Monday, May 1, 2017

FC Dallas 2-2 Portland Timbers: Plus MLS Week 8.5/9 Review (Chunky!)

I mean, I feel GOOD, right?
If you start from the premise that FC Dallas remains the best team in Major League Soccer, the way the Portland Timbers forced not just a 2-2 draw out of them, but made Dallas earn ev…well, six good inches of that draw, says something. And the absence of Diego Valeri drops a nice exclamation point at the end of that. As in, it says something! (It says yay! See? YAY!)

And, here it comes, my 19th nervous breakdown and the 22nd iteration of these things, but, seeing as I had a short week, this is how it is this week: Timbers up top, the rest of MLS at the back, aka, the Conifers & Citrus mullet – which will be a one-off, so may we never speak of it again. The latest plan going forward (23rd iteration, at a minimum) will feature a stand-alone Timbers post, then a featured match/summary of Week ___, and I'll end that post with 20 “brain farts” about the week just past, as I do below. And, for what it’s worth, I like the “brain fart” concept because I requires less of what makes me a terrible, terrible person – e.g., hyper, several-dimensional elaboration. Or just bullshit.

First, wish me luck because, if you know me, you know I suck at that. Second, do feel free to argue any of those 20 points, or to demand elaboration. I really am trying to shorten these things, and for multiple reasons.

With that, let’s get back to Portland’s win…I mean, draw in Texas.

In spite of some wee shifts – e.g., Sebastian Blanco picking up where Valeri limped off – these were the Timbers we know and, as always (and perhaps too easily), love (good play, people; we should at least demand that; or results; or flowers; just…standards, people, or they’ll stop respecting us). It wasn’t perfect by any means – and for either team – but, a couple inevitable slips aside, both teams kept the ball basically in front of them, and forced the other team’s defense to make the better play in most situations. When the slips happened, though, they generally found punishment waiting…with the clear exception of Cristian Colman’s wild shank over the bar…and, kid, when you’re presented as a solution for a team, that’s just not good enough.

That’s a good place to pick up Saturday night’s biggest news – e.g., Blanco’s turn as playmaker. It wasn’t simple as that, and that’s a good thing. First, Portland happens to be blessed with a number of players who can “make” – whether it’s Darlington Nagbe, or, nice surprise, David Guzman, or, calling the auxiliaries, Vytas Andriuskecivius or (calling louder) Diego Chara or Alvas Powell (and how did that verb, make, enter my vocabulary as a synonym for pooping; who did that?). Portland has several paths to goal, so when one’s blocked, you get the picture. As for Blanco, specifically, I’m at last prepared to call him an upgrade over Lucas Melano. Tenacious AF, he rides challenges well and, at some point in the first half, he and Nagbe showed the kind of understanding that could lead to some lethal shivving of a couple Western Conferences rivals. I’ve said it before: Blanco feels like a player who wants to combine, something that points to a likelihood that Portland will want to attack with its players close together. That’s fine, so long as you have the players to switch up the point of ingress, or if those players can bring in someone else – e.g. Vytas, but it doesn’t matter who – to take advantage of the spaces that open up when a defense collapses to challenge the narrow shit. Did that make sense? Can’t wait for an answer; moving on…

It’s worth flagging Guzman’s free-kick/Adi's goal, because that reads like another arrow in the quiver, and teams can never have enough quivers. At the same time, that gets to the “inevitable slips” mentioned above: I would have taken and lost a bet that Fanendo Adi would score unmarked from a set-piece against Dallas, and at highly unfavorable odds. I mean, Dallas’ defenders straight up lost Adi, something that only Walker Zimmerman seemed to have acknowledged in the moment. Portland answered back when Powell fell on his ass trying to (I’m guessing) screen Tesho Akindele away from the goal on Dallas’ second equalizer.

Meanwhile, let the record show that the other two goals scored looked pretty goddamn smart, one for each team, hence the draw, but one has to assume one team walked away happier than the other and, quite probably, wearing green. Only a couple more stray notes on Dallas v. Portland – and, yes, sorry, it’s shorter, but I’ve got Batman v. Superman to endure tonight, so let’s keep this moving… [UPDATE: That movie was fucking terrible; warn your loved ones.]

