MLS Week 14/15: Real Judgments at a Fake Break

As any breathing, thinking fan of Major League Soccer knows, the league is taking a break until June 22nd – U.S. Open Cup action excepted,…

Photo Credit: Stephanie Romero

As any breathing, thinking fan of Major League Soccer knows, the league is taking a break until June 22nd – U.S. Open Cup action excepted, something that matters more to some teams than, um, others (a-hem, FC Cincinnati). With those two weeks off and 15 games behind every team in MLS except the Houston Dynamo, New York City FC, and my Portland Timbers, this seems like as good a time as any to step back and assess where every team in the league stands going into the brief hiatus.

I started the process over on my home site, Conifers & Citrus, with the latest Form Guide ULTRA. Related thereto, I’ve added “strength of schedule” data to the mix, something that proved enlightening for teams like the Chicago Fire, Minnesota United FC, Real Salt Lake, the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Colorado Rapids and the New England Revolution. To get right into it, there’s a curious/fun divide between all those teams – and it’s one that gets to why I obsess about results so much. As much as both Colorado and the Revs deserve credit for turning around, frankly, abysmal seasons, both teams benefitted by playing against teams going through their own sh*t – and that applies to Colorado more than it does New England (see their last game, especially). As for the other four teams, they’ve all struggled recently, and mightily. They’ve also run through a gauntlet of tough games, something that could 1) explain their mid-season woes while also, 2) providing some context for seemingly inexplicable surges later in the 2019 season.

Before moving on to the general, and to make anyone who needs to feel better, FC Cincinnati has played a tough schedule recently – by my count, they’ve played five of their last 10 games against teams that I rated as “contenders” in the Form Guide ULTRA. In other words, while it’s both easy and reasonable to feel down about FC Cincy’s chances this season, there’s a plausible case to be made that they went through the worst of it over these past 10 weeks. Having just looked ahead, that could actually hold up. “Grey skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face…” (Sing along if you know the words!)

That’s enough for local interests; how’s everyone else doing? With the hurly-burly of regular results going quiet for a while, let’s take a look – something I’m doing by staring at the standings and all the work that went into the Form Guide ULTRA.

The first thing that stands out is the distinct possibility that the teams now in positions 2 & 3 in the East, and the teams between 2-7 in the West might not be in those same spots when the playoffs start. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Toronto FC slide deeper into oblivion based on current form, and major questions loom over teams like the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Seattle Sounders, Houston, Sporting Kansas City and, yes, the Timbers. Overall, I’d call only the top of the Western Conference and the bottom of the Eastern Conference the known quantities in the MLS right now. Everything else feels like a million moving parts, and with even more variables in play. Mind you, that’s not the same thing as saying it’s all random, because it’s not. There are very real trends in play surrounding every single team listed above, as well as all the rest, and I’m going to spend the rest of this post teasing out the 10 biggest stories from around MLS, as I see them.

1) LAFC and Atlanta Are On a Collision Course, Yes?
If there’s one undisputed reality in MLS this season, it’s that LAFC is running away with the league and rushing toward one or more titles. They’ve developed a system that pins even the best teams in the league against the ropes and pummels them into giving up one or more goals (with some exceptions). Underneath all of LAFC’s noise, Atlanta United FC has managed to tie them on points (21, all ‘round, along with Philly) over the past 10 games. The trick is that Atlanta has built their success around the league’s stingiest defense – just 11 goals allowed over just 15 games. (I say just twice because 15 teams of the 24 in the league have now played 16 games). While it’s impossible to argue (as I did in the Form Guide ULTRA) that Atlanta’s attack has “come online,” there’s something appealing about the best attack in the MLS squaring off against its best defense. Fortunately, we’ll get a preview on July 26. Here’s to hoping that’s not the only time they meet this season…unless the Timbers get a shot at it, because I’m totally down with that. Speaking of…

2) False Signals Dialed to Eleven
The Dynamo sit at fourth place in the West, just four points off the Galaxy in the pack that LAFC continues to leave behind. The Timbers, meanwhile, sit stalled at the bottom of the conference, four points below the playoff line and, to note it, 10 points behind Houston. The most obvious difference between them comes with the number of games played at home – nine out of 13 for Houston versus 12 on the road for Portland, plus one bear of a game (against LAFC) at home. No one knows what happens with either team going forward, but Houston’s 1-3-0 road record seems every bit as suggestive as the 13 points from 18 available that Portland picked up over the last six games of its road trip. On a deeper level, the Timbers splurged on a striker who certainly looks real (Brian Fernandez) and, until LAFC kicked their asses, they had a solidly functioning defensive scheme. This is just one signal as to why the West feels more open than the East. Of further note, both Houston and Portland play three games between June 22 and the end of the same month (just…why?), and with travel involved in both cases – more for Houston than Portland, for the record. And that’s something else to watch.

3) The Post-Chad Marshall Era
Related, the Sounders currently occupy third place in the West, but recent results (2-4-4 in their last 10 games) makes it seem really unlikely that they’ll stay there. Seattle has been reliably terrifying since joining MLS, and they’ve had this habit of starting slow before grinding down all comers on their way to MLS Cup – or at least that’s what happened in 2016 and 2017, when Seattle reached the MLS Cup and won it once. If you look at the standings for every season between 2015 and now, you’ll see a team that never scored a ton of goals, and that’s kind of the point. Seattle’s success came from keeping other teams to zero goals scored and knocking in one or two of their own. When they can’t do that – see their last three games – they’re pretty damn helpless. They signed a guy – Xavier Arreaga – and he’s going to go a long way to determining how far they go this season. That said, the Chad Marshall Effect died this season. And that’s a big deal.

4) Average in Every Way
FC Dallas went into the break with a 6-6-4 record, 22 goals scored and 22 allowed. If that doesn’t make them the most average team in MLS, that’s awfully damn close. Once you get into the details, you see a team that is neither great at home (4-1-3) nor useful on the road (2-5-1), and that makes them something of a litmus test for the league at large. They are the Kung Pao Chicken of MLS, the team you measure against as a mean – e.g., solid, but capable of neither absolute failure nor greatness. If I had to name an Eastern Conference equivalent – and this is a stretch – I’d go with the Chicago Fire. Speaking of…

5) The Struggle Is Real…
As with Cincinnati, it only became apparent that Chicago, Vancouver and RSL played through tough schedules when I went through the whole business of sorting out strength of schedule. RSL definitely had it easier than the other two – both of whom faced four teams I ranked as Contenders four times over their past 10 games, while RSL picked up only three. That gets to the curious telling thing about all this: Chicago picked up two points from 12 while Vancouver got five points from 12. That feels like a pretty sound barometer in the here and now with all three teams. There’s another level too…

6) Olde Tyme Wrassling
Around the turn of the century, really winning a fight meant taking an eye out of the other guy’s head. I think RSL falls into that camp, right alongside Orlando City SC and the San Jose Earthquakes. I don’t think any of those three teams will challenge for the title this year or the next (or, frankly, the one after that), but all three of them have players that will fight you whistle to whistle. Better still, each of them have something – whether it’s Chris Wondolowski, Nani (anywhere but the penalty spot), or Jefferson Savarino – that can turn a game on a dime. They’re also good enough – all of them – to straddle the playoff line all season long, and that means the path to the Promised Land goes through them. You do, in fact, have to be better than they are to make it.

7) A Dark Horse
When you look at New York City FC, it’s hard not to be underwhelmed; after all, they have more draws than wins and losses combined, and with two games to burn. And that has to matter at some point…right? They’re also kind of a weird team because they’re doing fine. I mean, they just picked up 8 points of 12 from a four-game road-trip, and things only look better when you expand the sample size to their last eight games. I had the opportunity to watch them absolutely dissect the worst team in MLS last weekend (Cincinnati), and that’s kind of the point: a good team that knows what it’s doing does that kind of thing, they go on this type of run. Watch NYCFC.

8) Even a Horse Needs a Spine
I count Sporting Kansas City’s bout of turning sickness as one of the biggest shocks of the 2019 season. By the few accounts I read, the assumption was they had talent and depth to spare. As it happens, they are bad – as in they have as many wins as FC Cincy, which should drive the point home nicely. SKC got worse when they lost Roger Espinoza, but they only became hopeless when Matt Besler went down. At the same time, that’s the deeper story of this team: neither of those players will be around forever, so what’s next? Outside of that, SKC has so much talent (Johnny Russell) and promise (Gianluco Busio) to make things feel good, but, barring a major turn-around this looks like a lost season for, frankly, an amazing set of players.

9) A Normal Man Sleeping
The lowliest category I have for any team in MLS in the Form Guide ULTRA is road-kill. Toronto FC have played themselves into the outhouse by the simple act of going 2-5-3 over their past 10 games. In other words, this team has to grow a litle before I call it a sleeping giant. And, as a reminder, all this happened with a pretty slick DP coming into the team (Alejandro Pozuelo), and with most of TFC’s key players on the field. Given their last…seven results (0-4-3), and given that they’ve played…really average teams over their last five games – vs DC, @ RSL, vs SJ, @ VAN, vs SKC – and to get only three points out of that run? You’re no longer a contender.

10) A Touchy Subject
It took some serious investigation to get the full measure of Colorado’s and New England’s turn-around since they fired Anthony Hudson (right?) and Brad Freidel, respectively. While I down-graded both teams from an “M+” to an “M-“ in the Form Guide ULTRA, I’d argue that Colorado picked up the easier points over the past five-six weeks. At the same time, both of those teams chucked their coaches around the same time FC Cincinnati and, factually, both of those teams have done wildly better since then, while FC Cincy has…done something different. And that should make you think, FC Cincy fans. Not in the sense of what could have been stopped in the here and now, but in terms of what to watch for as a “Danger, Will Robinson” moment in the future. All the same, I have never seen a coaching/team mismatch quite a manifest as Friedel’s meltdown with New England. I wouldn’t hire that guy to coach my kid’s team, and she doesn’t even play soccer.

And that’s it. I mean, that’s literally it. This will be the last MLS Weekly for Orange & Blue Press, unless they get someone else to do it – and I hope they do. I wish I could keep posting here, but, god’s honest truth, I only want to spend so much time on soccer every week, and this added too much weight. If you want to write for them and they let you, they’re good people to work with.

After that, I wish FC Cincinnati and their fans all the best. If I had to guess, the next few seasons will be…well, fucking miserable. I mean, like Minnesota and Orlando, but also maybe worse, so brace yourselves. As for me, I’m going to follow and love the team all the same. If it’s any consolation, I think every team should suck for a while, aka, they should put their fans through seasons of dismay and torment (for those who choose the latter), if only to make the sun shine brighter when it does. It makes the ultimate victory, whatever form it takes– MLS Cup, the U.S. Open Cup, or (yes, The Holy Grail) The Supporters’ Shield – feel better, and more real and earned. Goddammit.

And, to wrap this up fully, thank you to Michael Walker, Geoff Tebbetts, Stephen Buckeridge, and Connor Paquette, and I wish I had more time with some others. It was fun posting here, but I also have one hell of a time saying no to things. Cheers.

MLS Weekly, Week 13: East vs West, and Sub-Text

Some people agonize over which tie to wear to the annual Christmas Party, other people do the blogging equivalent of 52 Pick-Up..

Credit: Porsche997SBS / License

To answer the first question, of course, I’ll be tinkering with the format this week. Some people agonize over which tie to wear to the annual Christmas Party, other people do the blogging equivalent of 52 Pick-Up…

In order to make sure I get to everything, I’m going to start by covering all the results, noting memorable details, etc. Those will be divided between (first) the results worth talking about, then (second) the results that tracked a reasonable person’s expectations (or just mine). I’ll close out by highlighting some broader trends – including the “the West Owns The East” idea, which both does and doesn’t have merit – and precisely because it follows from another discussion about the Eastern Conference especially. Anyway, all things in their time. Let’s run down the results for Major League Soccer Week 13, starting with the games that really mattered.

The Games That Really Mattered, A Narrative

The biggest result of the weekend happened when the Portland Timbers orchestrated a multi-bank heist against the Philadelphia Union with a 3-1 win. A lot of the talk will focus on Brian Fernandez – who, sure, appears to be very, very good, and he deserves full credit for starting and ending the game-winner – but all the kids, fresh and familiar, made this win happen. I wrote about this game on Conifers & Citrus and, as I didn’t stop saying there, Philly played well. And Portland still won. Timbers’ fans are giddy today, but the games ahead will find the line between confidence and hubris. (Full Disclosure: I have drank the Kool-Aid. You’ll see that in the post).

