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…

Leftovers

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.

Deeper Cuts: Point Taken in the Peachtree State

A deeper look at FC Cincinnati 1-1 draw against Atlanta United, including player availability, a compact defense, and a foundation for future success.

Photo Credit: FC Cincinnati

Although we turned our clocks forward an hour yesterday, let’s go back in time. Think about it. Several months ago, weeks ago, or even on Sunday morning, if you had offered the FCC players, technical staff and fans the opportunity to earn a point at Mercedes Benz Stadium, all of us would have taken it in a heartbeat.

The key word is “earned”. FC Cincinnati ventured into the Peachtree State in front of 70,000+ Red and Black feverish fans and witnessed the unfurling of Atlanta United’s 2018 MLS Cup Banner. After the 4-1 drubbing in Seattle a week earlier, no one was giving the Orange & Blue a chance in this game, including me.

Lo and behold, a plucky FC Cincinnati put together a memorable performance yesterday. After allowing an early goal to all-time MLS single-season scoring leader, Josef Martinez, FCC settled into the game. They were able to take the one-goal deficit into halftime and use the remaining time to their advantage.

As the pressure built to a kettle-like boiling point, Alan Koch released his second-half substitutes. Each one made an impact and enabled the Orange & Blue to secure a deserved 86th-minute equalizer. Kenny Saief calmly collected a loose ball, dribbled around his mark and played a scintillating through-pass to the surging Roland Lamah. Lamah sped past everyone inside ‘the Benz’ and slotted a left-footed screamer past Guzan. Here is the historic equalizer.

Atlanta, the Peachtree State, and all of MLS were stunned. The newcomers to the league are the first team since Toronto FC to earn a point in Atlanta which was on August 4, 2018.

Let’s look at several factors that contributed to the vast improvement for FCC to taking their first MLS point.

Player Availability and Selected 18-man Roster

One of the key differences between the first two matches, and subsequently their results, was the player availability and selection of the 18-man roster. The two obvious additions to yesterday’s game-day roster were USMNT capped players Saief and Greg Garza. FCC’s newest player, and 4-month loanee Saief, made an immediate impact on the match. In 17 minutes as a substitute, Saief accomplished the following in his MLS debut:

  • Sublime through ball setting up Roland Lamah’s 86th-minute strike
  • Nine successful passes in contrast to only two unsuccessful passes – six inside Atlanta’s half and three within the final attacking third
  • Two timely recoveries in FCC’s defensive half
  • A calming and attack-minded presence

Additionally, Koch’s two midfield changes – Costa Rican Allen Cruz and MLS veteran Kekuta Manneh – were significant net adds to the starting XI. Both players brought a tireless work rate, especially defensively, and quicker pace of play to the line-up.

Compact Defensive Effort

Even though FCC’s 4-2-3-1 shape was the same as the opening match, the tactics (and personnel as mentioned above) were vastly different.

Tactically versus Seattle, FC Cincinnati played a dangerous and sometimes careless high defensive line. They also allowed a ton of flexibility for its outside fullbacks to freely venture up the flanks. This lead to an unbalanced team and individual defensive lapses resulting in an onslaught of Seattle attacking pressure. The graphic below illustrates how much Seattle peppered FC Cincinnati’s box with scoring chances. Total shots (24), shots on target (9), and 15 shots inside the 18-yard box, including all four tallies. Game, set, match.

Shots Allowed – Seattle Sounders

In contrast, in Atlanta, the defensive shape was more compact. The outside fullbacks, Alvas Powell in particular, remained more stable and connected to the center backs. Combined with the midfield changes, FCC was able to absorb pressure despite conceding a lot of possession. Lamah, Manneh, and Cruz used their pace and experience to apply more pressure on the ball outside the defensive third. This acted as the first shield of defense in front of the central defensive midfielders and backline.

Not surprisingly, Koch stated post-match that a big part of the game plan was to not give Josef Martinez and others any space. As a result, scoring chances and shots against improved mightily, against one of the most prolific scoring sides in the league. Total shots (10), shots on target (4), and only 5 shots inside the 18-yard box.

Shots Allowed – Atlanta United

Foundation Building

What a difference a week makes. These personnel and tactical changes enabled FCC to nick a valuable away point in Atlanta. Regardless of whether the Five Stripes were suffering from an early fixture load or a shaky start under new manager Frank de Boer, taking a point from the defending champions is a superb result for FC Cincinnati. The result is a foundation of success that they can build upon.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press as we prepare you for the 2019 home-opener at Nippert on Sunday.

