MLS Weekly, Week 13: East vs West, and Sub-Text

Some people agonize over which tie to wear to the annual Christmas Party, other people do the blogging equivalent of 52 Pick-Up..

Credit: Porsche997SBS / License

To answer the first question, of course, I’ll be tinkering with the format this week. Some people agonize over which tie to wear to the annual Christmas Party, other people do the blogging equivalent of 52 Pick-Up…

In order to make sure I get to everything, I’m going to start by covering all the results, noting memorable details, etc. Those will be divided between (first) the results worth talking about, then (second) the results that tracked a reasonable person’s expectations (or just mine). I’ll close out by highlighting some broader trends – including the “the West Owns The East” idea, which both does and doesn’t have merit – and precisely because it follows from another discussion about the Eastern Conference especially. Anyway, all things in their time. Let’s run down the results for Major League Soccer Week 13, starting with the games that really mattered.

The Games That Really Mattered, A Narrative

The biggest result of the weekend happened when the Portland Timbers orchestrated a multi-bank heist against the Philadelphia Union with a 3-1 win. A lot of the talk will focus on Brian Fernandez – who, sure, appears to be very, very good, and he deserves full credit for starting and ending the game-winner – but all the kids, fresh and familiar, made this win happen. I wrote about this game on Conifers & Citrus and, as I didn’t stop saying there, Philly played well. And Portland still won. Timbers’ fans are giddy today, but the games ahead will find the line between confidence and hubris. (Full Disclosure: I have drank the Kool-Aid. You’ll see that in the post).

The rest of the big results include the mind-meld between Cristian Espinoza and Chris “Back for One More Score” Wondolowski that delivered the San Jose Earthquakes a 2-1 win at Toronto FC; I have dubbed this one, The Lamentation of Drew Moor, in honor of his multiple melt-downs – which are earned, because TFC aren’t good right now. Sporting Kansas City’s 3-2 home win over the Seattle Sounders, while wholly remarkable for Johnny Russell beating Seattle with the rest of Sporting KC tied behind his back (I kid, I kid; also, see “behind” for the GOTW), doesn’t mean much either way. Getting the odd necessary win – something SKC has managed twice in its last 10 games – doesn’t paper over going 0-3-5 around those wins, and, just to note it, being winless on the road. Injuries of unknown seriousness to SKC’s Matt Besler and Seattle’s Kim Kee Hee make the sum of this result relevant – doubly for Seattle now that Chad Marshall has retired. A similar cloud hangs over the Vancouver Whitecaps’…respectable 2-1 win at home over FC Dallas (Dallas played them a lot better than even and created chances), but Ali Adnan, who has been stellar for them, limped off early. The simple fact of the loss matters more, though, to Dallas, who have picked up just two points from the last 18 available. True, that’s selective slicing that puts Dallas in the worst possible light, but they’re also 3-5-2 over their last 10 games and 0-4-2 over their last six games, and suddenly that doesn’t feel selective. Oof, time to start another paragraph…

Los Angeles FC’s (more or less) annihilation of the Montreal Impact in LA is noteworthy as a clean demonstration of how LAFC dismantles teams – something I’ll elaborate on down below – but Montreal…that team can lose in any venue, and win in about half as many. Real Salt Lake topping Atlanta United FC 2-1 in Sandy, UT ranks as the second most significant result of Week 13, after Portland’s. At the moment, RSL operates in a space between being a strong home team, and being a team that loses to good ones. Putting two goals past a heretofore solid Atlanta defense (7 goals allowed in their last 10 games), and doing it from range, having the wherewithal to find the lanes to make those shots answers the question of how RSL has succeeded without a steady starting forward. This, with the loss to the New York Red Bulls behind it, sees Atlanta in the tiniest of slumps. Just mind it doesn’t get wider…and, now that I’ve brought up the Red Bulls, let’s wave away the results that didn’t matter with as little respect as possible…sorry if your team is in there…

Leftovers

The fact the Chicago Fire drew New York City FC 1-1 in Chicago has the juicy local angle of the Fire having two games to play before the Gold Cup break, and they’re both on the road where Chicago is…not good. For NYCFC, this was just the latest draw. Wayne Rooney getting run over (and Matt Turner getting a deserved red card) feels like the second kick-off to the New England Revolution’s 1-1 draw at home against D.C. United. New England looks better without Friedel (could a cat do it better?), and DC’s looking dodgy on the road, and that’s about it. A lofted turd of a goal sealed the Houston Dynamo’s fate at Minnesota United FC, and Houston had their chances, and that’s one more reason to hold off on the “Houston-is-terrible-on-the-road” narrative. Even over just the past 10 games, they’ve played your tougher teams every time they’ve traveled. After that, the Colorado Rapids underlined the incredible awfulness of Columbus Crew SC by beating them 3-2 in Commerce City, and the Los Angeles Galaxy stole three points from Orlando City SC on the back of a Jonathan dos Santos goal (good one too), and Nani “DP, Right?” being terrible at penalty kicks. Ugly as that last game looked, it was eating caviar and watching world-class synchronized swimming compared to the Red Bulls drunk-mugging on the road against FC Cincinnati. The fact that FC Cincy played (reasonably) well only makes it feel worse…or that’s probably just the weight of my extended notes on this game, and FC Cincy’s personnel limitations, sinking in a little further.

