Monday, May 8, 2017

MLS Week "10" Review: Game of the Week (NYC v ATL) and 20 Brain-Farts

Just something I found googling the word "mediocre." Ties in with a line...
I want to start this Major League Soccer Week 10 in Review with a concept I slipped too softly into my write-up on San Jose’s sucker-punch, 3-0 win over my beloved Portland Timbers…of which, this week wasn’t shy on sucker-punch wins, whether it’s the Philadelphia Union’s at-long-last 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls, or Minnesota United’s surprising-only-because-2-goals home win over Sporting Kansas City. Why a man in an expansive mood might even cast a curious eye over the Houston Dynamo’s 4-0 curb-stomp on Orlando City SC…because, as the man in the broadcast booth said, but for Joe Bendik, that one would have ended 6-0 or 7-0…

…but back to the concept. The Timbers looked like headless blind chickens out there, unable to think, never mind connect, and that got me wondering about how much any given team actively plans its Plan B. How much thought goes into how to play in the event that your team has to play, say, without Carlos Rivas, as Orlando did this weekend? How much game planning does a team plan for contingencies? How much can a team do? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think whatever it is takes a team to either MLS Cup or the Supporters’ Shield….speaking of the latter, anyone else getting the impression that winning MLS Cup is a shit-poor indicator for success in the subsequent season? All I’ll say is that I’m starting to collect data…and I’m lookin’ at you, Seattle.

Big question, that, but it’s time to move to the long-lived tradition of Conifers & Citrus Game of the Week (right?). This week I took in the full 90 of New York City FC’s 3-1 win over Atlanta United FC…or tried to. Damn wifi crapped out when the second half kicked off. So, I formed the impressions below based on the entire first half, followed by watching the condensed game on MLS Live. And, with confessions and caveats out of the way, this is what I saw.

New York City FC 3-1 Atlanta United FC
Not ten seconds had passed between the moment when I thought New York would win this one walking away and Atlanta scoring its one and only goal. Call the set-up ugly all you like, but that finish was technically, technically perfect (no typo), and that kind of relentless forward pressure is exactly how Atlanta wooed critics and neutrals earlier this season. That turned out to be the highlight for Atlanta, who couldn’t fluster a steady New York team that looks as talented and balanced as any that has played within the fabled five boroughs (and, also, tell me I didn’t fuck up the number of boroughs; not lookin’ it up, people!).

I know I’ve covered this (and every week), but I don’t like Atlanta’s approach to the game – a frenetic high press that leaves them feeling one-dimensional. That’s the thought that kept tapping my shoulder as I watched: do the same thing over and over and the other team will figure out how to beat it. I made a silent bet a couple weeks back that any MLS team capable of stopping it would; I’m not saying that’s what happened here – need more data – but I still feel like it’s going to get harder and harder for Atlanta to catch the rest of the league with its pants off. Moreover, when I see Hector Villalba create a yard of space with a touch, I wonder what he could do with that same yard in a system that doesn’t always dictate never-ending/arguably empty-headed forward movement on the ball.

On a deeper level, New York always looked like the kind of team that could thwart Atlanta’s approach…which, whatever you call it, basically relies on flustering the other team. And, when the team can’t be flustered, or when a team manages to recover? Atlanta breaks. Plan B is lacking…

Atlanta has really good parts, and all over the field. Sure, it was crappy when Julian Gressel hacked into New York’s Maxime Chanot, but I would have killed to see even half that commitment from Portland’s players yesterday. Effort’s great and all, but NYCFC built a team that can play, and one that can battle. So long as they’ve got Maxi Moralez, Yangel Herrera (?), and Alexander Ring keeping the ball off the backline and launching the ball forward in the blink of an eye, New York looks like a team as well-suited to torturing a pressing team like Atlanta as any team in MLS. Add to that my personal theory that NYCFC’s back four is better than generally credited, and you’ve got a team that looks like a plausible contender.

If there was a telling difference in this game, though, it’s New York’s ability to get forward just as quickly as Atlanta, and better – see their first goal (their second and third, not so much; though both raise questions about Atlanta).

A couple quick talking before moving on…want to give The Game of the Week its due…

New York City FC
It took seeing him play for another team, but, yes, I’m now convinced that Rodney Wallace is a great and useful player. I have no excuse. (Guys, this kid loves playing with David Villa - again, see first goal - and that says something.)

