Wednesday, February 27, 2019

MLS 2019: Benchmarks for the Form Guide ULTRA

Best to use caution, yes?
When she watches Jeopardy!, my wife has this tic of guessing the answer to Final Jeopardy! based solely on the category. If the category is “American Poets,” she’ll blurt out, say, “Edgar Allan Poe” before the question goes up (that’s her answer across several categories, actually). She’s gotten the answer right a few times (including Gandhi once, and without knowing he spent time in South Africa; the actual question threw her), but, in over 15 years of marriage, she’s swung wildly and to nowhere hundreds, even thousands, of times. It feels like wasted thought, but it makes her happy. And I think it’s cute. Now, anyway. Regardless, no harm, no foul, etc.

That’s pretty much how I feel about “hot takes,” aka, the wild leaps of fancy that inflate a valid detail into a sweeping, long-shot prediction. They’re almost always wrong, but that just means you get to call yourself a prophet and/or genius if you land one. Call them the whispy path to what passes for glory in spectator sports, the weird high of “being right” nests in fan culture like lice in a child’s scalp, and they are harmless. Just remember they don’t really tell you much.

Anyway, I have hot takes on the mind because ExtraTime Radio’s 2019 preview was a fucking buffet of them. “The Year of Zlatan”? Look, I’m not calling it impossible; I’m saying there’s nothing out there to support but Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s ego and, sure, some very real talent. I’ll just wait to see whether he pulls it off. Because that’s how I roll.

The rest of this post offers up vague impressions of all 24 MLS teams as they head into the 2019 season in that spirit. The teams are ranked according to four broad categories: 1) Contenders (aka, teams who look up for winning a trophy); 2) Proven (aka, known quantities, likely for the playoffs); 3) Things to Prove (i.e., affects rebuilds, typically, but also “problems”); and 4) The Legion of the Wrong Kind of Doom, or the teams for whom I see no path to the post-season, never mind glory.

Now, why am I doing this? I’ll be tracking results through the regular season, just like I did in 2018 (looks like this, but it'll be different this season). The notes below provide initial baselines for every team in MLS, and, until the benevolent universe gives us data, I’ll be weighing their results through these assumptions. I’ll flesh out the mechanics at the end, but, bottom line, tracking results is a game of expectations. It doesn’t give you much in the early weeks, but, as the information fills in, and teams start to produce stats and develop tendencies, it becomes a pretty robust indicator for current form right around the second half of the season. That’s the theory, anyway.
All right, all the teams are listed below. On the grounds that real proof can only follow from results earned, I’ll keep the comments very short.

Atlanta United FC
Losing Miguel Almiron and getting a new coach (Frank de Boer) adds some X-factors, but they’re too stacked to fall apart.

New York Red Bulls
The famous “Red Bulls system” has made them the most consistently high-performing team in MLS for nearly half a decade, and based on names you’ve never heard of. It’s one hell of a system.

Sporting Kansas City
They lost Ike Opara, but replaced him twice over. They’re balanced all over besides, and they’ve added some sound moneyball options (e.g., Kelyn Rowe and Rodney Wallace). And Vermes keeps improving as a coach.

Seattle Sounders
Seattle ended last season strong, and the fact that their tinies looked comfy in the 2019 preseason bodes well for the future. For now, though, this team is whole and familiar, even if it’s shelf-life is short. Also, another slow start could complicate the hell out reading their level.

Portland Timbers
First, I have extended comments on Portland’s chances, but here’s the short version: if they stay healthy, and a couple shifts/upgrades pay off, they could get serious. Also, things could break violently in the other direction. (Also, for newcomers, this is my first team.)

New York City FC
NYCFC was better-balanced than most people think, so I’m keeping them up here. And they did invest where it mattered – e.g., replacing David Villa – but how many results did he rescue for them? MLS is about to find out.

FC Dallas
Watching them for signs that new forward Zdenek Ondrasek and midfielder Bryan Acosta can make them reliably dangerous. If they go on a steady streak of goals, and without the defensive side falling apart, their annual hot start could mean something. (Also, probably not.)

Los Angeles FC
Loads of talent, but I’m waiting on evidence of a healthy spine (e.g., Mark Anthony Kaye). If they’ve solved that issue beyond Kaye, they’ll be good. They have just that one, real hole.

Columbus Crew SC
Good team, good system, but one that hasn’t produced either stellar or consistent results. It’ll be fascinating to see what Caleb Porter does with it. I’d call him over-cautious during his time in Portland, but this is a whole new crop of players/tendencies. Let ‘er rip, right?

Philadelphia Union
Their marquee signing, Marco Fabian, signed looking for salvation (Germany was not kind), and he has big boots to fill (Borek Dockal), but the Union added experience to the backline (Aurelien Collin), so expectations stay where they are; playoff-tenuous, but in.

