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, 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 2: Results, son. That’s All That Matters

Jeff Bull gives you a luxurious and link-laden look at MLS Week 2, and the five games that are most worthy of your undivided attention.

Image: Noah Riffe

“It’s early, but trends for 2019 are starting to form in Major League Soccer after just a week.”

I read that sentence…five(?) days ago (here) and it still hasn’t come out from under my skin. Go past beyond the oxymoronic idea of conjuring a “trend” out of a single piece of information (a game, in this case) and ask the more relevant question: is every team in Major League Soccer a kind of generic “widget” that compares with every other team apples-to-apples? Just…stop making a mockery of all the work I put into these damn posts, yeah?

Of which, here’s the results tracker I use as a reference for this and all future posts, updated so it’s current on results/trends. (Full disclosure: you will find typos in there; I try and I will always correct, but that’s a lotta moving parts.)

To stick up for it a little, the article isn’t hot garbage – e.g., the note that Minnesota United FC will play just one team that made the 2018 playoffs counts as news you can use – but talk of a “new and improved attack” for the Chicago Fire, talk about Atlanta United FC regaining momentum, and Los Angeles FC “winning ugly,” all fell flat to varying degrees once the results for MLS Week 2 rolled in. Just to give one example, LAFC kicked the Portland Timbers’ collective ass, and most of the ugly came from Portland. (Any FC Cincinnati fans looking for a little encouragement about next weekend’s home opener should look into the Timbers’ record without Diego Chara in the starting XI).

With that off my chest (no, thank you), allow me to turn your attention to what actually happened during Week 2 of the 2019 MLS season, starting with the games that failed to cough up any kind of real news or useful data. For example, get rid of draws between “perceptually equal” teams – i.e., games between teams that most reasonable people would reasonably lump into the same tier of talent – and there goes Chicago’s 1-1 draw in Chicago against Orlando City SC and New York City and DC United knotting up at nowhere (aka, a 0-0 draw in The Bronx). Next, yank all the games that follow expectations or reputations – e.g., the Seattle Sounders beating the Colorado Rapids in Seattle, as they would, and always will on most timelines. To extend the idea using one team as an example, the Fire had a chance to back up the (or that one dude’s) speculation that their attack had improved; by failing to do that, Chicago failed to rewrite its reputation as a team that neutrals can safely ignore. By association, Orlando will remain the team that sucked in 2018 until they flip the script.

As for the rest, I’ll take a closer look at the five games that sent weird signals, big signals, or both. That will leave one last game unlooked at (but not unloved): FC Dallas’ 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy. That’s a solid win for Dallas, if just on paper, while also not likely to cause a massive stir back in LA – especially with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his ego sitting that one out.

More significantly, the stars aligned to where I happened to tune in for the full 90 minutes of the two more defining of the weekend results – Portland’s dark-night-of-the-soul loss to LAFC mentioned above, and FC Cincinnati’s perhaps-less-stunning-than-it-should-be draw against the reigning champs (Atlanta) in Atlanta (those links will take you to the extended notes on both of those games). The results meant more to the teams opposite the ones I follow – e.g., LAFC has started very strong and against two respected teams (if at home), while Atlanta looks like a deeply-puzzled shadow of their former selves – but, with them averaging 3.5 goals against per game so far, Portland fans have every reason to feel anxious about their defense. As for Cincinnati…ask me what I think after they play the Timbers next Sunday.

Of which, here’s the results tracker I use as a reference for this and all future posts, updated so it’s current on results/trends. (Full disclosure: you will find typos in there; I try and I will always correct, but that’s a lotta moving parts.)

All right, that’s the state of things generally. Now, let’s see what I can sort out of those other five games.