The rest of the big results include the mind-meld between Cristian Espinoza and Chris “Back for One More Score” Wondolowski that delivered the San Jose Earthquakes a 2-1 win at Toronto FC; I have dubbed this one, The Lamentation of Drew Moor, in honor of his multiple melt-downs – which are earned, because TFC aren’t good right now. Sporting Kansas City’s 3-2 home win over the Seattle Sounders, while wholly remarkable for Johnny Russell beating Seattle with the rest of Sporting KC tied behind his back (I kid, I kid; also, see “behind” for the GOTW), doesn’t mean much either way. Getting the odd necessary win – something SKC has managed twice in its last 10 games – doesn’t paper over going 0-3-5 around those wins, and, just to note it, being winless on the road. Injuries of unknown seriousness to SKC’s Matt Besler and Seattle’s Kim Kee Hee make the sum of this result relevant – doubly for Seattle now that Chad Marshall has retired. A similar cloud hangs over the Vancouver Whitecaps’…respectable 2-1 win at home over FC Dallas (Dallas played them a lot better than even and created chances), but Ali Adnan, who has been stellar for them, limped off early. The simple fact of the loss matters more, though, to Dallas, who have picked up just two points from the last 18 available. True, that’s selective slicing that puts Dallas in the worst possible light, but they’re also 3-5-2 over their last 10 games and 0-4-2 over their last six games, and suddenly that doesn’t feel selective. Oof, time to start another paragraph…

Los Angeles FC’s (more or less) annihilation of the Montreal Impact in LA is noteworthy as a clean demonstration of how LAFC dismantles teams – something I’ll elaborate on down below – but Montreal…that team can lose in any venue, and win in about half as many. Real Salt Lake topping Atlanta United FC 2-1 in Sandy, UT ranks as the second most significant result of Week 13, after Portland’s. At the moment, RSL operates in a space between being a strong home team, and being a team that loses to good ones. Putting two goals past a heretofore solid Atlanta defense (7 goals allowed in their last 10 games), and doing it from range, having the wherewithal to find the lanes to make those shots answers the question of how RSL has succeeded without a steady starting forward. This, with the loss to the New York Red Bulls behind it, sees Atlanta in the tiniest of slumps. Just mind it doesn’t get wider…and, now that I’ve brought up the Red Bulls, let’s wave away the results that didn’t matter with as little respect as possible…sorry if your team is in there…


The fact the Chicago Fire drew New York City FC 1-1 in Chicago has the juicy local angle of the Fire having two games to play before the Gold Cup break, and they’re both on the road where Chicago is…not good. For NYCFC, this was just the latest draw. Wayne Rooney getting run over (and Matt Turner getting a deserved red card) feels like the second kick-off to the New England Revolution’s 1-1 draw at home against D.C. United. New England looks better without Friedel (could a cat do it better?), and DC’s looking dodgy on the road, and that’s about it. A lofted turd of a goal sealed the Houston Dynamo’s fate at Minnesota United FC, and Houston had their chances, and that’s one more reason to hold off on the “Houston-is-terrible-on-the-road” narrative. Even over just the past 10 games, they’ve played your tougher teams every time they’ve traveled. After that, the Colorado Rapids underlined the incredible awfulness of Columbus Crew SC by beating them 3-2 in Commerce City, and the Los Angeles Galaxy stole three points from Orlando City SC on the back of a Jonathan dos Santos goal (good one too), and Nani “DP, Right?” being terrible at penalty kicks. Ugly as that last game looked, it was eating caviar and watching world-class synchronized swimming compared to the Red Bulls drunk-mugging on the road against FC Cincinnati. The fact that FC Cincy played (reasonably) well only makes it feel worse…or that’s probably just the weight of my extended notes on this game, and FC Cincy’s personnel limitations, sinking in a little further.

I think that’s all the results – and let’s hear it for those glorious weeks when every team plays just one game! Let’s keep the tour going with some trend spotting!

West Over East?

Six games from MLS Week 13 pitted inter-conference rivals against one another. It didn’t go unnoticed that the Western Conference teams won all six games. The question, though, is whether anything actually surprising happened. The short answer, yes, but I only count Portland’s win at Philly a clear surprise. I can pull the rest out of a pure “West > East” narrative without much trouble. As noted above, RSL beating Atlanta is up there when it comes to shocking results, but RSL has a history of playing strong at home and, between things like having Michael Parkhurst at right back for Atlanta (which, only arguably) lead to Bofo Saucedo’s goal and RSL keeping them unsettled with (quality) shots from range, RSL essentially used the artillery to beat Atlanta. Atlanta took them to them all the way to the ref inhaling before calling the game over…and the winner came in from range as well. It’s debatably relevant that Atlanta didn’t start Pity Martinez, but, because RSL won this game in midfield, nah. None of that takes anything away from the win, it’s a big one, but I think you can achieve clarity by asking one question: do you think RSL is better than Atlanta more often than not, regardless of venue?

Either form or form-plus-location explains the four remaining games. Orlando hasn’t achieved good for three seasons, so how does the Galaxy beating them surprise anyone? That’s one game down. TFC has struggled in recent weeks – seriously, a goal-less draw against D.C. at home is as good as it gets over its past five games – and, lacking about…3/5th of its forward momentum (neither Bradley nor Pozuelo), Toronto had to rely on its defense, which responded by giving Wondo a pair of openings. Columbus, meanwhile, has lost to everyone lately, so why not the Rapids…wherever? Finally, who takes Montreal beating LAFC in LA without exorbitant odds? (No one, because no one takes 30-1 on any sporting event outside horse racing and expects to win.) Before talking about why the Eastern Conference kinda sucks, let me finish my thought on LAFC.

Caught In the Ropes

Christian Ramirez’s stuff/goal on Evan Bush’s ludicrous attempt at a clearance foreshadowed what the rest of the afternoon would look like for Montreal. Think a game of dodgeball that can’t end until the kid in a fetal crouch gets hit with the ball 50 times. That exaggerates what happened by a rough order of three (LAFC took only 17 shots all game), but LAFC did to Montreal what I’ve seen them do against both Portland and Cincinnati: they pin teams in with a second-wave half press of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduardo Atuesta, and Latif Blessing, which basically confines the game to a half-court set-up where they attack over and over and over until they score. So long as Atuesta can feed line-splitters up the gut to Carlos Vela, this will give them result after result. The other thing: Vela deserves the hype, and not just by the numbers, officially crazy as they are. He’s as fast and as strong as any forward in MLS, and he ranks with the best on the technical side, and that’s just hell for the rest of MLS. It’s the Timbers’ turn in the barrel next weekend. I’m happy that it’s Portland’s barrel, if nothing else, but I’m definitely anxious that LAFC will run Portland through the paddle-wheel. And if they do…seriously, look out.

The Truth About the Eastern Conference

To get back to the West versus East conversation, the conversation actually cuts both ways – a detail that’s both useful and interesting. On the one hand, the Eastern Conference’s currently steadiest teams played amongst themselves this weekend – e.g., D.C., the Red Bulls, NYCFC, even Chicago. Now, for those who really want to get confused, look at the bottom four teams in the Eastern Conference – that’s Cincinnati, New England, Orlando and Columbus – and ask yourself whether you see any of those teams replacing the top 7 teams in the East. My answer to that is, maybe Columbus, New England, but only if the Exorcism of Brad Friedel was the necessary act; going the other way, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see Montreal falling out of the Top 7, which is neat and all, but…that’s just, like, one spot, and with five teams chasing it.

Move over to the Western Conference, and you’ve got a very different picture. When I look at the current standings, I can see any one of the teams currently at 3rd through 7th getting overtaken by any team currently at 8th through 11th, with no offense intended to Colorado, who, to my mind, has a little more to prove. Some of it’s just quirks in the schedule (e.g., Portland opening with tons of games on the road, while Houston does the opposite), but other parts included a process of feet-finding (Vancouver? Dallas? RSL?), on-boarding new players (Portland), being awesome (LAFC), over-shooting your talent (Galaxy), surviving a(n annual) plague of injuries or a CCL hangover (SKC), or even the long-term health of your squad (Seattle).

I’m not the first person to suggest that the East is more hierarchical than the West, and I understand at least one theory as to why that matters – i.e., because every team in MLS plays two intra-conference games for every one inter-conference, the best teams in the East will inflate their records by picking up easy points from a larger pool of patsies. While that theory makes sense, I took a closer look at the past week’s East-v-West duels to scrub for false signals. And, as noted above, one can make good arguments that other factors could be at work. In the here and now, I can’t think of a way to keep track of East-v-West results that won’t lead to madness, so I’ll have to settle for pricking up my ears any time someone else talks about it. I’m just wary of it as a talking point – and mostly because it feels like a short-cut, sort of like Houston getting dismissed as a bad road team, when the issue really boils down to playing the toughest teams in the league on the road one after the other.

And that’s everything this week. Hope the new layout didn’t throw anyone or give them too much chaff to sort through before getting to the sweet, sweet wheat. I want to wrap up with some odds and ends, stray thoughts that came to me while watching way too much damn soccer this weekend.

– New York City FC has picked up 7 points of nine on a three-game road trip. They have a real chance to make that 10 points out of 12 when they wrap up the four-game road-trip against Columbus.

– It bears noting that Dallas has traveled the Valley of the Shadow of Death for, I’d argue, their last seven games. Recent away games include, Philadelphia, Atlanta (which they won!), Houston, LAFC, and, lately, Vancouver. Small wonder, basically, that they’re 2-4-0 on the road during that time. Meanwhile, at home they’ve played (again) LAFC, the grind-gods (aka, the Red Bulls), and a much-improved San Jose side. Strength of schedule matters…

– D.C. has endured the opposite road record from NYCFC, picking up just two points of 12 from their last four road games – and against arguably softer opposition. Related, they have two home games coming up, and they need the padding.

– Finally, both the LA Galaxy and SKC won this weekend, but broad circumstances make both results immediately irrelevant. Like SKC, LA isn’t winning nearly often enough to make a road win over Orlando interesting. On a deeper level, LA has lost to everyone everywhere in recent weeks – e.g., a yes-then-dreadful Columbus team on the road, and the Rapids in LA. The rule of thumb here is, make them prove they love you (which, I’m told, means taking you to the drive-in). Dammit.

– To flag an interesting trend going in the other direction, the only bad loss I see for RSL in its past 10 games was their Week 10 loss to Portland at home. Everything else makes sense and points to a reasonably bright future.

We’ll see how that goes. We’ll see how everything goes. Till next week.

MLS Weekly, Week 12: History and Storylines (People)

Image: Joe Craven

To start with a little good news/bad news, I found the semi-obvious location to which the MLS app moved the condensed games (under the “Highlights” tab; more information, less life…did I win?). Moving on The Big Picture, Major League Soccer’s 12th week files under “one helluva.” We are getting trend-lines people, momentum(/season?) altering turns of events, some of them with Games of Thrones-esque blood-letting (timely), and with those hitting the mightiest houses, the plot thickens. Elsewhere, picking week 12’s Goal of the Week came one hell of a lot easier than picking the Save of the Week (Candidate 1 and Candidate 2). Some truly trash officiating rounds out the weekend, and what can be more on-brand than that for MLS? VAR doesn’t work and we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

I’ve got one final note for this preamble, and largely because this is an FC Cincinnati-centric site: every game I watched this weekend apart from the…poor display (that’s an aggressive euphemism) between FC Cincinnati and Orlando City SC put that game in sickening relief. To paraphrase an old album by The Cranberries, Everyone’s Competent, So Why Aren’t We? (For more punishment, here are my extended notes on yesterday’s disappointment.) As for what’s below, I came up with three main talking points for the MLS Week 12 – the stuff that seems more relevant or, in one case, historic – but I’ll touch on every game in the past week down below…assuming I don’t forget something. With that, let’s start with the blessed, happy history.

The Ultimate Underdog(s) Go Into the History Books

“…like the clinical finisher he is…in the MLS.”

If you ever needed proof that literally record-breaking success in one arena can never escape the gravity of a failure in another one, there it is. I don’t even know if the announcer intended to conjure the ghost of Chris Wondolowski’s greatest failure, but he qualified that statement, not me.

