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?)

Even at this early stage of the season, when points are essentially random and god knows whose form will look like what come fall, some clubs still have sound reasons to feel good about where they are. To keep things somewhat exclusive, I’d include only Columbus and NYCFC from the Eastern Conference and Portland, KC, and Dallas from the West. That doesn’t mean everyone should, to borrow one from the internet, kill themselves, but those five teams feel like the ones who appear to have the clearest sense of what they want to do. Here, Columbus deserves a sporting “atta boy” pat to the tuckus because, in this past weekend’s win, they had to recover from getting something close to run over by Toronto over the first 20 minutes at least, and they still recovered the win, and with a sweetly demoralizing amount of time to spare. The details differ – and god knows I wish I had time to get into that, but, jesus god I don’t want to get into all of that, because catching farts in jars (intended as a metaphor for impermanence) – but, suffice to say that, till further notice, I expect these five teams to win more than they lose, and sometimes in unexpected places.

Flipping to the other side of the equation, only a couple teams should feel outright bad about their early 2017 and, for my money, that conversation starts and ends with Philadelphia and Colorado – and I’ll get to at least one aspect of one of those below (choosing just 10 topics feels like killing my own memories! HELP!). Trends look better or worse depending on the team, but I think just about everyone has enough parts that feel like legit building blocks. Yes, even Minnesota…so proud!

By the way, the teams I’ve emotionally adopted for the season are Chicago, Philadelphia, Montreal, and, yes, Minnesota. San Jose might slip in there, too, but I think I’m mostly just San Jose-curious. If there is such a thing. The Winchester Mansion just feels like a fling in college at this point…

Moving on to 10 talking points from Week 6.5. Six teams won’t enter the conversation (unless I run out of ideas) because I’ve already put up longer stand-alone posts on: LA’s loss to Orlando, which, to me, should raise alarms out in Galaxy-land; Vancouver’s win over Seattle, which, through the trick of Seattle’s possibly inflated reputation, still reads as the bigger result for the ‘Caps; finally, yes, I pulled cobwebs from a buried past to stare at the (double) horror of Sporting Kansas City’s win over my Portland Timbers. (The assholes. And that’s just for deserving it.)

OH, one last thing up top. I see three “tough teams” in MLS this season, teams that won’t 100%-necessarily rise to greatness, but all teams that will just suck to play year ‘round. Those include three teams I saw this weekend, so I have to get them here: San Jose, Sporting KC, and Orlando. For what it’s worth, I bet all three will make the playoffs. And I bet that every neutral in the country will be pulling against all three of ‘em.

OK, now, the talking points…

1) Philly’s Sub-Optimal Optimal Line-Up and The End of the Rebuild
Glancing at their roster, and my mistaken opinions about Oguchi Onyewu aside (getting benched always makes a statement), I’d read that as Philly’s best possible current line-up/formation. And, nope. Not even at home. I heard a couple comments last week about how Philly’s signings aren’t paying off and that’s kinda crap, because I remember, say, Roland Alberg’s li’l tear through MLS last summer. Just this last game, I heard a stray comment about Haris Medunjanin sitting on 2nd in chances created (or something like that), so it’s not like the Union’s out there combing Philly-area high schools for new players. They tried, basically (and reasonably), but it hasn’t come off yet. Maybe the mirror here would be the Chicago Fire, a team that added parts that didn’t fit going into 2016, but who suddenly feels real to talk about as a decent rebuild. It’d be one thing to hold up Bastian Schweinsteiger’s last three (two?) weeks and call it good, but after watching Luis Solignac torment New England’s JeVaughn Watson into two yellows inside 20, all that argues for taking an open-minded view as to what makes for a credible rebuild. As any Philly fan can tell you, sucks to suck, but sometimes it’s about figuring out who to hold onto, and not just who you need.

2) New York’s Weird Midfield
After last week’s loss to DC, Andrea Pirlo as a liability became a talking point. While I can’t dismiss that point – because, Philly, and, christ, yes, Pirlo's a defensive liability – I want to stress, again (quite possibly), that NYCFC’s Patrick Vieira put weirdly good people around Pirlo to keep him in there, as Taylor Twellman pointed out, as a release valve for the defenders. My response to all that is a safe (cowardly) maybe, but that choice makes sense in the context of City’s preferred front-foot approach to the game. Starting Maxi Moralez, Pirlo and Alexander Ring in that midfield definitely throws some weight at the back four, but it throws some amount of weight the other way, too.

3) Maxi Urruti: Argument About Totality
Watching Urruti terrorize San Jose’s back line some kind of rabid terrier (“look, mommy! the doggie’s smiling!”) reminded me of how much the balance of his game tilts toward things besides scoring goals. While 10 goals in a season is nothing to sniff at (scored for Portland, ‘cause his heart lives here; wrong year, tho), Urruti makes for the rare forward who regularly starts, but on a return rate of 1 goal per 3.74 games (27 goals in 101 games played, 61 started). He reminds me of Colorado’s Kevin Doyle in that regard (who scored bravely this weekend, perhaps the only way he can score): forwards who bring don’t score but who can still help the team…even as Urruti does it more reliably than Doyle. So, is Urruti worth it? On the right team, yes?