New England Revolution 0-2 Columbus Crew SC

I always type Columbus Screw, and it bugs me, but, short version, they were good for the win. It took them nearly to the expiration of the policy to score their insurance goal – which, for the record, was embarrassingly simple from the Revs perspective – this match-up comes down to a simple question of quality. Wrapping your head around the question only takes asking yourself, would you rather have Gyasi Zardes or Teal Bunbury, Gaston Sauro or Michael Mancienne, Federico Higuain or Carles Gil? And, dragging this all the way in Columbus’ favor, Pedro Santos showed up Cristian Penilla, the one player New England has who could complicate that decidedly lopsided game of War (the card game). It wasn’t just that one player got an assist (on Columbus’ first goal; do note how the Revs defense conspired to allow two dudes to pull that off) while the other didn’t; Santos worked better with the space and timing he had – much as he did on that assist. Too many of New England’s “attacks” boiled down to “mazy runs” into a dead-end of Columbus players; count Penilla, Juan Agudelo and Edgar Castillo all guilty of that sin of excess. New England did manage to earn a penalty kick, but, sticking with the theme, Zac Steffen (who you’d rather have than New England’s Brad Knighton) stuffed it. One of the most telling stats/patterns I’m seeing is when the team that puts up the fewest total shots still manages to put more shots on goal. Whatever their actual level of talent, there’s just something…off about the Revs, and there has been for some years – and, more to the point, until further notice.

Houston Dynamo 2-1 Montreal Impact

“Does your friend have a name?” “His name is Ben.”
“That is a show that is not going away. Classic.”

I’m guessing the second quote is about…Friends(?), but I have no idea who Ben is or how his name came up, but that is the bless’d sound of broadcast booth boredom (take a bow, Glenn Davis and Eddie Robinson!). I mostly dipped into this game to check on Houston; their record against mediocre teams (e.g., RSL and Montreal) was the only hook I needed. When the announcers got around to talking about the game, they described the same thing shown in the condensed highlights: Houston dominance for the first 30 minutes. Montreal scored first against that back-drop (cool goal, too; and Michael Azira?), but it was only appropriate for Houston to clap-back (and louder; that’s gotta be in for Goal of the Week). A lot of credit goes to Houston’s Tomas Martinez for combining grit with grace the same way he did in the assist on that first goal, but the Dynamo looked like they had some ideas going forward. After nearly 40 minutes on their backs, L’Impact dragged itself back closer to equal footing, and that only makes Houston’s scrappy winner more impressive. Overall, though, there’s no question this game played out as expected, if on largely historical terms: both Montreal and Houston sucked on the road last season, and Houston made BBVA a fortress…if a pregnable one when the right suitor came around (sorry…I’ve been considering the meaning and origin of the word “impregnable” all day, and I don’t love where it’s taking me). I’m not sure what I was looking for here – especially given that I expect* both the Galaxy and FC Dallas to go deeper than Houston – but I’m wondering whether my personal rooting interests (i.e., Portland and Cincinnati) aren’t making me more curious about mid-table competition. (*That’s expect, because nothing would surprise me with any of those three teams.)

Real Salt Lake 1-0 Vancouver Whitecaps

While they’ve got ample reason to complain about the penalty kick – I’m pretty confident Corey Baird was leaning ground-wards before he got touched. Vancouver really can’t scream injustice about the final result. Credit where it’s due, Albert Rusnak scored one of your more technical penalty kicks, but, by the same logic, the Whitecaps played RSL pretty damn even at Rio Tinto (as confirmed), and that should give a rebuilt team still trying to come together some comfort (yes, they’d rather have the point, but…). They can draw more positives not just from their steady goal creation, but from solid play by Yordy Reyna and what looks like a tidy bundle of technique and stamina from new (literal) kid, Hwang In-beom (srsly, this kid might have some real upside). Doneil Henry also deserves a shout, more for how often I heard his name in the context of thwarting RSL attacks than his one misplaced shot at glory. Since they’re working with (mostly) same players, it’s hard to read (or make easy excuses for) RSL. The usual suspects stood out – e.g., Albert Rusnak, Jefferson Savarino, and the rest (fine, Damir Kreilach) – their lack of multiple “money” players really does stand out with RSL. Their “live-or-die-by-committee” ethos might be as old as the club, but they haven’t had players like Javier Morales, Jamison Olave, and Kyle-Beckerman-from-10-years-ago since, oh, 10 years ago. And yet they had at least two cracks at taking advantage of Vancouver’s failure to equalize late in the game. To flag one detail that could spell joy for RSL, Nedum Onuoha was both usefully large (he’s 210, people, and looks every pound) and all over the game. If RSL can stop leaking goals – the curse of their stable of promising youngsters – they could compete in 2019.

