MLS Weekly, Week Mostly 5/6: All Things Are Explicable

As noted at the top of this week’s Form Guide ULTRA, the idea that MLS is the spectator sports version of a riddle, wrapped inside an enigma …

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As noted at the top of this week’s Form Guide ULTRA, the idea that MLS is the spectator sports version of a riddle, wrapped inside an enigma, wrapped inside a mystery, that got thrown into some river and then “Uncle Joe” Stalin ate the map, has rubbed me the wrong way for a while. That’s quitter talk, people, maybe even the reason why America is falling behind on STEM subjects. All these soft children with soft minds, I tell you, something, something damn Millennials.

The point is, an answer explains most results, and outside the context of any given game. What happened with the Portland Timbers and FC Cincinnati over MLS Week Mostly 5/6 provides reasonably clean examples of how the formula, “results + details = expectations,” works in real time. For the Timbers, even though everyone knew the San Jose Earthquakes were terrible, Portland, 1) had a crappier defensive record, 2) had struggled to get their attack going in every game but one so far this season, so 3) there was no reason the whole thing wouldn’t end with Timbers head coach, Giovanni Savarese, apologizing to fans. (Related, if you haven’t seen it, Tommy Thompson’s motivational-speaking moment is a personal favorite for 2019 so far.) I didn’t hear from a single Timbers’ fan who hadn’t brace himself or herself for a stumble into the Slough of Despond. (I wrote extended notes on this, mostly rending of hair and gnashing of teeth stuff as opposed to sound analysis. From San Jose’s side, both Danny Hoesen and Cristian Espinoza showed up, and, in a first for MLS 2019, Portland looked outright stumped by the ‘Quakes man-marking scheme). Bottom line: if this result surprised anyone, they weren’t paying attention.

FC Cincinnati’s 1-1 draw actually pulls double-duty in that it supports the theory behind a results-tracking model, while also highlighting its fragility. A lot of the data points going into the game – e.g., Cincy’s comparatively good form and short rest (and a brutal loss) forcing SKC to choose between playing tired players and calling guys off the bench (aka, the “Additional Factors”) – pointed to a closer contest than anyone would expect in a game between the same two teams under ideal conditions. While what actually happened on the field didn’t track with that ideal game, it didn’t really track what you’d expect based on the Additional Factors either. In so many words, no model could have predicted the game turning on so many damn mistakes (in a happier world, Kekuta Manneh), and, on the day, the game looked likely to end in everything but an SKC win, but, very real details aside, the game still ended up with a result that feels fitting, even logical, at least given the Additional Factors.

For what it’s worth, I wrapped up my extended notes on Cincinnati v. Sporting KC “B” with some “what it all means” musings, not all of them bull-ish on Cincinnati’s immediate future, and that has everything to do with some of the trends taking hold in the Eastern Conference. Both Columbus Crew SC and the Philadelphia Union have started strong enough that it’s hard to see either slipping. The same goes for Toronto FC, and I might be the only guy that follows MLS who is not totally bought and sold on D.C. United (doubting them is my hot take of the moment), and that’s how I landed on the idea that Cincinnati has four teams above them. What happens if/when, both “New Yorks” (Red Bull and City FC) find their feet, or what if rumors of a better Chicago Fire hold up – which that result in Toronto supports, no matter how contingently? My point is, things could get crowded around FC Cincy real fast.

For better or worse, it’s impossible to suffer similar confusion when projecting the Timbers’ current chances of glory – i.e., not low, so much as subterranean. That said, it would surprise me to see some of the Western Conference clubs that started strong – e.g., Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, and even the Seattle Sounders (wishful thinking?) – get climbed over when some of the teams below them yank them into the pit…and, to be 1,000% clear, I am in no way implying that the teams at places 8-12 haven’t whored and gambled their way to their piteous state.

That’s all the framing/preamble for this week. I’ll wrap up with notes on five results from MLS Week Mostly 5/6 that struck me as most significant. And I’ll try to connect them to the mess up above.

