MLS Weekly, Week 1: Process First, Knowledge Later

Forward Fanendo Adi (9) plays a through ball during their game on Saturday, Mar. 2, 2019 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Washington. Credit: Noah Riffe

Welcome to this inaugural Major League Soccer Weekly, featuring MLS Week 1. (For the record, I recommend you stop counting the weeks on MLS’s terms, because that’s the path to madness and bad math.) I’ll be putting these up once a week, every week from now till the end of 2019. I plan to post them on Tuesday, with a swing to Wednesday whenever vacation or maybe a really powerful distraction or a hangover of the same magnitude keeps me from it.

To introduce how I follow and talk about MLS, I mostly track results from week to week. I put up a post on Conifers & Citrus (my home site) that, 1) explains how this personal tracking system works, and 2) sets down placeholders on how I see every team at the start of the 2019 season. How sound is The Process? Relying as it does on cumulative and imprecise data – e.g., all the games played in MLS every week, and over several weeks – it does take a while to come around. All the obsessive bean-counting doesn’t really pay off till the middle of the season, but it becomes a surprisingly robust indicator when it does, and it measures more details than you’d expect. I’ll stop explaining at this point, mostly because I don’t think I can explain how it works any better than that. We do, however, have one week of data and that’s where the whole thing starts.

Until the sweet, sweet data rolls in, anyone tracking the game is relying on assumptions and reputations, your host very much included. Explaining why one result or another didn’t make my weekly top five feels like the most clarifying way to show The Process in action. Here goes.

All of the 1-1 draws from the weekend don’t really tell you anything because they all more or less make sense – in no particular order: there’s nothing shocking about two middling Western Conference teams drawing, regardless of venue (that’s Houston Dynamo 1-1 Real Salt Lake), or one good team drawing an arguably better team at home (that’s Columbus Crew SC 1-1 New York Red Bulls; tho I heard the Red Bulls played their kids), and, finally, mystery meat is mystery meat, even when it’s made from different animals (that’s FC Dallas 1-1 New England Revolution). Moving on, nothing is more unremarkable than the San Jose Earthquakes losing, especially to a sneaky-sh*t team like the Montreal Impact, and, finally, I posted extended comments on both the Colorado Rapids v. Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders FC v. FC Cincinnati on Conifers & Citrus because those are my two teams in MLS, except for all the other ones. (Kidding, I’m not that poly; on the other hand, full disclosure, I have soft spots for the Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City, and Real Salt Lake; also, Minnesota United FC and the Philadelphia Union, underdogs, basically, just not from Florida). With that out of the way, let’s dig into this week’s five featured games, listed in the order they caught my eye…

…also, don’t worry, the preambles will shorten. Swear to all the gods I’ve ever ignored.


Philadelphia Union 1-3 Toronto FC

My God, I’m glad I’m watching the 20-minute mini-games (hereafter, “20-minute-minis”), because that 1-3 home loss for Philly telegraphed as an S.O.S. After going down two goals (more later*), the Union pulled one back from the spot through Marco Fabian (good call, too), and had some real chances down the stretch – including a ball that looked(?) like(?) it rolled over the line (watch the 20-minute-mini and judge for yourself). They also out-shot TFC by a fair stretch and, judging by the box score, they’ll continue to take a possession approach (503 passes), despite switching to a 4-4-2 diamond that sees them press here and there. That said (and speaking of which), * Philly allowed two goals courtesy of their midfielders utterly failing to track runs (that’s runs, plural), especially a pair by Michael Bradley, who translated those two gifts into a brace (Gift 1 and Gift 2). Sure, the Union’s young defense dropped too deep, then ball-watched on both of Bradley’s goals, but, if you watch those goals and you’ll see a midfield leave its back-four for dead. As for TFC, they have a couple happy thoughts. First, their depth came through – e.g., Jordan Hamilton (sort of) at forward, and new kid Nick DeLeon (from DC) as one of two attacking midfielders with Jonathan Osorio. Toronto has a new high-profile midfielder coming, and Jozy Altidore will surely return, so their starting days are likely numbered, but good outing for DeLeon, especially, who was both active and useful out there (noted). TFC’s second edge was attacking efficiency; Philly out-shot them by multiples, but TFC put more shots on goal…and scored more goals, obviously. Better looks allowed that. So, file away those details, and check for recurrences.

Vancouver Whitecaps 2-3 Minnesota United FC

The first thing I heard about this game came from Bruce McGuire, indie-soccer-writer legend (see, du nord), when he complained about Minnesota’s set-piece defending by listing the professional minutes played by all the players in Minnesota’s defense. Vancouver’s 2nd goal was a “team debacle” (hey! we all blew it!), but everyone except Romain Metanire and Francisco Calvo escape blame for Vancouver’s first (and yet they, and new ‘keeper Vito Mannone, still blew it very, very badly). On the one hand, it’s an odd gripe; Minnesota won its season opener, on the road, and they played the more proactive (if imprecise) soccer, globally. Both teams played an open game (500+ passes for each; bravo!), but, with Darwin Quintero directing traffic, Minnesota looked more dangerous – something to track going forward. Francisco Calvo, who started at right back, popped up in the attack over and over again (and to some effect; but, again, see who provided the assist), but signs that Minnesota finally has a core is the big thing to watch – i.e., names of certain players are starting repeat more than they used to. As noted in your finer outlets that jabber about MLS, the Whitecaps basically blew up its team in the post-season. The reality of the rebuild crossed a clear enough threshold for the (para)phrase “Vancouver is struggling to stay on the same page” to come out of the broadcast booth*, but the ‘Caps did have some bright spots. Yordy Reyna looks good, as does Hwang In-beom (who I was told wouldn’t start, but, based on what I saw, what the heck, give the kid a go). I suspect this has as much to do with Vancouver’s rebuild as anything, but still call it a place-holder win for Minnesota. If they get more…also, if Jan Gregus’ name really is pronounced “grey goose,” I have a pitch for a vodka company…

