Conifers and Citrus

MLS Week 24 Review, in Categories and Song; PLUS, Previewing the Timbers!

Kenny_King_vs._Zema_Ion_-_Dark_Match

I’m sorry. I’m stressed too. But…oh hell yes. Bring it on!

[Sorry, I’ll have to get to some links tomorrow. To return to a twitter reference, stupid Wednesday games!]

Another week of Major League Soccer, another weekly review format for Conifers & Citrus. I’ll get it straight next year. Right after I learn how to tifo stuff. (So, that’s never…)

Worse, by the time this review of MLS’s Week 24 goes up, Week 25 will have already commenced. In light of this – fuck it, let’s call it like what it is; madness, madness, I tell you! – I’m forced to again reconsider the timing of these posts. This will be a challenge until the vacation season is over and the rain chases us all back indoors. Speaking of, last week, my family said “hi.” This week, my family says, “Why? Why do you spend so much time on this, dad? Why?”

I answer the same way I always do: “I…I don’t know.”

I can, however, tell you what I believe: MLS’s Week 24 built on most of the patterns from Week 23. Things are really starting to take shape, people, and that’s both good and bad. Now, personally, I like surprises because they keep things interesting. On the other hand, when you’ve tasked yourself with making sense of events, surprises have this nasty habit of kicking the shit out of your credibility. (Speaking of: next week, I’ll be listening to the predictions I made before the 2016 season; if memory serves, I’m looking good on a couple tricky calls; the call closest to home on the other hand? Less close…).

I will say one thing: I’ve seen a couple people (OK, one) flag a handful of away wins from this past weekend as a symptom of MLS’s unpredictability. I don’t think that holds because those results supported alternate narratives of their own. To put names to games, Columbus Crew SC taking down the New England Revolution at home didn’t shock me in the least (see below), and Chicago Fire v. Montreal only surprised me by way of magnitude (again, see below); going the other way, yeah, the Houston Dynamo’s win over the San Jose Earthquakes threw me a little.

I’ve got details, details, details down below, but, for the record, I’m opting against listing each of the scores every week: it’s time-consuming, for one, and I’m not convinced that anyone values that service all that much, never mind clicks through the links. That said, if you want it in here, let me know and it’s back next week. So, vote, please; no quorum required, either.

So…should I list all the scores every week? Yea or Nay. (Vote in the comments/over twitter.)

With that, I’ll let the various features below speak for themselves. EXCEPT, since I’m burying it, I want to mention that the preview ramble on the Timbers next opponent (no intro needed) will come at the end of this post. Just didn’t want to mess up the flow…anyway, diving in…

Game(s) of the Week (Because I’m a Prisoner to the Choice Paradox)
I hate to point where the spotlight falls, but I gotta go with New York City FC’s slick (sleazy? see Lampard’s goal) little win over the Los Angeles Galaxy. A lot of things factor into that – e.g. New York coming into 2016 all but written off, their somewhat weak home record and, yes, outplaying MLS’s go-to heavyweight franchise: that, my friends, is showing up your assailant in defining what does, does not, constitute a knife (deep cut). I went (parenthetically) plural because I have two for honorable mention: Real Salt Lake’s narrow home win over FC Dallas, a win that helped RSL more than it hurt Dallas (directly), and the Second Half of Hurt that the Seattle Sounders dropped on my (let’s face it, flagging) Portland Timbers. Seattle’s win put the battle for that last Western Conference playoff spot into a steel cage raised twenty feet above a pit of fire!!!!

OK, moving on…

Three Themes
1) The Heaps Dilemma
Way down below, I move to nominate the Revolution as the most fragile team in MLS. But, because I want to keep things short down there, I moved the deeper issue up here. That issue: how does a team tell when it needs a different coach more than it needs different players? New England needs new parts regardless, but is Heaps the guy to bring new players into the fold? To make the same argument from a different angle, is Heaps mishandling the players he has, or could that same group of players thrive under different management? The broad question posed here may not be the biggest question in professional sports, but it’s up there.

To answer it, though, I think the rest of the league has puzzled out how to stop New England. To me, that means they’ve puzzled out Heaps. The further it slips into the past, the more reasonable it becomes to view the annus mirabilis that was 2014 as an accident of Jermaine Jones.

