MLS Weekly, Week 4, Leg 1: Absentees and a Frank Admission of Limitations

Jeff Bull is back with his luxurious and link-laden look at MLS Week 4 and a round of matches abridged by the international break.

To anyone wondering whether I’d do one of these on a short week, the answer is yes. At the same, no, this isn’t “MLS Week 4.” Only 10 of the 24 teams in Major League Soccer played this weekend – less than half – so, to lay down a house rule, I won’t call any given week “Week [X]” until over half the teams and league have played as many games, and you’re welcome for the confusion, now pronounce “banal,” because it turns out I’d been doing it wrong for years.

Fans owe the shorted schedule to an international weekend, of course, and the teams that played weren’t all there. This mattered more (Los Angeles FC v Real Salt Lake), less (FC Dallas v. Colorado), or not at all (New York Red Bulls v Orlando City SC), but it might have mattered most in the Philadelphia Union’s 3-0 win over Columbus Crew SC (links and further notes/adventures soon). The Union missed Corey Burke and Andre Blake (both Jamaica), but it probably hurt Columbus more to go without Wil Trapp and Gyasi Zardes (and maybe they’ll go back to missing Justin Meram soon). Based on the how well Philly played (more below), I think they would have taken all three points regardless. All the same, I think most people would accept that a talent/output drop off happens between Zardes and Patrick Mullins. What a goal might have done for Columbus during those opening 20 minutes…

With the Portland Timbers (happily) off for the first leg of MLS Week 4 (send help 2 us, plz), I had time free to watch all of that game and, to elaborate on the obvious, watching 20 minutes of a game will never compare to watching the full 90. As a rule, I don’t claim to “know” any team I don’t follow week to week. The same thing goes with the condensed games, products that are simultaneously interpreted and impressionistic. At any rate (what’s did that mean?), I would have come away with a completely different impression of Philadelphia’s win had I only watched the condensed game. Even combined, the box score and the condensed game aren’t equipped to translate how comfortably the Union controlled that second half. Of Philly, I wrote “they’ve found the seams” in my notes somewhere around the 55th minute. Bottom-line, I never thought for a second that Columbus would come back. And I wouldn’t have known that without either watching the whole game or pissing away far too much time on the internet.

In the final equation, I watch four teams a week for 90 full minutes (Cincinnati, Portland and special guests); I watch five condensed games after that, review all the box scores, and that’s pretty much it. Just…adjust your expectations to that level. I’m full-disclosure kind of person. I know where my skis are at all times. Or most of the time.

OK, notes on the rest of Week 4, Leg 1’s games are down below and, thanks to the small sample, I got to literally all of them. Fans of the site might have noticed by now that I haven’t yet mentioned FC Cincinnati’s dashing 2-0 win over the New England Revolution. I wrote extended notes on that (kinda mean) win back on my home site, but, to contextualize Cincinnati’s weekend with all the above: Cincinnati had a real handful of players missing, and the fact that they proved that mattered not at all is the least complicated, best feeling I’ve experienced all season. Also, Cincinnati kicked the crap out of New England, and pretty much across the whole game. Seriously, this was close to the lowest point, and Spencer Richey kicked its ass twice.

Onto the games!


Philadelphia Union 3-0 Columbus Crew SC

As I should have noted in the MLS Form Guide ULTRA (aka, source material for this post), if the Union lost this one, it would have forced the asking of questions. While it took some time for Philly to get this game by the short danglies, just about every player stood up and grabbed a handful when they did. David Accam, who announced his intentions early and then followed through with two goals (including one that bent physics) and a half-accidental assist on an emotional night, hogged the spotlight, but that win doesn’t happen without Faca Picault (involved on both of Accam’s goals) and Haris Medunjanin, a player I just…like, for what he does. For what it’s worth, this was a fun game to watch, with most of it played inside the lines and with very controlled, intelligent passing. After starting strong and sharper, Columbus slowly succumbed to where the Union controlled the game – and despite holding the edge in possession (so much for that “passing them to death” theory in the Form Guide ULTRA). The low shot total by both teams suggests some amount of dicking around, I suppose, but this one delivered above-average aesthetics. And…yeah, given everything covered above, I feel pretty good about leaving this game here. Next!

