Conifers and Citrus

MLS: Catching Up After the Copa

Hey! Those are my notes! Maybe...

Hey! Those might be my notes! Maybe…where’d you find ’em?

The day after I got back from vacation, I sat down to watch the condensed versions of every single Major League Soccer game that I missed in my absence…and that lasted about as long as it took me to remember that the beers I drink up here are generally (and literally) twice as strong as what I’d been knocking back for the past two weeks in Mexico (very lovely vacation, and thanks for asking!), at which point I passed out/blacked out/drooled on my notes.

When I re-started the project the next day I, 1) removed the Week of June 13 (due to the lost time) and, 2) apparently not having learned the lesson from the previous day, I (again) passed out/blacked out some of the results, this to the point of simply declining to note them at all (apart from whispering/slurring “fuck it” to myself as I lay down on the couch during Chicago Fire v. San Jose Earthquakes, and marshalling my remaining energy to getting upstairs, getting undressed (but not all the way), etc.)

Hiccups and speed bumps (which they love in Cancun, btw) aside, I’m close enough to caught up on all things MLS to post on it. I had daydreams of opening with a boldly argumentative preamble, but I’ll hold that for future posts. I’m touching base on all 20 teams below and that’s more words than most people need in a week, amirite?

The structure is as simple as the promise that I violated below – e.g., the idea that I’d never again post another “total coverage” essay on MLS. Still, I wanted to get caught up on MLS, and all at once. So I did. My last “total coverage post” went up May 6, 2016, and that’s the (rough/approximate) source for all the “BEFORE” commentary down below – e.g. those formed the foundation for my thinking on every team in the league. All the “AFTER” stuff notes what I caught/surmised after watching a literally nauseating number of mini-games and picking through (what I could read of) my notes (again, don’t you dare blame beer, bourbon, or “other”!). It bears noting, though, that my last “all MLS” post, which went up after Week 12 (and on…May 24th!), covers some of the same points. Because I am the prisoner of my own mind.

At any rate, the state of the league and all its teams unfolds below. Here’s to hoping there’s something in there that you’re not reading anywhere else!

Chicago Fire
BEFORE: Chicago has the personnel to field a sound, classy defense in a system they seem to like (i.e. a 3-5-2), but, because they’re limited creatively by leaning on, say, Arturo Alvarez, they need some source for a next level in order to exit the cellar.
Record in my Absence: 1-2-1 (10th in East)
AFTER: That “sound, classy defense” evaporated against Philadelphia, when Chicago turned in a comprehensively terrible defensive performance – not tracking runners, pressing randomly, terrible one-v-one defending, etc. Outside that, nothing has really changed: loathe as I am to argue that a team “needs” a No. 10, Chicago’s reliance on Razvan Cocis, Alvarez, or against San Jose, John Goosens, only underlines how much they need David Accam to carry them (as he carried this ball past Brian Carroll) – in much the same way that Sebastian Giovinco carries Toronto FC; he is their next level, basically. Also worth noting: the Fire went to a 4-4-2 v. San Jose (well, shit; they did on TV). And I’d stick with Goosens till another approach to goal steps up.

Columbus Crew
BEFORE: A system pertained where they’re a mess defensively (e.g. relying on Michael Parkhurst whether deliberately or not) and, in the post-Kei-Kamara era, they have all their attacking identity (cringe) tied up in Federico Higuain, a situation that demands a need for further options. I nominated Harrison Afful, who ended 2015 as a great foil for Higuain.
Record in my Absence: 1-1-2 (9th in East)
AFTER: Things officially got desperate when Columbus started Ethan Finlay at forward against Montreal. My notes are damned hazy on Columbus, but I seemed to think that Justin Meram has a role to play in Crew SC’s revival. To address a point from that May 6 post, I think Afful played his best game of 2016….some time in June, and Ola Kamara did well to equalize against the Red Bulls. All in all, though, I’m starting to wonder whether Gregg Berhalter, and his system, aren’t the problem. 9th in their conference is no place for last year’s MLS Cup runner-up.