For all the above, I want to make one thing clear: I think the Revs have personnel problems, too. And morale? If it’s not down the shitter, it’s circling the bowl.

2) On Taking a Bigger Deep in the Argie Player Pool
This thought came to me watching Luis Solignac running around for Chicago, but let’s ignore that for the moment. Now, I know Argentina is not exactly deepest, darkest Africa for MLS clubs; it’s not like there hasn’t been an Argentine player in MLS in every single year since its inception (confirming….yeah, pretty sure they’re all covered; was worried about 2001 till I found Diego Sonora), but, as I see it, the players coming now get more serious with each passing season. Sure, sure, you’ve got your Solignacs, attacking players who don’t improve vastly (or at all) on American attackers as readily dismissed as Chad Barrett, Jack McInerney, or Quincy Amarikwa…uh, hold up on that last one; the point is, MLS has been able to lure Argentines on the level of Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti, Federico Higuain, Mauro Diaz and, most recently, Cristian Lodeiro. I’ve only just now come to appreciate the essentially seditious nature of where I’m going here, but, what the hell: what about the players between the Valeris and the Piattis versus the Solignacs. And I mean the Solignacs, specifically. What does the Argentine-league equivalent of Amarikwa look like, and how would he look in MLS? While the U.S. Men’s team fan in me hates so much as acknowledging the possibility that MLS should go after those players, the part of me that thinks like a GM wonders whether or not MLS teams have thought about that question hard enough.

3) Possession Is Bullshit
OK, to clarify, possession is only “bullshit” in the sense of a useful metric for talking about a game; it’s swell as a tactical choice, but I’m talking about something else. I think it was Marcelo Balboa who made the comment (or anyone; if it’s not Paul Caligiuri, they all sound the same to me), but he said it (to paraphrase; unconscionably loosely): “possession doesn’t matter unless you’re doing something with the ball.” I love this trend, the slow, steady push-back against lauding possession, or even valuing it as a statistic. It’s an choice, almost an aesthetic – one I happen to prefer, but…y’know, I’m open. Anyway, I think just about every fan goes through a phase – and, for what it’s worth, I think coaches go through it, too – where they value possession just that little bit too highly. Again, I love possession, but that’s precisely why I loved how the comment came out…in whatever freakin’ come it came out in: basically, the play-by-play guy noted an edge in possession, and “Balboa” responded by saying, “OK, and? What’s it doing for them?” That’s how you should talk about possession.

OK, just two features to go, one for the locals (wait for it), and one for everyone else. Because I can’t help but talk about every team in MLS (such a gossip!), when I do that below, I’ll do it quickly as I can. Also, as a further efficiency, I organize each team – OK, I rank each team – according to where they seem to be right now. The organizing categories are:

Rarefied – As in floating amidst the ether, The Demesne of Gods and Algorithms
Bona Fide – Good enough to come to the Cotillion
Qualified – There are…issues that might prevent attendance (a bastard? Gasp!)
Mortified – Just fucking dead, I guess

And, as noted above and implied further above, I’ll note anything that I have to say about each team. And, who knows? Some weeks, it might not be anything at all. Here goes…

Rarefied
New York City FC
What? You think it feels funny? Try typing it. At any rate, now that they’ve figured out how to cover him, it’s actually fun watching Andrea Pirlo play. It’s even more fun to contrast him with people like Javier Morales or Nicolas Lodeiro, guys who don’t mind taking on other players. Pirlo is different: he plays keep away, both the ball and his body. He just avoids everything as much as he can…except on those weird defensive forays.

Toronto FC
In the 34th minute of TFC’s win over Philly, Giovinco’s got the ball inside the center circle. A Philly defender harassed him long enough to get in a couple kicks, but then he, along with every other Union defender, fell off. A goal didn’t happen, but a chance sure as hell did; that’s a player’s “gravity” in action: baffled defenders doing nothing trying to cover everything. Last week I talked up TFC’s back-ups: think of TFC with Altidore on the field and Giovinco on song.

Bona Fide
FC Dallas
They might be everyone’s darling (or just darlings of the small sample I polled, plus preseason!), but I watched the Dallas defense, in particular, with a critical eye this past weekend. I counted no fewer than six incidences of bad marking/decisions. By that I don’t mean “he could have played that differently.” No, I mean “he did something visibly dumb.” Dallas might yet win ______, but they’ll do it in spite of that…entire defense. I think they’re one year, maybe another dude, off.