I think that’s all the results – and let’s hear it for those glorious weeks when every team plays just one game! Let’s keep the tour going with some trend spotting!

West Over East?

Six games from MLS Week 13 pitted inter-conference rivals against one another. It didn’t go unnoticed that the Western Conference teams won all six games. The question, though, is whether anything actually surprising happened. The short answer, yes, but I only count Portland’s win at Philly a clear surprise. I can pull the rest out of a pure “West > East” narrative without much trouble. As noted above, RSL beating Atlanta is up there when it comes to shocking results, but RSL has a history of playing strong at home and, between things like having Michael Parkhurst at right back for Atlanta (which, only arguably) lead to Bofo Saucedo’s goal and RSL keeping them unsettled with (quality) shots from range, RSL essentially used the artillery to beat Atlanta. Atlanta took them to them all the way to the ref inhaling before calling the game over…and the winner came in from range as well. It’s debatably relevant that Atlanta didn’t start Pity Martinez, but, because RSL won this game in midfield, nah. None of that takes anything away from the win, it’s a big one, but I think you can achieve clarity by asking one question: do you think RSL is better than Atlanta more often than not, regardless of venue?

Either form or form-plus-location explains the four remaining games. Orlando hasn’t achieved good for three seasons, so how does the Galaxy beating them surprise anyone? That’s one game down. TFC has struggled in recent weeks – seriously, a goal-less draw against D.C. at home is as good as it gets over its past five games – and, lacking about…3/5th of its forward momentum (neither Bradley nor Pozuelo), Toronto had to rely on its defense, which responded by giving Wondo a pair of openings. Columbus, meanwhile, has lost to everyone lately, so why not the Rapids…wherever? Finally, who takes Montreal beating LAFC in LA without exorbitant odds? (No one, because no one takes 30-1 on any sporting event outside horse racing and expects to win.) Before talking about why the Eastern Conference kinda sucks, let me finish my thought on LAFC.

Caught In the Ropes

Christian Ramirez’s stuff/goal on Evan Bush’s ludicrous attempt at a clearance foreshadowed what the rest of the afternoon would look like for Montreal. Think a game of dodgeball that can’t end until the kid in a fetal crouch gets hit with the ball 50 times. That exaggerates what happened by a rough order of three (LAFC took only 17 shots all game), but LAFC did to Montreal what I’ve seen them do against both Portland and Cincinnati: they pin teams in with a second-wave half press of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduardo Atuesta, and Latif Blessing, which basically confines the game to a half-court set-up where they attack over and over and over until they score. So long as Atuesta can feed line-splitters up the gut to Carlos Vela, this will give them result after result. The other thing: Vela deserves the hype, and not just by the numbers, officially crazy as they are. He’s as fast and as strong as any forward in MLS, and he ranks with the best on the technical side, and that’s just hell for the rest of MLS. It’s the Timbers’ turn in the barrel next weekend. I’m happy that it’s Portland’s barrel, if nothing else, but I’m definitely anxious that LAFC will run Portland through the paddle-wheel. And if they do…seriously, look out.

The Truth About the Eastern Conference

To get back to the West versus East conversation, the conversation actually cuts both ways – a detail that’s both useful and interesting. On the one hand, the Eastern Conference’s currently steadiest teams played amongst themselves this weekend – e.g., D.C., the Red Bulls, NYCFC, even Chicago. Now, for those who really want to get confused, look at the bottom four teams in the Eastern Conference – that’s Cincinnati, New England, Orlando and Columbus – and ask yourself whether you see any of those teams replacing the top 7 teams in the East. My answer to that is, maybe Columbus, New England, but only if the Exorcism of Brad Friedel was the necessary act; going the other way, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see Montreal falling out of the Top 7, which is neat and all, but…that’s just, like, one spot, and with five teams chasing it.

Move over to the Western Conference, and you’ve got a very different picture. When I look at the current standings, I can see any one of the teams currently at 3rd through 7th getting overtaken by any team currently at 8th through 11th, with no offense intended to Colorado, who, to my mind, has a little more to prove. Some of it’s just quirks in the schedule (e.g., Portland opening with tons of games on the road, while Houston does the opposite), but other parts included a process of feet-finding (Vancouver? Dallas? RSL?), on-boarding new players (Portland), being awesome (LAFC), over-shooting your talent (Galaxy), surviving a(n annual) plague of injuries or a CCL hangover (SKC), or even the long-term health of your squad (Seattle).