Colorado Rapids
BEFORE: These guys have constructed one hell of a defensive formula (Sam Cronin/Micahel Azira in front of Bobby Burling/Axel Sjoberg), which left only the question of what that foundation frees them to do. Would Jermaine Jones open it up?
Record in my Absence: 1-0-2 (1st in West)
AFTER: After seeing how they played against LA – and without Jones (and Shkelzen Gashi) – told me what I needed to know…even as Marlon Hairston’s failure to capitalize (and two times) speaks to what Jones (and others) do that guys like Hairston can’t. The Rapids pulled LA apart and they really should have won…and, say, did anyone else spot the Rapids’ perfect home record (which they share with FC Dallas and RSL)? As a further upside, the Rapids might have the league’s best back-up on MacMath; he bailed their asses out against the Galaxy a couple times. Finally, Dillon Powers remains a blown opportunity…

DC United
BEFORE: In all honesty, my notes on DC proved sorta useless here. In so many words, it references the theory that they’re sound enough defensively that they only need to work out their attacking formula.
Record in my Absence: 2-1-2 (5th in East)
AFTER: And, golly, if Luciano Acosta doesn’t look like one hell of an answer for that (as I started to argue in that May 28 post), but that only held till DC’s lucky, lucky draw versus RSL. DC looked like a force of nature against New England – and that was without Patrick Nyarko – with Lamar Neagle enjoying a new lease on life (and a great finish), and Fabian Espindola looking more part of the offense than a soloist since being removed to a wide position. RSL, though, pulled DC to pieces, so…One further thing to note: DC has looked better since pulling Marcelo Sarvas to the deeper “one” in a 4-1-4-1. A couple teams have gone that way…

FC Dallas
BEFORE: Call Dallas another instance where I took a good defense for granted and focused on the offense – specifically, Mauro Diaz’s health and Fabian Castillo’s form.
Record in my Absence: 1-1-2 (2nd in West)
AFTER: And not without reason, because Diaz and Castillo connected for one hell of a goal in their win over RSL. Dallas is quietly having a fine season. The only caveat to that comes with the fact that, 1) I watched only the mini-game where they beat an RSL team that was decidedly “B”, and 2) I didn’t catch their 2-0 loss to Sporting KC. And I’m not gonna, either, so, yeah, some gaps on this team.

Houston Dynamo
BEFORE: My scribblings foretold the departure of Owen Coyle, while also acknowledging one piece of legacy (e.g. Collen Warner dropping to cover the defense). Left unremarked in all of that is Houston’s hit-or-miss attacking potential, which hit at the start of the season before drying up in the recent games.
Record in my Absence: 1-1-3 (10th in West)
AFTER: While it’s hard to call what’s happened since Warner dropped into a clearly defined “d-mid” role a transformation – the Dynamo is just three points better than Chicago, after all – they’ve tightened up the back quite a bit. Generally. Getting decent chances, putting them on goal, but it still takes something like Maidana’s shot to put them over for all three points (and, to be clear, Andre Blake had one hell of a game). They’ve got players stepping up – DaMarcus Beasley wrecks havoc from their left – Houston has too many other key players underperforming (see, Barnes, Giles).

Los Angeles Galaxy
BEFORE: Having read and re-read what I wrote about the Galaxy in early May, the more I’m convinced that what I really meant to say is that nothing about this team interests me. I used to just hate them, now…?
Record in my Absence: 0-2-3 (6th in West)
AFTER: First of all, I get pissed off every time I see Jelle Van Damme foul clumsily/cheaply and then freak out at the subsequent, entirely reasonable call. And yet he’s probably the most compelling thing about LA right now, that and waiting for Nigel de Jong to actually break something. They might do well, they might not, but, my god, are they boring. Boring, boring, boring. I see some potential with Emanuel Boateng on one side and Sebasitan Lletget on the other, but they’d have to figure out what/who to put in front of it. Aging and/or cynical Euros…next.