I want to pause here to point out a dangerous symptom of watching the condensed games as opposed to strictly tracking the results. Every time you see a player like Yordy Reyna come close to killing it, you start thinking “man, what would it mean if he starts killing it?” This is how focusing harder on results pays off: the results Vancouver gets will say whether or not he’s killing it – or, on a finer point, it will tell you whether or not that matters. Right, aside over, back to the capsules.

San Jose Earthquakes 0-3 Minnesota United FC

I put down a marker before checking the box score for this one and…drum roll…nope, that doesn’t line up with what I saw in the condensed game. If I had to hypothesize on a reason, it would start with the eye-bulging number of crosses San Jose played (some of them rather good by Cristian Espinoza and even Chris Wondolowski once), but the more salient detail shows up (again) in the shots/shots-on-goal numbers. Now, that matched what I saw in the condensed game – e.g., Minnesota creating whole, sound chances against the scraps San Jose dragged off the table. Most of the credit I saw drifted Darwin Quintero’s way (and, yes, he played a role), but there should be shouts just as loud about Miguel Ibarra’s decisivecontributions – and, yes, yes, that is a hand ball on San Jose’s opener. To linger a little on Ibarra, Minnesota has had…at least minimally respectable attacking players for as long as they’ve been around – none on Quintero’s level, but a solid, healthy-Kevin-Molino good. What they’ve lacked – outside six(-ish) short games when Michael Azira and Sam Cronin were both healthy – was the spine they’ve now built around Ike Opara, Osvaldo Alonso, and, can I say just how impressed I was with Jan Grey Goose in this match (fine, Gregus, and is anyone else getting thirsty?). Nice as it was to see him ping a double-insurance goal off Harold Cummings, he’s pretty quick, looks like he knows how to pass and tackle, and he has good size to boot. If Minnesota’s spine holds – and, literally, all I mean by that is if they stay healthy – I’d be stunned if Minnesota didn’t make the playoffs. The same thing goes for San Jose, only going the other way. Bless the vets (Wondo) and the high-priced new additions (Espinoza), but give DanielVega a raise and do his errands for him. This game could have ended 0-6 real damn easy. San Jose…it’s gonna be a long season…

Sporting Kansas City 2-0 Philadelphia Union

First, Marco Fabian absolutely went after Johnny Russell. Elsewhere, and despite some first-blush qualms, I even agreed on the penalty call against Seth Sinovic once I came at it from a “natural movement” point of view. Going the other way, the call that lead to the first penalty kick hasn’t stopped throwing me since I watched it. (I can only ask “where?” so many times before I give up, so I did.) Maybe SKC got lucky in the end, maybe they made their own luck; either way, I’d call this MLS Week 2’s “clash of the titans.” But for the grace of God and Tim Melia (who really deserves more highlight clips than he got), this game could have ended very differently for SKC – and that’s the bright spot for Philly. That’s the bottom of the Eastern Conference with not even one number on the positive side of the ledger, Philadelphia Union. Going the other way, SKC won this game because, 1) because Melia was there and, 2) Sporting held up its end of the fight. For what it’s worth, I think they’ll manage the same all season – and in spite of the permanent conversation about how they don’t have a forward. What SKC does have, and right now, is a group of players who are talented enough that, when one line of attack fails, they always have another one on which to fall back. If it’s not Russell’s night, what’s Gerso Fernandes up to? Or if Krisztian Nemeth has a “bout of the breezes” what’s the harm in starting Daniel Salloi? The 18 I see for SKC in the box score (which is both educational, and, to second Jim Curtin, a spark of hope for the Union), and, if it’s not the best 18 players in MLS on average, it’s close. Emphasis added for the complexity of the ask. Overall, I’d call this a good all-around outing for Sporting KC and a good response to a bad set-up for Philly. I do think they’ll both hang in and around the chase this season.