I’m not the first person to suggest that the East is more hierarchical than the West, and I understand at least one theory as to why that matters – i.e., because every team in MLS plays two intra-conference games for every one inter-conference, the best teams in the East will inflate their records by picking up easy points from a larger pool of patsies. While that theory makes sense, I took a closer look at the past week’s East-v-West duels to scrub for false signals. And, as noted above, one can make good arguments that other factors could be at work. In the here and now, I can’t think of a way to keep track of East-v-West results that won’t lead to madness, so I’ll have to settle for pricking up my ears any time someone else talks about it. I’m just wary of it as a talking point – and mostly because it feels like a short-cut, sort of like Houston getting dismissed as a bad road team, when the issue really boils down to playing the toughest teams in the league on the road one after the other.

And that’s everything this week. Hope the new layout didn’t throw anyone or give them too much chaff to sort through before getting to the sweet, sweet wheat. I want to wrap up with some odds and ends, stray thoughts that came to me while watching way too much damn soccer this weekend.

– New York City FC has picked up 7 points of nine on a three-game road trip. They have a real chance to make that 10 points out of 12 when they wrap up the four-game road-trip against Columbus.

– It bears noting that Dallas has traveled the Valley of the Shadow of Death for, I’d argue, their last seven games. Recent away games include, Philadelphia, Atlanta (which they won!), Houston, LAFC, and, lately, Vancouver. Small wonder, basically, that they’re 2-4-0 on the road during that time. Meanwhile, at home they’ve played (again) LAFC, the grind-gods (aka, the Red Bulls), and a much-improved San Jose side. Strength of schedule matters…

– D.C. has endured the opposite road record from NYCFC, picking up just two points of 12 from their last four road games – and against arguably softer opposition. Related, they have two home games coming up, and they need the padding.

– Finally, both the LA Galaxy and SKC won this weekend, but broad circumstances make both results immediately irrelevant. Like SKC, LA isn’t winning nearly often enough to make a road win over Orlando interesting. On a deeper level, LA has lost to everyone everywhere in recent weeks – e.g., a yes-then-dreadful Columbus team on the road, and the Rapids in LA. The rule of thumb here is, make them prove they love you (which, I’m told, means taking you to the drive-in). Dammit.

– To flag an interesting trend going in the other direction, the only bad loss I see for RSL in its past 10 games was their Week 10 loss to Portland at home. Everything else makes sense and points to a reasonably bright future.

We’ll see how that goes. We’ll see how everything goes. Till next week.

Photos: FC Cincinnati 0 – 3 Real Salt Lake

Here are images of FC Cincinnati’s match with Real Salt Lake on Friday, April 19th, courtesy of Ryan Meyer and Joe Craven.

Here are images of FC Cincinnati’s 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake on Friday, April 19th.

When browsing the gallery below, after clicking on any given image, a high-resolution version can be found by scrolling down and clicking “View Full Size.” All images are courtesy of Joe Craven and Ryan Meyer.

All images are copyright protected to safeguard the creative rights of our photographers. We’re very open to sharing our work with those who want to show support for FC Cincinnati. We simply request that you ask (via DM on Twitter or email) and give credit where it’s due. Thanks!

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s 2019 MLS season.

FC Cincinnati 0 – 3 Real Salt Lake

After a promising first 30 minutes, FC Cincinnati conceded two late first-half goals that ultimately decided the match. Albert Rusnák then…

Graphic: Connor Paquette

After a promising first 30 minutes, FC Cincinnati conceded two late first-half goals that ultimately decided the match. Albert Rusnák then finished FC Cincinnati off by converting a penalty kick in the 59th minute, his second of the night.

Real Salt Lake 3, FC Cincinnati 0

Nippert Stadium | Cincinnati, Ohio

Friday, April 19, 2019

SCORING SUMMARY

RSL – Albert Rusnák (unassisted) 42’

RSL – Sam Johnson (unassisted) 45’+2’

RSL – Albert Rusnák (penalty kick) 59’

FC Cincinnati: Spencer Richey, Alvas Powell, Nick Hagglund, Kendall Waston ©, Mathieu Deplagne, Victor Ulloa (Fatai Alashe 77’), Leonardo Bertone, Allan Cruz (Kekuta Manneh 67’), Roland Lamah, Kenny Saief, Darren Mattocks (Caleb Stanko 77’)

Bench: Przemysław Tytoń, Justin Hoyte, Forrest Lasso, Eric Alexander

Stats: Shots 14, Shots on goal 1, Saves 3, Corner kicks 13, Offsides 0, Fouls 7, Possession 51.1%, Passes 443 (75.8%)