Los Angeles Galaxy
Zlatan will score, but that still leaves two big questions: can Diego Polenta (etc.) make the defense count, and can they sort out that mess of an attack to make all that talent come good?

DC United
A second-half sugar-rush of confidence from a long batch of home games on top of adding Wayne Rooney 15 games in, let them surprise people. I count that as the non-obvious shift that will finally give the league a sense of DC’s current level.

Houston Dynamo
Matias Vera came in to cover Juan David Cabezas, if nothing else, so they should have a spine all season. The talent in the attack remains (even if Alberth Elis keep twitching), but the defense still has to show the league that central midfield was last year’s problem.

Colorado Rapids
The Rapids invested heavily in known (once-) successful quantities for its rebuild – e.g,. Benny Feilhaber and Kei Kamara. The MLS jalopy built therefrom has some really good pieces. If they worked the trash/treasure equation right, the Rapids really could surprise people.

Montreal Impact
They tried to upgrade the “counter” part of their “defend-and-counter” system with some new forwards (Maxi Urruti and young Orji Okwonkwo). If their attack sharpens (and the “defend” holds up), the Impact gets tricky. They only stay here because marginal is Montreal’s norm.

Minnesota United FC
They invested for right now (e.g., Ozzie Alonso; and Jan Gregus is the key mystery man), but just as much could turn on full(er) seasons for Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino. Sadly, they can’t upgrade until they get results. But…to the point I make about FC Cincinnati below…

Vancouver Whitecaps
A rebuild of this magnitude demands that judgment be put on hold, but I can credit them for rescuing some under-valued players in the process (e.g., Andy Rose, Zac MacMath, Scott Sutter). This is the West’s 55th card. I mean the one without the instructions on it.

Real Salt Lake
I liked their additions – Sam Johnson, but especially Everton Luiz – more before I saw the latter play, but this feels like it’s on a rocky path to glory that may or may not end well two or three years from now. Thus ends the mystery meat portion of the Western Conference.

Orlando City SC
Another big rebuild (and a bigger deficit to recover), but their big investment was more focused – i.e., Does Nani-mania happen? He seems like a safer bet than Fabian on paper, but this team is crawling out of a fucking pit.

New England Revolution
They needed a left back, they got a left back (Edgar Castillo). They invested in some imported forwards as well (Juan Fernando Caicedo and Carles Gil), but too much of what hurt them last season felt systemic. Whatever happens, I think they’ll reveal their stripes early.

Toronto FC
This is probably the hottest take in a generally conservative post, but there’s a whiff of decadent collapse about Toronto right now. If they manage a good season I’ll be impressed – even with that talent. If they compete…I dunno, I’ll streak through my neighbor or something. And until someone sees it and calls the cops.

FC Cincinnati
As pointed out in my extended notes on FC Cincy, there is a lot of work to do on the field. While I wouldn’t throw away this season, I’d use 2019 to sketch a road-map to success in 2020. (See note on Minnesota; also, this is my 2nd team, and I’d rather have a foundation tomorrow than results today.)

San Jose Earthquakes
In Matias Almeyda, they have a coach with an amazing reputation. It’s the rest of the rebuild – especially the short-term thing/concept with Christian Espinoza - coupled with an historically shitty 2018, that I don’t trust.

Chicago Fire
Schweinsteiger arrived as a sort of capper on Chicago most recent bout of ambition. Unless Przemyslaw Frankowski is a revelation and C. J. Sapong becomes the forward everyone expected, I don’t see it ending well. Chicago doesn’t seem to have a plan for the future. nd their fans hate them.

And… that’s everybody. Now, the mechanics/logic of these posts, using Week 1’s games as examples. Here’s the full slate, home team first, always:

Philadelphia v. Toronto
Orlando v. NYCFC
Columbus v. New York Red Bulls
FC Dallas v. New England
Houston v. Real Salt Lake
Colorado v. Portland
Vancouver v. Minnesota
Los Angeles Galaxy v. Chicago
Seattle v. Cincinnati
San Jose v. Montreal
DC United v. Atlanta

First of all, that’s a stimulating rack of games. Just…so much potential! My loins ache. We’ll see how that shakes out in the wrap up (wherever that winds up going), but I want to explain how I read, or try to read, results each week. Take a game like Philly v. Toronto: as implied above, I see that as a game the Union has no business losing. As such, if they draw the game, or even lose it, that’s a hit to my understanding of Philly. Going the other way, my low view of Toronto means that even a Toronto win in Philly will register as a blip. And that theory will hold until Toronto does enough good things to break it. Anyway, that’s the theory. I’ll dig into details – and in some places more than others – but that’s where things start, and they carry on from there.

Anyway, what I see happening in all of those games is implied above them. I’ll check in after the weekend, on one channel or the other.

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