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 3: We Got (Mini) Narratives

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.

There’s only one high-level point I want to flesh-out during Major League Soccer’s Week 3, and it’s on the nature of trends – how they develop, how far back they can go, and the kinds of things that make them as undeniably irrelevant as Iggy Azalea. Also, let that be your official warning that weeks are about to get weird – e.g., next week can’t really be Week 4, right? – and my naming convention around the phrase “MLS Week [X]” will go nuts as a result. Back to it…

A handful of teams underlined meaningful personal narratives in Week 3, but not all of them followed the same logic. With that in mind, I sorted all…dammit, how many teams are there now? At any rate, I sorted all the teams in MLS into four vague categories down below, all of them reputation-based, as opposed to any kind of ranking. I’ll hang a super-short narrative on each team after listing them in the relevant category. Hope this makes sense…feeling good.

Reputation Carried Over, for Good or Ill:

Seattle Sounders: The team that ended 2018 with a kicking-ass, naming names winning streak.
Columbus Crew SC: Efficient in a way that feels boring, also effective!
New York City FC: Glamor team some kind of chops, but it’s imperfect.
Houston Dynamo: Good at home! (Where they’ve been all season! Against weak(ish) teams!)
FC Dallas: We are good…
New York Red Bulls: We will be good. C’mon, you see it.
Sporting Kansas City: See above.

…this is where it gets dark…

Orlando City SC: Did you say the worst defense in league history (wait, was that someone else?)
Chicago Fire: Forget it, Jake. It’s Chicago.
San Jose Earthquakes: The horror. The horror.

New Reputations

Vancouver Whitecaps: Radical rebuild, date of completion: unknown.
Portland Timbers: don’t even…fine, it’s the goddamn defense. Maybe more. (Send help!)
Atlanta United FC: doesn’t know what they Hell they’re doing and it’s Frank de Boer’s fault.
FC Cincinnati: can’t help but be new, but pretty damn awesome so far.
Toronto FC: No, two wins can’t erase that past. Also, good start.
Los Angeles FC: Wait. Are they that good? Will Carlos Vela win the MVP?

Messy

Real Salt Lake: Pretty terrible away from home (but…does that really…? (see below)).
New England Revolution: They played all right (see below), but you can’t erase the results.
Philadelphia Union: Not awful, but that home loss to TFC really lingers.
Colorado Rapids: Better? Or just low-key racking up another solid “C”?

Messy and Intriguing

Los Angeles Galaxy: Mostly, see below. But, on thin data, they have potential.
Minnesota United FC: Again, see below, but I see an unquestionably better team.
Montreal Impact: Another see below (sensing a theme), but they’re winning games they should.
DC United: They haven’t given up one goal. In three games. And they played away. Against NYCFC.

That’s as short as I could make it, and I hope that’s more clarifying than the “games that didn’t count” bit that I used last time. My basic point is that I can defend steady narratives – i.e., ones that I’d trust – for ten (10) teams in MLS at this point. That leaves fourteen teams in some kind of flux, some of them more anchored than others, some made out of some kind of hoo-doo coming together in my head that, to return to the original point, I can’t necessarily defend.

All the theories above come from the reference post I call the “Form Guide ULTRA (Week 3 Ed.)” and my observations and notes on the five games listed below. While all of the games not mentioned below didn’t matter, I hereby confess my regret that I didn’t go deeper on Houston’s home win over Vancouver. Vancouver feels like the real story right now, and that’s where I might have barked up the wrong tree. Anyway, that’s the first nine. The back nine is the five games I dug into, right or wrong. Enjoy!


Toronto FC 3-2 New England Revolution

In a moment that says something about how I view Toronto right now – and I think most people would get this, or at least accept it – when I saw Jay Chapman slip through with tons of space down the Revs’ right side, my first thought was, “he’ll piss all over this one.” Something weirder happened in the end (this matches my understanding of the rule(s), yours? tough break regardless), and that’s not the last li’l piece of quirk in this game. I thought Carles Gil’s second goal made particularly little sense, but he got that one plus one more on Sunday, so credit to New England for a good early return on investment for the Spaniard. After that, when I look at the box score, I see a competitive road game (you?), so that’s good (while also being bad for FC Cincy).  I also saw Laurent Ciman find Jonathan Osorio in a literally stupid amount of space in the area on a free kick (no highlight, but he should have done better), while also seeing Teal Bunbury – who, noted, made 2018 one of his better years – cause some trouble, while also seeing the Revs call Cristian Penilla, Juan Agudelo and Juan Fernando Caicedo come off the bench. Going the other way, who did they face? Even if they came out the wrong way, TFC has two decent wins so far. Moreover, they’ve got Jozy Altidore back (the run and the finish are both non-obviously very good), and Ayo Akindola (19, academy kid) scored an attention worthy goal, even if Revolution defenders generally adjusted to him. Call this one a grab bag, and one that speaks reasonably well of both teams.

Orlando City SC 1-3 Montreal Impact

Orlando ‘keeper, Brian Rowe, was the one thing that stopped them from giving away goals like Oprah. It wasn’t all highlight reel material (see Maximiliano Urruti’s soft-serve attempt), but Rowe put in what can only be called a facesaving shift. Otherwise, it would have been you get a goal (Orji Okwonko; too much space), you get a goal (Ignacio Piatti; flustered by a one-man press), and you get a goal (Piatti, again; another gift, and it made Sacha Kljestan look stupid). This game announced to the league that Orlando’s defense panics when pressed (credit to Urruti, one of the league’s most relentless forwards), but, judging by the condensed game, Orlando struggled with bad passes and long touches all day – and from just about every player. The box score underscores the comprehensive blow-out theory, and Orlando started 2019 by assuring fans across the league that, yes, they really are that bad. They had a least one visible bright spot, Chris Mueller looked active and savvy, but Dom Dwyer shanking two gilded opportunities (before sliding one in late, and assholing up a red card on Montreal’s Zakaria Diallo) sums up their day. That said, don’t read too deep into Montreal’s hot start: they’ve only shown they can boss the kiddie pool so far (before Orlando, San Jose). But two road wins, a player to watch in Okwonko (fast, smart, good skillz), and some very good pieces around him (you know them; Piatti, Saphir Tadir), and there’s no reason to write off L’Impact.