And…yep, that’s me tapped out. As with last week, I hope most of the above makes sense (it does…right?). As I see it, most of what’s going on right now feels like confirmation – e.g., that Kansas City and Seattle have good teams, and that there’s this massive queue of decidedly middling teams peaking over their shoulders to the promised land. As much as I think the order of that queue will shift around during 2019, I’m not sure how exciting most people will find the shifts. Speaking for myself, I’d like a few plot twists. And I appreciate Atlanta for providing them. Gucci*.

(* If you haven’t seen 8th Grade, see 8th Grade.)



2019 MLS Western Conference Preview: Part 1 – The Victims of 2018

A look at last year’s Western Conference teams that missed the MLS playoffs – to look at transfers, how they finished, and their playoff odds.

The 2018 Major League Soccer regular season was something that happened, obviously, but for the teams below, it was something that happened to them. Each team’s experience ran the gamut from nagging doubt, through uncomfortable physical sensation, all the way down to nights, weeks, even months of wrestling with one’s choice of careers, maybe even his basic self-worth. (Chin-up, Chris Wondolowski.) With that, welcome to this 2019 preview for the teams that finished on the wrong side of MLS’s Western Conference.

The format largely explains itself, but I do want to reference a couple resources at the top – just big picture things to help you cut corners while keeping current. First, MLSSoccer.com has a page that keeps a running tally of all the players coming into and going out of every team in the league – also, key disclosure, I do not list every player that left or joined each of the teams down below, only the players that have potential to change things. The Mothership (as I’ve long called MLSSoccer.com) also posts a feature that provides some context to all that coming and going; when I reference the “Transaction Interpreter” deep in the bowels of this post, that’s what I’m talking about. Fair warning, finding that article is hell any time it’s not on top of the main page. You’d think they’d do better with a regularly rotating feature, but how often does MLSSoccer.com feel like scrolling through a poorly-conceptualized twitter feed? But I digress.

My best understanding of what happened to each struggling team in the Western Conference last season is below, along with my best guess as to why they struggled. What they intend to do about it follows after that, along with a lot of guesswork about whether or not it’ll come off. Again, these are the bad ones, whether awful, cursed and awful, or just top-heavy, so don’t expect a lot of happy endings. To put a sub-headline to this piece, “Bright Futures Equally Scarce.” Now, starting with the worst…

San Jose Earthquakes

2018 Finish Line: 12th in the Western Conference (4-21-9), 21 pts. 49 goals for, 71 goals against

Dead, painful last, just shy of historically painful (DC United 2013 is the benchmark), the ‘Quakes had a uniquely painful 2018. They lost valiantly up until around August, but lost almost exactly 2/3 of the time across the season. In the middle of the season, (out-of-position) centerback, Florian Jungwirth publicly admitted the obvious: the ‘Quakes didn’t have the personnel to compete. The coach they’d hired at the beginning of 2018 to turn the team around (Mikael Stahre), would first lose the team, then get fired before the season ended. Bleak.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: D Yeferson Quintana, M Jakmir Hyka…see above, does it matter?