Where to begin? Yes, I did cry manly tears after every goal Chris Wondolowski scored against the Chicago Fire on his/the San Jose Earthquakes’ way to the 4-1 rout in which he made history. Also, credit Bobby Warshaw and Matt Doyle for giving good background on the scale of Wondo’s unlikeliest of accomplishments. Players beyond counting came into MLS with infinitely more promise of chasing Landon Donovan’s regular-season goal-scoring record, never mind beating it, and that only makes it, for lack of a better word, awesomer. (People who don’t root for underdogs are rightly recognized as terrible human beings.)

Warshaw and Doyle named their own moments for what makes Wondolowski such a special player, but I pulled a different one out of this game – and, fittingly, it’s something I can’t link to. After scoring his first goal and tying the record, another great chance fell to Wondolowski and he got closer to the sideline than the goal with his shot. After that miss, he didn’t slap the turf, or lay on the grass (it’s grass at Avaya, right?) dramatically “contemplating” the miss. He immediately shoved himself off the turf, and got back to it. Three more goals followed, thereby raising the bar that the next challenger to the throne will have to clear.

Each goal he scored showcased an aspect of Wondolowski’s game that it’s worth passing on to the youth. His third came from the (rather attractive) finish that prompted the quote up top, while his second – the one that broke the record – showed what makes a great forward – e.g., following up on every shot. His fourth demonstrates why a forward should never stop looking for an opening, on the grounds that the ball might defy physics and find you. Personally, I’ll always cherish the record-tying goal, and that’s 1,000% down to the fact that Shea Salinas delivered it. That connection – Salinas to Wondolowski – signals to every player who didn’t even make varsity that not all paths to glory take the same route, and to never stop dreaming. In a perfect world, this record will stand forever, or at least for decades, and for that exact reason. And, if MLS really does become a selling league, it should last longer.

One last note on this game: Chicago’s defense has been a wall lately, so it’s significant that the ‘Quakes pulled them apart as badly as they did. There was the rain, I suppose, but Chicago hadn’t allowed a goal in its last three games; hell, they’d only allowed 1.0 goals a game over its last 10 games, and that was only because the Seattle Sounders dropped four on them 11 games before this one. In the end, it took David Ousted enduring a succession of nightmares to make this specific result happen (see the 2nd and 4th goals, especially), on top of the Fire missing shots that few teams do. Don’t sell your Chicago stock yet, because this loss had a freak-ish air to it.

Shots Fired Over the Rockies

First, Diego Polenta should have absolutely seen his second yellow when he stood on the foot of…a player whose identity I can’t recall (but think it was Sam Nicholson) and stopped him from carrying the ball forward and out of the Rapids’ attacking third. Why? I feel alright making that judgment because I saw him staring at the man’s foot as he stood on it, just to make sure he got the placement right. And that’s your first officiating snafu for the weekend…most of which involved LA-based teams. At the same time, I’m glad the Galaxy got away with it because that brushes off any of the asterisks that might have otherwise hung over the Colorado Rapids’ first win of the season.

This has been a long time coming: Colorado has more brave loses in its recent history than most teams see all season. Second, they’ve scored more or as many goals in 2019 (17) than 10 other teams in MLS – some of them in the conversation as credible challengers (e.g., Atlanta United FC (13 goals), New York City FC (15)). The fact that their defense has killed them follows from, but, the Rapids have always had a little something going on. The real surprise, then, is that it took them this long to win. The game primarily featured both teams trading misses – with Colorado’s Kei Kamara leading the boner parade (I got to use the word “boner!”) – but both teams also cleared a ball off the line. It had the feel of an open game too, which means both LA and the Rapids liked their chances enough to go for it. The funny thing is that arrangement worked better for Colorado, who actually out-shot the Galaxy on their home-field.

That said, Colorado made some adjustments before one trading window or another closed (Full Disclosure: I’m terrible at tracking those things), by bringing Lalas Abubakar from Columbus Crew SC and Jonathan Lewis from NYCFC. Both players looked solid, with Lewis causing all kinds of headaches today and Abubakar looking steady and solid. Time will tell if that’s what turned them around, but details aside, but Colorado finally turning a promising performance into a road win officially serves notice to all the even potentially terrible team in MLS. To name some names, time to perk up Orlando, FC Cincinnati, New England Revolution, and maybe even Sporting Kansas City. Your days of muttering “at least we’re not Colorado” could very well be at an end. Speaking of the Galaxy…

Large Houses on Fire

That was the LA Galaxy’s 4th straight loss – and two of those happened in LA’s suburbs, and that means they lost a couple of excuses with this one. Sure, you could chalk up the loss to NYCFC to them finding every one of their feet, but that same sleight of hand doesn’t work with Colorado. The second excuse – e.g., no Zlatan Ibrahimovic – cuts from a different angle, but it’s still concerning. Any team that requires one player to keep it afloat has a margin exactly as wide as said player’s health/capacity to not do stupid sh*t (so they can stay on the field); LA failed the first test, while Zlatan failed the second. The Galaxy might be safe in the standings, they might have plenty of talent, but that’s an official skid in any league, and it’s gone global with this result.

Toronto FC is the other team in trouble, even if they’re a slightly trickier case. They posted crazy numbers against D.C. United in Toronto at mid-week without ever really managing to look menacing. They created too few chances and too many of those fell to Jordan Hamilton, a player on the bare cusp of MLS-level. Things get worse/weirder when you look at the box score for Toronto’s dispiriting loss to Real Salt Lake in Utah. They’re still (barely) holding the ball and dictating the game…but it keeps winding up in a dead end. RSL, meanwhile, banged three lowprobability goals past the rando TFC starts in net and, crucially, that’s not the first time that’s happened. The problems go deeper than Jozy Altidore not starting, basically. At this point, it looks fundamental – even with Alejandro Pozuelo still looking promising and capable as any team in MLS.

Going the other way, both TFC and the Galaxy remain above the playoff cut-off, and LA is eight points above danger to boot. They have ambitious ownership groups that spend real money on talent…I mean, Zlatan? Pozuelo? At the same time, both teams share a present reality with Sporting KC: talented as all get out on the roster side – and with some upgrades under the hood to boot – but who cares if you own a sports car when it’s on blocks in the front yard? I’ll expand on SKC below, but that’s where those three teams are parked right now: sleeping giants that may never wake up. There’s plenty of season left, of course, but sometimes the car never comes off the blocks.

Those are the three big topics (or mine), so let’s move on to the rest of the results. And, sure, maybe I relegated the main event to the under-card.

Los Angeles FC and FC Dallas played a home-and-home series over Week 12, and LAFC took four points of six. There’s not much with which to quibble in LAFC’s home win, but the return leg in Dallas featured the other reffing boner of the weekend – and this prompts another, where to begin conundrum. It starts with the soft penalty call on Bressan, and ends with the question of why Chris Hedges rightly gets sent off for dragging down Carlos Vela while LAFC’s Tyler Miller doesn’t get sent off for football-holding Jesus Ferreira later in the same game. (Also, to spit in their eye a bit, why the fresh hell is that not in the highlight clip, MLS? I found it (see around 1:50), but kindly stop elevating the brand over truth/reality.) These were strange games and I think you can get several reads out of them. Even if Dallas looked far from helpless playing in LA, there’s a solid case that LAFC deserved three points minimum from this swing. Going the other way, how Dallas managed LAFC raised their stock a little for me.

Elsewhere in Texas, the Houston Dynamo deserve credit for another big week at home. After the Portland Timbers made them sweat midweek (and I’ve got extended notes on that), and with Houston still (allegedly?) needing to stockpile points before they play a lot of the second half of the season on the road, the game against D.C. became the main event for their Week 12. The Dynamo passed the test with richly-detailed flying colors: they had to come from behind to win, and they scored both their goals with neither Alberth Elis (concussion precautions) and Romell Quioto on the field. Memo Rodriguez bagged one D.C. should have stopped and seeing Bill Hamid lose his whole damn mind after Tommy McNamara scored the winner tells you everything you need to know about D.C. They’re a frustrated, stuttering team at the moment, and Paul Arriola’s stupid, hostile sending off reveals a little rot in their confidence.

Like the Galaxy and TFC, D.C. is better than fine. Moreover, there aren’t many teams making noise below them. At the same time, TFC really did play them off the park at midweek, no matter how ineffectually. If you review their results, D.C. really does look more like a part of a pack than a contender lately.

The other big mentionables from Week 12 include two more “big clubs” – Seattle Sounders FC and Atlanta dropping points, at least arguably. To clear up any confusion and/or alleviate any hurt feelings, both teams remain strongly in the hunt. A lot of context, however, surrounds the Sounders in this particular moment: these games – a narrow win over a heavily-rotated Orlando squad and surviving a there-but-for-the-grace-of-Brenden-Aaronson’s-youth-go-I goalless draw at the Philadelphia Union – look at lot different when you consider the three straight draws in their recent past. Like Seattle, Atlanta is the opposite of soft. Until Sunday’s loss to the New York Red Bulls, they’d allowed 0 goals over their last five games (also notable: they’d just scored eight over the same period). They had 55 minutes’ worth of game to take advantage after Tim Parker got sent off, but New York stifled them, then went on to steal the game. Like Seattle, again, Atlanta picked up a fairly soft win midweek, when they beat the Vancouver Whitecaps on the back of a(nother) dodgy penalty. In Atlanta’s defense, or maybe more against the ‘Caps, they kept Vancouver from taking a decent shot all the way until the 84th minute.

That leaves just three games from MLS Week 12, and only one of them really registers. Minnesota United FC is simultaneously unbeaten at home and also not that good at home; beating Columbus in Minnesota really only registers for lifting the Loons to a 2-0-3 home record (meaning they’re under 50% on points at home). To give Minnesota its due, they look to have a solid core around Darwin Quintero, Jr. in Brett Kallman, Osvaldo Alonso and Romain Metanaire – and all those guys (on 1/6th evidence; condensed games have shrunk a bit) played pivotal roles in getting this win – but, as must be noted, Columbus has been bloody awful lately. I’m talking puke-bucket-awful, 1-7-0 in their last eight games, and why would you disgrace the two wins that came before those eight games by association. Worse, they were sloppy in this one and, to float an opinion, signing Gyasi Zardes to a DP contract hints at an issue with the fish rotting from the head with this bunch.

To wrap up with the results that only mattered to each teams’ mothers and respective fans, Ignacio Piatti’s substitution appearance was surely the biggest news out of the Montreal Impact’s goalless home draw against the New England Revolution. (Fun side note: they actually posted a highlight clip for that, but not for potential red cards in the games listed above.) Like Cincinnati and Orlando, those are two teams going nowhere at the moment. Elsewhere, Krisztian Nemeth’s full-spectrum performance defined Sporting KC’s 1-1 home draw against Vancouver. Still, Vancouver’s equalizer came ridiculously late and Nemeth’s celebration of the goal he scored moves that one to a solid second in the running for MLS Week 12’s Goal of the Week.

That’s it for this week, see you the next one. Also, just like winter, Gold Cup is coming…

We are getting MLS trend-lines people, momentum(/season?) altering turns of events, some of them with Games of Thrones-esque blood-letting (timely)...

MLS Weekly, Week 11: The Field Takes Shape (For Now)

However it happened – corporate corner-cutting, a mass arrest of Major League Soccer’s more tech-savvy interns – the highlights team at Mothership HQ …

Photo Credit: Stephanie Romero

However it happened – corporate corner-cutting, a mass arrest of Major League Soccer’s more tech-savvy interns – the highlights team at Mothership HQ opted against splicing together (near as I can tell) even one condensed game this weekend. As such, I’m flying blind(er) with this weekend’s review (and I’m not sure I’m entirely against it; seriously, over-preparation is something people do). The biggest, more relevant caveat I can provide follows from there: I’ve only watched the highlights, checked the box scores and line-ups for all the games this week, then did some math to come up with everything down below. It’s better than guessing – by a fair stretch, I’d argue – but it’s not the ultimate dream, aka, total coverage. That said, even if the coverage isn’t total, everyone will be mentioned. To share a kind of user’s guide, when I use a phrase like “super-active,” what I really mean is, “he showed up all over the highlights.” Also, unless I make a clearly detailed point, assume I’m thinking “it looked like” in front of every sentence that describes a game-state of any kind.