D.C. United 2-0 Atlanta United FC

The lowest hanging, official MLS content is about as deep as I go on reading these days, but when I heard Matt (Armchair Analyst) Doyle talk about Atlanta having trouble moving the ball upfield, noted. Based on the 20-minute-mini and the box score, Atlanta’s problems went deeper on Sunday. In one of those equations that is so simple you almost miss it: DC beat Atlanta to almost every ball and to every 50/50. They wanted it more, basically, and it’s worth wondering whether Paul Arriola couldn’t have beaten Atlanta on his own (if with an eight-ball of HGH and meth). Atlanta’s Brad Guzan will be physically ill at the second goal he allowed, no doubt, but that really was the least of Atlanta’s worries last weekend. They have Champions League this week (tonight, in fact), and that had some people talking about a failure to rest key players. I’m seeing enough first-team guys on Atlanta’s subs list (e.g., Jeff Larentowicz, Julian Gressel and Pity Martinez) that I’d worry less about that and more about why my team looked so damn…I dunno, sad out there. As for DC, this was a great start, something like planting a flag with “Ambition!” written across it in Comic Sans. With the talent they have on the roster, the level of intensity they showed against Atlanta could mean a lot.

Orlando City FC 2-2 New York City FC

In Portland v. Colorado, a cleverly-hidden hand-ball resulted in a red card and a PK. In this game, Maxime Chanot all but slapped down the ball and got…nothing. (Huh. Has anyone else noticed that MLS buries the bodies in the highlights? They didn’t highlight that hand-ball (and the terrible non-call) with the rest of the highlights.) Call it crappy justice, because NYCFC played Orlando toe-to-toe in Florida, and looked sharper doing it on both sides of the ball. Alexandriu Mitrita stood out; even when he screwed up, his technique was flawless. He also hit this pass to another NYCFC stand-out, Alexander Ring, who tucked it home (note the hitch in the broadcaster’s thoughts; he didn’t see it coming either). MLSoccer.com’s recap nominated Nani stepping onto the field as a late sub…so he’d be there to bitch at the ref after the missed PK call (I guess)? To nominate a moment that mattered, Maxi Moralez could have swaddled NYCFC’s advantage in bubble-wrap had he buried a 1-v-1-v-Brian Rowe. Maybe NYCFC could have stood up a 3-1 advantage, but, with Dom Dwyer playing provider, Tesho Akindele sacrificed his body for the win (think he limped off, anyway). In the end this felt like a cage-match between Quality (NYCFC) and Heart (Orlando), and I nothing about the game pointed toward cause for concern for the Quality side of the equation. It’s only a good result for Orlando with context added – e.g., last season, a rebuilding year, and will-power to spare. But, on the theory that they need more, I’m still on wait-and-see with them. Finally, it’s worth poking around the names you don’t recognize in this one (e.g., James Sands and Sebastian Mendez), and for a variety of reasons (e.g., Sands is 18, from New Jersey, and he started for NYCFC on their season opener, while Mendez is 21, a defensive midfielder, and surely, this can’t be Orlando’s actual line-up).

Los Angeles Galaxy 2-1 Chicago Fire

Won’t lie, I only tuned into this one to see whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic would put down his first installment on his promise to break all the records this season. (On the evidence, he’ll win Goalkeeper of the Year before Nick Rimando.) Of course the bastard scored, even if Chris Pontius did all the work. Had this one ended differently, the straight-up miracle save for which David Ousted almost certainly sold his soul would have been the moment of the match on top of being the Save of the Week. Sadly (because I hate LA), this one ended where it did, won by Zlatan’s put-back and Daniel Steres’ booming header off a cross by (16-y-F-o) academy kid, Efrain Alvarez (one to watch, I’m thinking). Chicago had at least three glorious chances to add better goals to their goal of shame (assist, Rolf Feltscher, which lead to a goal that even C. J. Sapong couldn’t miss), and new kid Przemyslaw Frankowski had a lot to say about that, which makes him another one to watch (and Sapong reverted to form on one of ‘em). To back up a stray comment from the broadcast booth, Chicago took LA to nearly 70 minutes in, with a lead and with several chances to extend it. The box score supports the “good day for Chicago” theory, and that’s the kind of thing you watch for. To their credit, LA did the business…but it was also against Chicago in LA. Something else to file away. Oh, and before I close out, Djordje Mihailovic and Aleksandar Katai got good looks; Katai got tricky ones, actually, and to the extent he almost pulled goals out of his ass. Those are just data points.


And, that’s everything. Hope you enjoyed it, hope it was reasonable and comprehensible, and so on. Ideally, all the above gave you a sense of how I track soccer, plus some faith that it’s worthwhile. Also, close readers might have noticed that I skipped over Los Angeles FC’s 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City. I passed because it looked like a reasonable enough result to me that all I really wanted to know was who SKC started (and, wow, those are all starters; watch this space). The Process should make more sense as I build it out in the weeks and (wait, what?) months ahead. To close with one piece of parting advice, if you do start watching the condensed games, or if you have been watching them, only on mute, pay attention the commentary. Also, pay attention to the clips they isolate that don’t seem to go anywhere. Those feel like attempts at establishing patterns for players. It stood out a bunch of times, but the Mitrita “skillz-fest” felt like the most deliberate.

OK, till MLS Week 2.

Forward Fanendo Adi (9) plays a through ball during their game on Saturday, Mar. 2, 2019 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Washington.

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