Los Angeles Galaxy
The result wasn’t awful; I mean, they had to lose at some point. All the same, the success LA has had (see nine-game streak without a loss) relied heavily on that sound defense. As such, if I spy with my little eye that Daniel Steres might be hitting the wall? Yeah…that’d be an issue.

Colorado Rapids
It’s only been a couple weeks since the Rapids moved Shkelzen Gashi to a central position underneath Kevin Doyle. While this move hasn’t worked perfectly, it has pulled the similarly impressive feat of bounding the Rapids success to Gashi’s performance. Gashi still wails from range with the best of ‘em, but now he’s combining more than he did on the wing. It’s not wholly ineffective, either. Based on what I saw, Colorado should have won against Orlando.

Sporting Kansas City
SKC started Brad Davis this past weekend and, all I have to say about this is that I like it. Davis picks up his head before he crosses; he gets better crosses as a result. Shocking, I know. I was also intrigued by Graham Zusi’s shift at right back. It seemed promising, too, a way to give Zusi space to operate. Maybe it’s something the U.S. Men’s Team might try…only, give it time, because Zusi’s still playing like a shark (e.g. nowhere to go but ever and eternally forward).

New York Red Bulls
Yeah, yeah, I saw the video about the Red Bulls throwing away another league. Personally, I thought that did a disservice to DC United, who had plenty of chances (early, too, most of them through Patrick Nyarko). Still, Red Bulls fans should wipe away tear for a bit and celebrate Bradley Wright-Phillips’s hyper-consistent three year haul of goals. I’ve done the research: I know how hard 15 goals per season comes in this league. Really damn likeable player, too.

Philadelphia Union
So, maybe Alejandro Bedoya wasn’t all the solution. I snark, I snark. The point is that Philly has deeper problems. The general inability to deal with balls from TFC’s right notwithstanding (though, really, blind-spot or something), the goal that stood out for me was Drew Moor’s. If you’re gonna compete, you can’t let this happen.

Montreal Impact
There was a glorious moment in this game, when The Mighty (Laurent) Ciman blindside the allegedly uncatchable David Accam to pick the ball off his toes like a fucking samurai ninja. That was cool and all, but Montreal has a problem on its hands (I mean, reported death spiral aside): in this 2016 season, Didier Drogba appears more interested in arguing with the refs than he does in playing the game. Getting ready for coaching, I suppose?

DC United
At some point, maybe even recently as last week, I mused about DC’s continued employment of Ben Olsen as its head coach. While I can’t quite put my finger on why, all of that went away after watching the draw against New York. For all I know, Olsen didn’t even request the players he got this season. That doesn’t matter because he deploys them very smartly. All I’m saying is that, of all the teams in the East, I think DC will be the one to surprise people in the playoffs.

Real Salt Lake
Burrito Plata. Get it? I just noticed that and, yes, now I want them to totally dominate the rest of MLS, so people/pundits can talk about RSL’s menacing Burrito Plata Combination. On a more serious note, there was a moment in the game when Jamison Olave lost a mark and, afterwards, it fell to Nick Rimando to point it out. He did and he won; small wonder, too, because Rimando was right. RSL will miss that.

Qualified
Orlando City SC
After watching Julio Baptista labor through another game, I got to wondering how much Orlando caters to Kaka. That presupposes that Kaka invited Baptista, of course, but even that grew from a deeper thought. It’s decadence before building civilization. Orlando struggles with discipline as much than any other team in the league – e.g. dumb fouls, disproportionate freak-outs, etc. Is that part of Jason Kreis’ brief? And, more to the point, can he even do it? Put another way, can Kreis do enough between now and October to make Orlando a spoiler for potential playoff teams?

Seattle Sounders
Geez, everyone else is talking Roldan…thought that was my special angle. Turns out no, but I think the biggest thing that comes out of pairing Roldan with Osvaldo Alonso in deep midfield is the defensive stability it brings. As noted…all over, Roldan tore it up this past weekend, but he also freed up Sounders’ best attacking players to press forward. There’s a formula for success in there. Maybe. More later.