Real Salt Lake: Andrew Putna, Aaron Herrera, Justen Glad, Nedum Onuoha, Donny Toia, Kyle Beckerman, Corey Baird (Sebastián Saucedo 74’), Jefferson Savarino (Joao Plata 90’+1’), Damir Kreilach, Albert Rusnák, Sam Johnson (Nick Besler 87’)

Bench: David Ochoa, Brooks Lennon, Justin Portillo, Pablo Ruiz

Stats: Shots 10, Shots on goal 7, Saves 1, Corner kicks 1, Offsides 3, Fouls 13, Possession 48.9%, Passes 443 (78.1%)

MISCONDUCT SUMMARY

RSL – Albert Rusnák (caution) 38’

RSL – Corey Baird (caution) 45’+3’

CIN – Kendall Waston (caution) 58’

Referee: Fotis Bazakos

Assistant Referees: Brian Poeschel (AR1) and Cory Richardson (AR2)

Fourth Official: Farhad Dadkho

VAR: Chico Grajeda

AVAR: Benjamin Hall-Volpenhein

Weather: 47 degrees and cloudy

Attendance: 26,416

What FC Cincinnati Needs to Improve for RSL Win

As FC Cincinnati looks to Friday night’s clash versus Real Salt Lake, Alan Koch’s squad understands they must improve a few key aspects…

Image:Joe Craven

As FC Cincinnati looks to Friday night’s clash versus Real Salt Lake, Alan Koch’s squad understands they must improve key aspects of their game in order to take all three points.

Cincinnati (2-3-2) finds themselves hovering mid-table in a balanced Eastern Conference after a defeat to league-leaders Los Angeles Football Club.

“To keep them [LAFC] to 1-0 until the 90th minute was a testament to the defensive work we did out there,” said Victor Ulloa. “It was unfortunate to give up that first goal on a set piece, something that we can control.”

“We created chances,” Ulloa continued. “We created clear chances and you have to put them away. I think we could be talking today about walking away with a point, but we take the positives and we grow.”

The attitude that FCC must acknowledge and move on from last Saturday’s shortcomings is prevalent throughout the team.

“I thought we were very unfortunate not to get a result,” said Kekuta Manneh. “We had our chances and we didn’t take them. It’s something to build on.”

The next game week occurs at a time in which both Cincinnati and Real Salt Lake reside on the fringes of a playoff picture that is just starting to emerge. Real Salt Lake (2-4-1) travels to Nippert Stadium looking for two wins in a row following a home victory against Orlando City SC. The opening run of games has not been kind to RSL overall, as they have fallen to 2019 title-contenders such as Seattle Sounders, D.C. United, and LAFC.

“They’re a tough team that works really hard,” Victor Ulloa said. “They are going to come in here and try to get a result away. So, we have to get back to our winning ways at home and give the fans what they deserve and that’s three points.”

Although not expected to earn a result away to LAFC, arguably the hottest team in MLS, the same cannot be said for the upcoming home matchup against RSL. Alan Koch’s side should attempt to dictate the tempo against a Real Salt Lake side that often concedes possession.

“It’s interesting,” Koch said, “because when I say possess the ball better, people criticize it and say, ‘You’re a transition team. Why are you trying to possess the ball?’ But when we do possess the ball, then it doesn’t give the opposition a chance to try to break us down.”

“Yeah, of course we’re going to focus on transitioning moments because we’re good at those when we attack,” Koch continued. “We want to reinforce being good in attacking transition, but I do think that if we can possess the ball more, it takes away from the team that we play against too.”

Determining the appropriate balance between possession and counterattacking football is essential in ensuring Koch can set up his team to succeed.

From there, it is up to Cincinnati’s attacking threats to be clinical in front of goal.

Match Program: FC Cincinnati vs Real Salt Lake

FC Cincinnati is back at Nippert tomorrow for Friday night lights against Real Salt Lake. Lucas Muller from SB Nation’s RSL Soapbox gave us the skinny…

Design: CSDIV / Image: Joe Craven

FC Cincinnati is back at Nippert tomorrow for Friday night lights against Real Salt Lake. Lucas Muller from SB Nation’s RSL Soapbox gave us the skinny on this matchup between teams that are looking for maximum points from this contest.

RSL have found difficulty getting points away from Rio Tinto. How do you feel RSL needs to approach this game differently from past away games?

Real Salt Lake’s road form has been abysmal both last season (3 wins, 11 losses, 3 draws) and this year (3 losses and 1 draw). On the bright side, RSL has looked much more competitive in their last two road games, even if they lost. They were really unlucky to give up a last minute goal that deflected off of a defender in LA, and they were combative against Seattle until the final whistle. It’s certainly an improvement over that 5-0 loss to D.C.