FC Dallas 2-1 Colorado Rapids

This played out per the famous soccer cliché, a tale of two halves (Dallas owned the first, but the Rapids attempted a hostile takeover in the second), but one can arguably measure the distance between these two teams through their short South American players. Dallas continues to rely on Colombian winger, Michael Barrios, and he keeps coming good, scoring goals and providing a really consistent outlet – which was huge for a Dallas team visibly invested in playing out of the back. The Rapids, meanwhile, brought Uruguayan midfielder Nicolas Mezquida over from the Vancouver Whitecaps and…he’s doing everything for Colorado that he did for the ‘Caps, and that’s why he was moved. After surviving an early onslaught, Colorado recovered enough to put in a respectable road performance. Going the other way, they rarely looked dangerous, Tim Howard had to bail them out with a couple saves, and they strained to score their one goal. They’re nothing like an easy opponent, but the way that divide between Barrios and Mezquida carries across personnel, generally tells me Dallas wins this match-up 7 times out of 10. On a detail level, I finally got glimpse of Pablo Aranguiz, and he looks like a handful (and that’s it so far) and I like the way Dallas uses Reggie Cannon (their right looks good, generally, e.g., see “scoring goals” above), but I’ll have to wait another day to see the hub-bub surrounding Paxton Pomykal. The one thing that most impressed me: the ice-cold pass by (17-year-old) Thomas Roberts to break the Rapids’ defense on Dallas’ winner. Oh, and I’d count fighting back for the win a good sign for Dallas.

New York Red Bulls 0-1 Orlando City SC

Hats off to whoever edited the condensed game: he/she gave about a quarter of the time (20 minutes) to Red Bulls’ flailing after the equalizer to Orlando’s game-winning goal – which, for the record, Dom Dwyer helped immensely with one of the better back-to-goal passes you’ll see this weekend (small sample). The Red Bulls couldn’t get close enough to generate danger and, judging by the box score, Orlando did very well to limit New York generally. Stray comments from the broadcast booth hinted at deeper struggles – e.g., in the words of Shep Messing, circa the 66th minute, “finally, this game is tilted in favor of Red Bull.” (Again, when your diet consists of mini-games, clues in the commentary can reinforce what you’re watching, or Messing’s a twit and his words are valuable as the sawdust in yer dog’s food.) What’s up with the Red Bulls, one of MLS’s most-reliable regular season teams, now a (for them) pitiable 1-1-1 to start 2019? And against Orlando in Harrison, NJ? For all the beautiful plays/passes (Bradley Wright-Phillips had an absolutely majestic centering ball in the first half), they simply didn’t create a lot of clean looks. The question is how much to credit Orlando for that. It’s not a team I know well – they’ve lingered on a permanent “to-do list” for me for as long as they’ve been in MLS – but this result made me care enough to look into the names I don’t know. I started with Carlos Ascues, and not just because he cleared the equalizer off the line three minutes after Orlando went up. Defense killed Orlando last season, so if they can clean that up (without relying on fouls and/or breaking Connor Lade), the Lions do have some weapons. Getting a point where they least expected; that’s a good three points for Orlando. New York, meanwhile, loses some reputation points with this one.