Portland Timbers
I’ve already yakked plenty about my relative Zen state with my hometown team and, no, I’m not going to walk away from that. I’ll dig in with more specific thoughts down below, but, yes, adjustments needed…

San Jose Earthquakes
I was mostly struck by how active Alberto Quintero was against Houston. Both he and Amarikwa, actually, but that could be your problem. The thing about San Jose is that, no matter how well they execute it, they’re pretty goddamn predictable. And I say that in the clear belief that they should have won that game. But they didn’t. The surprise piece for me: Darwin Ceren. Taking the free-kicks, even.

Mortified
Chicago Fire
There’s no use denying that I didn’t just put Chicago in The Land of the Dead. All the same, I slipped them up top of it because I believe that they’re further on the road to recovery than every team down below. I think the way they lined up last week – e.g. with Michael de Leeuw behind Solignac, with Johan Goosens and Accam on either side and Matt Polster and Radvan Cocis behind them, and the latter as far away from the goal as he can be? That’s a decent set up.

Columbus Crew SC
Either I didn’t have much to say about Columbus, or I was…well, too out of it to take proper notes on this one. Look, I think the Revs are awful right now, so I wasn’t in the least surprised to see Columbus win, even on the road. That said, I did hear that Gaston Sauro might be coming back. And that can’t hurt anyone else, but Michael Parkhurst.

Vancouver Whitecaps
Denmark fucking reeks (Hamlet? Anyone?). My grand plans to research changes to Vancouver’s roster from last year to this died when I remembered that the ‘Caps collapsed last year, too, only later. As such, I decided to make a case of Cristian Bolanos, a Costa Rican international and a player who will almost certainly get nailed by DISCO at some point this week. Anyway, he’s not helping. Neither defensively (clumsy) or offensively (all motion, no noise). He’s too typical.

Houston Dynamo
Joe Willis made some crazy goddamn saves to bail them out, but the Dynamo didn’t give up a ton either. Unlike a local team I know, Houston has had a stable back-line/midfield situation for some time now and that’s working for them. As much as I believe its half-life will expire in the middle of 2017, it’s working for now. As I see it, they can add a better, younger defender, then get serious about that attack and, who knows? Houston might have something on its hands.

New England Revolution
At time of writing, he most fragile team in MLS. As noted above, I can’t even say what’s wrong with any confidence. All I know is that, every time they take the field, I expect New England to lose…

…and, on that note, time to scout the Portland Timbers’ next opponent, Seattle Sounders FC.

Scouting Report: Portland Timbers v. Seattle Sounders
I missed something fairly major in last week’s loss to Seattle and, wow!, am I thankful! Why? Because, hope! False or otherwise!

At any rate, as everyone but me noticed last weekend, after a defensively sturdy first half, Portland opted to press forward against Seattle in the second half. While this didn’t expose them nearly as much as Vytas Andriucevis’ (didn’t look it up! Am I close?) forays forward (allegedly) did (and, SHIT! That was my fourth option!), I posted a poll that flagged the midfield positioning – e.g. where both Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara pushed too far forward – on the second goal for a reason. Both Jewsbury and Chara got high enough to disconnect from the defense and that let Roldan in between them, where he played an easy pass to Clint Dempsey, and the rest is stuff I’m trying to black out. Regardless, the next game has Portland at home, a place where, generally, things have worked out. Moreover, I don’t see any need for Portland to play a counter against Seattle, especially at home, not with what a win would do…just across the board.

No, I think this weekend’s game is about balance. With that in mind, here’s my thought: I want Jack Jewsbury to stick deep, either as the deep “1” in a 4-1-4-1, or as a deep, middle “3” in a 4-3-3, but with Darlington Nagbe and Chara pushed higher and near the middle. As much as I appreciate that wingers have to defend in the modern game, and that fullbacks have to get forward, I want either/both set of players doing so judiciously. The idea is to keep very, very solid at the back (anchored by Jewsbury, Liam Ridgewell and…guest? And isn’t this part of the problem?), and with fullbacks and wings swapping very consciously, and with only one fullback or another going up regularly. The idea is to free literally everyone else to do nothing but attack, at least to the extent possible.

We can kitchen-sink this shit late in the game, but, with giving up a goal amounting to suicide, I want the Timbers focused on not giving up the game first and foremost. Anyway, those are my thoughts on that.

And, with my thoughts on everything else above, that’s it. Signing off till next Sunday!

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