In order to win, the team will need to bunker more than we normally see from them. That’s asking a lot, especially with Luiz likely out with injury. RSL’s backline has been a funny thing. Brooks Lennon is a forward who has been converted to right back, yet that experiment, which has been going on for about a year, isn’t finding much success. Last week’s backline saw Toia on the left, Glad and Onuoha at center back, and Herrera at right back. Herrera has often played on the left, but the whole defense looks better when players are in their natural positions. The only goal they conceded at the weekend was a brilliant free kick from Nani, so it’s hard to pin that on them too much. 

In the attack, the team will need to utilize their speed and their depth. Guys like Johnson and Baird are very fast and can make life difficult for defenders. RSL also has a ton of attackers that can sub on. If they can avoid conceding early, they should have an option to apply attacking pressure throughout, even if that’s through countering-attacking opportunities.

What’s your early season take on forward Sam Johnson, after a slow start due to injury and internationals, but now scoring his first goal?

Sam Johnson has a lot of potential for the team. He’s fast, hard-working, and intelligent. What impressed me most about his goal from last weekend is that he scored immediately after falling down. He didn’t give up on the play, but fought on and finished from a very difficult angle.

We’re hoping that his first goal is what opens the floodgates, but it’s too early to predict that. His stats are improving; he started in Seattle and Orlando games with 2 shots in Seattle and 3 against Orlando, one of which resulted in a goal.

In his first few games, he came on as a substitute, but wasn’t getting a lot of service.  If the players around him can build an understanding of his style of play, he’ll be a major threat.

RSL are conceding 2 goals against per match. Is the bigger problem in their defense green/poor defenders, or does it have more to do with Rimando and Beckerman aging out? Or something else?

It’s probably a combination of issues. Rimando has 18 saves this season, which isn’t bad. There are goals you think he would’ve saved five years ago, but he’s also come up big at moments this season as well.

My opinion is that playing Brooks Lennon as a right back has really hurt the defense. He’s a good winger/forward, but he struggles on the backline. At this point, the only green defenders are Lennon, when he’s at right back, and Herrera. But Herrera has played most of his career at right back and he looks confident, even if he has occasional mistakes.

Onuoha has been an incredible addition to the team, not just for what he brings on the field, but as a former captain at Queens Park Rangers and Manchester City player, his leadership and experience is a huge asset.

Glad broke his toe at the start of the year, but has rejoined the team and looked good against Orlando. RSL has three center backs that are starting quality between Silva, Onuoha, and Glad, and Glad looks determined to earn back his starting spot. 

I really believe the defense has improved this year, and the 5-0 blowout at D.C. was due to red cards and a penalty more than defensive mistakes. RSL has four losses this season, but three of those came when the team received a red card. A red is always going to change a game drastically, so if they can keep all 11 men on the pitch, they have a good shot at three points.

Everton Luiz left the Orlando match injured, what’s his status for this Friday’s contest and how important is the Brazilian to the team?

Everton has been the most impactful addition to the team this year. The midfield was a real struggle for RSL last season and Everton has done an outstanding job as a box-to-box player. Beckerman was never a fast player and has lost a step in the last few years, but Luiz’s speed has paired really well. This injury is the one that makes me very nervous. Nick Besler filled in well for Everton when he exited last Saturday, but it’s certainly a drop off in talent between the two.

A big thanks to Lucas for his time and insights on this week’s matchup. Be sure to check out their stuff at RSL Soapbox and stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of Friday’s match.

MLS Weekly, Week 4/5: About the Futures Market

Credit: Porsche997SBS / License

Here we are just four weeks into Major League Soccer’s 2019 regular season (well, five weeks in for eight teams), and Week 4/5’s Form Guide ULTRA, the source material for these narratives, is already busily spinning off the kinds of sweet, subtle caveats that cause a man to question everything he thinks he knows. It’s also predicting the future, if only the very near future, or at least suggesting it. With that, time to dig in.

To start with the latter, say someone asked you to opine on whether the Chicago Fire or the New England Revolution will build on their first wins of the season, or whether Real Salt Lake might crawl out of the never-ending paddle-wheel that’s been wailing on their fannies for the past three weeks. The answers to all of the above are the same: oh, hell no – because they face Toronto FC, Columbus Crew SC, and the Seattle Sounders, respectively, and on the road in every single case. That doesn’t mean none of those three teams will recover by the end of the season, it just means they’re highly unlikely to do it next weekend. Going the other way, what kind of signal would it send if all three of those teams yanked unlikely wins from unsavory places in those games? (For what it’s worth, I’d start to take the hype a little more seriously on Chicago if they win, but it’ll take more to re-write the sorry scripts the other two teams have written for themselves so far.)