For this week’s review, I decided to start with my hometown Portland Timbers, and not just to proselytize (though, by the earth beneath my feet, and the gods over my head, I will make Timbers fans out of as many people as possible). For anyone who hasn’t heard, the Timbers lost last Friday to the Vancouver Whitecaps all the way up in the very bottom of British Columbia. As noted in the write-up I posted to Conifers & Citrus, the Timbers turned a slow start all the way around, to the point where the ‘Caps couldn’t keep track of where the next punch would come from. Portland ended with the number of shots that one usually only sees in a rout (having reviewed every box score from this past weekend, I’ve got about 15 games’ worth of back to that argument,) only they never scored. 27 shots…27 wild-ass shots, apparently, but that box score provides a decent impression of the totality of that game.

If you take the time to read that post, I felt all right after Friday’s loss – disappointed, but, with Portland playing well over five of the last six games, and winning three of those in a row, all them away, I could still see a fairly clear path forward. With Providence Park still rushing to completion, the Timbers still having two games left to play on the road before returning home…to face Los Angeles FC (srsly? sh*t).

Staring down the cold-steel barrel of those two games – away to the Houston Dynamo, then away to the Philadelphia Union – made me feel like I’d read the script for Friday’s loss to Vancouver upside down. According to recent math, Houston and Philly away are just about two of the hardest road games available in MLS 2019, and then the Timbers face (per one opinion) MLS’s Manchester City in their first home game against LAFC. That’s the sharper clarity you miss by focusing too much on the present. Bottom line, the Timbers threw away its best chance to come out of their road trip with more than 10 points – and they did it while out-playing a team on the road and for 2/3 of the game. As a Timbers fan first, I’d much rather have 13 points right now than try to pry them out of their next three dips into your higher rings of Hell. The point is, you can’t always tell what a yesterday’s loss means until you look ahead to a tomorrow or two down the line.

To pull back and stare at the big picture, MLS Week (by a slim margin) 11 was a busy and fairly talkative mess. During a week where 1/3 of the league played two games, the league’s two, increasingly-clear heavyweights packed their dominance rituals into just one game – and they weren’t the only teams making noise…of whatever kind or sound (see the Colorado Rapids, and cry). Of the teams who played two games during Week 11, four of them more or less carried on in a meaningful direction (three of them, for sure, the fourth less so); and there are smaller trends to track even under all of that. I plan to touch on every team/game in MLS in this review (and we’ll see how I do), but I want to start in the most obvious place – i.e., with MLS two clear heavyweights.

Of Contenders (and Dark Horses)

When Los Angeles FC….more or less pounded Columbus Crew SC in Ohio this weekend, they very quietly slapped down any (or just my) talk of a slow-down. And, yes, Columbus hasn’t been great, but they’d just done a tidy dance atop LAFC’s inter(-ish)-city rivals, the Los Angeles Galaxy, four days before, and that at least opened the floor to some questions. Watching the highlights cleared up at least the present confusion – especially with Carlos Vela looking like a player from another, better league – and then you see the soccer gods show their favor in such transparent, almost heartbreaking ways to anyone who hasn’t been a favorite child. It only gets worse when you see Mark-Anthony Kaye all over the highlights to boot. For those who haven’t checked, LAFC’s goal differential is, for this kind of league, off the charts.

That same factor – e.g., an eye-catching goal differential – sells me on Philly as well. LAFC’s differential is wider (29 gf, 8 ga versus 23 gf, 12 ga), but the Union’s still lives on a distant (small sample) planet from the rest of MLS with that +11 spread. After mopping the floor with the opposition at home over the past two games (not to mention padding that goal differential), the Union traveled Toronto FC, a reportedly tricky, definitely big venue, shivved the home team, and went home with all three points. From the highlights alone, the brightest spot I saw was them getting a solid ROI out of Kacper Przybylko. Better still (from Philly’s point of view), it looked like Philly smothered them all the way until they choked the game-opening goal out of them. At this point in the season, LAFC and Philly look like something like global gatekeepers, teams doing well (enough) in any venue.

Before I forget Columbus and TFC, one of them had a reasonable week (Columbus), while a disaster hit the other one (TFC). Defensible as it may be to get (numerically) played off the park by Atlanta in the Dirty South – TFC’s other, arguably worse loss over Week 12 – handling the Union at home was TFC’s real litmus test. While TFC played under the same profile in both games, the loss to Atlanta highlights the chilling, semi-unexpected hint at what’s eating TFC: they’re both dominating and dicking around with possession, and have the non-results to show for it. Not one shot on goal against Atlanta. The story is brighter in Columbus – Gyasi Zardes woke up (and that’s one hell of an assist), and they got half the points from Week 11 – but it feels notable all the same to see them play themselves into the space between the Galaxy and LAFC (as in, is that their level?). To get back to Atlanta, though…

While I think anyone with eyes can see that Atlanta’s enjoyed a bit of an upswing lately, I’m not sure everyone noticed that they’ve allowed just one goal in their last six games. Those same six games haven’t been the toughest stretch by any means – e.g., four games at home, and against some of MLS’s dimmer bulbs (at present! dream, guys!), the New England Revolution and Sporting Kansas City away and the Colorado Rapids and, in their other game this weekend, Orlando City SC at home. In other words, those are games they should be winning. The point is, they are, Hector Villalba looked dangerous across both games, and Josef Martinez got two assists against TFC and, again, teams aren’t scoring against them.

Another team rising from the depths is New York City FC, who have lately mastered the art of turning Ds into Ws. NYCFC wrapped up their fourth win in five games all the way in Los Angeles, and they (again, from the looks of it) played pretty circles around the Galaxy. When people ask what makes a team better, it can be something unexpected as having a fullback like Anton Tinnerholm on the roster (who was involved in both goals). To wrap up the Galaxy, as cranked up as I’d be the goals they allowed against Columbus (i.e., up the gut), they have bigger fish to burn – e.g., that’s 3 straight losses, yes? On the plus side, losing to a surging NYCFC side at home isn’t the same as losing to a lot of teams right now.

That leaves only one dark horse in the stable, the Chicago Fire. To draw an arbitrary line, Chicago has allowed just five goals in its last seven games – and, to those wondering, I used that cut off to keep the math useful and to isolate the period where Chicago collected a helpful number of points. 3-2-2 might not win a team any titles, but it’ll probably get them to the playoffs – a reasonable step forward for a team like Chicago. More to the point, that defensive solidity (also, the formation is notable) has let them build the kind of reliable results that help give faith in a team – e.g., tight losses away to NYCFC and LAFC, and thrashings of teams they should thrash at home (e.g., Colorado, New England, and, this past weekend Minnesota United). With that defense clicking and Aleksandar Katai prowling, Nicolas Gaitan leading lethal counters across two games, and Frankowski’s incredible speed, I’m just saying that sleeping on Chicago suddenly looks like a bad idea.

An Interlude, The Maddening Tweener

Before moving on, there’s one fringe, deeply deceptive candidate who has very quietly improved its recent record: the New York Red Bulls, a team that has become hard to track precisely because it keeps losing some freaky-ass random games with stunning regularity. Now comes the fun: look at the line-ups the Red Bulls started in each of Week 11’s games. If I gave you a blind taste-test as to which of those line-ups lost in Harrison, NJ and which won in Frisco, TX, I’m something like 75% certain you’d get it wrong. The funnier thing is that the Red Bulls have now won three of their last four games, and they probably got unlucky against Montréal. While they’ve looked more like they used to in recent weeks (i.e., one- or two-touch passes and lots of movement, like this), the one thing that keeps me from rising them to the land of the living is the low numbers I keep seeing them produce. When you’re already at the margin, it doesn’t take much to knock you off the edge.

Should We Fire Our Coach? (Signs Point to Yes!)

Of the two teams who fired their coaches this week – FC Cincinnati and the New England Revolution – both of them won the game immediately after the defenestration. In Cincinnati’s case, the most visible change came from either shuffling around personnel or commitment to a new way of playing (NOTE: both could be valid; the second one is mine, the other one is more precise). The decision to put their foot on the ball a lot more in the post-Alan-Koch era paid off for FC Cincy, but I would also never call the Montréal Impact an easy read – not least because they aren’t all there. On the one hand, sure, if they translate that (now) 4-4-2 record to the end of the season, they’re deep in the playoffs. At the same time, none of what I saw around their win over RBNY nominated them for powerhouse (this was a gift, but not an egregious one), and, as noted in my longer write-up on their road loss to FC Cincy, they hardly graced Ohio with their presence. To close with Cincinnati, the concept looks good, but keep a lid on expectations till further notice (and may they come soon).

I know less about the Revolution, I mean besides the brutal (savage? war-crimes-esque?) divide between their evisceration on the road at Chicago and their eye-catching win over the San Jose Earthquakes. At the same time, the eye test might have some wrinkles in it. First, the Revs got pushed around a bit in every even loosely attacking metric except goals scored. On the one hand, it’s great they caught San Jose with their pants down, but can they build a season around it? Also, I didn’t make much of this in the paragraph above on Chicago, but, holy sh*t, the comedy of deeply-unfunny errors that end with Nemanja Nikolic scoring on the third gift the Revs gave him. They’re still terrible defensively, and that’s going to amount to a burden. That said, were I a New England fan, I’d draw comfort from seeing Mike Lapper re-imagine the team and get results. If pressed, I’d play Lapper’s XI against Brad Friedel’s last XI every day of the week.

Well, that’s it for everything I can fit into a topic. To close out the rest of the results I haven’t mentioned yet, the Colorado Rapids…reverse conjoured a loss at home to Real Salt Lake, one that included the tragic, immediately-caveated phrase right after the Rapids scored their (thoroughly decent) equalizer, “and how important can that one be?” Note how they hung the thought, waiting for the inevitable failure; Kei Kamara missing the PK only amplifies the case that this team is cursed. To go a little more global, Colorado ranks among a bunch of teams that I’ll never call decent until they utterly convince me. It’s going to take six weeks’ worth of wins before I take them seriously (or even just stop mercilessly measuring any result they get against something that debunks it). And, to use a handy example, RSL hangs from the same hook: sure, they’re in the playoffs at time of writing, but only by the grace of punching every convenient team that’s available to them.

To well and truly close out, I didn’t see anything that exonerates Minnesota’s loss to Chicago (if nothing else, you’re worried about Katai beating Ike Opara like that). I think…wait, crap! I forgot the late, late show – i.e., D.C. United’s narrow 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City. My only thoughts there are, 1) feels like more of the same (e.g., an SKC loss); 2) Wayne Rooney serves up a mean set-piece; 3) most importantly, and as much as I try to avoid it (and I need a therapist for this), as much as I keep trying to dismiss D.C. United, they’re 6-3-1 in their last 10 games. If I can’t get as excited about D.C.’s three wins in their last four as I get in the Red Bulls, what good am I?

Finally, and I think this is the last one, the Seattle Sounders beat the Houston Dynamo at home 1-0 late on Saturday, and a second consecutive bomb from Cristian Roldan feels like the only surprise there. (Also, Alberth Elis should have done better with this one).

Please, God, let that be everything. Overall, I think it’s safe to argue that, until further notice, MLS has two clear contenders: LAFC and Philly. Some “hot” teams exist between them and the grasping pit below – e.g., Atlanta, NYCFC, (missed it, but) and DC; and maybe Chicago and the Red Bulls (all Eastern Conference teams…hmm) – but the rest probably feel stuck in a permanent loop of “how do we make things better, I mean without spending money?”

MLS Weekly, Week 10: The Rich Quantity of Data That Tells Us Who Sucks

With the arrival of MLS Week 10, fans of Major League Soccer finally have a body of current context to help them understand the results they’re seeing…

Credit: Rainclaw7 / License

I want to start this week’s post by correcting the record. If it wasn’t last week that I slagged off on the condensed games on the MLS App as a path to enlightenment, it was the week before. All it took to get me back into the fold was the decision to preview the state of the San Jose Earthquakes by watching their three games prior to this weekend’s (100%-guaranteed sleeping-meds) win over FC Cincinnati. A longer taste of what they’d done over that period shrank them a little. While it’s still true that the condensed games rob you of any and all sense of what happens in the middle of the – and that poop is vital (often) – they still deliver a larger sample of opportunities (by the attack) and failures (from the defense), and that’s more information in your head no matter how you slice it.

At any rate, watching all those condensed games gave me a better read on San Jose’s “revival,” which looks even less impressive still after suffering through 90 minutes of watching them pass circles around FC Cincy (for those who want more pain, see my extended notes). A handful of thoughts circle over the corpse of Cincinnati’s loss to the ‘Quakes – chief among them, that San Jose didn’t do much with all that time on the ball, and that Cincy could have stolen a point but for Daniel Vega’s right hand(?).