Montreal Impact
BEFORE: (If you read between the lines), I thought Montreal had their defense figured out, a foul problem in midfield, and, most importantly, an age/talent issue in their attack – i.e. Didier Drogba v. Ignacio Piatti…which argument does not assume mutual antagonism…see Drogba gifting Piatti the PK v. Sporting KC. Still…
Record in my Absence: 2-0-2 (3rd in East)
AFTER: First, Montreal’s defense doesn’t slide to lockdown with the cool precision it once did – and that only juices my man-crush on Laurent Ciman – and so you have the Revs posting a two-goal lead, forcing Montreal to claw back…but that’s just one game. Those woes force Montreal to score, which they’ve done, but more with opportunism than clean, mechanics (yeah, yeah, I know; a goal’s a goal; some are better than others, tho). Clichés about good problems aside, figuring how to deploy Drogba can’t be easy – especially during games where things aren’t working and he feels like he has to take over the game (and when he does this, too) – so the Impact might be better served by looking toward 2017 and using Drogba to destroy tired defenses…which they might be doing already.

New England Revolution
BEFORE: The Revs lost its defensive confidence the day A. J. Soares debarked for Norway (and more $); they’re still figuring out their back four and it shows (and, yes, Andrew Farrell might be better on the outside)….which I didn’t write in that earlier post. Instead, I dropped hints about the Revs needing attacking inspiration.
Record in my Absence: 2-2-0 (8th in East)
AFTER: Whatever carried the Revs to MLS Cup a couple years back, it’s gone. New England’s once league-nimblest attack feels confused and unfamiliar – OK, yes, notwithstanding Kelyn Rowe’s smooth feed to Kei Kamara. Lee Nguyen, more than any other player, wanders out there, dazed, confused and baffled at why old tricks don’t buy him the space they once did. Add to that the confused dance of performance and personnel at the back, and you’ve got a team that might not see a post-season.

New York City FC
BEFORE: I made the old argument about imbalance, crediting old-school MLS pros like Jason Hernandez for carrying the stupid team along the way. The thinking is/what, until NYCFC can sort out the problems brought about by their DPs, they’ll have no shot at succeeding.
Record in my Absence: 3-1-1 (1st in East)
AFTER: Damn the (one) pundit(s) I read (OK, Matt Doyle), but remind me why exactly this team already can’t make the 2016 playoffs? As much as Frank Lampard still feels like dead-weight, I do think Patrick Vieira did figure out how to get game out of Andrea Pirlo (by way of Andoni Iraola). Next thing you know, you’ve got a good-enough back line, plus a rookie like Jack Harrison coming on, dropping perfect back-heels, powering in a goal near-post, etc. Maybe the rule book changes after that…just sayin’ there’s a chance…

New York Red Bulls
BEFORE: My original phrasing for this read, “they have a formula to which they need to return; the defense will only improve.” The thing that preoccupied me in that early-May post was whether New York could successfully revive that suffocating high press…which, when it does work, it really works.
Record in my Absence: 2-2-1 (4th in East)
AFTER: As to their defense, yes. That said, the first goal given up against New York asked, what happens when your proverbial last resort (Robles) falls through? All in all, the team that ruled May looks winded in June. New York saw this (probably), which explains the risky, barely costly game they lost in the cause of squad rotation (carry on! you have nothing to lose but points!). Because they have, by and large, stuck with their regulars, New York’s recent run – that running against the wind nightmare against NYCFC, in particular – shouldn’t be completely ignored. And Collin? Disciplinary time-bomb, that one.

Orlando City SC
BEFORE: Do they have a second gear (and how much did they lose with Adrian Winter leaving? Sorry…didn’t happen “before,” but, y’know, it’s out there)? I asked that thinking/believing that they’ve got most of the “hard-to-beat” already in their DNA.
Record in my Absence: 1-0-2 (7th in East)
AFTER: Orlando has more draws in 2016 (eight) than any other result (seven, between wins and losses); now, guess how many of those have come at home? (Six.) I only really watched their smutty win over TFC, and that only in part, but Orlando’s “hard-to-beat” relies too much on comebacks to keep them afloat – especially when they’re coughing up 2’s at home. Cyle Larin puts in more than enough (seriously, who knew?), but Adrian Winter left because the sads, and I think Kevin Molino’s injured again (yes/no)? Darwin Ceren and Christian Higuita do great work in the middle, but the last thing this attack needs is fresh puzzle pieces. But what else is left?

