To answer the first question, of course, I’ll be tinkering with the format this week. Some people agonize over which tie to wear to the annual Christmas Party, other people do the blogging equivalent of 52 Pick-Up…
In order to make sure I get to everything, I’m going to start by covering all the results, noting memorable details, etc. Those will be divided between (first) the results worth talking about, then (second) the results that tracked a reasonable person’s expectations (or just mine). I’ll close out by highlighting some broader trends – including the “the West Owns The East” idea, which both does and doesn’t have merit – and precisely because it follows from another discussion about the Eastern Conference especially. Anyway, all things in their time. Let’s run down the results for Major League Soccer Week 13, starting with the games that really mattered.
The Games That Really Mattered, A Narrative
The biggest result of the weekend happened when the Portland Timbers orchestrated a multi-bank heist against the Philadelphia Union with a 3-1 win. A lot of the talk will focus on Brian Fernandez – who, sure, appears to be very, very good, and he deserves full credit for starting and ending the game-winner – but all the kids, fresh and familiar, made this win happen. I wrote about this game on Conifers & Citrus and, as I didn’t stop saying there, Philly played well. And Portland still won. Timbers’ fans are giddy today, but the games ahead will find the line between confidence and hubris. (Full Disclosure: I have drank the Kool-Aid. You’ll see that in the post).
The rest of the big results include the mind-meld between Cristian Espinoza and Chris “Back for One More Score” Wondolowski that delivered the San Jose Earthquakes a 2-1 win at Toronto FC; I have dubbed this one, The Lamentation of Drew Moor, in honor of his multiple melt-downs – which are earned, because TFC aren’t good right now. Sporting Kansas City’s 3-2 home win over the Seattle Sounders, while wholly remarkable for Johnny Russell beating Seattle with the rest of Sporting KC tied behind his back (I kid, I kid; also, see “behind” for the GOTW), doesn’t mean much either way. Getting the odd necessary win – something SKC has managed twice in its last 10 games – doesn’t paper over going 0-3-5 around those wins, and, just to note it, being winless on the road. Injuries of unknown seriousness to SKC’s Matt Besler and Seattle’s Kim Kee Hee make the sum of this result relevant – doubly for Seattle now that Chad Marshall has retired. A similar cloud hangs over the Vancouver Whitecaps’…respectable 2-1 win at home over FC Dallas (Dallas played them a lot better than even and created chances), but Ali Adnan, who has been stellar for them, limped off early. The simple fact of the loss matters more, though, to Dallas, who have picked up just two points from the last 18 available. True, that’s selective slicing that puts Dallas in the worst possible light, but they’re also 3-5-2 over their last 10 games and 0-4-2 over their last six games, and suddenly that doesn’t feel selective. Oof, time to start another paragraph…
Los Angeles FC’s (more or less) annihilation of the Montreal Impact in LA is noteworthy as a clean demonstration of how LAFC dismantles teams – something I’ll elaborate on down below – but Montreal…that team can lose in any venue, and win in about half as many. Real Salt Lake topping Atlanta United FC 2-1 in Sandy, UT ranks as the second most significant result of Week 13, after Portland’s. At the moment, RSL operates in a space between being a strong home team, and being a team that loses to good ones. Putting two goals past a heretofore solid Atlanta defense (7 goals allowed in their last 10 games), and doing it from range, having the wherewithal to find the lanes to make those shots answers the question of how RSL has succeeded without a steady starting forward. This, with the loss to the New York Red Bulls behind it, sees Atlanta in the tiniest of slumps. Just mind it doesn’t get wider…and, now that I’ve brought up the Red Bulls, let’s wave away the results that didn’t matter with as little respect as possible…sorry if your team is in there…
The fact the Chicago Fire drew New York City FC 1-1 in Chicago has the juicy local angle of the Fire having two games to play before the Gold Cup break, and they’re both on the road where Chicago is…not good. For NYCFC, this was just the latest draw. Wayne Rooney getting run over (and Matt Turner getting a deserved red card) feels like the second kick-off to the New England Revolution’s 1-1 draw at home against D.C. United. New England looks better without Friedel (could a cat do it better?), and DC’s looking dodgy on the road, and that’s about it. A lofted turd of a goal sealed the Houston Dynamo’s fate at Minnesota United FC, and Houston had their chances, and that’s one more reason to hold off on the “Houston-is-terrible-on-the-road” narrative. Even over just the past 10 games, they’ve played your tougher teams every time they’ve traveled. After that, the Colorado Rapids underlined the incredible awfulness of Columbus Crew SC by beating them 3-2 in Commerce City, and the Los Angeles Galaxy stole three points from Orlando City SC on the back of a Jonathan dos Santos goal (good one too), and Nani “DP, Right?” being terrible at penalty kicks. Ugly as that last game looked, it was eating caviar and watching world-class synchronized swimming compared to the Red Bulls drunk-mugging on the road against FC Cincinnati. The fact that FC Cincy played (reasonably) well only makes it feel worse…or that’s probably just the weight of my extended notes on this game, and FC Cincy’s personnel limitations, sinking in a little further.