All the same, few things push back against any narrative about San Jose becoming a force quite as hard as the sub-text of all the results that built their eight-point haul from their last four games. For one thing, the streak started against a Sporting Kansas City squad that hasn’t won since the end of March. The road draw that followed came against a Seattle Sounders team that last won over a pair of squeakers at home against Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC; and the game before that saw them stymied by FC Dallas and Jesse Gonzalez’s right hand. The point isn’t to crap on all those results – eight points out of 12 is never bad, especially with two of the games on the road – but to put that narrow win over Cincinnati in the proper context of San Jose narrowly beating a team that has been pretty damn bad lately, and at Avaya Stadium.

The grander point I want to make is that, with the arrival of MLS Week 10, fans and observers of Major League Soccer finally have a body of current context to help them understand the results they’re seeing, Hallelujah. Just six teams in the league haven’t yet played 10 games, which means that 18 teams have, and that means we have data, guys!

As (the few) close observers of this space know, I used to compile all that stuff into the Form Guide ULTRA, the table of results (etc.) that I use to track results. That will show only the last 10 results for each team for the rest of 2019 going forward, but 10 games reaches back far enough into any given team’s history to establish a sense of their “form.” For reasons of timing and sanity, I’ve decided to post the Form Guide ULTRA later in the week (but here’s last week’s post for reference), but, with 10 games under the collective belts of 3/4 of MLS, the ground beneath my feet finally feels firm enough to allow for me to judge a slippery concept like form. With that context in the back of our minds, let’s talk about all the results from the past week and what they might actually mean.

I’ll start by writing off the games that didn’t really move the needle – which isn’t the same thing as calling the results meaningless. DC United’s 3-1 helping of hate over Columbus Crew SC files doesn’t budge the needle for the same reason as Cincinnati’s loss to San Jose – e.g., Ohio is in free-fall, y’all, as in both Ohio teams have lost their last five games. In other words, beating either Columbus or Cincinnati doesn’t matter until further notice. In their defense, both teams have played a bunch of recent games on the road – three of their last four for Columbus and four of their last five for Cincinnati – so maybe they’ll both turn things around upon arriving home. Against that, both teams have struggled with scoring all season; Columbus has scored only 9 goals, while Cincinnati has…oof, just eight. The horror deepens for Cincy after that, sadly, in that they haven’t scored in five whole damn weeks, leaving them at 0 goals scored, versus nine allowed. Columbus, meanwhile, has had…moments on the field, both offensively (and ruled offside) and offensively (huh, MLS was too ashamed to highlight it), and, this week at least, DC got some bounces. Still, five straight losses are what they are and, given the venues where each played this past weekend, and the circumstances under which they arrived, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see that both Columbus and Cincinnati lost this past weekend.

The other predictable/meaningless results included Minnesota United FC’s 1-1 draw at Allianz versus Seattle and, to make the bigger stretch, Los Angeles FC’s goal-less draw in LA against the Chicago Fire. To start with the latter, I only watched the highlights and checked the box score – which showed what I expected (e.g., LAFC domination, and they came close) – but that happens; when Chicago turns the tables on LAFC at home, that’s news. With Seattle at Minnesota, it’s great to see Ike Opara get rewarded with a goal (and over Chad “F-ing” Marshall) after getting stoned twice against the Los Angeles Galaxy two weekends ago, but, even with Seattle’s Cristian Roldan answering back with a screamer/GOTW candidate (I have another favorite), the essential dynamic of this game looked the same coming out as it did going in – i.e., Minnesota is a good team that’s still a couple of steps behind perfect progress (though it was good to see them play well (enough) without Darwin Quintero Jr. out there), while Seattle is a strong team that has under-achieved enough lately to make it feel predictable.

The last game that files under “It Doesn’t Matter” was the Portland Timbers 2-1 road win over RSL. As discussed at length in my extended notes, by no means did Portland outplay Real Salt Lake; both their goals relied on a mixture of talent and divine intervention, but the general underlying trend held up: Portland has its formation and sense of self sorted out, while it’s entirely possible that RSL only got their two most recent wins by playing bad teams in good circumstances (or, in FC Cincy’s case, just circumstances). With that, we turn to the real stuff, the games that really might have mattered this past weekend. May as well start with the headline…

So, is the Philadelphia Union the sh*t, or did they just happen to line up against two sh*t teams over Week 10? Their week started Wednesday when they fairly outclassed FC Cincy – if only in the second half – and it ended with them absolutely steam-rolling the New England Revolution – if only after the 65th minute. If there’s one result to linger on, it’s the New England game: the Union coughed up a lot of quality chances for a game that ended 6-1, but they also put up literally crazy numbers against them (which, here, means 15 freakin’ shots on goal). Because it’s virtually impossible to understate how slackly the Revolution can defend (there are no words), I recommend eating a salt lick as you digest those goals, but the reality is that Philly does have talent, their young defenders look good when they should, and, no matter how crappy it is, Sergio Santos became the latest guy to score a goal for them. They’ve got a couple of biggies coming up – e.g., at Toronto and versus Seattle – and that should clarify things a bit.

After that, I assume that Atlanta United FC’s 3-0 demolition of SKC in KC will be the next biggest headline on the weekend. For what it’s worth, that’s not wholly unjustified. As I’ve noted for a few weeks, the Five Stripes have returned to posting last season’s numbers and what they did against SKC (again, in KC) can best be described as assault. If you get a chance to vote on goal of the week, or even MVP, just be honest and vote Ezequiel Barco who, on the back of Josef Martinez’s self-sacrifice, put on a clinic of shooting from distance. With Atlanta’s good works acknowledged, it is vitally important to return to the starting premise of this post: between injuries and a CCL hangover that feels like a spin into cirrhosis, Sporting Kansas City is easy pickin’s right now. We’re talking Ohio-level…

To shift the conversation to happier climes, things are going much better lately for both teams with “New York” in their names. First, the New York Red Bulls lent some credence to the idea that they’d only need one good week to get going when they beat the Galaxy 3-2 in Harrison, NJ – and that was a win they had to salvage to boot. New York City FC made the bigger splash by absolutely stuffing the Montreal Impact at Stade Saputo – that’s to the tune of zero (0) shots on goal for the Quebecois. NYCFC is the bigger story, without question, not least because they’ve picked up 10 points from the last 12 available. And this is no home-field fluke, because they beat both Montreal and D.C. away and, in a solid follow-up to the games that came before it, they left L’Impact looking complacent and confused. Dome Torrent’s job looks fairly safe all the sudden. It’s harder to track what’s going on with the Red Bulls. For one, they looked far (far, far, far) better in the condensed game I watched tonight than they ever did against FC Cincinnati last weekend (see “far, far, far” for my extended notes). Part of that surely followed from the Galaxy trying to play a little (ahem!), and the thing to point out there is essential freakishness of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. For what it’s worth, I think LA will become more like a normal team when he’s gone, but there’s no denying that he’s a real weapon in the here and now. In a break with precedent, his size didn’t define the kinds of goals he scored/set up on Saturday (and credit Diego Polenta for both entry passes), but that’s always a factor.

The bigger story is LA’s record on the road – well, that and the fact that they gave up two highly similar goals against the Red Bulls (no video,, srsly?), and as close apart as the goals they scored. To wrap up the Red Bulls, we’ll see; the way they scored the game’s first goal after extended pressure on LA recalled the Red Bulls teams of the last two-three seasons, and that’s potentially huge. The deeper story/question is how much of that result followed from what will ultimately become the Galaxy’s home/road split – i.e., the Galaxy is perfect at home (6-0-0, while reportedly not playing that well), while being…somewhat less on the road (1-2-1 after yesterday). The Galaxy picked up their lone win against Vancouver, and before the ‘Caps settled on an identity, so that’s another candidate for an asterisk. The bigger question is what happens to the Houston Dynamo when they finally leave the snug confines of BBVA Compass Stadium (which truly rolls off the tongue, does it not?).

For as bad as they’re not doing, FC Dallas strikes me one of those mid-table teams that MLS allegedly does not have. By that I mean, they’re always a tough out, while also being fairly damn limited on the attacking side of the ball. I was about to reference their scoring to prove that point, but they’ve scored 15 on the season (even if four of those came against RSL), which puts them comfortably in the top half of the league. In that sense, Houston beating Dallas 2-1 could very well underscore how good Houston could be in 2019 (also, enjoy this goal by Mauro Manotas, who had two on the night, especially the build-up). Dallas doesn’t get a ton of offense outside of what comes through Bryan Acosta and, especially, Michael Barrios. If anything stands out in this game, it’s the box score – Dallas held the ball a lot – but Houston has the sharper edge, and maybe even the better defense. If they can take that on the road and work it, it might be time for everyone to party like it’s the mid-late-aughts.

All the above leaves only one question left to answer: who is the worst team in MLS? My notes on New England’s loss to Philly make a pretty good case for the Revolution, but the Colorado Rapids screamed out a pretty loud shot for the claim this week with a 2-3 home loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps. In spite of some serious snafus (very serious, I assure you), I’m still going to hand the crown to New England. If nothing else, the Rapids fought back more credibly – and, had Diego Rubio not gotten sent off for stupid, who knows what might have happened? – but the bigger reason has less to do with the final score-line than it does with how the Revolution’s issues felt global, while the Rapids’ felt more specific somehow, as if it kept going back to one player getting hung out by the scheme. On a simpler level, the Rapids at least tried to fix their issues by firing Anthony Hudson; back in New England, meanwhile, Brad Freidel still sits on the hot seat (and I don’t know what else they have to see before they accept that Friedel has lost all of that team).

To wrap up Vancouver (and, golly, I do hope that’s everyone), Lass Bangoura showed well in this game and the more that happens, the more threatening the ‘Caps look. That said, their concerns include giving up two legit penalty calls – i.e., that’s hardly the path to glory – but Colorado has to feel significantly, permanently worse about how badly Axel Sjoberg screwed up in this game.

All for this week. If all goes well, and nobody dies (it’s been an issue lately), I’ll be back with more next Monday.

MLS Weekly, Week 9: Who Made the Most of Their Busy Week?

With one glaring exception, MLS Week 9 coughed up broadly predictable results, or, failing that, explicable ones. That exception was…

Image: Joe Craven

To start with a wee spread of interrelated good news and bad news, the time-swallowing Sunday night bowling league that has dominated my life for the past 30+ weeks just ended (yay!). The bad news is that that final roll (in which I performed horribly) coincided with…just a MASSIVE week’s worth of Major League Soccer…soccer. A suffocating, sadistic seventeen (17) games went from first to final whistle over the past week and, if you’re a guy trying to wrap all that up in a weekly post, that feels like loading 16 tons, and for just as little as the guy gets in the old song.

With one glaring exception, MLS Week 9 coughed up broadly predictable results, or, failing that, explicable ones. That exception was Sporting Kansas City’s utterly puzzling, thoroughly desperate 4-4 draw at home against a New England Revolution team that seems as dedicated to finding fresh arguments for firing Brad Friedel as they are at playing the game. Then again, with the injury bug biting SKC pretty hard, they fielded a thin/make-shift middle three in a 4-3-3, and maybe that, along with Matt Besler’s absence, and Ilie Sanchez’s absence explains how the Revs could easily play over and through them. New England committed heavily to the counter – to the tune of 537 passes to 184 – and with all the gaps left by the wounded, that worked for them. In a testament to the talent they still have left on the table, SKC battled back twice, and Krizstian Nemeth had himself another game. Best case, this becomes a game they rally around, like the Alamo, only with fewer in-game fatalities.

[* I’m taking a station break for a short, by very important caveat. Any week time is tight, all I have time to check with each of these games is the box score (yes, I know it can be one word, but I hate it like that) and the shortened highlights. For what it’s worth, the box scores are useful so long as you don’t read too much into them; with those, I mostly scout for oddities – e.g., the numbers Real Salt Lake put up against the Los Angeles Galaxy in LA. I’m on firmer footing with the two games I watched in full, Red Bull New York’s hideous win over FC Cincinnati (see my extended notes) and the Portland Timbers’ gentle throttling of Toronto FC (see my extended notes). Moving on…]

With most of the other results, two things stood out: 1) the scores are generally tightening, which suggests a general, collective finding of feet for most teams in MLS; and 2) most of the surprises happened for a fairly specific reason. A larger sub-plot dominated the week: 10 teams played two games in MLS Week 9, and that gave it a dose of nitrous. In last week’s post, while I failed to give a “full list” of those teams (apologies to D.C. United and the Seattle Sounders), I did provide thumbnail theories as to what I expected each team to pick up during Week 9. I’ll at least note all the results before wrapping up, but measuring last week’s expectations against what actually happened will stand most teams in MLS against the ruler to see how they stack up. For no particular reason, I’ve decided the list those 10 teams according to the descending order of how much they suffered over Week 9.

