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.

Week 5.5 (or 6) reinforced that idea enough to crowd out most thoughts of optimism I had when I sat down to write my review of Timbers’ win over Philly. A funny thing happened with this past weekend’s results in that a lot of clubs answered the questions put to them by their circumstances with affirmatives, sometimes decisive ones. To clarify that, see three “preview tweets” below I posted Friday afternoon:

“#CHIvCLB Columbus coming to visit gives the Fire a helluva chance to revive the rebuild narrative…not seeing it; Crew SC feels too sorted”

“#DCvNYC If DC wants to prove a turn-around, esp. in defense, NYC makes for a good contender…unless they don’t bring their road game”

“#RSLvVAN A walking wounded defense spells trouble for RSL and opportunity for the ‘Caps; a clean sheet would comfort all of Utah”
This has nothing to do with celebrating my personal prescience (for I am not blessed with it), mostly because those all read like fairly obvious story lines for each of those match-ups. Also, anyone who knows the result for Real Salt Lake v. Vancouver Whitecaps knows that Utah got considerably more than “comfort” on Saturday (like…what is three times of comfort?). Fundamentally, though, teams that looked good bets for turnarounds (e.g., maybe they looked great in their last game, but boned the final landing and – relevant - dropped dumb points; again, god bless you, Mr. Stern, for you completed my thoughts), or teams that looked likely to build on their momentum (in case the subtext isn’t clear, I’m talking about Portland (turn-arounds) and the New England Revolution (building momentum) in this sentence) followed through this weekend. On top of Portland and the Revs, the Chicago Fire did it, New England did it, DC United did it, and so did Real Salt Lake. It was that kind of weekend, one where everything more or less made sense…

Or, as close watchers of Major League Soccer call them, anomalies. God knows what any club will do in MLS next week – and, behold your cautionary tale, Columbus. When it comes to MLS, you don’t know the league’s hottest team is going to lay an egg this particular week, you just know they're gonna lay that fucking egg one week or another. The point of all the above is this: MLS is lousy, as a league, at signaling long-term trends – and we all know the stuff that goes into that (e.g. parity, salary cap, the blackberry-tangle of roster rules, the, er, economic situation, etc) – but, if you look at enough things hard enough and squint fucking tight, you might see two, three weeks into the future. So let's try to do that.

OK, and surprise, another weekend, another format. Think I have a winner here, but I always think that before I shoot the fuckers and turn them into glue, don’t I? At any rate, I’m going to quickly recap relevant stuff from the weekend just passed – just the important stuff (as in, you gotta fucking earn it, Orlando; all y’all, not just Cyle Larin) – and then I’ll round out the whole thing with 10 actually quick talking points…says the guy who always fucks up that part. Before moving on to the interesting ones, I’ll just line up all the results:

Los Angeles Galaxy 2-0 Montreal Impact (AGAIN, LA followed the narrative!)

Chicago Fire 1-0 Columbus Crew SC
New England Revolution 2-0 Houston Dynamo

DC United 2-1 New York City FC

Philadelphia Union 1-3 Portland Timbers

Toronto FC 2-2 Atlanta United FC

FC Dallas 2-0 Minnesota United FC

Real Salt Lake 3-0 Vancouver Whitecaps

San Jose Earthquakes 1-1 Seattle Sounders

Orlando City SC 1-0 New York Red Bulls

Sporting Kansas City 3-1 Colorado Rapids

Before digging into…everything, I did a longer write-up on Toronto’s (frankly maddening) draw with Atlanta. My resentment of the high press sort of strangled that whole post so…welcome to my obsessions, they’re aggressive? My Timbers write-up is linked to up top, so everything else I say is, at time of writing, based on what I saw when I watched the condensed games of everything except Orlando’s win over the Red Bulls…because I saw that one coming. Seriously, check my time line. Onto the rest of the games.

If there’s an antithesis to the thesis laid out above, it comes from Vancouver's side of their winter-wonderland loss to the as-of-last week moribund RSL. As of last week, Vancouver felt like the team that had just risen from a sick-bed. Nope! The only thing getting in the way of RSL on Saturday was RSL, and they stepped over their own challenge at least three times – again, this was the team hit with the dreaded “nadir” tag just last week. Vancouver, on the other hand, looked poised for…better after running up the score against LA last weekend, but their defense looked utterly baffled on Saturday, and the broadcast teams whispered doubts about their switch to the 3-5-2, so maybe that did it, or maybe it was that cobbled together middle five (Marcel de Jong, Tony Tchani, Russell Teibert (high, too), Matias Laba, and Jake Nerwinski). At any rate, the 3-0 RSL dropped on Vancouver reads gentle next to what happened out there.