4) Colorado’s Collapsing Ceiling
What the Rapids used to be able to pass off as a bad break in Kansas City, suddenly looks something like a shitty season in the making. I mean, Doyle scored and Colorado coughed up two goals (!) at home; I don’t think they can re-write the script that much without irretrievably fucking up the story. And somewhere in the middle of it, Bismark Boateng lays down on the field like his back’s fucked (what was that? Internet mum so far)? That guy was the logic behind moving Sam Cronin, but if he’s injured, how do they cover that gap? Both Axel Sjoberg and Shkelzen Gashi will come back, but they’re just covering gaps on other parts of the field. By common consent, the Rapids performed miracles last season. As noted here, they did it from the off in 2016. 2017 is already different. That's bad for any team on a narrow margin.

5) Glitches in San Jose’s New Parts
Florian Jungwirth played what looked like his first truly loose game in a ‘Quakes uniform Friday night: as (I think) Matt Doyle pointed out, Fatai Alashe has looked like the rock on which San Jose’s defense is built. Take away Simon Dawkins – a player who looks too little like the man he used to be for comfort – and that theme runs through San Jose’s roster. Harold Cummings broke before his warranty, and that sucks, but Jahmir Hyka, Danny Hoesens and Marcos Urena have yet to well and truly launch. That’s only weird in the context of another trend: players who know the team – e.g. Alashe, but also Anibal Godoy – look good out there, and maybe that’s all about comfort. In my book, it says something that Tommy “Still Waiting” Thompson and Nick Lima, both look more at home playing with the 2017 ‘Quakes, because both players are homegrown. I’m pulling for San Jose, if in a limited way, because, dammit! I like when people try…

6) Montreal’s Cultured Comeback
I don’t think more than 10 minutes had gone when Ignacio Piatti sized up the defensive situation and decided, "fuck it, I'll just do it alone." He later sprung Dominic Oduro in on goal and, check this shit out, beat a defender cleanly with his ass as the starting position (video, cruelly withheld), but that’s a day at the office for Piatti. Atlanta went up on a goal gifted by ‘keeper Evan Bush and a defensive posture geared toward attacking, but what stood out most for me in Montreal’s comeback versus Atlanta, was the fact they kept Atlanta from breaking from midfield. How often Atlanta forces that comes out even in the condensed games, so that’s a feat on its own. Between Piatti’s estimable talents and Matteo Mancosu’s…Italian? Nah, let’s go with sophisticated positioning to draw the foul, Montreal won this game on savvy. And a damned slick back-heel. For what it’s worth, I totally think he planned it.

7) Red Bulls Ain’t Chargin
The Red Bulls comfortable win over DC surprised me as much as any results from the past weekend. If nothing else, I assumed DC’s defense had improved enough with Bobby Boswell to not let this mess walk casually past security. Alex Muyl (who might have just learned, or shared, the proper pronunciation of his own last name; I get it, kid, I still have to spell my last name every fucking time) scored another, but for too much of Saturday, their attack ran on a repeat cycle of “cross to Garrin Royer, cross to Garrin Royer, cross to Garrin Royer.” I guess this is just a caveat: DC’s execution looked lazy to the point of indifference. Something’s off with them, and it could be a touch of too much time under the same hand. That stuff comes. Given all that, New York would be wise to read this as blip, not pattern.

8) Columbus, Homegrown Rising
I’ve held onto my doubts about Columbus past reason – this went deep as 35+ minutes into their win over Toronto – so it’s time to give them their due…even as I’m sure this means they’ll lose next weekend. Yes, Columbus is on a legit roll – only SKC matches them, and only Dallas hangs with both – but the neater sub-text comes with one player who has featured for the past two games, and one who played a key role in the last win. That’d be Alex Crognale, a homegrown defender who, for the time being, has seized a starting spot from Ghana’s Jonathan Mensah, and Columbus’ first SuperDraft pick, Niko Hansen respectively, a player who surely has Ethan Finlay looking over his shoulder. Or, factually, from the bench onto the field. As with San Jose, noted…

9) I’d Rather Have Meram than Giovinco RN
On current form, and having them square off in the same game, and having watched Columbus (I think) twice this season, yes, at this precise moment in time, I’d rather have Justin Meram on my roster than Sebastian Giovinco. Giovinco has both the time and talent to turn this around, so I guess what I’m saying is…Meram is tearing it up.

10) That Goddamn Mess in Houston
Anyone who argues there’s something concrete to take out of Minnesota smuggling a point from Houston is a gosh-darn liar (different from a goddamn liar, btw). Just about every goal in this game turned on the kinds of lapses that professionals simply should not make. We know how that script applies to Minnesota, but what the hell does that say about Houston playing this one at home?
I’ve got more, but that feels like more than enough. Till next weekend. And in random polls between here and there (and is it just me or have those started to feel tedious?).

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