Chicago Fire

Prediction: “2 points would impress me and that says a lot.”
Actual Results: 0 points, two 0-1 road losses, one at New York City FC, the other at the Montreal Impact, zero points, and no goals scored, but, hey! Thin margins!
Notes: Both games looked like low-opportunity affairs, and both turned on moments the Fire would almost certainly rather forget. The Fire, specifically, had few memorable chances in either game (Djordje Mihailovic had a decent rip against NYCFC, and they managed to miss a bunch of different ways against Montreal), and that’s why the hype-train for the Fire should stay put until it has a few more miles behind it.

Columbus Crew SC

Prediction: “higher than three points would be great.”
Actual Results: That’d be 0 points again. A 0-1 loss to D.C. in Columbus, followed by a less surprising 2-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo in Houston.
Notes: I heard some kind words for Columbus even during the highlights (“some of the best passing we’ve seen out of Columbus this year”), and, per the numbers, they played pretty even against both teams, Pedro Santos had some good looks, etc. No matter how you slice it, though, getting zero points out of this swing hurts – especially when you give up goals like this, which very much runs against type for Columbus in 2019.

Seattle Sounders FC

Prediction: Didn’t, um, make one, but both I and they would have expected four points at a minimum.
Actual Results: 2 points from two draws in as many home games, one a 2-2 against the San Jose Earthquakes that they rescued and almost lost over 10-15 minute period, the other a bitter, red-tainted 1-1 draw against Los Angeles FC.
Notes: Kelvin Leerdam had himself a very full week, what with all that two-way dueling against Shea Salinas and (I think) getting hosed (but how?) by Diego Rossi to set up the assist for LAFC’s (puzzling) lone goal. I hereby hold up Harry Shipp’s equalizer as proof that Seattle can still ball, but these were two home games, one of them against a comparative minnow, and two points can’t be enough.

New England Revolution

Prediction: “I can see zero, I can see four; two would be good.”
Actual Results: They surprised me with one point, the one they earned against SKC. The other was a 0-3 cringe-fest at Montreal, brutal in every dimension.
Notes: I decided they felt less pain over the weekend than Seattle on the grounds they should be used to it by now, but that loss to Montreal was devastating. First, Cody Cropper, a rare, reliable bright spot for them, bobbled a free kick, but the real pain comes with the fact that they put zero (0) shots on goal in that game. After fail-investing in a defense, this is a team in profound trouble.

D.C. United

Prediction: Had I guessed, I would have called it between three and four points.
Actual Results: 3 points, better than a kick in the head. A 1-0 road win over Columbus that I could have called, but would never have predicted and a 1-0 loss at Minnesota that reverses that argument.
Notes: Not bad for a two-game road swing, obviously, even if they got the results in the wrong place. They looked about as sharp on paper in both cases, at which point it becomes a question of whether or not, say, Wayne Rooney nails a free kick, or whether Chris Durkin (as in, not Bill Hamid) saves a goal.

Los Angeles Galaxy

Prediction: “4 points minimum.”
Actual Results: Of course they did it, and on the back of a goal-less draw in Minnesota and an arguably fortunate (and weirdly angry) 2-1 win over RSL in LA.
Notes: The Zlatan Show always gets lots of press, but I was impressed by the way Minnesota’s Ike Opara matched him in that game, maybe even topped him. He poked home the winner against RSL, of course, but do check the box score because 22 shots against, 7 on goal is not what you expect from a home team with LA’s record. When you see that, and hear they’re on shaky ground, it starts to add up.

San Jose Earthquakes

Prediction: “getting tested in real time; anything above 2 is real.”
Actual Results: 2 solid points on what looked like a genuinely unremarkable draw at FC Dallas, preceded by a gutsy 2-2 draw at Seattle that truly looked like it could end either way.
Notes: It took 10 totally chaotic moments for Seattle to undo San Jose’s 2-0 lead, and I took that to mean they took the kind of chances that nearly allowed San Jose to retake the lead. As noted above, Shea Salinas stole the show, but Cristian Espinoza has looked good-to-menacing often as I’ve seen him lately (again, not often). Even if they fell short of my threshold to declare them interesting (e.g., 3 or more points), San Jose picked up two draws on the road against their alleged betters. Watch them.

Minnesota United FC

Prediction: “as many as they can get, but it better be 4.”
Actual Results: Yep, 4 points, courtesy of that goal-less draw against LA, and a thieving 1-0 win over D.C. United in Minnesota.
Notes: The numbers say they didn’t front-foot either game – and D.C. even had a goal called back – but positives ranged from enough points collected to Angelo Rodriguez racking up a respectable set of chances (and one goal), to Opara putting shots on goal that score, oh, 7 times out of 10. The only warning sign is that their heretofore reliable attack struggled a bit. Just something to watch.

New York City FC

Prediction: “All 6; [then in all caps, there, not here]: this would be one of the bigger deals of the week.”
Actual Results: 4 points, by beating Chicago in New York, then drawing Orlando City SC 1-1 at the same venue.
Notes: They didn’t stall against Orlando for lack of trying – surely, it’s significant that Orlando only topped them in fouls, yellow cards, clearances and saves – but Nani lived up to his billing (while Dom Dwyer did not) and NYCFC failed to bury their key chances. Chicago played them very tight (a theme with the Fire), and that makes the Orlando draw feel like the bigger blown opportunity. Still, a decent week for a team looking to turn around its season, and Heber looks pretty damn real.

Montreal Impact

Prediction: “6 would say a ton, but anything 3 and north is fine.”
Actual results: 6 points, aka, they said a ton, with a 3-0 precision-guided whuppin’ at New England, followed up by a narrow win over Chicago won by an inspired goal from Omar Browne.
Notes: Look, it’s late and I snuck them into the prediction frame, like a twit. The most impressive thing is that they beat New England away, and by quite a bit. Now that I’ve given serious thought to Chicago, they present as a fairly tough nut to crack. Good week for Daniel Lovitz, though, and who needs Ignacio Piatti when you’ve got Anthony Jackson-Hamel? (While I’m here, the defending on that shot is New England in a nutshell.) (I’m kidding, obviously, any team in MLS needs Piatti until his legs give out.)

OK, that’s everyone. And, if I haven’t apologized already, sorry to make all the above so bullet-point driven. Hopefully, the absence of bowling and light yard grooming will open up more time to tell a better story next week. To wrap up the results I haven’t covered yet, let’s see…Portland’s win over Toronto was really something, and mostly because the way TFC totally lost the “intensity battle” says a lot about how much they trust their own defense. Elsewhere, the Philadelphia Union picked up a respectable 1-1 draw at the Vancouver Whitecaps; that’s a solid result for Philly, but Vancouver does look better – Jordy Reyna, in particular looks saucy. Uh, no one should care about Atlanta United FC beating the Colorado Rapids in the season’s first Toilet Bowl because, 1) that’s the minimum expectation, and 2) they still don’t look like 2018 Atlanta, and that still matters till something changes.

I guess that just leaves the Red Bulls “hideous win” over FC Cincinnati, but that was depressingly, decidedly uneventful – and for both teams.

OK, that’s all for this week. I’ll aspire to something prettier next time around.

MLS Week Mostly-8 Weekly: It’s Like an Ombré, Largely Normal but “Wild” at the Tips

To start with a top-line note on the results from Major League Soccer Week Mostly-8 ,the results weren’t that wacky. After controlling for odd-ball …

Image: Joe Craven

To start with a top-line note on the results from Major League Soccer Week Mostly-8 (almost done with that; all of tonight’s midweek games will allow me to round up next week), the results weren’t that wacky. After controlling for odd-ball scores (just one, really), I count only five (5) surprise results. And even the surprises generally continued one narrative or another for the team(s) involved, or they didn’t mean anything at all. I’ll elaborate on that argument, but only after drawing attention to something I just noticed this past weekend.

The Other Side of the Road

As everyone knows, several MLS teams opened the 2019 season with extended stints on the road – e.g., Minnesota United FC (who have returned home), the Montreal Impact (who have returned home), and the Portland Timbers (come home. please?). What I haven’t seen, though, is much discussion of the teams who needed to play a bunch of games at home to make up for those road trips. Not surprisingly, more of those teams play in the Western Conference, but a couple of Eastern Conference teams had to adjust as well, some more than others. The latter category includes the Chicago Fire and the San Jose Earthquakes, both of whom ended the past weekend with five games at home and two games away. Both of those teams move closer to balance with a pair of road games in the (heavy for them) week ahead – games that could easily upset what fragile progress they’ve made in those home games (I’ll get to it; I don’t create an itch without scratching it).

Anyone who wants to see where that left those teams can check this week’s Form Guide ULTRA, which lists every result for every team in MLS, along with…enough notes. Moving on…

Three other teams took the blessing/curse of an easy start: the Houston Dynamo (four home, two away); Toronto FC (four home, two away), and, most of all, the Los Angeles Galaxy, who have played all but one of their first seven games at home. To anyone wondering, I included Houston and Toronto down here because they have another week (or in Houston’s case, two weeks) of games at home; LA, meanwhile, just has the big discrepancy right now, but they’ll start racking up road games from here. (And, just to finish the thought, Toronto will push toward imbalance through their 11th game, at which point they’ll have played seven home games, and four away). Those softer schedules didn’t do Chicago or San Jose enough favors, but how much LA, Houston, and Toronto have benefitted remains a big enough unknown that it’s worth questioning how well MLS observers can know these teams. And that goes double once you consider, say, Houston’s history on the road or, more currently, the fact that Toronto has allowed eight of its last 11 goals over the past three games – and two of those were home games, and against Chicago and Minnesota. The point is, call those more easily pocketed games a detail to file away. With that, it’s time to talk results.


As teased above, I’d argue that Week Mostly-8 had only five surprise results: the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0 pick-pocketing of Los Angeles FC; FC Cincinnati’s lung-busting 0-3 capitulation to Real Salt Lake (feel free to review my extended notes on that game); the Portland Timbers’ smash-‘n’-grab 3-1 win at Columbus Crew SC (my extended notes on that one); the 4-1 hurt San Jose dropped on Sporting Kansas City; and, finally, D.C. United giving New York City FC its first win of the season in D.C. As also noted above, some of these results continued subtle, but meaningful narratives for some of these teams – e.g., one could argue this was just the latest spin in FC Cincy’s downward spiral (the sharpest turn) and, for all its talent, SKC simply has not gotten started this season (and, honestly, they made a mess of this game early (X2) and late). A similar, if less obvious case can be made for Columbus and D.C., both of whom started the season strong, but who are now in early-(Columbus)-to-mid (D.C.) stumble. That “stumble” narrative doesn’t travel nearly as far for Columbus – who gave up the back-breaking goal very late, and who should be far, far more pissed off at failing to put away both the gifts Portland’s Jeff Attinella literally handed them (they got one of ‘em) – but the beads of sweat should be bubbling for D.C. right now. They built their record/reputation over their first four games – and against either weak opposition (RSL in D.C.), or opposition that later proved to be weak (e.g., Atlanta). They picked up only four points of the last 12 available, despite playing at home, and they got three of those points by squeaking past at Colorado.

Now, a surprise result doesn’t necessarily translate as an important one. That’s where I’d file Columbus’ loss to Portland – i.e., Columbus might have just had a bad night, while Portland, who has had nothing but bad nights, can’t draw any reliable conclusions from what could wind up being a one-off. (Also, please don’t let it be a one-off.) Vancouver showed just how much beating LAFC in Vancouver mattered by getting run over everywhere but the scoreboard against Orlando City SC three, four (five?) days later (not that Orlando didn’t leave it late and lucky; aka, why people rarely talk about either team). The rest matter at margins of varying width – e.g., RSL always needs road wins, and now that’s a two-game winning-streak; or, to make a bigger stretch, do two, multigoal wins hint that San Jose have figured out how to work Matias Almeyda’s system? That could be a massive deal, for one, a major scrambling of expectations? A lot of the details and micro-trends above can only get proved or denied with more data – but, yeah, Cincinnati should be worried, and Sporting KC has to stop borrowing against that reputation at some point.

