for now. However you feel about someone losing his/her job, RSL has been visibly, wretchedly bad this season. As for LA, sure, they benefited from Kyle Beckerman’s 44th minute sending off, but they’ve also landed a workhorse in Romain Alessandrini. MLS’s newer DPs might not have the names of past talents, but they more than make up for it by playing hungry. Alessandrini, like Portland’s Sebastian Blanco, is goddamn relentless.

Seattle Sounder 3-1 New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls do everything about soccer except defend and score goals really, really well. Seriously, these guys are like the Darlington Nagbe in team-form. All in all, though, I think I’ll frame this one pretty simply: your better teams thrive by having multiple “danger-men” on the field and, while New York has a damn good playmaker in Sacha Kljestan and a damn good forward in Bradley Wright-Phillips, they lost to Seattle team that didn’t just have Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris (and why do teams play a high line against Seattle with him on the field?), and Clint Dempsey; they also have Joevin Jones marauding up and down the right. And keeping a play that looked buried vividly alive. And scoring off a deflection, etc. Red Bulls’ mistakes (e.g.) feel like they might be a bigger deal this season…

OK, topics time. And, why yes, I am still massaging this shit, working on balance, etc.

1) Brek Shea: Potential and Problems (on Two Levels)
A moment or two aside, Shea spent a chunk of Vancouver’s loss to Toronto flopping about like a fish out of water. It looks for all the world as if Shea’s every bit as confused about where he’s supposed to play as the rest of us. The fact he already looks like he’s not gonna produce only magnifies a dumbass moment like, oh, saying something “Yellow-Card-Offensive” to a referee. I honestly don’t know what inspired Vancouver to bring in Shea. Maybe it was simple as not knowing what the hell to do with Giles Barnes either, or maybe he came in as a prelude to signing a Big Number 9 (honestly, I hear that phrase often enough to capitalize it). In the here and now, though, Shea’s arrival reads like the most glaring product of bad roster construction. If Vancouver doesn’t have the most incoherent roster in MLS, they’re surely pushing it. The ‘Caps roster is weird enough that it’s hard to decide whether Carl Robinson’s a bad coach, or if he’s just stuck playing a handful of 9’s and 10’s. (Euchre reference! Who’s with me!?)

2) Whatever happened to Pipa, Finlay and Meram
During the preseason, it feels like I read or heard from people who saw great things for Columbus in 2017. They’re on my list of problem teams…and, shit, I just jinxed Portland for their next game. (Three pinches of salt over the shoulder and I just kicked the shit out of a black cat! FUCK YOU, BAD LUCK!) My opinion aside, getting amped on Columbus isn’t totally crazy, because they’ve got good pieces. For all that, though, a particular moment in Saturday’s timely win over DC hints at why theories on Columbus might borrow a little from past optimism. Justin Meram came off in the 63rd minute and the player who replaced him carries my point forward – you decide how far. It was Ethan Finlay – e.g., the guy who used to balance Crew SC’s attack by playing opposite Meram. Loosely, that balancing act fell to Harrison Afful, a wing-back who’s not terrible in the role, but other things changed for Columbus – most notably, another year on Higuain’s legs. Looks get deceiving when it comes to older players: in a good enough player especially, you get so used to turn-arounds from a bad patch that you sometimes lose track of just how long that bad patch goes on. It’s only worse when you love the player enough that you’re half-blind already. Columbus still has good attackers, and I don’t think they lost much at forward in swapping one Kamara for another (Ola for Kei), but their attack, along with how people see this team, rests on a couple assumptions that I’m not sure hold anymore.

3) Cyle Larin, and MLS’s Complete Forwards
Watching even the 20 minute snippet of Larin playing for Orlando was enough to get me wondering about what other forwards match him as a game-day headache. The Timbers’ Fanendo Adi sprang to mind, and for obvious reasons, but it takes nothing more than a quick mental trip through the league to realize just how rare big complete forwards are in MLS (and maybe this applies to the world; beyond my brief). Altidore comes in, for sure, and…damn, how do those three players stack up? The only other high-production player I can think of who comes close on the full skill set would be Kei Kamara, but he hasn’t produced so much lately. There are other great forwards in MLS, sure, but they’re a different type – say, David Villa and Dom Dwyer (though, to be clear, not equal) – and I think the specific type dries out after that. Look, I’m not even sure what I’m driving at besides noting that a big, skilled player poses a particular threat in the soccer world, one that’s a special headache for defenders and coaching staff alike. I guess the point is, any team that has one of these guys should sit in that for a minute and recognize it for the blessing it is.

4) Two Statements on the American Player in One Game
A couple tiny shifts in the starting rosters for Sporting KC and San Jose open up to a large conversation about the status of American soccer players – and they’re both slightly different questions too. First, there’s Graham Zusi, a player who, at one point, looked destined for a long prosperous career, if not outright stardom, as a wide player and dead-ball specialist. Today, he plays right back for KC – and, by some accounts (not this one) not all that well. There’s nothing wrong with that – and I mean, at all, because he lost his spot on reasonable causes, e.g., he’s not the fastest – but the entire “demotion” begs the question of whether a player at Zusi’s level is getting steadily overtaken by the improving imports coming into the league. The question gets more interesting with San Jose’s Tommy Thompson. While previously and reasonably known as a player of eternal potential, Thompson showed well, maybe even really well, in two starts for San Jose this season. It didn’t help him because, now that he’s fit, Jahmir Hyka looks like San Jose’s starter going forward. That’s not the wrong call, necessarily, but…no, I won’t take the tack that this “undermines” U.S. soccer, because school of hard knocks makes the kids tougher. Still, it does suck for a player like Thompson. Or a player like Seattle’s Harry Shipp. I think the question of which path will give these kinds of players their best possible careers is far more open than anyone in, or interested in, U.S. Soccer wants to admit – and MLS is at the very, very bottom of that list. They can peddle the fantasy, and hype these kids after draft day all they want, but it’s damned hard for these players to rise in the current context.

5) Colorado’s False Premise(?)
This one will be short because, nodding off, and I still have links to add…hold on, re-centering…………………........................................................................................and, OK. About a year ago, I got fairly excited about the Rapids’ central midfield pairing of Michael Azira and Sam Cronin – something that, I have no doubt, grew from my Portland Timbers’ persistent (as in never ended all fucking season long) problems in central midfield. For all that, the Cronin/Azira formulation does one thing exceedingly well: it stabilizes defending in Zone 14 and its environs; when it works as well as it did for Colorado in 2016, that shit’s on near-goddamn lock-down. Portland did one crucial thing this off-season: it brought David Guzman up from Costa Rica’s Sapirssa. And, holy shit. Just, holy shit. OK, yes, I’m exaggerating (if vaguely), but there is an important point in there: as much as soccer’s about trade-offs, Colorado gives up too much creativity in the middle of the park by playing Cronin and Azira. And I say that with a vague notion that Azira played better than anyone for Colorado this past weekend. They’re both very good, useful players; together, however, it’s like booking a punk band to play solos for the symphony. Guzman’s no artist, but he’s the love-child of Picasso and Pollock next to a guy like Azira. And that stuff matters.

OH, before I go, is it un-American for an American player to fer-reals tackle at U.S. National Teamer, this close to a “world-is-ending” level World Cup Qualifier? Part of me thinks no…

Till Week 4!

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