As for the rest, here’s a funny thing: RSL looked better beating Vancouver than Dallas did beating Minnesota. For one (and to squeeze in a point), Sam Cronin gifted Dallas a goal (by being on the receiving end of the kind of forced, crappy pass I’ve seen Chicago feed Dax McCarty too often this season; still, HELLO, MINNESOTA!), and that’s how 1-0 reads like a more plausible score for that game - and Minnesota put a minimum of six quality shots on Jesse Gonzalez’s goal, and they looked way more solid at the back than they have all season...probably because they’re building a four-block with Francisco Calvo and Brent Kallman behind Collen Warner and Sam Cronin. That’s a stable set, and it should take Minnesota places, even if it's not necessarily far.

Oh, before I forget, SKC’s win over Colorado not only generated some talking points (Seth Sinovic's first goal!), it showed a team that I generally (but not really) hate as its best self. While that might have picked up a solution in Gerso Fernandes (see previous link), Dom Dwyer showed what makes him such a complete player; and, by way of that, Dwyer earned all of that smart little cross-cut goal he scored.

I can go into details all night – and, I swear to god (and this isn’t like the thing with gifs, I swear…shit, swear within a swear…is that like a double negative?), I’ll get better about noting goals of the week and saves of the week, because those are both cool and really easy to argue about – but, my time for this was tight this week….went to The Dalles. The Jewel of North West Central Oregon (I mean, it’s gotta be, right? If only by process of elimination?)

All right all right, let’s wrap this up, with…

Talking Points
1) Careful What You Trade For
As most of you know (right? if not, please advise), the Rapids traded away Cronin and Marc Burch to Minnesota either last week or the one before. Part of the assumption there is that they had good replacements for both…a position that didn’t hold up so well this past weekend. Bismark Adjei-Boateng may yet best Cronin in midfield, but there were already questions about Mekeil Williams before Burch left and, holy hell, did Williams die out there Saturday. Also, consider New York without Dax McCarty…now do it in a frame where he and Sacha Kljestan are the parents, and consider the impact. I know Colorado will shop, but those are big losses…and Minnesota’s gains.

2) Marcos Urena, Mystery
Urena did so many things well against Seattle players…right up until he got anywhere near goal. I mean, he almost dropped Chad Marshall with this dribble, but, face it, Urena’s heretofore limited and,  for all that and until further notice, quite possibly the man who lifts San Jose’s ceiling.

3) Sneaky Good….like Minnesota Will Be in a Better Life
Just watch Kevin Molino. He does a surprising number of small things right, he passes well, and he has several ideas in his head every time he gets the ball. Minnesota needs a foundation (see above). If they get one, and they tried, they have some good pieces.

4) Ballin’, Only Not as a Forward
It was nice to see Yura Movsisyan score his second goal in two weeks, but, holy shit, does that guy miss a lot. What Yura showed against Vancouver – and this was before the snow (which really gummed shit up) – is his quality as a target forward, or at least as a hub for possession on the attacking end. This might not be a bad thing, not with Joao Plata, (hopefully) Albert Rusnak, (hopefully) Brooks Lennon, and (hopefully) Luke Mulholland (seriously, fucking play Mulholland), playing off him. Forwards can do things other than score…even if they don’t wanna.

5) Is this LA’s Eleven? (Srsly, is it?)
At the top of the broadcast of LA’s much-needed win over Montreal (wait…I didn’t get into that…shit), Cobi Jones suggested that the team that took the field was LA’s best set minus Sebastian Lletget. So…how are we all feeling about that?

6) “Imperious” Defined
I’d argue that he’s doing less often than he used to, but on when he’s on, holy shit (wait, again?), is Laurent Ciman still very much on. He didn’t just play out of trouble, he passed in a way that set up the next pass to be lethal; on the defensive side, he tracked and cleanly snuffed a couple maneuvers away from real breakdowns. For what it’s worth, I think “imperious” best fits defenders. After that, you know it when you see it.  

7) Montreal’s Fascinating Hope, and Blowing Comparisons
A couple weeks back (or just last week), I suggested that Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla plays something like Kekuta Manneh. After watching a couple weeks’ worth of footage, I know that’s shit. Watching snippets of him today, I drifted toward comparing him to Darlington Nagbe, but that still felt dumb. I think Tabla’s closest analogue might be Alphonso Davies. And that’s just really goddamn cool.

8) Dax McCarty: One of the best American midfield players of his generation, or…?
I think that’s it, honestly.

9) Joao Meira: Why you shouldn’t write off people quick.
If you asked me to throw away the worst part of the Fire’s line-up last season, I would have picked Meira, like, a lot. This year, though, I rate him as damn close to key. I’ll be damned if he hasn’t looked like this team’s mental anchor out there, and a damned sturdy one too.

10) Daniel Johnson, from Chicago. For Now. Srsly.
I’ve seen a long parade of physical attributes and clearly refined skills – e.g., raw speed, a velvet touch, or that sweet spot of speed and bulk (think Walker Zimmerman) – so, when I see what looks like a good brain, that stands out. He’s in his early 20s, and he looked good out there.

And that’s this week. I hope to refine the context next week, but I have a headful of hopes.

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