IN: F Cristian Espinoza, M Judson, D Marcos Lopez, F Cade Cowell (youngest-ever homegrown player, btw)

San Jose let former New England Revolution star Steve Ralston escort them off the plank at the end of 2018, but the ‘Quakes went massive with a coaching hire: Matias Almeyda, aka, the most successful coach in Chivas Guadalajara history (and elsewhere). They let go a handful of players who never really arrived in MLS (e.g., Hyka and Quintana), while taking an oddly short-term approach on their rebuild. They’ll have their splashiest signing, Argentine forward Espinoza, for only as long as Spain’s Villareal will allow. The two players they signed to actual contracts – Peru’s Marcos Lopez at left back and Brazilian defensive midfielder Judson – didn’t arrive with much for hype.

2019 Forecast:

When you tied for the West’s worst defensive record (71 goals allowed), a player with Judson’s profile acknowledges a need; the idea of having a right back to counter-balance your team’s best player (Nick Lima) also presents as sound. The new players shouldn’t make them any worse, but they are being added to roughly the same group of players that rather violently under-performed in 2018. A successful season – even just a better one – would build Almeyda’s legend.


Colorado Rapids

2018 Finish Line: 11th in the Western Conference (8-19-7), 31 pts. 36 goals for, 63 goals against

The Rapids tried to “play soccer” in 2018 – y’know, possess the ball, work it upfield, etc. They’ve arguably been doing that since signing Shelzhen Gashi, but he’s better as a shorthand for what ails the Rapids: he fits into no known scheme, and that’s how Colorado builds rosters (so far): grab whatever’s handy, throw it at the wall, and, often as not, weep. They got a couple days’ buzz/hope out of beating the Los Angeles Galaxy in a mid-season home-and-home series, but, if the team ever got over the playoff redline last season, they didn’t stay long. The Rapids finished miles under it instead, and the scoring was particularly…infrequent all season. Just north of 1.0 goals per game. Again, bleak.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: F Jack McBean, GK Zac MacMath, D Edgar Castillo, M Marlon Hairston, M Enzo Martinez

IN: F Kei Kamara, M Nicolas Mezquida, GK Clint Irwin, M Benny Feilhaber, F Diego Rubio

Colorado let some interesting pieces go in the off-season – e.g., Hairston and Castillo (arguably their best player going both directions in 2018) – and they’ve played “Moneyball” since then. Familiar, quality(?) cast-offs like Kamara, Feilhaber, Mezquida, Rosenberry, and (to a lesser extent) Diego Rubio were either signed on or shanghaied in a bid to make the Rapids competitive.

2019 Forecast:

Will it work? I can imagine some positives – e.g., Rubio playing off Kamara, and Rosenberry as a long-term fixture at right back. Going the other way, neither Kamara nor Feilhaber have much career left, so, even if both players have a stellar 2019, the question of succession remains open and (to take another step into the future) what keeps Colorado from going from one year to the next as a permanent remodel? I happened to listen to ExtraTime Radio’s 2019 previews (for bad teams) this past week and, remarkably, the panel split on Colorado. Faith in Colorado wound up requiring faith in depth pieces like Cole Bassett and Kortne Ford.


Minnesota United FC

2018 Finish Line: 10th in Western Conference (11-20-3), 36 pts. 49 goals for, 71 goals against

Close observers will notice that Minnesota matched San Jose on goals for and against, but still finished 15 points above them. For those new to it, welcome to MLS. I kid, but wins do matter in any league, and the Loons had something San Jose didn’t: Darwin Quintero creating offense from nothing, sometimes entirely on his own. This is how The Battle of the Basement was won. Their defense was homicidally terrible, obviously (or suicidally; however that works), and nothing confirms a team’s attack isn’t overcoming quite like a -22 goal differential. And, with that, Minnesota adds another bitter season of falling short.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: D Marc Burch (Cincy!), Fernando Bob (best damn name in MLS history), M Collen Warner, and…

IN: M Jan Gregus, M Osvaldo Alonso, D Romain Metanire, D Ike Opara, GK Vito Mannone

Judging by their signings – a proven (if oft-injured) quantity Opara in central defense (and there’s a story there), paying for an upgrade at right back in Metanire, the still-more expensive Gregus with what’s left of Alonso in central midfield – Minnesota did the vital work of pointing to where it hurt and at least trying to make it stop. Expecting a slightly-diminished normal out of Alonso feels like a safe bet, and that leaves Gregus feeling like the main X-Factor (even having Sam Cronin healthy would help). To reduce what the Loons let go to just one solid, yet unspectacular player, the fact they got rid of Collen Warner shows that Minnesota gets what’s happening across the league.