Totally unrelated, but I learned a little more about xG theory today, and I’m a fan, but mostly because it feels incredibly messy and human. Moving on…

As for the results that shouldn’t have surprised people (more or less), four of those felt like big deals – arguably, the biggest deals of the weekend. To start with the obvious, LAFC turned “Week 8’s” (averaging D.C. seven games against LAFC’s nine) Clash of the Titans into the Seattle Sounders getting brutally noogied (crap, sp?) on the rec room floor, and for 90 excruciating minutes. I have to pause here, 1) to mock arrogant, brittle Sounders fans, and 2) to tout the value of the Form Guide ULTRA. Earlier this week (gotta be Monday, yeah), Matt Doyle screen-captured a comment from a Sounders fan that, basically, argued LAFC has built its record by beating up wimps. The Form Guide ULTRA lays bare the “oh, the irony” desperation of that statement by showing that Seattle has had it pretty damn easy as well (Cincinnati, Colorado and RSL at home, Chicago and Vancouver away were literally their first five games), and showing how much more vigorously and largely LAFC has played through what’s probably a tougher schedule. To get to details (and stop crapping on Sounders fans), LAFC really did kick the crap out of Seattle. Carlos Vela steals the headlines, but the more important thing to do is watch the series of blueplate specials Mark-Anthony Kaye and Eduardo Atuesta served up (“plate” was the hardest) – as well as where and how they recovered the ball to get those blue-plate specials ready to serve. This recalled LAFC’s win over D.C. United (yes, I know what I just wrote about D.C., but note the score in both games), and people are high on this team for the right reason.

As for the rest, I’ve already alluded to Toronto’s late bleeding of goals – and allowing Minnesota three playing at home probably adds up to their worst defensive performance of 2019 (yay?). Part of that follows from Darwin Quintero playing to the high end of his usual (1 goal, 1 assist), but TFC won’t go anywhere important until they figure out how to manage stronger attacking teams (and also Chicago). Minnesota, meanwhile, both had, and has, bigger problems. In an attempt to run down the mystery, I checked to see how many games Ike Opara missed…and it was just this one. That mattered, though, because, whether or not he was a direct replacement, Michael Boxall managed The Defender’s HatTrick. Yes, he was directly involved and/or beaten on three goals and, no, championships aren’t built on that. That covered “had,” now onto “has”: the Loons saw Jan Gregus (rightly) sent off on a straight red, and then Francisco Calvo a few minutes later (ditto). A team that allows enough goals to hurt simply can’t afford that. That detail, if nothing else, made this game consequential – especially given Minnesota’s upcoming schedule.

To wrap up the important games, Philly’s 3-0 win over Montreal at home very likely means I low-balled their loose ranking in the Form Guide ULTRA, because they’ve won four of their last five against real teams and/or in real situations. That said, I haven’t seen a more inexplicable box score since I last went to the track (I’ve never understood The Racing Form, honestly). The Union does like to keep the ball in bounds and under control, though, and that’s how they score goals like this one (and I am a straight-up Haris Medunjanin stan). Last but not least was FC Dallas’ utterly shameless 2-1 act of larceny at Atlanta United FC. They built the win on a soli…or, rather, resilient defense, and good stories, both old (Michael Barrios) and new (Jesus Ferreira, who’s just 18, but also, that’s Barrios on the assist). Atlanta picked up a consolation goal that probably felt like a turd in a fancy box, but they came close in this one, what with Ezequiel Barca going off the post twice and all. And there’s a bigger detail in there that makes a nice segue to the third and final segment of this post…

Things to Watch For

After going dormant early in the season, Atlanta has racked up big numbers over the past couple games. Matchday Central glossed over this, but I’m less sure that’s justified. So, that’s one to watch.

– Just to mark the occasion, Atlanta will play Colorado in the Toilet Bowl I, 2019, aka the worst in the East versus the worst in the West. For what it’s worth, Colorado is far closer to the drain.

– On the polar opposite side of the spectrum, the Seattle Sounders have a golden opportunity to make their fans’ mewling hold up when they host LAFC. I doubt they’ll return the favor, but I do expect Seattle to win this one. And if they don’t…oh, yeah.

– To wrap up what’s going to happen next weekend, a healthy chunk of the league has two game swings ahead of them, and some of these could finally re-write some narratives. I’ll talk about what actually happened next weekend, but here’s the full list of the relevant teams, their opposition, and the number of points I (loosely) expect each team to get out of both games:

LA Galaxy (@ MIN, v RSL; 4 points minimum)
Columbus Crew SC (v DCU, @ HOU; higher than 3 would be great)
Minnesota United FC (v LAG, v DC; as many as they can get, but it better be 4)
Chicago Fire (@ NYC, @ MTL; 2 points would impress me, and that says a lot)
New York City FC (v CHI, v ORL; all 6; this is one of the bigger deals of the week)
Montreal Impact (@ NER, v CHI; 6 would say a ton, but anything 3 and north is fine)
New England Revolution (v MTL, @ SKC; I can see 0, I can see 4; 2 would be good)
San Jose Earthquakes (@ SEA, @ FCD, aka, getting tested; anything above 2 is real)

– To rescue the lead I utterly buried, things are looking bright in both Texas (Houston and Dallas) and Los Angeles (LAFC and the Galaxy). All those teams look good-to-great right now – and Houston’s solid showing against LA underscores their real potential – but all four of these teams are firing on enough cylinders.

– Finally, I left two results unmentioned, and I have this thing about being thorough, so: the best thing about New England beating the New York Red Bulls was the players involved in the game’s only goal. After that, this is more confirmation that the Red Bulls just aren’t good right now, so why give that time? (wait…) Chicago kicked the crap out of Colorado (personal highlight), and it’s good to see the Fire’s attacking pieces come together. At the same time…Colorado. No part of those 23 goals allowed was handed to them as some kind of handicap.

That feels like plenty for one week. See all y’all in Week 9! I’ll get in more cultural references then!

MLS Weekly, Nearly-7: The Rare Occasion It All Finally Makes Sense

With MLS Week Nearly-7 in the books (look, still over half the teams have played six or fewer games), fans finally have a week’s worth of results…

Photo Credit: Stephanie Romero

[Ed. – I’m abandoning the five (5) game-condensed format, and for a couple of reasons – chief among them that watching 2/9th of a game cuts out too much of how the ball gets from Point A to Point B, aka, the soul of the game, and who wants to cut that out? To move forward in a spirit of honesty and kindness (you’re welcome), I will always disclose all the soccer I watched any given weekend. And, for this week, that includes all of FC Cincinnati’s loss to Los Angeles FC, and all of the Portland Timbers (inevitable, but…) loss to FC Dallas. Outside that, I watched condensed games for Minnesota United FC v New York City FC (sad!), the Chicago Fire’s…just whimpering home draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps (maybe even worse), Seattle Sounders 3-2 win over Toronto FC, and Sporting Kansas City’s eye-raising 2-2 draw in KC against the New York Red Bulls. Now, to the action…]

With Major League Soccer Week Nearly-7 in the books (look, still over half the teams have played six or fewer games), fans finally have a week’s worth of results that more or less followed completely legitimate trends and/or properties. As in, holy crap, every result this weekend made sense, and, for people who traffic in the idea that MLS is more predictable than most people seem to believe, that’s like a fist-bump from God. I credit all this obsession for what makes it work; basically, if you track trends closely enough, you’ll be surprised a lot less by MLS, generally, but that’s my weird little gospel. Going the other way, don’t think of anything I say below as obvious. Unless, I guess, I actually write, “this is obvious,” or something a lot like it.

Even if it’s not your first-choice explanation, every game from MLS Week Nearly-7 followed from a plausible explanation. Honestly, name your game and I’m pretty sure I can summon up a (reasonably) factually-based logic to explain it. To cherry-pick the easy ones: maybe FC Cincinnati stresses Los Angeles FC in another world, but in this time-line, LAFC has a bat-poop insane (huh, euphemisms are kinda silly fun) goal differential, and a ton of that is built on allowing just five goals across seven games (just to note it, they are playing a combination of minnows and the unbalanced; see the Form Guide ULTRA for details). Elsewhere, Real Salt Lake is strong enough at home to beat a (sincerely battling; see below…but don’t expect more than a bare question) Orlando City SC team, and the Colorado Rapids are bad enough to lose anywhere, including in Commerce City, and especially against DC United (and these goals are terrible). And that’s what made this an oddly, broadly predictable weekend in a league that, allegedly, defies prediction.

Even within a Week Nearly-7 where everything was as it should be, cracks appeared, and on just about every side of the glass. For instance, as much as you’d expect both Sporting KC and the Sounders to manage a heretofore stumbling New York Red Bulls and even a much stronger Toronto FC, respectively, they didn’t and they did, respectively. These are fun results precisely because they tinker with several narratives, including the most obvious ones. For instance, what does it mean that the Red Bulls looked reasonably like the Red Bulls of 2018 (and from previous seasons) tonight, and against an SKC team that just about everybody rates (even if the support that upholds that rating grows more tenuous by the day)? With Toronto, sure, maybe they didn’t beat Seattle – and, golly, is this as simple as the difference between having solid, predictable defense versus one with an awful tendency to lay out the welcome mat (these are egregious and/or worth your time) – but how many other teams can Toronto beat with their current personnel? I think the answer comes in on the high side, for what it’s worth, so how much do you really care about this result if you’re a TFC fan? As demonstrated by Altidore’s remarkable, almost immediate connection with Alejandro Pozuelo (see their first goal, and this one), TFC can steal a game, and that’s something to watch going forward.

It gets pretty down-market from there, a succession of games that didn’t move any particular needle, whether it’s Montreal’s opportunistic win over Columbus, or the Houston Dynamo following in the foot-steps of every team (except the Portland Timbers) to beat the San Jose Earthquakes. Some results just don’t matter, so why talk about them? (And, even if I don’t link to it, Portland’s loss to Dallas absolutely belongs here.)

The same story continues with Atlanta United FC’s win over the New England Revolution. Based on everything I read or watched, the Dirty South ran all the way over the Revs. The fact that any reasonable person saw this coming is all the commentary anyone should need on New England. Sadly, they join the short list for all the sh*t teams in MLS right now – which, on the plus side, keeps shrinking as the rest of the league shifts into one blurb of quality, and another of striving. In the here and now, though, the cast-outs include: the Revolution, RSL, San Jose, Vancouver, Colorado, and Portland. Depressing as it is, I see upsides for every team in MLS, except those six teams.

Moving on now, let’s talk about the most significant results of the Week Nearly-7.

Los Angeles Galaxy 2-0 Philadelphia Union

It confirmed LA’s home bona fides, as much as it proved Philadelphia’s real-world limitations. At the same time, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored both goals, one from the run of play, one from a penalty, and neither of those feel like a map to 2021, if you know what I mean. If I had to bet on a long-term future for either team…I don’t know which way I’d go. If nothing else, LA has won some trophies, no matter how long ago, while Philadelphia hasn’t. Bottom line: Money versus a plan is a tricky call to make.

Houston Dynamo 2-1 San Jose Earthquakes

In spite of what Tommy Thompson said, San Jose did not fix anything, and the Dynamo have yet to be tested this season, so…(again, consult the Form Guide UTLRA to see what I mean). While both teams exist on the cusp of becoming, I’m way more nervous for the Dynamo. Because they have room to experience disappointment. At the same time, anyone who wants to feel better about Alberth Elis should contrast his weekend with the New York Red Bulls’ Kaku, a man whose greatest visible contribution to the result was a tantrum/richly-deserved red card.

I’m going to close out this post with some things to watch, nearly all of them having to do with what I might have guessed wrong. In no particular order:

Orlando City SC

Are they figuring things out or is losing nobly their fate till further notice?

D.C. United

God’s honest truth, I could be selling them massively short, but I still think they’re the most over-hyped team in MLS, both structurally and based on random factors (e.g., Luciano Acosta maybe leaving).

In Closing…

I have no idea what I’d read into the Eastern Conference standings at time of writing, right now, but the hierarchy in the Western Conference feels depressingly sound. And that’s all for this week. I hope to round it into something more coherent next week, but I’m not sure this isn’t the state of things. Till next time.