Match Program: FC Cincinnati at Atlanta United FC

Orange & Blue Press’ Match Program provides an infographic and the fast facts you need to get ready for FC Cincinnati at Atlanta United.

Graphic: CSDIV / Image: Noah Riffe

It’s not as if we weren’t expecting the growing pains, right?

FC Cincinnati’s 4-1 defeat to Seattle last Sunday may have been a historic day for the club, but it also served as a wake-up call to the current players and staff. This isn’t the USL anymore. Gone are the days where Cincinnati can expect to be favorites heading into every match. Perhaps that day will come. Until then, fans may be subjected to ultra-defensive performances and discouraging results at times.

And let’s be honest—this team hasn’t “clicked” yet. We don’t even know the best starting eleven at head coach Alan Koch’s disposal. It’s a difficult job for Koch, and it’s about to get that much harder. FC Cincinnati is set to face reigning MLS Cup champions, Atlanta United, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In another nationally televised game, this time on ESPN, the Orange & Blue hope to earn their first MLS points.

Fast Facts

  • Although they have never met Atlanta United’s MLS squad, FCC battled Atlanta United 2 in the 2018 USL regular season. Cincinnati was victorious 4-2 last May thanks to an Emmanuel Ledesma brace. Two goals from Nazmi Albadawi led FCC to a 5-1 away win in late August.
  • Similar to FCC’s roster overhaul, there’s a “new look” Atlanta United this year. Newcastle’s blockbuster transfer Miguel Almiron and MLS Coach of the Year Gerardo Martino are gone. In their places are big-name signings Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, Eric Remedi, Brek Shea, Florentin Pogba, and head coach Frank de Boer.
  • During Atlanta’s inaugural match of the season versus DC United, 42% of all their attacks came down the left flank (accessible at Whoscored.com). FCC may want to consider changing the right-sided partnership of Alvas Powell and Eric Alexander this Sunday, as it was a clear weakness against Seattle.
  • The original goalkeeping hero for FC Cincinnati, Mitch Hildebrandt, retired this offseason after failing to feature for Atlanta’s first team. After leading the USL in saves for FCC in 2017, Hildebrandt struggled to claim Brad Guzan’s spot in the lineup while also dealing with knee injuries. As far as current connections are concerned, former Atlanta all-star Greg Garza was able to practice with the team on Thursday and should be available on Sunday.
  • Late Wednesday night, Atlanta faced C.F. Monterrey on the road in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The “Five Stripes” subsequently lost 3-0 while being outshot 17 to 5. Pity Martinez was the focus of most of Monterrey’s attention, getting fouled 10 times during the game. Atlanta fielded a strong lineup and could be subject to squad rotation this weekend.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage as Atlanta welcomes FC Cincinnati to their home opener and banner-raising ceremony.

MLS Weekly, Week 1: Process First, Knowledge Later

Jeff Bull rounds up week 1 in MLS, including five featured games, and discusses The Process and how it will work over a long season.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Philadelphia Union 1-3 Toronto FC

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

Vancouver Whitecaps 2-3 Minnesota United FC

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

D.C. United 2-0 Atlanta United FC

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

Orlando City FC 2-2 New York City FC

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

Los Angeles Galaxy 2-1 Chicago Fire

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


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

OK, till MLS Week 2.

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

2019 MLS Eastern Conference Preview: Part 2 – Victory Lane

A look at the teams that took the Eastern Conference by the scruff of the neck last year, to see how they finished, transfers, and their playoff potential.

The thing about racing is that it only takes a bad turn to lead to disaster.

Perhaps you could say Toronto missing the 2018 playoffs was an anomaly. A year after finishing third in the East, Chicago crashed out of the race. Hey, even the fastest cars with the strongest engines hit the wall or dawdle too long in the pit stop. (Don’t know what to tell you guys, Orlando—y’all drove a golf cart most of the season.)

However, the standings in the East last year may not have been so different from reality. Over the past ten years, Orlando, Chicago, Toronto, New England, and Montreal have missed the playoffs over half of the time (13 total appearances over 41 attempts). Meanwhile, the top teams from last year have made the playoffs 29 times over the last 45 attempts.