2019 Forecast:

I can’t believe the changes listed above won’t help Minnesota, but the question of whether they can make a push – or, God forbid, make the playoffs – probably turns on which existing players show up and how. For instance, can Quintero get a little help, whether by Angelo Rodriguez leveling up to even 3/4 of his potential, or Kevin Molino staying healthy for 3/4 of a season? Minnesota has the talent, perhaps for the first time in its existence, but can they finally shake off the “expansion team” ball-and-chain in their third season?


Houston Dynamo

2018 Finish Line: 9th in the Western Conference (10-16-8), 38 pts. 58 goals for, 58 goals against

The Dynamo spent 2/3 of the season on the cusp of maybe, aka, the insufferable state of having the players to win a title (e.g., Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto, and, as much as anyone, Mauro Manotas), but not the team. Those 58 goals against leave a couple of the sharper details out of Houston’s tale of 2018 heartbreak – i.e., games they should have won ending as draws, and draws ending in losses. Houston could beat any other team last season, but they could lose just as easily.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: D Leandro, D Adolfo Machado, D/M Jared Watts, M Arturo Alvarez, M Andrew Wenger, M Luis Gil, M Eric Alexander (because pertinent to the audience)

IN: M Matias Vera, M Tommy MacNamara, M Marlon Hairston, D Maynor Figueroa, D Aljaz “Kiki” Struna

Sometimes, a team hints at a problem; other times, they go in for Soviet-style purges to obliterate the very memory of it. The Dynamo approached its defensive overhaul in that spirit, letting go of, oh, everybody (e.g., see above, down a shot of vodka for the fallen). They also dropped guys like Andrew Wenger and Luis Gil, once promising youngsters who, in spite of serious indulgence, failed to launch. When looking for replacements, Houston played a little moneyball of their own, grabbing guys like one-time New York City FC fan-favorite MacNamara and Hairston (see above). Their biggest bid to resuscitate the defense is named Aljaz “Kiki” Struna, a Slovenian centerback. He’ll be assisted by Adam Lundkvist – who played half of 2018 (but survived the purge), plus youngsters like homegrown kid, Eric McCue. Vera (a Chilean) also came on board at defensive midfield. Again, they identified the problem, but…?

2019 Forecast:

How a team that cut that many players can feel so unchanged is either a mystery or a statement of personal biases. Worse, Houston looks likely to lose Elis, who has fielded real offers this off-season (but Houston wanted more $). Going the other way, his raw talent is matched by his inconsistency – and that’s sort of a theme for the Dynamo. In the end, though, whatever success the Dynamo has next season will turn on whether Vera and Struna, et. al. can provide a foundation. Maybe a little more peace of my mind will transform the attack? (Just to note it, I watched Houston play the Seattle Sounders in preseason, and they were just a mess; sounds like the same thing happened against Sporting Kansas City. Still a work in progress, apparently.)


Vancouver Whitecaps

2018 Finish Line: 8th in the Western Conference (13-13-8), 47 pts. 54 goals for, 67 goals against

Vancouver came close last season, but, if you look more closely (using my personal, over-elaborate tracking system), that was more illusion than reality. A stretch against either bad teams, under-performing teams, or middling teams in favorable circumstances kept them afloat down the stretch, and running into better competition ended a lot like running into a wall. That they under-performed Houston in both goals for and against hints at how they lost too many games (e.g., blowouts). That poses some questions as to why they blew up the team over the off-season (see below), unless, of course, that was the price they paid for landing the coach they wanted…

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: M Alphonso Davies, D/M Brek Shea, F Kei Kamara, M Efrain Juarez, M Nicolas Mezquida, D Kendall Waston, and many, many, many more.