I think that’s all the results – and let’s hear it for those glorious weeks when every team plays just one game! Let’s keep the tour going with some trend spotting!
West Over East?
Six games from MLS Week 13 pitted inter-conference rivals against one another. It didn’t go unnoticed that the Western Conference teams won all six games. The question, though, is whether anything actually surprising happened. The short answer, yes, but I only count Portland’s win at Philly a clear surprise. I can pull the rest out of a pure “West > East” narrative without much trouble. As noted above, RSL beating Atlanta is up there when it comes to shocking results, but RSL has a history of playing strong at home and, between things like having Michael Parkhurst at right back for Atlanta (which, only arguably) lead to Bofo Saucedo’s goal and RSL keeping them unsettled with (quality) shots from range, RSL essentially used the artillery to beat Atlanta. Atlanta took them to them all the way to the ref inhaling before calling the game over…and the winner came in from range as well. It’s debatably relevant that Atlanta didn’t start Pity Martinez, but, because RSL won this game in midfield, nah. None of that takes anything away from the win, it’s a big one, but I think you can achieve clarity by asking one question: do you think RSL is better than Atlanta more often than not, regardless of venue?
Either form or form-plus-location explains the four remaining games. Orlando hasn’t achieved good for three seasons, so how does the Galaxy beating them surprise anyone? That’s one game down. TFC has struggled in recent weeks – seriously, a goal-less draw against D.C. at home is as good as it gets over its past five games – and, lacking about…3/5th of its forward momentum (neither Bradley nor Pozuelo), Toronto had to rely on its defense, which responded by giving Wondo a pair of openings. Columbus, meanwhile, has lost to everyone lately, so why not the Rapids…wherever? Finally, who takes Montreal beating LAFC in LA without exorbitant odds? (No one, because no one takes 30-1 on any sporting event outside horse racing and expects to win.) Before talking about why the Eastern Conference kinda sucks, let me finish my thought on LAFC.
Caught In the Ropes
Christian Ramirez’s stuff/goal on Evan Bush’s ludicrous attempt at a clearance foreshadowed what the rest of the afternoon would look like for Montreal. Think a game of dodgeball that can’t end until the kid in a fetal crouch gets hit with the ball 50 times. That exaggerates what happened by a rough order of three (LAFC took only 17 shots all game), but LAFC did to Montreal what I’ve seen them do against both Portland and Cincinnati: they pin teams in with a second-wave half press of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduardo Atuesta, and Latif Blessing, which basically confines the game to a half-court set-up where they attack over and over and over until they score. So long as Atuesta can feed line-splitters up the gut to Carlos Vela, this will give them result after result. The other thing: Vela deserves the hype, and not just by the numbers, officially crazy as they are. He’s as fast and as strong as any forward in MLS, and he ranks with the best on the technical side, and that’s just hell for the rest of MLS. It’s the Timbers’ turn in the barrel next weekend. I’m happy that it’s Portland’s barrel, if nothing else, but I’m definitely anxious that LAFC will run Portland through the paddle-wheel. And if they do…seriously, look out.