Los Angeles FC 2-1 Real Salt Lake

LAFC’s choices of substitutes interested me as much as anything (e.g., can’t think of the last time I saw a player cross-over from indoor), but they tested three young, for lack of a better word, randos in a competitive match and that makes you wonder what they have up their sleeves. They also dropped the kids into what looked like a pretty damn rugged game, one with cards flying, yellow and (a soft) red (again, with the hands to face thing). What else? I wouldn’t credit the whispers about a close contest, because that didn’t really show up in anything I saw. Sure, LAFC was lucky to have a central defender score…that (also, Walker Zimmerman celebrations make me uncomfortable), but the box score confirmed a telling detail that the condensed game suggested: RSL might have given them Hell around midfield, but they didn’t get close to goal much, Nick Rimando had more saves than RSL had shots, etc. Despite that lowly output, RSL came real close to putting another goal past LAFC (offside called it back; good call, apparently, one of several), and, given that Zimmerman waited all game to scare the children (i.e., he scored late, then horror celebration), who knows what having a taller hill to climb would have done to the dynamic? This was another game with players missing, and I have two further notes on that: that Eduard Atuesta and, of all people, Latif Blessing held down LAFC’s central midfield (and Andre Horta probably did stuff too) in the absence of Mark-Anthony Kaye, and that puts them on solid footing at that position for the season. As for RSL, it’s possible that Albert Rusnak could have given RSL a better mix of shots versus saves, but I’m more fixated on whether Everton Luiz is up for the job. He is…untidy, and otherwise underwhelming. The search for New Kyle Beckerman continues.


And, that’s it for this week. Can’t wait to see how the rest of Week 4 plays out. And, for some teams, the beginning of Week 5. Just…forget the calendar thing, MLS. Till next week.

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 Eastern Conference Preview: Part 1 – The Reclamation Projects

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

Photo Credit: Amil Delic License

A common adage is that a season in any sport “isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon”. That could also apply to soccer, but perhaps the more appropriate description for this region of the country is that “it’s not a drag race; it’s an Indy 500”.

We’ve gotten used to that feeling here in Cincinnati, except that now the pit-stop in the middle of the season involves less home friendlies and more transfer-window panic. Yes, there’s an All-Star Break somewhere in the middle, but for the most part, unless the wheels have come off, the vehicle can still be repaired and sent out again.

But what do these sports-car clubs have under the hood to start the race? This is no longer a league where Cincinnati can be content to take its time out of the gate and cruise into the playoffs. The competition is harder, and the trips are now to Los Angeles and New York City, not Louisville and New Jersey. This is the big time that calls for monster trucks, not Micro Machines.

Of course, all of these racers are looking to compete from the wave of the starting flag. Let’s take a look at last year’s non-playoff wreckages (and FCC’s own entry) to see how they finished last year, the major pieces they added in the offseason, and their chances at making the Winner’s Circle.


FC Cincinnati

2018 Finish Line: 1st in USL Eastern Conference (23-3-8), 74 pts. 72 goals for, 34 goals against.

The regular-season USL champions only made it to the conference semifinals, but the team set USL regular-season records for their consecutive-wins streak (10) and unbeaten streak (23) during the regular season. (We swear we won’t talk about the individual accolades and attendance records, even though there were many.)

Offseason Overhaul*:

OUT: Half of the 2018 regular-season USL champion team

IN: The other half of the 2018 regular-season USL championship team, as well as 5 trades, 4 transfers, 4 expansion draftees, 5 Superdraft draftees, and GK Przemyslaw Tyton

Can you call an expansion season an “overhaul”? Perhaps you can, considering 11 players were kept from last year’s USL squad. It almost feels that head coach Alan Koch took his Best XI with him to the MLS team. Many of the holes have been filled with international talent (too much to hold within the allotted amount), and the defense has been beefed-up with stronger defenders in Kendall Waston and Greg Garza. The offense hasn’t had much of a facelift (but the arrival of winger Kekuta Manneh could provide a boost).

There still needs to be a little work done to figure out who goes where and if any of the Superdraft or ex-USL players get loaned out. Most importantly, it will be interesting to hear and see who the vocal leader will be on this team. No captain has been announced yet, but there’s a good possibility that Waston takes the mantle.

2019 Forecast:

Many dice have been rolled for Cincinnati’s first MLS season. Not much time has been allotted to get a strong squad together, and some voids appear to still exist (attacking midfielder, second capable striker next to Fanendo Adi), but that possibly keeps the cards available for a mid-season transfer. This team should be potent on defense, but it will be interesting to see if Jack Stern’s “GK Union” can be restructured and fine-tuned to combat MLS-level offenses.

The hardest pill to swallow will be the starting schedule. Nine of the first 10 matches will be against teams that made the playoffs last year. While it’s good to be positive, a playoff finish might be just out of reach if they cannot start strong.