I’m not saying that these six teams are a lock to make the playoffs again. I’m just saying that they have good arguments that they’ll stay competitive in 2019 and beyond. Here’s how they’ve retooled to make sure they do so.


Philadelphia Union

2018 Finish Line: 6th in Eastern Conference (15-14-5), 50 pts. 49 goals for, 50 goals against.

Despite a rough start to the season, the Union went on a solid run over the last three months to sneak into the playoffs. It’s probably fair to consider 2018 an overall success—the Union blew through the Red Bulls, Chicago, and Orlando to get to the U.S. Open Cup final before losing 3-0 to Houston. However, lack of a consistent scoring threat left the team toothless—none of their scorers ranked in the Top 25 in goals. The Union wilted to close out the season, losing to NYCFC 3-1 in both the season finale and the knockout round. .

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: M Fabian Herbers, D Keegan Rosenberry, M Borek Dockal

IN: F Sergio Santos, D Kai Wagner, M Marco Fabian

Sneaking into the playoffs may not sound like a big step, but the 2018 version of the Union was arguably their best team yet, scoring the highest number of wins (15) and points (50) in their nine-year existence. The promotion of goalkeeper Matt Freese and midfielder Brenden Aaronsen means the Union now have seven homegrown players on their roster. The midfield appeared to be a question mark, but the signing of Mexican international Marco Fabian may be the biggest DP splash in team history. The addition of Sergio Santos also provides a third scoring threat that the Union couldn’t get from David Accam last year.

2019 Forecast:

On paper, this is the most improved team in the East. On paper. Philly already had one of the stronger USL squads to begin with, and those youngsters are starting to get deserved call-ups. Goalkeeper Andre Blake asserted his status as one of the best in the league last season, racking up 118 saves and 10 clean sheets. More importantly, Fabian should immediately produce dividends with both feet and be able to feed forwards Cory Burke and C.J. Sapong. Those assists lost from letting Dockal go should return in bunches. Philly could find themselves challenging for the top of the conference, as long as the youth grows into their defensive roles.


Columbus Crew

2018 Finish Line: 5th in Eastern Conference (14-11-9), 51 pts. 43 goals for, 45 goals against.

Ownership issues? What, me worry?

Despite a season of attendance worries and threats to split for Austin, the Crew exceeded expectations to make the playoffs. Yes, their 43 goals scored tied them with Orlando for second-lowest in the league, but their trade for Gyasi Zardes paid back in spades (20 goals in 2018 after 15 in the previous three seasons). The Crew almost shocked the Red Bulls in the playoffs, beating New York 1-0 at home before losing 3-0 on the away leg.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: M Cristian Martinez, M Mike Grella, GK Zack Steffen (July 2019)

IN: GK Joe Bendik, M Robinho Barbosa, D Waylon Francis, F J.J. Williams

While not much movement has taken place within the roster, the largest movement was obviously within the front office and coaching staff. Gregg Berhalter departs to coach the U.S. national men’s team, and Caleb Porter moves in to coach the team he beat in the 2015 MLS Cup when coaching Portland. The ownership group will turn over and gladly spark more joy within the fanbase, especially with Anthony Precourt on his way out and an in-state rival on the way in.

2019 Forecast:

The lack of movement may mean that the team is comfortable with its lineup, but the Crew will need to activate its offense by midseason. The 43 goals scored by Columbus was the lowest of all 12 playoff teams, with 44% scored by Zardes. Another scoring threat will be required to take pressure off the midfield of Justin Meram, Federico Higuain, and Pedro Santos, who will all be 30 or older. The anticipated departure of Steffen will require Joe Bendik to step in seamlessly, so if offense hasn’t arrived by then, it’s hard to say if the defense will stay solid to repeat their form. Look for Columbus to be one of the teams to take a step downward.


D.C. United

2018 Finish Line: 4th in Eastern Conference (14-11-9), 51 pts. 60 goals for, 50 goals against.

There probably hasn’t been such a Jekyll-and-Hyde season before like DCU’s 2018 season. With their new home stadium set to open in July, DCU played 12 of their first 14 games on the road, winning only twice. However, the signing of Wayne Rooney and the opening of Audi Field led to an incredible turnaround—DCU went undefeated in their final 10 games (7-0-3) to make the playoffs, only to lose to Columbus in the knockout round.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: F Darren Mattocks, M Yamil Asad, D Nick DeLeon, GK David Ousted

IN: D Leonardo Jara, M Lucas Rodriguez, GK Chris Seitz, F Quincy Amarikwa

The roller-coaster season from 2018 continued in the offseason with the on-again, off-again relationship with midfielder Lucho Acosta. Once thought to be gone to Paris Saint-Germain, Acosta is still with the team and likely looking for a contract signing in 2019. It’s a good thing DCU held onto Acosta and bought the rights to Lucas Rodriguez from Atlanta—the departing Mattocks and Asad had 19 goals last season, so offense will be at a premium. Ousted’s ousting means that this is now goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s team, but the trades for Seitz and Earl Edwards Jr. at least provide depth for backup (or at least a start on the Loudoun United USL team.)