Basically, whatever happens in the three games above, the result will either reinforce a narrative (e.g., weak teams in bad circumstances losing), or they won’t be enough to create a new narrative on their own. That doesn’t apply to all of this weekend’s games, fortunately, and that’s how I chose which games I decided to treat as “important” by giving them extended commentary down below. By my reckoning, DC United v. Los Angeles FC and the Philadelphia Union v. FC Dallas have evolved into the marquee match-ups of MLS Week 5/sorta 6. In the latter case, you’ve got two teams who’ve started…reasonably well (i.e., Dallas has started well, while Philly’s only come on recently), while the former pits two teams widely regarded (if in my own tiny circle) as the best in MLS in 2019. And this is where the Form Guide ULTRA does double duty – specifically by putting sharp questions to exactly which teams DC has beaten so far this season, versus all the teams from which LAFC have stolen many points. They’ve both been perfect so far, or close to it – and they both pummeled a vulnerable team by the same, shameful 5-0 score-line – but something tells me LAFC will go farther in 2019, scare more teams, etc. That said, no matter what happens between them next weekend, I expect both teams go far this season, and to cause problems for the teams around them. The same goes for Dallas and Philly, even if their fates/upsides look less settled than the other two.

That’s not to say there aren’t some damned solid under-cards ahead – among them, e.g., Vancouver Whitecaps v. Los Angeles Galaxy (a race to get their sh*t together), New York City FC v. Montreal Impact (will the least wounded team please stand up), and Red Bulls New York v. Minnesota (how bad is Red Bull, really?). And, because I follow them both, the Portland Timbers and FC Cincinnati have equally interesting Week 5/6’s ahead, but for the opposite reason. For obvious reasons, Portland had better [placeholder for very naughty words] have no trouble tagging in and continuing the embarrassing beat-down LAFC started last weekend. As for FC Cincy, they’re staring down a game that every single thought worth minding says they’ll lose, maybe even badly. At the same time, both Cincinnati and Portland are freaky precisely because it’s too early to be either sure or surprised at either result. In other words, I’d be no less surprised to, say, see Cincinnati wrestle SKC to a draw than I would to see the Timbers fall apart against the San (the worst set of words you’ve ever heard, no worse) Jose Earthquakes.

Golly, that is a lot of preamble, and I hope you got as much out of it as I did. Down below is brief commentary on all the games I chose to focus on this weekend, and for the reasons hinted at and alluded to above. Just like every week, I posted extended commentary on the weekend’s games for Portland and Cincinnati and, for the first time in 2019, I was happier with the Timbers. Anyway, let’s dissect 2/9ths of some games.


San Jose Earthquakes 0-5 Los Angeles FC

“The best that could happen for San Jose right now is…just for this first half to end. Regroup. Come out in the second and see what you can do.”

I’m not sure who called this game, but, holy crap, did he find all the ways to kick San Jose (the above comment came about 33-35 minutes after the same guy went off-and-on for 3+ minutes about San Jose’s “amateur mistakes”). That guy never let up, not least because the ‘Quakes never gave him cause. So went this game, so goes the season that feels unrelentingly, even pathologically hopeless for San Jose. They’ve literally given up one more goal in every game so far this season, if nothing else, and that’s closer to concept art than professional sports, people. To close out the intro, LAFC rather cruelly declined to give San Jose that chance to regroup, because Carlos Vela scored his second goal, LAFC’s third, about a minute before the first half ended – and that’s one hell of an assist by the generally effective Diego Rossi. And to drag “amateur mistakes” out of the parentheses, Vela scored his first goal off one of them and, to float a theory, this is what dunking looks like in soccer. (Also, with an eye to the sub-theme, that was a hat trick for Vela). There’s not a lot of mystery to this game: LAFC is good, San Jose is whatever you call the historically bad opposite of good. For what it’s worth, I gasped “Oh my God” out loud while checking the box score, because that was an ass-whuppin’ in number form, and hide the children. I guess what I wanted to see by watching this was the scope of Vela’s role in the win. I caught up on Vela’s goals via ExtraTime Radio You Can See, or whatever the hell MLSSoccer.com calls their weekly recap show, but this was the kind of dominant performance you’d expect when a good team meets [other].