Orlando City SC

2018 Finish Line: 11th in Eastern Conference (8-22-4), 28 pts. 43 goals for, 74 goals against.

An early-season 6-game winning streak was followed by a devastating 9-game losing streak which ultimately cost head coach Jason Kreis his job. The team went on to give up 74 goals, an MLS single-season record, and their -31 goal differential was worst in the league.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: M Yoshimar Yotun, GK Joe Bendik, D Mohamed El-Munir, D Jonathan Spector, F Stefano Pinho

IN: F Tesho Akindele, D Joao Moutinho, D Danilo Acosta, M Sebastian Mendez, GK Greg Ranjitsingh

Head coach James O’Connor now gets to build this team from Day One, responsible with translating his success at Louisville to Orlando. 15 players from last year were either let go or traded, including most of the D-line. Acosta and Moutinho are young resets on defense, and Mendez should be the key defensive midfielder the Lions needed. However, the team is rolling the dice with Greg Ranjitsingh given the keys to the net.

2019 Forecast:

Supposedly, this team still operates around Dom Dwyer’s offensive skill and Sacha Kljestan’s distribution, but both were shells of their former selves last year. The defense can’t possibly get worse, but the release of Spector also means that the team is without an assigned captain, and Ranjitsingh has not played a single MLS minute. Midfielders Chris Mueller and Josue Colman will solidify next to Kljestan, but will it matter if Orlando can’t get a striker to complement Dwyer? It’s hard to see this team making a run at the top and probably need another season to mature.


Chicago Fire

2018 Finish Line: 10th in Eastern Conference (8-18-8), 32 pts. 48 goals for, 61 goals against.

Chicago suffered a mid-season 8-game losing streak that doomed their season, forcing them to miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons. Had the team not had the lowest number of shots (341) and shots-on-goal (129) in the conference, perhaps their -13 goal differential would have been better.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: D Matt Polster, D Brandon Vincent, F Alan Gordon,

IN: D Marcelo, F Fabian Herbers, M Przemyslaw Frankowski, M Amando Moreno

The Fire had a headscratcher of a season last year. Midfielder Aleksander Katai was an instant success with 12 goals and 5 assists, but there wasn’t much else that contributed. The team could not put two straight wins together and were sunk by midseason. That didn’t discourage the team’s confidence in their squad, as Bastian Schweinsteiger and Johan Kappelhof were re-signed in the offseason. The addition of Marcelo should make the defense stronger and push Schweinsteiger up higher, but Fire fans might also wonder what would have happened if they kept homegrown talent Andrew Gutman.

2019 Forecast:

While Orlando has traded everything but the kitchen sink, Chicago has been content with just letting contracts expire. The Fire will be rolling with a lot of experience in the offensive end now that Schweinsteiger can push upward, but that also means an older offense. The other question area is in net—Richard Sanchez returns after only 3 shutouts and 13 losses last season, and backup David Ousted might not be at 100%. It’s hard to see this team keeping up with faster and younger squads, so the playoffs might be another miss for Chicago.


Toronto FC

2018 Finish Line: 9th in Eastern Conference (10-18-6), 36 pts. 59 goals for, 64 goals against. Canadian Cup champions.

The defending MLS Cup champions almost defeated Mexican side Guadalajara in the CONCACAF Champions League final. However, the congested schedule also led to only 3 wins and 10 points in their first 11 games. They also had the distinct honor to have the worst penalty-kick conversion rate, missing 4 out of 9 attempts.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: F Sebastian Giovinco, M Victor Vasquez, F Tosaint Ricketts, D Nick Hagglund

IN: D Laurent Ciman, F Terrence Boyd, D/M Nick DeLeon, M Tsubasa Endoh

The offensive machine had some issues in Toronto, but the 64 goals against indicated that there were major concerns in the defense. Perhaps the rough CCL schedule hurt them early, or perhaps the thin USL reserve team presented weaknesses in squad depth, but the team just wasn’t the 2017 championship squad anymore. This forced a need to sacrifice offense—the team trimmed 36% of their goals and 39% of their assists by transferring Giovinco and Vasquez to Middle Eastern teams. While Laurent Ciman and Nick DeLeon are big defensive additions, the team has the top spot in the Allocation Order and may be hunting for more DPs.