To take Dallas big picture, yes, this is a good team. They’re good enough that it’s mildly boring to acknowledge it. At the same time, I’d argue their ceiling is already showing. They’re a team with good parts all over – literally – but, without Mauro Diaz, they just lack the defining bit of quality that would make them great. I will defend Maximiliano Urruti as a forward to my dying breath, but he’s going to terrorize defenders and max out around 10 goals year in and out, not lead the line. Dallas will always be hard to beat unless/until Zimmerman and Hedges go down, and, even then, they might get away with it so long as they’ve got Carlos Gruezo and Kelyn Acosta patrolling in front of them. Dallas walks the line between a very good team and a great one – and a very good team can win the Supporters’ Shield in MLS, while a great team does the double. Whispers of tragedy, and all that…moving on…

If you’re asking if I think it’s significant that Portland played Dallas to a draw in Dallas, I’d say yes. First of all, so long as this team has Adi, they have what Dallas lacks – e.g. the defining bit of quality that might make them great; also, reference the list of people who can “make” above. More importantly, in the Guzman / Diego Chara pairing, the Timbers have something truly impressive. For me, Chara is playing straight-up career soccer, just heroic shit that holds things together right when they threaten to blow apart. He enables Guzman in all kinds of wonderful ways, and on both sides of the ball, but together, they speak to Portland’s secret strength this season: so long as those two are in front of the defense, the exact identity of the players Portland fields at centerback matters less. To his credit, Liam Ridgewell has looked good since coming back; the same goes for Lawrence Olum and, when he’s in there, Roy Miller. For all the talk about needing a centerback going into the season – and, yes, I sang with that chorus – actual events have left that an open question.

Things are looking up out here in Stumptown, basically. And that spells good times. With that, let’s cast the eyes around the rest of MLS, and close this thing by tooting out some brain farts.

All in all, and as with any week in MLS, it’s all about blips and patterns. For me, MLS has at long last started barfing up some patterns. Portland makes for one of them – e.g. Portland’s good – but I think Toronto FC reinforced the same with their steady 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo; New York City FC did the same by topping Columbus 3-2 in Ohio, as did Sporting Kansas City at home with their three goals over Real Salt Lake…but, Real Salt Lake. At the other end of the scale, the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Philadelphia Union sent mirrored cries for help to the heavens in their fucking hideous goalless draw; the Colorado Rapids sent a similar signal with their supine 2-0 loss to Orlando City SC. The rest of the games – which, in a break with tradition, I’m not going to list – fall into the “blip” category. Among those, though, I’d argue the ones to watch include: the Vancouver Whitecaps rolling Montreal in Montreal (as in the pattern tracks to one side or the other – i.e., Vancouver is improving, or Montreal is bad); the New York Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire managed to say decent things about both teams; and Minnesota United FC, while improving, isn’t improving enough. Yet. The signs (e.g. they’re no longer getting blown out) look promising.

Interesting as it is (there, I’m thinking specifically of the Seattle Sounders 3-3 draw to the New England Revolution in Seattle, because that shouldn’t have happened), the rest is the usual goddamn mess, the kind of semi-embarrassing pile-up that renders it impossible to extract clean narratives. And so we turn to brain farts.  I wrote down more, but below are 20 that struck me as I reviewed this weekends games – FULL DISCLOSURE, mostly in the condensed format.

1) The more I watch TFC this season, the smaller Michael Bradley’s attacking role looks. With Marky Delgado (a great, and quick reader of space/movement) and Victor Vazquez (rangy fucker, in all senses of it) can make things work in front of him (yep!) this is fine. He’s getting old anyway.

2) Toronto’s Raheem Edwards looks like one to watch. He positively terrorized A. J. DelaGarza, but he also played this ball again and again, one that went some yards behind the defense, and it fucking tormented Houston.

3) May this be the only repeat this week, but I think Vancouver has landed on their best line-up given their personnel. I thought Christian Bolanos looked better in the middle a couple weeks back, but now I’m not so sure.