Atlanta United FC
As I tweeted Saturday, a press throws numbers forward, but it leaves space open, just like any other collection of 11 players. I think the key to beating Atlanta rests on making them chase – even if it’s just between the back four and the goalkeeper – and having reliable outlets for the ‘keeper, so he can pass the ball out safely.

Well, that’s it for The Game of the Week. Now, on to the rest of MLS Week…9.75 (we’re getting closer, people). I touched on the shock results above, and some of those matter, but narratives abound – starting with what we learned from Houston and Columbus Crew SC...who I haven't mentioned yet, but they beat the New England Revolution 2-0. While Columbus looks the better constructed team (again) and should have the better shot at a good season (as in trophy-winning) year, Houston is some serious shit at home - even if you buy that Orlando City SC sucks on the road (starting to over here). That said, neither team strikes me as clear contenders. In fact, they’re the same as most of MLS – e.g., the American equivalent of mid-table teams. That’s what MLS is, when you think about: a league of mid-table teams, and that’s by design.

I just caught a headline on The Mothership’s website that talks up “#PeakMLS,” but I think the “mid-table” concept above gives a better frame for the wackiness of MLS’s results (that said, I like Wiebe's point on LA). To hit that from another angle, I’d say only two results actually surprised me – Philly over New York and San Jose beating Portland – but even the former follows the basic universal principle that any given team will win a game at some point. And, yes, I see how many games I called wrong going into the weekend, but that’s not relevant (and I’m not just saying that so I won’t feel sad). The question is the extent to which any given result is explicable. It all still comes down to the familiar balance of Blips v. Patterns, but that still requires picking out the relevant/correct pattern – e.g., DC has generally struggled with scoring this season, so how surprising is it, really, that they couldn’t answer when Montreal put one past them? And, related, if I had to name a Game of the Week, at least in terms of aesthetics (or, fun!), I’d choose DC United v. Montreal Impact. That one felt like a hoot, but the result doesn’t feel like it means shit for the long term.

Teams are slowly starting to announce themselves, all in all. Sure, there are blips all over – that’s what MLS does – but, as of Week 10, it feels like some patterns have established across the league – e.g., a solid FC Dallas rolled over a mess of an RLS team; the Los Angeles needed set-pieces to beat the Chicago Fire in LA (and Chicago should feel very, very pissed about the let-off; still, when’s the last time Chicago picked up points in LA?).  knows what the hell it’s doing often as not, and, again, guys, Toronto looks good this 2017.

And, to wrap things up, 20 brainfarts about MLS Week 10. Shit. Week “10.” Or 20 Brian-Farts (because, branding):
1) I figure if I don’t talk about Goal of the Week (GOTW) and Save of the Week (SOTW; jesus, like you don’t know). I went with the underrated Ola Kamara’s beauty finish v. New England for the GOTW, and David Ousted pawing away the ball in Colorado as SOTW.

2) And, to yank this thing away from the above (fucking edits!), Luis Robles: if he’s not the best ‘keeper in MLS, who is?

3) Dom Dwyer had one game this past week, and one not so good game. He’s having a good year (or he's on track for goodness), though, and that’s a big part of what lifted SKC back to the top of the heap.

4) Going the other way, and on another team, Mikeil Williams has been a liability for Colorado in at least two games this season. It’s not just getting sent off twice so far this season, but his visible discomfort with defending “on an island” as fullbacks have to do. The thing he did this past week – where he stood at the center circle after a corner for a full five seconds before doing anything, and then opted to drop the ball to the ‘keeper – had Marcelo Balboa justifiably wigged out.

5) Sticking with the Rapids, can anyone else think of a player whose value/stock has plummeted quite like Dillon Powers’? Hell, I was excited about him a couple years back; now I wonder how Colorado can’t do better.

6) They haven’t been super consistent this 2017 – the two losses to both New York teams feels weirdly significant – but, regardless, Columbus is still blessed to wrestle with the happy, open-ended question of which attacking player is their most important?

7) Also on Crew SC, they looked more precise than dominant in their win over the New England Revolution. New England’s on a bad run, no question – 0-2-3 in their last five, with 10 goals against and 5 for – but they looked as good losing to Columbus as they have all season. Except when they won…

8) Toronto’s on a damned good run – best in the league, in fact, and it’s not even close (also, four home games, but that’s after staying afloat through a bunch of road games) – and their road win over Seattle kept that going. Still, I can’t tell if last weekend’s game should have me more impressed with Toronto’s depth or more worried (fuck it, giddy) about Seattle’s woes. Toronto’s the better team right now, no question, but I expected Seattle to test it a little more.