2019 Forecast:

The Reds might have a difficult season ahead of them, if the demoralizing 5-1 preseason loss against Las Vegas Lights is any indicator. Toronto again has the CCL ahead of them, but they may opt to focus more on the MLS season. It will be important to see if Jozy Altidore can stay healthy after a difficult 2018 and work in tandem with fellow national-teamer Boyd. It’s hard to envision this team getting to the same level in 2017, but if midfielder Jonathan Osorio surpasses his 2018 numbers (10 goals, 7 assists), they can cash in a spot in the playoffs.


New England Revolution

2018 Finish Line: 8th in Eastern Conference (10-13-11), 41 pts. 49 goals for, 55 goals against.

The rebuild in head coach Brad Friedel’s first year wasn’t too painful, and their pressing football forced the most corner kicks in the league (224). However, the Revs still couldn’t perform well on the road. New England have only won five away games in the past three seasons.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: M Kelyn Rowe, D Claude Dielna, D Chris Tierney

IN: D Edgar Castillo, F Carles Gil, F Juan Fernando Caicedo, F Tajon Buchanan

In his first year, Friedel almost took New England back into the playoffs, but the team failed to score a positive goal-differential for the third straight season. While defense has been the Revs’ weakness, the team stacked more offense in place, claiming Juan Caicedo on a transfer and promoting more homegrown talent. However, Carles Gil may be the biggest pickup, as the Revs have needed an attacking midfielder after the departure of Lee Nguyen in early 2018. The defense has been tooled, but the loss of Tierney to retirement may be hard to replace with just Castillo.

2019 Forecast:

There is suddenly a lot of offense on a team that doesn’t have a USL reserve squad. The Revs have eight forwards on their current roster, and all could benefit from Gil’s playmaking. However, that also means that there could be unrest and demands for more minutes—forward Diego Fagundez has already stated his desire to be traded. If the midfield can effectively connect the front and back thirds, Friedel can hide the lack of adjustments to the back line and get the Revs in the playoffs.


Montreal Impact

2018 Finish Line: 7th in Eastern Conference (14-16-4), 46 pts. 47 goals for, 53 goals against.

The Impact went cold to start the season, losing 10 of their first 13 games. While they bounced back behind Ignacio Piatti’s 16 goals, the team could not succeed on the road enough to make the playoffs (3-12-2). The -6 goal differential is a bit deceptive, as the team was +15 at home and -21 away.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: M/F Alexandro Silva, F Matteo Mancosu, D Chris Duvall, M Jeisson Vargas

IN: F Maxi Urruti, F Harry Novillo, D Zachary Brault-Guillard

The above listing may not show it, but Montreal opted to decline, trade, and transfer a lot of contracts. 14 players were dealt, while only six (including only one from the Superdraft) were pulled in. However, the trade to pick up Max Urruti (8 goals, 11 assists) from FC Dallas at least fills the loss of Silva to Paraguayan club Olimpia. The offensive pieces may be a good addition to Piatti in his last contract year, while the addition of Brault-Guillard could be a good counter to left back Daniel Lovitz.

2019 Forecast:

Not many changes have been made to Montreal’s defense, which might have been the difference between making the playoffs and barely missing them. A lot of trust is being placed in Evan Bush’s gloved hands and his defensive line to do better than last year. The Impact dealt USL stud goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau to Vancouver. While the front office and coaching staff is depending on a thin forward line for offense, the harshest reality might be the Impact’s schedule. They will play 10 road games in their first 13 matches, including the first six alone. Montreal can’t let their road woes extend into the 2019 season, but perhaps their strong home form could push them into the playoffs.


Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more preseason and preview coverage. Next time, we’ll take a look at the Western Conference.

*NOTE: The Offseason Overhaul does not include every move made by the team in the offseason, only those the author chose to highlight.

Photo Credit: Amil Delic License