Vancouver Whitecaps 0-2 Los Angeles Galaxy

This largely stuck to the emerging narrative for both teams. Whatever you think of them, the Galaxy are 4-1-0, and they’ve rolled over solidly (or formerly solidly, see Portland Timbers) middle-tier teams to build that record. Going the other way, they haven’t really been tested yet (see the Form Guide ULTRA, make your own call), and, no matter what I feel about it (besides bitterness), Zlatan Ibrahimovic proves he’s a special talent week in and out, and he’s probably as responsible for LA’s record as any player on the team, thus upholding his self-anointed MVP season. More to the point, the few people I follow keep hinting at sub-par performances rescued by Zlatan, so that’s something to file away for future. Vancouver, meanwhile, continues as a work in progress with an indefinite destination. Their offseason roster overhaul brought them as close as a team to get to reliving the expansion experience for one, so expect things to come together later, if they do so at all. Hwang In-beom’s fancy footwork impressed me and he seems capable of finding seams, whether running or passing through them, but he holds the ball too long – and maybe that indecision translates globally to the ‘Caps as a whole. I kept hearing the name Ali Adnan and seeing good things happen when he’s on the ball, but his contributions on the night swung violently between two poles. All in all, though, LA looked good for the win, and where it happened feels significant for both teams. My best theory on what divides one team from the other shows up in Zlatan’s footwork to set up LA’s game-winning goal. My best theory on why Vancouver looks like a good bet to continue to struggle shows up on how thoroughly they lost Daniel Steres on that play. I don’t know what to think of Vancouver yet, but the Galaxy look like a team with potential in 2019. I wouldn’t write Vancouver off yet either, not entirely, but I also wouldn’t be even sort of surprised if they endured a lost season before it all comes together.

D.C. United 0-4 Los Angeles FC

First and foremost, the final score in this one had nothing to do with Wayne Rooney getting sent off (around the 52nd minute, and with few complaints from all concerned). Turnovers in midfield decided this game, and LAFC’s Diego Rossi cleaned up three of them and that’s how one player does more than an entire team. Had this score happened in LA, the whole “Clash of Future Champions” narrative might have held up, but LAFC’s special players (Carlos Vela and Rossi) erased DC United’s special players (Luciano Acosta, who I didn’t see once in the condensed game, and Rooney, especially after the 52nd minute) in our fair nation’s capital Saturday afternoon. D.C. got their asses kicked, and in a place where it rarely happens (home field, and see the box score), and that does open the question of how D.C. measures against the rest of MLS. Speaking for myself, I don’t expect them to hold on as Eastern Conference favorites – and if Acosta ducks out at mid-season, their odds go down even further. They’ll have something to prove as early as Tuesday when they play Montreal in D.C., and anything less than a win should pique people’s curiosity. LAFC, meanwhile, have enjoyed absurdist levels of success so far in 2019 – how does a team get to a +14 goal differential just six games into the season (or, conversely, how does my team have a -10 in five games; psst…Portland) – and there’s literally nothing that suggests they’ll stop. To clarify, and I can’t stress this enough, they will stop at some point, some wobbly moment will arrive. On the other hand, I don’t expect a visit from FC Cincinnati to knock them off their league/game-stealing stride and, even if it did, I see people waving it off as a fluke or a bad day at the office. This win cemented LAFC’s status as the team to beat until further notice. Let the good times, and hot takes, begin.

Toronto FC 2-2 Chicago Fire

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that watching just 2/9th of means a whole lot of watching offenses in their best moments and defenses in their worst. It only gets more confusing once you compare the box score, which tilts solidly in TFC’s favor, against “I don’t like the signs defensively for Toronto” coming out of the broadcast booth around the 55th minute. The comment turned out to be prescient when Chicago’s Nemanja Nikolic ghosted past two defenders (Michael Bradley and Chris Mavinga) to make a sitter of Aleksandar Katai’s low cross through the box from the left. That said, the editors must have got all seven of Chicago’s shots (three on goal) into the condensed game, because that portrayed a more balanced game than the box score (cough…cough, possession, cough, cough). A defense can’t do much about C. J. Sapong getting two perfect touches in a row – which brings me to The First Rule of C. J. Sapong: he has had moments like this before and, once they end, months, perhaps even years can pass till he has another one. I’m also a long-time fan of Sapong’s, and hope Chicago fits him, but that’s his history. The limited circle I follow seems awfully excited about Chicago and, by itself, the result inched me closer to buy-in; it’s everything else that’s getting in the way. To return to the broadcast booth (Johnny?), someone dubbed Marky Delgado “a terror” early on, and I noticed him more after that. Overall, Toronto looks to have picked up the right players between the off- and early season: Alejandro Pozuelo, obviously (and, dear God, the mind-meld between Jozy Altidore and him on Toronto’s first), but Nick DeLeon has looked like a new player all season from what I’ve seen. To lift the Pozuelo/Altidore out of the parentheses, I’d recommend watching the clip of that goal because it took remarkable understanding to make that goal work; however it happens, Altidore just has to know that Pozuelo will, and, more crucially, can, play the ball to that precise non-obvious spot, and that a goal will follow. TFC’s issues in this draw started and ended with defenders switching off on that second goal. To give Chicago real credit, they’ve got decent attacking players and holding TFC to two goals hints that they might have a worthwhile defense this season. If they can keep the goals coming – and Nicolas Gaitan is working his way in – the Fire could make some noise this season, right alongside TFC.