IN: GK Zac MacMath, D/M Victor “PC” Giro, D Derek Cornelius, M Andy Rose, M Jon Erice, M Lass Bangoura, M Lucas Venuto, M Hwang In-beom, D Jasser Khmiri, F Joaquin Ardaiz

Vancouver famously sold one player (Alphonso Davies), but sh*t-canned an astonishing 20(!) more players (or, fine, let them go). The list included long-time starters like Nicolas Mezquida and Cristian Techera, guys who operate below The New Standard, but also very large, fast man, Kendall Watson (by sending him to sunnier climes). It was all but an acknowledgment that the problem was the style of play itself. They charged Marc dos Santos, who has…a pedigree, with the rebuild. First, there’s no reasonable way to do justice to that many moving parts. As such, enjoy this parade of links on the replacements, all of whom I’m sure have very special stories: Cornelius, Erice, Bangoura, Venuto, Hwang In-beom, Khmiri, Erik Godoy (hold on; almost done) and Ardaiz.

2019 Forecast:

If you tick through all those links, you’ll see that Vancouver basically rebuilt its entire central defense this season. In spite of new signings like In-beom and Ardaiz, plus a pair of good wingers, they are presently thin in the attack; the 4-5-1 formation listed in the Transaction Interpreter shows you how much work they have to do. Rather than predict how an overhaul of this scale will pan out, I’ll close with one thought: the collective ages of the players Vancouver is signing points to starting with a new foundation. It might be 2020 before they know what they have.


Los Angeles Galaxy

2018 Finish Line: 7th in the Western Conference (13-12-9), 48 pts. 66 goals for, 64 goals against

After suffering two separate, not-yet-catastrophic breakdowns during the season (games 5-14 and games 23-29), the Galaxy righted the ship to where all they had to do to make the playoffs was draw a decidedly shaky Houston Dynamo team in LA. Even with a little breeze of good form at their backs, they choked, losing 2-3 at their literal death (and do mind the 3). That stumbling, so-close, so-far dynamic is a good short-hand for LA’s 2018. It’s a team out of whack, maybe even suffocating on its stars. In so many words, they have Zlatan Ibrahimovic on one end of the field and Daniel Steres on the other. Zlatan can’t win MLS on his own. Also, that’s not Steres’ fault.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: D Michael Ciani, F Ariel Lassiter, D Sheanon Williams, D Ashley Cole, M Baggio Husidic

IN: M Juninho, GK Matt Lampson, M Uriel Antuna, D Diego Polenta, and that is literally everyone on the “IN” side of the ledger, which is fascinating.

LA coughed up very little over the off-season – the blood-letting probably tops out with Boateng (also, give Cole credit for silencing the doubters during his time-in) – but they’ve only just started bringing in meaningful reinforcements. They retrieved box-to-box midfielder Juninho from the Hell that is the Chicago Fire, and rescued Lampson from Minnesota, but they really only got serious when they added Antuna (on loan from Manchester City) and central defender Polenta from Uruguay’s Nacional FC. It’s still a little shy on ambition, but there throwing to the right target.

2019 Forecast:

Tricky. First, they need a credible center back and, if Polenta fits the bill (good signs), that will clear up the glass jaw issue. Bigger questions lurk in the area in front of that defense: Perry Kitchen has yet to return to the form he had when he played for DC United and Joao Pedro hasn’t looked MLS-ready for as long as he’s been in MLS. They’re also doubling down on that pile of attacking DPs – in this case restructuring Giovanni dos Santos’ contract instead of pushing him out the door. It’s possible they’ll make the playoffs in 2019, but I don’t see anything that makes me expect greatness.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for our verdict the better halves of the East and West Conferences.