Philadelphia Union
BEFORE: The central mystery of the Union’s strong early season was, how long would that defense last with that rookie core holding it together. Going the other way, I figured they’d have just enough attack so long as Chris Pontius held up.
Record in my Absence: 2-3-1 (2nd in East)
AFTER: Chris Pontius held all the way up, and, over the second half of May, the Union played some goddamn glorious attacking soccer! That pretty well dried up against Houston today/this past weekend, but Philly feels like it has weapons all over – Tranquillo Barnetta here, Roland Alberg there, and Ilsinho here, and Pontius there; it’s almost like they didn’t need C. J. Sapong out there (almost). They ran over the Chicago Fire like Argentina rolled over the U.S. in the Copa…except on the defensive side. Sure as clockwork, holes and bad decisions have plagued the Union over recent weeks – bad enough for even Chicago to find ’em – and damage was done. Josh Yaro, in particular, looks like he’s grasping at all the wrong things (though, yes, robbed on that second yellow v. Houston).

Portland Timbers
BEFORE: Sorry, I know too much about Portland’s current events to pretend like my May 6 fixations matter. It’s only with the man I called Portland’s “Biggest Liability” where I was anything like prescient (and, then, only accidentally). All the other preoccupations feel like…throw-backs?
Record in my Absence: 2-0-2 (5th in West)
AFTER: If it does nothing else, Dairon Asprilla’s (temporary) departure brings still more instability to the Timbers’ line-up; and that’s whether you loved Asprilla or sometimes forgot he was on the team. All Portland’s movement spells either faith in new/current players (e.g. Jack Barmby over Asprilla) or making room for new players to come in (say, at left back). What all that movement doesn’t spell? R-E-P-E-A-T. I’m not saying it’s impossible, so much as I’m saying that it makes good performances from longer-term players – Lucas Melano, in particular (as he did here; honestly, this looked pretty swell over 20 minutes) – central to any success that Portland will have. Seriously, the CCL feels like a lost cause at this point…

Real Salt Lake
BEFORE: I went heavy on Juan Martinez back on May 6, but then I saw that Yura Movsisyan won Player of the Month for June, so what’m I supposed to say, right? I also wondered about how the (necessary) transition in defense would go.
Record in my Absence: 2-2-2 (3rd in West)
AFTER: First, why the hell was Yura POTM – and after that buffet of near-misses against DC? (After the voting…oh, carry on). In fairness to RSL – who, yes, it seems I watched more than any other team in this review – they ran the gamut in terms of mood: ripping through DC one game (if fruitlessly), after sputtering to get started against New York, which happened after they just plain lay there napping against Dallas. They picked up four points for their troubles, which only sucks because they really should have had six, but that “mood” thing gets to the heart of RSL: they’re doing almost all of the right things; the only difference is it doesn’t come off sometimes. They’re still third in the West, and that argues that they’re doing enough of the right things.

San Jose Earthquakes
BEFORE: This was another team for which I took sound defense as a given and wondered what the hell they had to straighten out in the attack. Short answer: More Wondo! Or less. Just other people who do “Wondo” things, only they aren’t Wondo, but someone else who will do awesome things for San Jose.
Record in my Absence: 0-2-3 (8th in West)
AFTER: Here’s the thing about San Jose: in some ways, they are the most MLS team in all of MLS: basically talented guys who try very, very hard all of the time. And then the next time, too. Rather than pick apart such weirdnesses as why Dominic Kinnear favors Alberto Quintero over Shea Salinas the metaphysical meaning of having Matias Perez Garcia as your “playmaker,” I’ll just focus on Chad Barrett. He’s a San Jose kind of player. They’re never the best, and, still more rarely, they’re not the most talented either; neither is Barrett. And yet, how many MLS players hit Barrett’s numbers? (Now, there’s a post.) And why is San Jose somehow always in the conversation?