2019 Forecast:

Had it not been for that Zlatan guy in the West, Wayne Rooney probably would have been the Newcomer of the Year. (Admit it—that video of him slide-tackling Will Johnson and setting up a stoppage time game-winner to Acosta’s in your YouTube “Favorites” section.) Still, he’s one of only two experienced forwards on this team’s roster, so can he last 34 games? Where will the goals come from? The midfield tandem with Acosta, Rodriguez, and Paul Arriola should form a strong shield behind Rooney and the newly-signed Amarikwa, but it’s hard to say how much offense can be produced if there’s no help on the horizon. At least the road schedule is less hectic and easier than the grueling trek in 2018—four of the six Western away games are at teams that missed the playoffs last year.


New York City FC

2018 Finish Line: 3rd in Eastern Conference (16-10-8), 56 pts. 59 goals for, 45 goals against.

Say what you will about Yankee Stadium not being a good field for soccer. The constricted dimensions smother an opponent like the summer subway air. The Bronx Boys in Blue lost only twice at home all season (13-2-4), but one of those losses was to Atlanta United in the conference semifinals. Despite Patrick Viera’s departure in June, interim head coach Domènec Torrent kept NYCFC afloat just long enough to earn the permanent role.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: F David Villa, F Jo Inge Berget, M Rodney Wallace, M Tommy McNamara

IN: F Alexandru Mitrita, M Juan Pablo Torres, M Keaton Parks, M Tony Rocha

How do you recover quickly from a heart transplant? David Villa was the soul of NYCFC for four years, scoring 77 goals in only 117 games. Only Robbie Keane scored more goals at a faster clip (83 in 125 games). Villa’s departure for Japan meant that the City Football Group had to dig deeper into their pockets to pony up for Alexandru Mitrita. The striker already has 12 goals after 16 games this season with first-tier Craiova in Romania. The team may not be finished, as Spanish striker Carlitos could join as well. Much of the defense remains the same, which will suit goalkeeper Sean Johnson (10 clean sheets) just fine.

2019 Forecast:

As long as NYCFC plays at Yankee Stadium and adapts to its smaller dimensions, the home wins should continue. However, the departure of Villa and Berget leaves the team without an actual center forward. Maxi Moralez will have to work to become the new face of the club, and if he’s able to dictate play as a true #10, he will likely lead the league in assists. NYCFC does get the benefit of a soft schedule to start the season—only three of their first 12 matches are against 2018 playoff squads. They also face their rivals only twice in the Hudson River Derby this year, which could be a blessing in disguise. They’ve only beaten the Red Bulls four times in 14 contests.


Atlanta United FC

2018 Finish Line: 2nd in Eastern Conference (21-7-6), 69 pts. 70 goals for, 44 goals against. 2018 MLS Cup champions.

The first match of the season was a surprising 4-0 loss to a Houston team that floundered in midseason. No big deal. The “A-Train” dropped points only 12 times in the next 33 games. Despite finishing below the Red Bulls in the standings, there was no stopping Atlanta on their way to a 2-0 victory over Portland in the MLS Cup final. The Five Stripes have scored 140 regular-season goals over two seasons, and 50 of those have been by Josef Martinez. Over that same two-year span, the entire Colorado Rapids team has scored 67.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: D Greg Garza, M Miguel Almiron, M Chris McCann

IN: D/M Brek Shea, M Pity Martinez, D Florentin Pogba

The biggest change is obviously the one at the top, as Gerardo Martino traded his Five Stripes for the Green, Red, and White as the Mexican national team head coach. While Tata’s shoes are arguably hard to fill, bringing in Ajax stalwart Frank De Boer to helm Atlanta was a bold decision. Name recognition is one thing, but De Boer’s winning percentage hasn’t been great outside of the Netherlands (6-2-11 in two very quick stints over the past three years).