9) I touched on this last week, so, know I’m repeating myself, but I want to shift the point a bit: Michael Bradley shifting to something closer to a No. 6 probably adds a couple years to his career. Suits the way he passes more, too.

10) Speaking of No. 6s, if there’s anyone in MLS as quietly competent as DC’s Jared Jeffrey in that role, and one who’s more invisible, I don’t know him. Soliciting opinions…

11) There was a time when I rated Oguchi Onyewu highly as any USMNT-eligible defender. That makes it interesting to watch him now, even as I know he’s age and/or injury away from his prime. What I can say is, he’s got reasonable feet and he passes tolerably, but I feel like he’s better with contact defending than he is keeping track of angles. Don’t think he’s the problem…

12) I think it was Shep Messing who floated the idea that Chris Pontius might be a spent force as an attacker. If so, that’s tragic for him, but also a big problem for Philadelphia. They had a couple months last year when their attack looked great. Pontius was a big part of that. He knocked a ball back to assist on one of C. J. Sapong's goals, but, overall, he’s part of what’s holding them back.

13) I’ll start this with a below-the-belt acknowledgement: C. J. Sapong is relevant enough to be polarizing. I’d argue he does the useful kind of grunt shit that goes unnoticed, sort of like Marcos Urena and Kevin Doyle. He’s been one of Philly’s brighter spots in their shitty season (7 goals, guys), so it’s awesome to see him go supernova with his hat trick against the Red Bulls. Richly deserved.

14) I don’t think enough ink has been spilled about Houston’s decision to build its attack around speed this season. The way their flying Hondurans - Alberth Elis Romell Quioto and Mauro Manotas – have produced this season should be one of the stories of 2017. It’s not just pace, though: Elis, especially, has some real strength on top of those wings. He wrestles off fullbacks.

15) Because I stopped reading…just about everything, I don’t know why Carlos Rivas didn’t start against Houston; what I do know is that Cyle Larin didn’t get a good shot till after the 70th against Houston. For all that, nothing killed Orlando look shit-poor defensive cover when they pressed forward for the comeback. Houston’s third goal happened when Quioto got left alone wide and high twice within the same minute (this was the 2nd of two). I saw something about “road legs,” but Orlando flat-out failed to adjust in-game. And that’s on Jason Kreis.

16) Wither Luis Gil? Serious question. That’s sort of a counterpoint to the question up above about Dillon Powers.

17) To start with a postulation: Luke Mulholland is RSL’s most consistent player, therefore he’s arguably their best. I like Mulholland more than just about anyone outside of Utah, but what does that say about RSL’s level, except nothing good? RSL needs bright spots as desperately as any team outside Chester, Pennsylvania, so it was heartening to see Bofo Saucedo look willing…to do the things Joao Plata has basically stopped doing. I mean, when’s the last time Plata took on a player?

18) LA got their asses handed to them in the first half. They turned the game around on a couple set-pieces, one of them even arranged things to make it look like Giovani dos Santos made a contribution. I don’t know what’s up with Jelle Van Damme, but Jermaine Jones will be out for a few, and that’s another blow to the logic of LA’s (current) system.

19) To flip this to Chicago, it’s been fun watching Nemanja Nikolic round into the player Chicago thought he’d be. When a solution pays off…because it doesn’t always happen…

20) I have this term I love – “strictly USL” (inspired by “Positively 4th Street,” btw; and why do none of these sound right?) – and that’s my shorthand for a player who doesn’t fit in MLS. First, I know that USL isn’t NASL, but…what’s the actual distance between? At any rate, the flipside of that comment comes with the fact that Minnesota owes its arrival at respectability (yes, they’re there) to the guys they brought up from their NASL days. It shows up most in Christian Ramirez – who comes off pleasantly as a perfectionist/taskmaster – but there’s also Miguel Ibarra and Brent Kallman – e.g., the guy who took over for Vadim Demidov. I’d even lump Sam Cronin and Marc Burch into that mix, the guys Minnesota picked up from Colorado: neither guy regularly tops anything but a qualified Best XI, but they’re guys who know how American soccer works and, as such, they’re assets.

Say what you will about MLS, it’s a league like any other in the sense in that it doesn’t tolerate imposters for long.

All for this week. Still tightening. I got goals, y’all!

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