Orlando City SC 1-2 D.C. United

I’ve always been squeamish(?) about watching Orlando play, but I at least have a good reason in 2019: it breaks the heart to watch a team fight hard and fall short. And that looks like such a happy and colorful supporters group down there. They deserve a win, you want them to win…and then they don’t, and with some reliability. They don’t lack for ambition – see, Portugal’s Nani, if nothing else, but Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan, and Uri Rossell don’t come cheap – but, until they stop falling short on results, who gives a crap where Nani played? Both Dwyer and Chris Mueller have done more for Orlando so far (and, to second MLS’s Armchair Analyst, Mueller should start). After watching the condensed game, the box score was the first thing I wanted to see, Orlando looked awfully busy, etc. Sure enough, they put up a good number of shots – far more than little league darlings, DCU; they lobbed in a hefty number of crosses* too, and maybe that says something about their chances, even if they scored off a cross. (* I don’t like crosses, so I ignore them, so I don’t know how many crosses is a lot, also I’ll get better.) On a deeper level, a lot of those shots came late and my 2/9th knowledge tells me Orlando had D.C. under real, if chaotic pressure late in the game. Orlando had a plausible shot at holding onto at least one point till the end, basically. From DC’s side, hell of a goal by Wayne Rooney, obviously, even if controversy lurks in the alpha (was that a foul? (yes)) and omega (was Orlando’s Brian Rowe obstructed on the play? (….yes?)) of that goal. After glancing at D.C.’s line-up, I was less surprised to see that defense cope under pressure. Oh, and it’s when you’re watching a team coming back against DC that you realize how good Bill Hamid can be. Now that I’ve reminded myself about D.C.’s defense/spine, the hype makes a little more sense. Still, caveat lector because, again, it’s also not beyond the realm of possibility that D.C. is coasting on a soft schedule, circumstantially or otherwise.

New England Revolution 2-1 Minnesota United FC

I’d call surviving the five minutes after Minnesota equalized and pushed for the go-ahead goal the first little victory of New England’s 2019 season; during that time, had Ethan Finlay poked home the ball that suddenly appeared at his feet, or if Cody Cropper didn’t save the header tripped over its heels, God knows how much panic would have seeped into the hearts of a team that has known nothing but panic and an angry coach lately. It looked like it took the Revs 10 minutes to contain the surge and they ultimately pushed back long and hard enough to find the game-winning goal themselves off what turned out to be a fortunate miss by Teal Bunbury. Credit where it’s due, the run Bunbury made and the pass that new (literal) kid DeJuan Jones hit to find it where your focus should go. New England found a way past Minnesota’s defenders in something like the same way several times on Saturday, most often with Carles Gil doing the hunting/probing. It’s just one win at home, and New England’s first three points of the season, but they really do seem to have landed something special with Gil (dude can find a needle in a damn haystack so long as he’s got a ball at his feet), and so long as Bunbury, Jones, and Brendan Bye (who scored the second), the Revs have the upside if they can figure out how to use it. As for Minnesota, they don’t need to panic – playing .500 ball on a road trip (one more game to go!) – but the asterisks after those first two wins become bolder with each successive stumble.

Toronto FC 4-0 New York City FC

Just because I happened to look at, I have to say I don’t see a great defensive midfield player in Toronto’s lineup. Seems to be working out so far in 2019, but I caught a stray comment that said this was TFC’s first clean sheet since July 28, 2018 (checks out too). NYCFC came close to keeping that trend alive somewhere around 50’, but nothing about the condensed game makes a case they would have held onto any points – so says the TFC’s shots on goal as well. They made all those shots by making BMO Field look about twice as big every time they had the ball; NYCFC’s defenders seemed miles away far too often, and they failed to do much to slow down TFC when they were around (see TFC’s 4th goal; and does Dome Torrent have NYCFC playing zonal?). If you’ve tuned into any MLS reporting at since Friday, you’ve already seen the Alejandro Pozuelo’s second goal, and he looked as good as advertised over 2/9th of the game I saw (his work in creating Toronto’s game-winner impressed me more, honestly). Had NYCFC’s Alexandriu Mitrita showed bigger than he did, this had real “battle of the stars” potential, but Mitrita’s apparent contribution toward only as high as failing to put due enthusiasm around two opportunities (that they didn’t make the highlights…). As laid out in the Form Guide ULTRA, this loss feels like NYCFC finally falling all the way down after stumbling through the open weeks of the season. They finally succumbed to the pressure…maybe of their own incoherence. It’s not unlike how they broke completely after giving up the penalty (Alexander Callens; good call) that lead to TFC’s second. As for Toronto, they look pretty impressive…you gotta wonder when the hype train will get rolling…