Miguel Almiron’s departure for Newcastle is mammoth, but resigning Martinez and pairing him with another Martinez (Pity) only makes the offense stronger. The biggest loss is likely Garza, as the left back spot now goes to either homegrown George Bello or fallen star Brek Shea. However, many of the pieces are still in place, including the extremely-vocal crowd, which definitely contributed to the 11-2-4 home record last year.

2019 Forecast:

Truthfully, this team should have enough energy from 2018 to coast into the playoffs in 2019. However, the same was said about Toronto FC last year, and the deep run into the CONCACAF Champions League depleted Toronto in the regular season. At least this CCL is a knockout-style tournament, but it’s still a lot of travel in the spring if Atlanta wins their way up the bracket.

While Atlanta’s vibrant offense will be bolstered by Pity’s talent, the pressure will now be on Julian Gressel and Tito Villalba to distribute in Almiron’s place. There are plenty of midfielders to pick up the slack if neither get the job done, but those minutes will be hard to distribute—Darlington Nagbe is already rumored to want out. The defense is a year older in the middle and newer on the edges, so it will be interesting to see if the shots at goalkeeper Brad Guzan increase.

All those points of caution shouldn’t matter. It’s Josef Martinez, guys.


New York Red Bulls

2018 Finish Line: 1st in Eastern Conference (22-7-5), 71 pts. 62 goals for, 33 goals against. 2018 Supporters’ Shield champions.

Despite only missing the playoffs once over their 13 years as the Red Bulls, New York has made only one MLS Cup appearance, losing to Columbus in 2008. They lost their head coach Jesse Marsch to a June transfer to RB Leipzig’s coaching staff, but that didn’t crush their spirits. Their +29 goal differential in 2018 was tied for the fifth-best ever in MLS history, thanks largely to Luis Robles’ 14 clean sheets. Still, all that success only produced an insurmountable deficit against Atlanta in the conference finals, losing 3-1 on aggregate.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: M Tyler Adams, D Aurelien Collin, D Hassan Ndam

IN: M Marcus Epps, D Amro Tarek, F Mathias Jorgensen

The offseason was a bit quiet for incoming transactions, but the Red Bull machine managed a big get by signing 18-year-old forward Mathias Jorgensen, who had excelled in the Danish Superliga’s developmental system. The key loss is, of course, the move of Tyler Adams to Red Bull Leipzig in the Bundesliga. While this is an immense developmental move for the 19-year-old, it leaves RBNY empty in the defensive midfielder zone. The natural move is to insert Cristian Casseres Jr., but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the opportunity to promote Andrew Tinari from the Red Bulls II affiliate. Of course, all of the first-team reserves that were cut away can easily be replaced by the USL backups, so there isn’t much movement necessary. That could make the Red Bulls dangerous for years to come.

2019 Forecast:

It could be possible to suggest the only way is down. Chris Armas didn’t have much weight to pull last year as interim head coach, but now the pressure will be on him to produce trophies bigger than a Supporters’ Shield. If the hook is pulled early, don’t be surprised if Red Bulls II coach John Wolyniec gets the promotion.

Bradley Wright-Phillips is showing little signs of rust, blasting his 100th MLS goal for the Red Bulls last season. He has 124 over all competitions in his five years with New York, but he’s also logged a ton of minutes. BWP has played in at least 40 games each of the past four seasons. If he does go down, Jorgensen and local product Brian White will have to be ready to fill the void.

The defense was the best in the league in 2018 (33 goals against) and should still be solid without Adams in the midfield. Re-signing Tim Parker to anchor the back line with 2018 Defender of the Year Aaron Long was key, and goalkeeper Robles should be able to duplicate his performance from last year. If Atlanta is unable to find traction under De Boer, the Red Bulls should be ready to dominate the conference. Again.


That puts a pretty bow on the Eastern Conference previews. There won’t be any quizzes later on, but now you know how the field appears on the starting line. Strap on your seat belts, roll down the window, and enjoy this crazy ride.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more preseason coverage and previews of the remaining Western Conference squads.

FC Cincinnati 2019 Schedule – Beyond the Basics

We picked through the finer details to give you key insights beyond the basics of FC Cincinnati’s 2019 MLS schedule.