Seattle Sounders
BEFORE: I called the Sounders a team whose attacking star has dimmed, and one that needs someone, or something, to kick it in the goddamn pants. That transition meant that Seattle needed a good defense right now to even push for the playoffs.
Record in my Absence: 1-3-1 (9th in West)
AFTER: Seattle is three points better than Chicago. Yes, that Chicago. A team with their ambitions, being this bad? Damn. The only thing that saved Seattle from a drubbing against Toronto was bad, pathologically hesitant finishing by the Reds; and so they held on. That most of the same team coughed up an insurance goal to NYCFC speaks to how well Seattle’s defense generally holds up (not). The only reliable weight carrying water in the other direction is Jordan Morris, he who stretches defenses, opening up spaces in which none may wander, even though they really, really should. Starting line-ups being what they are (does Osvaldo Alonso really line up outside every week?), it’s hard to know how much head coach Sigi Schmid has moved things around in order to right the ship, but I did see Joevin Jones near goal quite a bit against NYCFC and it visibly did not work. One of the MLS teams most in need of solutions, but with the fewest clearly visible on hand. Just sayin’…

Sporting KC
BEFORE: No team in MLS begs for refinement (Benny Feilhaber), while retaining its need for aggression (Roger Espinoza) quite like Sporting KC. I like to think that has something to do with just how much I hate watching Sporting KC play…the way the cross the ball all goddamn over makes me crazy; they could be so much better with that personnel. Another coach I’d like to see gone?
Record in my Absence: 1-1-2 (7th in West)
AFTER: Few things satisfied me during my time off like learning that Sporting KC has taken over 100 corner kicks at this point in the season (something I may or may not have heard during the broadcast, but not verifying…). To some, say, Peter Vermes, this spells attacking pressure; as for me, I see inaccuracy dancing with wastefulness. On a dung heap. Sporting had a couple nice moments against Montreal, and that leaves me feeling a little less hostile. As much as I hate KC’s sometimes brute style, Espinoza is one hell of a player; he’s the closest analog to Jermaine Jones that I can come up with. If SKC can get one more body near the goal, and maybe another way to get the ball in here (Graham Zusi), they might salvage their season.

Toronto FC
BEFORE: I didn’t mention this on May 6, but my assumption was that, again, Toronto has its defense mostly figured out – especially with Michael Bradley out there running interference and turning offense to defense. Still, they had a talent/pay gap that mattered and they had to answer the pressing question of who ended the following phrase: “Giovinco and ________.”
Record in my Absence: 1-2-1 (6th in East)
AFTER: The need to solve the “Giovinco And” conundrum only grew sharper as the wee Italian dried up; he’s still causing plenty of problems, but he’s scoring fewer goals and that matters – especially if the only way anyone else can chip in demands reckless endangerment. The real tragedy is that Toronto’s getting players in the right places again and again; they’re all shooting too errantly (Jay Chapman) or laboriously (Jonathan Osorio and/or Jordan Hamilton) to make good; then Giovinco joins in the fun… There are bright spots for TFC, though: Hamilton doesn’t always looks so stiff and Tsubasa Endoh put in one hell of a shift playing a deep role against Seattle in a 3-5-2. Food for thought, maybe? It’s not like Jozy’s ever gonna start again…

Vancouver Whitecaps
BEFORE: I think that my argument on the Whitecaps went something like this: they’re struggling because they shed too many stabilizing pieces in the off-season and that they’re not getting enough out of a key player like Pedro Morales.
Record in my Absence: 1-1-1 (4th in West)
AFTER: And I was/am right on both counts. For now. OK, the past two games, and that’s in spite of a decent record, a decent placement in the standings and so on (fourth? how?). They’re getting it done, apparently, I just don’t understand where or when, because it’s not where/when I’m watching. To me, they’re just headless; they struggle to penetrate and they’re on the wrong side of planning v. inspiration equation in the attack. Don’t get me wrong: it’s absolutely incredible, cool and inspiring (to the USMNT fan) to see Kekuta Manneh do this (that’s Kekuta Man-NAY), but it relies on some factors that may not replicate. Y’know, every single time. Like, maybe Yaro won’t stably so feebly next time? At any rate, I see things getting worse for Vancouver before they get better. Yes, I’m aware of statistics…

OK, I think that’s everybody. While that was more for me than it was for you, I hope there’s all kinds of educational up there for everyone. I have to repress, like, a lot in the name of space. I mean, seriously, I am leaving out details all over. And I guess that’s what the weekly posts will be for from here on out…look for stuff like why I finally get Mo Babouli.

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