The Truth About the Eastern Conference
To get back to the West versus East conversation, the conversation actually cuts both ways – a detail that’s both useful and interesting. On the one hand, the Eastern Conference’s currently steadiest teams played amongst themselves this weekend – e.g., D.C., the Red Bulls, NYCFC, even Chicago. Now, for those who really want to get confused, look at the bottom four teams in the Eastern Conference – that’s Cincinnati, New England, Orlando and Columbus – and ask yourself whether you see any of those teams replacing the top 7 teams in the East. My answer to that is, maybe Columbus, New England, but only if the Exorcism of Brad Friedel was the necessary act; going the other way, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see Montreal falling out of the Top 7, which is neat and all, but…that’s just, like, one spot, and with five teams chasing it.
Move over to the Western Conference, and you’ve got a very different picture. When I look at the current standings, I can see any one of the teams currently at 3rd through 7th getting overtaken by any team currently at 8th through 11th, with no offense intended to Colorado, who, to my mind, has a little more to prove. Some of it’s just quirks in the schedule (e.g., Portland opening with tons of games on the road, while Houston does the opposite), but other parts included a process of feet-finding (Vancouver? Dallas? RSL?), on-boarding new players (Portland), being awesome (LAFC), over-shooting your talent (Galaxy), surviving a(n annual) plague of injuries or a CCL hangover (SKC), or even the long-term health of your squad (Seattle).
I’m not the first person to suggest that the East is more hierarchical than the West, and I understand at least one theory as to why that matters – i.e., because every team in MLS plays two intra-conference games for every one inter-conference, the best teams in the East will inflate their records by picking up easy points from a larger pool of patsies. While that theory makes sense, I took a closer look at the past week’s East-v-West duels to scrub for false signals. And, as noted above, one can make good arguments that other factors could be at work. In the here and now, I can’t think of a way to keep track of East-v-West results that won’t lead to madness, so I’ll have to settle for pricking up my ears any time someone else talks about it. I’m just wary of it as a talking point – and mostly because it feels like a short-cut, sort of like Houston getting dismissed as a bad road team, when the issue really boils down to playing the toughest teams in the league on the road one after the other.
And that’s everything this week. Hope the new layout didn’t throw anyone or give them too much chaff to sort through before getting to the sweet, sweet wheat. I want to wrap up with some odds and ends, stray thoughts that came to me while watching way too much damn soccer this weekend.
– New York City FC has picked up 7 points of nine on a three-game road trip. They have a real chance to make that 10 points out of 12 when they wrap up the four-game road-trip against Columbus.
– It bears noting that Dallas has traveled the Valley of the Shadow of Death for, I’d argue, their last seven games. Recent away games include, Philadelphia, Atlanta (which they won!), Houston, LAFC, and, lately, Vancouver. Small wonder, basically, that they’re 2-4-0 on the road during that time. Meanwhile, at home they’ve played (again) LAFC, the grind-gods (aka, the Red Bulls), and a much-improved San Jose side. Strength of schedule matters…
– D.C. has endured the opposite road record from NYCFC, picking up just two points of 12 from their last four road games – and against arguably softer opposition. Related, they have two home games coming up, and they need the padding.
– Finally, both the LA Galaxy and SKC won this weekend, but broad circumstances make both results immediately irrelevant. Like SKC, LA isn’t winning nearly often enough to make a road win over Orlando interesting. On a deeper level, LA has lost to everyone everywhere in recent weeks – e.g., a yes-then-dreadful Columbus team on the road, and the Rapids in LA. The rule of thumb here is, make them prove they love you (which, I’m told, means taking you to the drive-in). Dammit.
– To flag an interesting trend going in the other direction, the only bad loss I see for RSL in its past 10 games was their Week 10 loss to Portland at home. Everything else makes sense and points to a reasonably bright future.
We’ll see how that goes. We’ll see how everything goes. Till next week.