Thursday, April 27, 2017

Major League Soccer Week 8.5 / 9: A Glance Ahead

Say, anyone else see that they played the CONCACAF Champions League final. A Mexican club won. No way…

I tried the tweet-storm thing for these previews and, personally, I think they don’t suit me. I’m a long-form kind of guy, even as I’m aspiring to be shorter. Also, I spent so much fucking time trying to squeeze my thoughts into 140 characters. As criminal as foot-binding for a guy like me (if without the vile societal/gender hierarchies of oppression. Just reaching for a dramatic metaphor…putting it down now. Backing away…stupid, stupid, stupid!).

At any rate, moving on to preview MLS Week 8.5/9 (nope, not yet “real” Week 9; still only seven teams have played eight games (also, we are the Portland Timbers, we come from the future (as in we’re one of the seven teams)). The approach here is supposed to be brief and casual – I don’t actually want go that far beyond 140 characters on these, I just wanted a little more room to breathe for bad jokes. I will say one thing, as I read’s Power Rankings, or even just stray notes among the various editions of this week’s editions of The Kick Off, I kept bumping into a thought that drives me fucking crazy – talking up a team’s accomplishments without any reference to who they played. For instance, sure, it’s neat that Minnesota United FC picked up its first clean sheet, but, guys, they earned that against the Colorado Rapids and at home. That matters, almost as much as the clean-sheet itself. The same goes for the Houston Dynamo blanking the San Jose Earthquakes: Wilmer Cabrera’s defensive adjustment may or may not work out, but the ‘Quakes are bad this season on offense, so…

If you want me impressed, let’s talk Orlando City SC giving New York City FC a good Bronx cheer.

Anyway, I’ll mostly rely on the league's injury report for this stuff – though somebody needs to wake up the damn intern, because he/she is leaving a lot of names hanging without status, e.g., Alex Crognale for Columbus? And I’ll get better about reading news. Promise. Even though that’ll probably start and end with The KickOff. Speaking of injuries…

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

MLS Week 7.5 (Explained Inside) Review: A Reset Weekend

Goals. Well, part of them.
All right, let’s do this. Nice and compact. May bunny pellets replace my usual explosion of verbal diarrhea. And sorry about all that if you’re eating, but that’s just what came to me.

Let’s start with what happened over Major League Soccer’s Week 7.5 – again, I refuse to use the phrase “Week 8”until over half of MLS teams have played as many games, and only seven teams have played eight games so far. And, so, in no particular order, but the one the Good Lord gave us, here’s the rundown:

In the week’s early offering, the New England Revolution and the San Jose Earthquakes wrapped up like tired heavyweights, only neither club passes for heavyweights; the sleeping red (potential) giant that is Toronto FC woke up long enough to throttle the visiting Chicago Fire, with Sebastian Giovinco merrily shivving them all the while; in what was surely the most depressing two hours of the weekend, the Philadelphia Union carried their fans to heaven on the back of a three-goal lead against the visiting Montreal Impact only to pull them back into Hell’s Gutter by night’s end by allowing three goals the other way (though, again, damn Ignacio!); the Houston Dynamo’s roster rebuild sure looked better than San Jose’s (here, I think we have enough data to resist any claims of fatigue out of the Earthquakes' camp); the Portland Timbers reserves answered the call and faced down the Vancouver Whitecaps at home; and the New England Revolution might still be unbeaten at home, but that easy stat surely tastes bitter after DC United turned a likely loss into a bracing road draw (that said, this game was lousy with warning signs for the Revs). Elsewhere, the New York Red Bulls finally played like themselves, and that let them bury (probably) still-warm Columbus Crew SC; after threatening to get permanently tangled in status anxiety, FC Dallas showed what makes one good team better than the other by scoring the lone winner against Sporting Kansas City (and why do all the important games suck?); and, hey, Atlanta United FC introduced the lately-plucky Real Salt Lake to its ceiling – though I find it significant that that game could have ended 1-2. Orlando City SC took a poacher’s victory from New York City FC, courtesy of the silky-smooth (ahem) Cyle Larin, a result that underlined Orlando’s thoroughly sorted-shit (shit-sorted? Uh…got it) shit-sorted defense, the Seattle Sounders labored the widely-understood point that things don’t look so hot for the Los Angeles Galaxy right now, and, yes, any rational person would concede the…what do they call it…shit, shit, shit, “hospital death”(? - no, that's wrong) of the Colorado Rapids attack after it failed to breach an improved (but, c’mon, it can’t be that improved) Minnesota United FC defense (and this isn’t the only signal, either, but GOOD ON YA, LOONS!).

Or, in numerical terms…

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Portland Timbers 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps: A Quick Rummage Through Our Back Pocket

Because not all back pockets are created equal...
Because I’ve basically stopped reading about soccer and can only make it through about 20 minutes of any soccer podcast, I got a little blindsided by yesterday’s starting line-up for the Portland Timbers. And I have the pre-game tweets to prove it. Just thankful I didn’t cough up something like, “Fanendo Adi’s contribution will define this game; nothing else matters” or “The Timbers need Jake Gleeson in goal or the entire goddamn house will come down.”

For fans, the cost/benefit break for these kinds of things doesn’t actually matter (con: you’re more likely to go home unhappy; pro: hey, now you have something to talk about before and after the game), because they’re gonna play the game regardless and, in that sense, the line-up is what it is. What can players and coaches do except play the hand dealt them by The Fates, The Furies, the referees – aka, the delegation from the Cosmos sent to every game.

Even with regular starters like Fanendo Adi out for suspension, and regular starters like Jake Gleeson and Sebastian Blanco missing through injury (the latter, only mostly missing), the Timbers knocked off the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 yesterday at Providence Park. That’s good as a stand-alone fact, obviously, and the Timbers played all right, the depth stepped up smartly enough, etc. The specifics of yesterday matter most in the sense of knowing what the team has in its back pocket (“what does it have in his pocketssss?”), at least when it comes to the subs, but, still, let’s mash all that together for a bit and see what the lump looks like when I’m done. I’ll start with Vancouver, sort of draw an outline of the shape of the challenge.

If you go back and look at those preview tweets, you’ll notice I flubbed pieces of the ‘Caps line-up as well. Their biggest changes came with sitting Alphonso Davies and pulling Christian Bolanos from the center of midfield to play at the midfield left in a 4-1-4-1 (dammit; I hate when the TV splits from the website on formation, but I think the 4-1-4-1 is more accurate). Presumably, Vancouver coach Carl Robinson did that so he could bulk up the midfield by starting Andrew Jacobson and Tony Tchani in front of Matias Laba – i.e., putting all that muscle in the middle, so that the Timbers couldn’t play through it. I won’t pretend to know whether having Davies’ moxie and talents on the field would have pulled back at least a point for Vancouver and, even as both of the breakdowns that lead to Portland goals originated from (essentially) central areas, the ‘Caps midfield gave their opposites a game. For me, the biggest open question comes with what Vancouver lost by having Jacobson play the role that Bolanos has been playing – and I’m flagging Jacobson here instead of Tchani, because when it came to late runs into the area, it was the former who most often made them. The ‘Caps did their best coming inside from the wings and they got a decent share of chances – two or three of them quite good, too. To take the next step, and not to knock the win overly, but if Jacobson knocks in Cristian Techera’s cross (he had a good afternoon) or if Fredy Montero’s chip over Liam Ridgewell finds the side netting, this post would read both differently and a little gloomy.

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.