4) First, full credit to Orlando (and Cyle Larin, especially), but Jared Watts is just not the same without Axel Sjoberg. Or, to put that in clearer terms, Sjoberg looks like a genuine force multiplier for the Rapids. They miss him. Like, a lot.

5) After watching Carlos Rivas rip the net with his goal, I’m left wondering about not just Colorado’s Kevin Doyle, but also the San Jose Earthquakes Marcos Urena – e.g. players who consistently do good things on the field, just not the stuff forwards are supposed to do so much. I mean, what do you do with those guys – the sub-Urruti forwards of the league? - especially when they do things for your team, just not the right things?

6) Credit the broadcast team who talked over Columbus’ loss to NYCFC, but if there’s a knock on Ethan Finlay, it’s his one-dimensionality. A player isn’t so hard to stop when he does just one thing well…

7) New York City FC owe a lot of their success to Maxi Moralez and Alexander Ring. They both have incredible motors, but they make for a puzzling contrast together – Moralez’ slipperiness versus Ring’s undeniable power. They’re a big reason why NYCFC looks like they’re fer real, fer real in 2017. They’re as likely as any team in the East for me.

8) Just a simple question here: where does Jack Harrison rate in the world of wingers? I mean the whole world. He’s definitely on the high end in MLS, but where’s that land globally?

9) Stop the season at Week 5, and Columbus looks like winners. Expand it through the next four games, and you have to wonder if they’re not reliving 2016. Artur was a loss, but that big of one?

10) Bastian Schweinsteiger has blended well with most of his Chicago teammates, but one player in particular seems to get him: Luis Solignac. As much as Solignac hits his ceiling like a moth bouncing off a bulb every week, what he’s doing with Schweinsteiger is helping Chicago quite a bit.

11) Daniel Royer feels very involved whenever the Red Bulls have a good game, so I looked up his numbers and, meh. He showed up this week again (if not hugely), but they seem to do well when he does – whether it’s his quality, or the dearth of options showing up.

12) There better be video for this…OK, you’re off the hook, MLS, but there’s a certain cleanness to the quality around Luis Robles’ save against Nemanja Nikolic that gets to where MLS has arrived at – e.g. better foreign players, and only the best Americans. Good times…

13) Just going with a naked statement here (and finally): Anibal Godoy is an elite defensive midfielder. I think he can anchor San Jose. They just need better parts around him.

14) Is San Jose better than last year? I’m not so sure. Sure, there’s Urena, another year under Tommy Thompson’s belt, Danny Hoesens (underwhelming so far), and Jahmir Hyka. Sure, they won this weekend, but they did it looking worse this week than in prior weeks. Hmm….

15) Anyone else wondering what Albert Rusnak thinks about his American journey? Don’t you think some small part of him wonders how he wound up in Utah with…well, a mess? RSL feels a little doomed by bad assumptions – starting with Joao Plata and Yura Movsisyan…

16) Sure, there’s the goal he scored, but, for anyone doubting that Benny Feilhaber is super-engaged this year, just put yourself in Seth Sinovic’s shoes during that video. Makes you wonder if Benny isn't feeling his career's looming demise.

17) The New England Revolution have been, and are, making the most interesting choices about their roster than any other team in the league. What they did against Seattle is enough to make you wonder what they’re building toward. Daigo Kobayashi at the top of the diamond should have occurred to no one, but it worked well enough.

18) Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan are approaching hive-mind states of connection. That’s of interest.

19) Whenever I feel too much glee about Seattle’s uncertain state, I have to remind myself that the Gustav Svensson / Tony Alfaro isn’t even sort of their starting set. They’ll re-solidify once Chad Marshall and Roman Torres get back out there…but how long will they be out there?

20) I’ll end with a confession: I hate Atlanta, and not for healthy reasons. By that I mean it’s nothing like rational, I just want them to fail. A belief that the rest of MLS will figure them out has a lot to do with this, because they feel like a one-trick pony. Even though DC United beat them this weekend, I don’t think they figured them out. I think the undoing is actually easier.

And, holy shit, that’s plenty. Next week will be shorter, and in two posts. Promise!

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