New York Red Bulls 1-2 Minnesota United FC

“Somebody’s got to shake up this team.”

Too right when it comes to the Red Bulls, sadly. Love ‘em (yes) or hate ‘em (what’s wrong with you), they’ve played some of the most effective, most ruthless soccer in the league for 4-5 years. They are no longer doing that. Players look hesitant on the ball, they’re under-hitting passes, and God knows why head coach Chris Armas lined them up in a 4-4-2 diamond. Seems like they have other things to think about – e.g., planning that team meeting to elect the guy mostly like to shake this team up (a thought that takes me back to a short dentist-in-training trying scream me into action on a parks-and-rec team; good times). While that’s an easy cliché to mock, it tells the tale of the tape: the Red Bulls built those great seasons on beating the other team to the ball more often than the ave-r-age bear and playing decisively off the turnovers. Jesse Marsch was the guy who built that team and, who knows? Maybe time will prove Armas right – maybe tinkering will help – but Red Bull seemed as tangled up as Hamlet at the moment. As for Minnesota, I can’t stop forgetting (for some damn reason) that they won this game without key attacking players – e.g., Darwin Quintero, Miguel Ibarra, and (doesn’t really count, but) Kevin Molino. Based on what I read and heard, they won the game by defending stoutly (Ike Opara had several highlight moments, and they said Michael Boxall’s name a lot) and by having a game-plan and sticking to it – e.g., kick the ball to Angelo Rodriguez facing away from goal, and let him figure it out from there. It’s not as ugly as Route One, but also not by much. Without taking anything away from Minnesota – nine points from a five-game road swing is a never-ending gravy bowl for this team – a bad Red Bulls team scrambles a lot of assumptions about how MLS World functions, and that’s going to take some time to adjust to. In the here and now, though, I don’t see any reason to assume that New York won’t lose every game it plays. Part of me knows they’re a sleeping giant – these are largely the same players and Bradley Wright-Phillips still looks plenty interested – but maybe they don’t wake up this season?

Orlando City SC 4-3 Colorado Rapids

A rubenesque woman flashed Nani (with layers; you’ll see) for as long as it took for her to notice that a camera would beam the moment nation-wide (effectively, and only to, like 100,000 people; and she made the cut). Awesome as that was, I’m still trying to figure out why I chose this game over the infinitely-more-significant-over-time result between the Philadelphia Union and FC Dallas. To name my angle, I put this down to researching teams-who-might-be-a-massive-pain-in-the-ass-the-next-time-you-play-them (sorry, hyphens getting out of control). While it’s bad that the guy who won the game for Orlando shouldn’t have even been on the field (Nani; suspend him on principle), it wasn’t his cross that Axel Sjoberg knocked down with his arm (and, again, that’s Ruan), and Orlando has fought like possessed demons (doubling down, intentional) in every game I’ve watched them play over the past few weeks. I think the spirit of the team was captured in the raw athleticism (holy crap, Ruan is fast!) and/or aggression of Orlando’s second goal. If you can put whatever’s fueling Orlando in a bottle right now, you could build an army of marathoners. Their intensity is carrying them and, for now, that’s enough against a team like the Rapids. But, again, this was also the latest “not terrible outing” for Colorado, even if in what feels like a never-ending succession of them. Regardless, they burned Orlando on their second and third goals and, to go back to Nani, how would this game have turned out had Nani got sent off at the 50th minute? The overall point is that, despite their records, Colorado has some real talent (e.g., Kei Kamara, Jack Price), while Orlando has talent (Sacha Kljestan, Dom Dwyer…yes, Nani) on top of a chip on their shoulder that can only be lifted when they reach the playoffs…of which, does that apply to Colorado? For what it’s worth, I don’t think they’ve given up, but I do think their front office is a little punchy.

That’s everything for this weekend and sorry about any loose ends. My biggest takeaway is that this league is knowable, even when it’s not obvious. If the reason a team fails isn’t apparent right away, odds are you’re at the beginning of a new trend.

“He’d stand in the middle of the road and urinate. I’d say, ‘Matt, get the hell out of there. You’ll get shot! No! He was defiant. Even with his own penis he was defiant.’”
– Jim Gavin on U.S. General Matthew Ridgway.

Real quote. That’s just bonus content. You’re welcome.

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