Image: Joe Craven

FC Cincinnati announced its full 2019 schedule on Monday, and fans can finally plan for the big games against new and existing rivals. We picked through the finer details to give you a few insights beyond the basics.

Toughest Run

You’ve probably already heard about FC Cincinnati’s exceptionally difficult start to the season. The first three games are away to Seattle and Atlanta, then home to the Portland Timbers. That’s a brutal early gauntlet. Things don’t get much easier thereafter, as six of their next seven opponents were also 2018 playoff teams. The only non-playoff opposition in FCC’s first 10 can be found on March 24th away to the New England Revolution.

The schedule gets more manageable thereafter. However, there is another tough-looking run in August when the Orange & Blue face the Crew, home and away, with NYCFC sandwiched in between. They’re then off to Frisco, Texas to face FC Dallas before returning home to duel with Toronto FC.

Father’s Day Break & Sundays

Most of the weekends from March and October are now dedicated to supporting the Orange & Blue. There is just a single weekend where the FCC doesn’t have a match once things kick off in March. That is Father’s Day weekend, June 15-16th. That slot could accommodate a US Open Cup match, but those are typically played midweek. This weekend might not feature matches, as it is caught between a FIFA international window and the start of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

MLS’s new condensed schedule features more midweek games, as there are a total of four Wednesday or Thursday matches this season. That isn’t a change for FCC fans accustomed to the USL calendar. However, fans will have to get used to quite a few more Sunday games, with nine total during the regular season.

Day of Week Breakdown

Friday: 1
Saturday: 20
Sunday: 9
Wednesday: 2
Thursday: 2

U.S. Open Cup

FC Cincinnati’s involvement in everyone’s favorite cup competition should begin in early June. That will serve up a dose of schedule congestion similar to year’s past. Here are the possible dates in June and July if FCC progresses to play in three USOC games.

6/1 at Colorado Rapids
6/6 at NYCFC (Thursday)
6/12 – USOC 4th Round
6/22 – LA Galaxy
6/26 – USOC 5th Round
6/29 – at Minnesota United
7/6 – Houston Dynamo
7/10 – USOC Quarterfinal
7/13 – at Chicago Fire
7/18 – D.C. United (Thursday)

The NYCFC and D.C. United games are both on Thursday which limits the weeks that FCC can participate in a midweek USOC game. These scheduling wrinkles could cause the fourth round to get moved up to late May, but then the earlier USOC rounds would have to move even earlier. The big change, of course, is that MLS teams enter later in the tournament, expectedly in the fourth round.

Schedule Symmetry & Home Finish

The MLS schedule will look a little more balanced in 2019 than it has in seasons past. FC Cincinnati will play every other team in the Eastern Conference twice – once home and once away. Furthermore, they will play each team in the Western Conference one time, either home or away. Every team’s schedule is now organized in this fashion and has a more “fair” look, or at least that was the goal.

One really pleasant change from season’s past is FC Cincinnati’s end-of-season calendar. Alan Koch and company could be scrapping for a playoff spot come September, and Orange & Blue will get to play three of his last four games at Nippert Stadium.

Five Best Road Trips

The FC Cincinnati faithful will look to build on their reputation as good travelers in the first MLS season. With new regional rivals, there are a lot of travel dates to choose from on the 2019 calendar. Here are our top 5 road-trip recommendations.

#5 – June 29th at Minnesota United – It’s a quick flight and a Saturday game. You can check out the new Allianz Field in Saint Paul while watching the Orange & Blue claim revenge for the 2018 USOC penalty-kick defeat.

#4 – May 19 at Orlando City – It will probably still be drizzling in Cincy in May, so head south to Florida and heckle James O’Connor in his new home while taking in some sunshine.

#3 – March 10th at Atlanta United – It’s right after the big MLS opener, but if you can’t make it to Seattle, you must make it Atlanta and see what 70+ thousand screaming MLS fans look like in a plush Mercedes Benz Stadium.

#2 – March 2nd at Seattle Sounders – Washington is on the other side of the country, but it’s FC Cincinnati’s first-ever MLS game, and it comes equipped with one of the best environments that MLS has to offer. We’re sure you can find a way.

#1 – August 10th at Columbus Crew – We have to wait until August (*sigh*), but the Crew are saved and the rivalry renews at MAPFRE. This is a historic derby match that you cannot miss.

Lots of big dates and interesting twists ahead. Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of the MLS SuperDraft and FC Cincinnati’s preseason.