D.C. United 5-0 Real Salt Lake

From what I remember from MLS’s ExtraTime wrap-up (mostly pretty colors and annoying men, but also), the panel agreed to allow RSL to write this one off and, apparently, go get blackout drunk (what? they said it). Based on what I saw, this game fell apart for RSL like a Matryoshka doll with each figure getting made of successively grosser stuff (that’s your strained metaphor for the week). After holding up…reasonably well through the first half, unraveled completely over 20 minutes: first Jefferson Savarino sees red for trying to kick off Luciano Acosta’s face (fair call; he should have seen Acosta), followed by DC forcing a turnover/third goal, and wrapped up by Marcelo Silva getting sent off for an entirely justified yellow card. Is now a good time to admit that I accidentally only watched the plain-old highlights? On the plus side, that allowed me to catch both of RSL’s brightest moments without wasting too much time (no video; sorry); red cards or no, the box score suggests a rout, and that’s good enough for me…crap, knew I should have reviewed Houston v. Vancouver. The one thing noticed that feels worth mentioning is how ruthlessly DC worked its press to set up their second goal (and nice finish by Rooney); also, does the soul good to see an academy kid (Lucas Rodriguez) score a first-time, one-touch beauty. As for RSL, this carries over the “crap road team” narrative from 2018, which I can’t imagine they’d want. Call this one half-reviewed, and did I mention the fatigue? Julius Caesar, I am wiped out.

New York City FC 2-2 Los Angeles FC

As I watched this game, I was reminded of all the fun players both teams have – without going nuts, Maxi Moralez (for NYFCFC) and Diego Rossi (for LAFC) – and, for all that, a promoter could boil this match-up down to Carlos Vela versus Alexandriu Mitrita, and their respective support systems. Measured on that specific level (e.g., star-power), between the way he used his body to make his first goal a lose/lose option and the way he wrung all the life he could out of the attack to make the second goal possible, Vela won the duel. That said, Mitrira is one hell of a player, seriously, watch him play, it is a blast. All the same, even if he’s nearly as talented and probably faster, Mitrita is not David Villa – by which I mean, through no fault of his own, Mitrita plays a different role (one similar to Gil’s as it happens). NYCFC will need to figure out how to weaponize…well, the rest of that (which is a lot). From a higher level, framing this as one player against another goes against what made this such a fun game to watch (2/9ths of), because, to sum it up in one player, a lot of defenders thwart plays, but Maxime Chanot could be rounding into my favorite central defender in MLS for all the times I see him make a play in the best possible way – and precisely because it’s the one option that nobody expects. In pure paper terms, NYCFC has less to love about this result, but they played really well top-to-bottom (equipoised in the damnation and salvation of “Sweaty” Ben Sweat), and these both remain teams to watch…though maybe LAFC more than NYCFC, because Vela plays closer to the same spot Villa did and he looks really good this season, the end.

Los Angeles Galaxy 3-2 Minnesota United FC

The fact that LA won this game without having a “name” guy on the field – e.g., Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or even Romain Alessandrini – will mean more or less to you to the rough extent that you believe in Minnesota’s defensive reformation. Sadly, The Mothership (aka, MLSSoccer.com) didn’t include the precise highlight I wanted to isolate, but Uriel Antuna got very free at one point and lofted a second ball off a corner into the proverbial mixer and, with two Galaxy defenders fairly open at the back post, Minnesota defenders made a damned solid rotation to stuff the first order threat (while allowing a second, for the record). The growing collection of signs like that make liking the Loons’ chances reasonable. All the same, lacking a true (or trusted) forward, LA started Antuna at forward; Antuna showed how better suited he is to the wing with his combo/assist on Sebastian Lletget’s game-winner – and that’s not even your best starting point for flagging LA’s present potential. The Galaxy’s second was the goal to rightly terrify Timbers fans. Unless you count the accidental diagonal channel through which Emanuel Boateng threaded the secondary assist, there’s not much to dissect on that goal from a defensive stand-point: all those openings weren’t just counter-intuitive, they didn’t open up for long. The question then becomes how much you downgrade Minnesota’s defense not just for the loss, but for giving LA as many chances as they did (hold that thought*), no matter how much LA squandered them. On the still-rawer-data side, Minnesota put up respectable numbers – more than New England’s at Toronto – but, when you measure them all against the condensed game, the numbers that feel like your best guide to the game are total passing, passing accuracy and possession. If I had to flag one detail, I’d say LA looked better and more dangerous on the ball. On Minnesota’s side, their defense held the game together until Jan Gregus gave them hope with the kind of shot opposing scouts should flag in their training sessions (Gregus has been good generally, maybe even better). And they’re too-late comeback goal was pretty good, and they’re still on the road. Overall, I’d say Minnesota got measured, and LA came out on top.


All right, that’s me tapping out. Tonight, I’ll dream of bricks, Krogers, and a head full of regret that I saw Lake Erie for less than one minute (literally) and never got freshly prepared Skyline Chili. If someone could buy a couple of 5-ways on my behalf, I’d appreciate the gesture/love for Skyline.

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 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.