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 …

Rainclaw7 / License

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.

MLS Weekly, Week 4/5: About the Futures Market

Credit: Porsche997SBS / License

Here we are just four weeks into Major League Soccer’s 2019 regular season (well, five weeks in for eight teams), and Week 4/5’s Form Guide ULTRA, the source material for these narratives, is already busily spinning off the kinds of sweet, subtle caveats that cause a man to question everything he thinks he knows. It’s also predicting the future, if only the very near future, or at least suggesting it. With that, time to dig in.

To start with the latter, say someone asked you to opine on whether the Chicago Fire or the New England Revolution will build on their first wins of the season, or whether Real Salt Lake might crawl out of the never-ending paddle-wheel that’s been wailing on their fannies for the past three weeks. The answers to all of the above are the same: oh, hell no – because they face Toronto FC, Columbus Crew SC, and the Seattle Sounders, respectively, and on the road in every single case. That doesn’t mean none of those three teams will recover by the end of the season, it just means they’re highly unlikely to do it next weekend. Going the other way, what kind of signal would it send if all three of those teams yanked unlikely wins from unsavory places in those games? (For what it’s worth, I’d start to take the hype a little more seriously on Chicago if they win, but it’ll take more to re-write the sorry scripts the other two teams have written for themselves so far.)

Basically, whatever happens in the three games above, the result will either reinforce a narrative (e.g., weak teams in bad circumstances losing), or they won’t be enough to create a new narrative on their own. That doesn’t apply to all of this weekend’s games, fortunately, and that’s how I chose which games I decided to treat as “important” by giving them extended commentary down below. By my reckoning, DC United v. Los Angeles FC and the Philadelphia Union v. FC Dallas have evolved into the marquee match-ups of MLS Week 5/sorta 6. In the latter case, you’ve got two teams who’ve started…reasonably well (i.e., Dallas has started well, while Philly’s only come on recently), while the former pits two teams widely regarded (if in my own tiny circle) as the best in MLS in 2019. And this is where the Form Guide ULTRA does double duty – specifically by putting sharp questions to exactly which teams DC has beaten so far this season, versus all the teams from which LAFC have stolen many points. They’ve both been perfect so far, or close to it – and they both pummeled a vulnerable team by the same, shameful 5-0 score-line – but something tells me LAFC will go farther in 2019, scare more teams, etc. That said, no matter what happens between them next weekend, I expect both teams go far this season, and to cause problems for the teams around them. The same goes for Dallas and Philly, even if their fates/upsides look less settled than the other two.

That’s not to say there aren’t some damned solid under-cards ahead – among them, e.g., Vancouver Whitecaps v. Los Angeles Galaxy (a race to get their sh*t together), New York City FC v. Montreal Impact (will the least wounded team please stand up), and Red Bulls New York v. Minnesota (how bad is Red Bull, really?). And, because I follow them both, the Portland Timbers and FC Cincinnati have equally interesting Week 5/6’s ahead, but for the opposite reason. For obvious reasons, Portland had better [placeholder for very naughty words] have no trouble tagging in and continuing the embarrassing beat-down LAFC started last weekend. As for FC Cincy, they’re staring down a game that every single thought worth minding says they’ll lose, maybe even badly. At the same time, both Cincinnati and Portland are freaky precisely because it’s too early to be either sure or surprised at either result. In other words, I’d be no less surprised to, say, see Cincinnati wrestle SKC to a draw than I would to see the Timbers fall apart against the San (the worst set of words you’ve ever heard, no worse) Jose Earthquakes.

Golly, that is a lot of preamble, and I hope you got as much out of it as I did. Down below is brief commentary on all the games I chose to focus on this weekend, and for the reasons hinted at and alluded to above. Just like every week, I posted extended commentary on the weekend’s games for Portland and Cincinnati and, for the first time in 2019, I was happier with the Timbers. Anyway, let’s dissect 2/9ths of some games.

San Jose Earthquakes 0-5 Los Angeles FC

“The best that could happen for San Jose right now is…just for this first half to end. Regroup. Come out in the second and see what you can do.”

I’m not sure who called this game, but, holy crap, did he find all the ways to kick San Jose (the above comment came about 33-35 minutes after the same guy went off-and-on for 3+ minutes about San Jose’s “amateur mistakes”). That guy never let up, not least because the ‘Quakes never gave him cause. So went this game, so goes the season that feels unrelentingly, even pathologically hopeless for San Jose. They’ve literally given up one more goal in every game so far this season, if nothing else, and that’s closer to concept art than professional sports, people. To close out the intro, LAFC rather cruelly declined to give San Jose that chance to regroup, because Carlos Vela scored his second goal, LAFC’s third, about a minute before the first half ended – and that’s one hell of an assist by the generally effective Diego Rossi. And to drag “amateur mistakes” out of the parentheses, Vela scored his first goal off one of them and, to float a theory, this is what dunking looks like in soccer. (Also, with an eye to the sub-theme, that was a hat trick for Vela). There’s not a lot of mystery to this game: LAFC is good, San Jose is whatever you call the historically bad opposite of good. For what it’s worth, I gasped “Oh my God” out loud while checking the box score, because that was an ass-whuppin’ in number form, and hide the children. I guess what I wanted to see by watching this was the scope of Vela’s role in the win. I caught up on Vela’s goals via ExtraTime Radio You Can See, or whatever the hell calls their weekly recap show, but this was the kind of dominant performance you’d expect when a good team meets [other].

Orlando City SC 1-2 D.C. United

I’ve always been squeamish(?) about watching Orlando play, but I at least have a good reason in 2019: it breaks the heart to watch a team fight hard and fall short. And that looks like such a happy and colorful supporters group down there. They deserve a win, you want them to win…and then they don’t, and with some reliability. They don’t lack for ambition – see, Portugal’s Nani, if nothing else, but Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan, and Uri Rossell don’t come cheap – but, until they stop falling short on results, who gives a crap where Nani played? Both Dwyer and Chris Mueller have done more for Orlando so far (and, to second MLS’s Armchair Analyst, Mueller should start). After watching the condensed game, the box score was the first thing I wanted to see, Orlando looked awfully busy, etc. Sure enough, they put up a good number of shots – far more than little league darlings, DCU; they lobbed in a hefty number of crosses* too, and maybe that says something about their chances, even if they scored off a cross. (* I don’t like crosses, so I ignore them, so I don’t know how many crosses is a lot, also I’ll get better.) On a deeper level, a lot of those shots came late and my 2/9th knowledge tells me Orlando had D.C. under real, if chaotic pressure late in the game. Orlando had a plausible shot at holding onto at least one point till the end, basically. From DC’s side, hell of a goal by Wayne Rooney, obviously, even if controversy lurks in the alpha (was that a foul? (yes)) and omega (was Orlando’s Brian Rowe obstructed on the play? (….yes?)) of that goal. After glancing at D.C.’s line-up, I was less surprised to see that defense cope under pressure. Oh, and it’s when you’re watching a team coming back against DC that you realize how good Bill Hamid can be. Now that I’ve reminded myself about D.C.’s defense/spine, the hype makes a little more sense. Still, caveat lector because, again, it’s also not beyond the realm of possibility that D.C. is coasting on a soft schedule, circumstantially or otherwise.

New England Revolution 2-1 Minnesota United FC

I’d call surviving the five minutes after Minnesota equalized and pushed for the go-ahead goal the first little victory of New England’s 2019 season; during that time, had Ethan Finlay poked home the ball that suddenly appeared at his feet, or if Cody Cropper didn’t save the header tripped over its heels, God knows how much panic would have seeped into the hearts of a team that has known nothing but panic and an angry coach lately. It looked like it took the Revs 10 minutes to contain the surge and they ultimately pushed back long and hard enough to find the game-winning goal themselves off what turned out to be a fortunate miss by Teal Bunbury. Credit where it’s due, the run Bunbury made and the pass that new (literal) kid DeJuan Jones hit to find it where your focus should go. New England found a way past Minnesota’s defenders in something like the same way several times on Saturday, most often with Carles Gil doing the hunting/probing. It’s just one win at home, and New England’s first three points of the season, but they really do seem to have landed something special with Gil (dude can find a needle in a damn haystack so long as he’s got a ball at his feet), and so long as Bunbury, Jones, and Brendan Bye (who scored the second), the Revs have the upside if they can figure out how to use it. As for Minnesota, they don’t need to panic – playing .500 ball on a road trip (one more game to go!) – but the asterisks after those first two wins become bolder with each successive stumble.

Toronto FC 4-0 New York City FC

Just because I happened to look at, I have to say I don’t see a great defensive midfield player in Toronto’s lineup. Seems to be working out so far in 2019, but I caught a stray comment that said this was TFC’s first clean sheet since July 28, 2018 (checks out too). NYCFC came close to keeping that trend alive somewhere around 50’, but nothing about the condensed game makes a case they would have held onto any points – so says the TFC’s shots on goal as well. They made all those shots by making BMO Field look about twice as big every time they had the ball; NYCFC’s defenders seemed miles away far too often, and they failed to do much to slow down TFC when they were around (see TFC’s 4th goal; and does Dome Torrent have NYCFC playing zonal?). If you’ve tuned into any MLS reporting at since Friday, you’ve already seen the Alejandro Pozuelo’s second goal, and he looked as good as advertised over 2/9th of the game I saw (his work in creating Toronto’s game-winner impressed me more, honestly). Had NYCFC’s Alexandriu Mitrita showed bigger than he did, this had real “battle of the stars” potential, but Mitrita’s apparent contribution toward only as high as failing to put due enthusiasm around two opportunities (that they didn’t make the highlights…). As laid out in the Form Guide ULTRA, this loss feels like NYCFC finally falling all the way down after stumbling through the open weeks of the season. They finally succumbed to the pressure…maybe of their own incoherence. It’s not unlike how they broke completely after giving up the penalty (Alexander Callens; good call) that lead to TFC’s second. As for Toronto, they look pretty impressive…you gotta wonder when the hype train will get rolling…

Real Salt Lake 2-4 FC Dallas

I’ll start by thanking the folks who splice the condensed games for giving Brian Dunseth’s half thoughts the under card of that video/audio experience (see “whatever the narrative with regard to PRO when it comes to ‘clamping down…’” And? What?). As for the game, it pissed me off a little that I’ve watched and half-watched (through one eye) the Officially Sanctioned Video around this game and at no point did something see fit to mention that RSL’s Deimar Krielach got sent off at the 17th minute. When a red card happens that early that is, and always will be, top-of-the-inverted-pyramid kind of information. That makes some sense of why Dallas more than doubled RSL in passes, but even if they got out-shot (and with particularly devastating timing every team they experienced hope) and smothered in passes, none of that came through in the condensed game. Sure, I still think Everton Luiz isn’t the solution to RSL’s problems, but it’s also possible that their alarmingly consistent problem with red cards could have as much to do with their record as anything. It’s also true that all of Dallas’ goals, their depantsing-equivalent first goal notwithstanding, came after Kreilach’s departure, but I also saw enough in the condensed game to make this present as the same bad day at the office RSL was destined to have, even with eleven dudes present and accounted for. In spite of their lowly ranking in the Form Guide ULTRA, not to mention the generally low regard in which they’re generally held, RSL does have some good players – e.g., Albert Rusnack, Brooks Lennon, and Jefferson Savarino, especially – the talent around them shows no sign of holding up. Dallas, meanwhile, feels like a different team under Luchi Gonzalez than it did under Oscar Pareja. If nothing else, putting the guy who knows “the kids” best in charge of “playing your kids” feels like a wise choice. To pose a question I haven’t heard, is FC Dallas one of the teams in MLS most willing to ship its players, whether within or outside of the league, and on the grounds they’ll reliably have replacements handy? The only two people I have in mind to back up that statement are Walker Zimmerman and Maximiliano Urruti, only wait, I just remembered Roland Lamah and Victor Ulloa. How many players did Dallas lose in the off-season? And where are they? After finally seeing Paxton Pomykal tear it up (the thing to note is where he took that ball with his first touch), it seems like something they can afford…but can they win titles on it?

And that’s all for this weekend. To wrap up the sub-theme, I’m mostly counting new, high(-ish) profile players successful, but with Nani and Mitrita as the highest profile outliers. We’ll see how I do with calling the games that will really matter next weekend.