Real Salt Lake 2-4 FC Dallas

I’ll start by thanking the folks who splice the condensed games for giving Brian Dunseth’s half thoughts the under card of that video/audio experience (see “whatever the narrative with regard to PRO when it comes to ‘clamping down…’” And? What?). As for the game, it pissed me off a little that I’ve watched and half-watched (through one eye) the Officially Sanctioned Video around this game and at no point did something see fit to mention that RSL’s Deimar Krielach got sent off at the 17th minute. When a red card happens that early that is, and always will be, top-of-the-inverted-pyramid kind of information. That makes some sense of why Dallas more than doubled RSL in passes, but even if they got out-shot (and with particularly devastating timing every team they experienced hope) and smothered in passes, none of that came through in the condensed game. Sure, I still think Everton Luiz isn’t the solution to RSL’s problems, but it’s also possible that their alarmingly consistent problem with red cards could have as much to do with their record as anything. It’s also true that all of Dallas’ goals, their depantsing-equivalent first goal notwithstanding, came after Kreilach’s departure, but I also saw enough in the condensed game to make this present as the same bad day at the office RSL was destined to have, even with eleven dudes present and accounted for. In spite of their lowly ranking in the Form Guide ULTRA, not to mention the generally low regard in which they’re generally held, RSL does have some good players – e.g., Albert Rusnack, Brooks Lennon, and Jefferson Savarino, especially – the talent around them shows no sign of holding up. Dallas, meanwhile, feels like a different team under Luchi Gonzalez than it did under Oscar Pareja. If nothing else, putting the guy who knows “the kids” best in charge of “playing your kids” feels like a wise choice. To pose a question I haven’t heard, is FC Dallas one of the teams in MLS most willing to ship its players, whether within or outside of the league, and on the grounds they’ll reliably have replacements handy? The only two people I have in mind to back up that statement are Walker Zimmerman and Maximiliano Urruti, only wait, I just remembered Roland Lamah and Victor Ulloa. How many players did Dallas lose in the off-season? And where are they? After finally seeing Paxton Pomykal tear it up (the thing to note is where he took that ball with his first touch), it seems like something they can afford…but can they win titles on it?


And that’s all for this weekend. To wrap up the sub-theme, I’m mostly counting new, high(-ish) profile players successful, but with Nani and Mitrita as the highest profile outliers. We’ll see how I do with calling the games that will really matter next weekend.

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

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

Image: Noah Riffe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New England Revolution 0-2 Columbus Crew SC

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

Houston Dynamo 2-1 Montreal Impact

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

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

Real Salt Lake 1-0 Vancouver Whitecaps

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

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

San Jose Earthquakes 0-3 Minnesota United FC

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

Sporting Kansas City 2-0 Philadelphia Union

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


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

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



2019 MLS Western Conference Preview: Part 2 – Winners, Winners, Chicken Dinner

A look at last year’s MLS Western Conference playoff teams – how they finished, offseason business, and their 2019 playoff odds.


Having picked through the ruined seasons of the undesirable end of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference last week, let us now turn to the happier end, the West’s Best in 2018. As with the previous, sadder post, I relied on two main sources for this one: the regularly updated Transfer Tracker, which one can find under New, then League News, followed by the Transactions tab. (No, please, check my math.) MLSSoccer.com has another article they pop onto the front page now and again and the added analysis gives people a contextual frame for all the swapping of bodies and talents.

To recap the top of the Western Conference in 2018, it turned out to be less plainly hierarchical than the Eastern Conference; Atlanta United FC and the New York Red Bulls dominated that side of the league, and more or less from start to finish. Sporting Kansas City had the best season in the West, the Seattle Sounders finished very (very, very) strong, and more people cooed over Los Angeles FC than they deserved, but it was the (and my) Portland Timbers that sucker-punched their way to MLS Cup, where they lost narrowly, but deservedly, to Atlanta. Still, that run was enough to make at least one grown man cry (ahem), but it also subtly revised one of the more reliable truisms about MLS. While the playoffs really do give every team that reaches them a clean slate, “peaking” at the right time (timing) ultimately comes second to having a well-built, well-drilled team. The Timbers looked like a strong cup team for most of 2018, and that’s what they turned out to be.

For what it’s worth, I think of MLS Cup less as the league’s championship, and more as a cup tournament tacked onto the end of a “normal” soccer season – and give me the Supporters’ Shield over MLS Cup any day. Draw that distinction to meet your personal needs, but all fans want the same thing: to see their team win trophies. With that, let’s see how the best teams in the Western Conference helped or hurt their chances for 2019.

Sporting Kansas City

2018 Finish Line: 1st in the Western Conference (18-8-8), 62 pts. 65 goals for, 40 goals against

They stayed in the Supporters’ Shield race longer than their record would suggest, but that arguably underlines the uncomplicated truth that both the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United FC were better teams in 2018. All the same, a team doesn’t build a +25 goal differential on anything but a good season, and Sporting KC did that. While that was good enough to keep them near or at the top the West through the regular season, they suffered a dip in form and confidence at exactly the wrong point – e.g., the post-season – and there is nothing more MLS than having a great season undone at the end.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: A series of wild stabs in the dark, then, D Ike Opara, F Khiry Shelton, F Diego Rubio

IN: D Rodney Wallace, M Kelyn Rowe, D Botond Barath, D Abdul Rwatubyaye, F Erik Hurtado

By dealing Opara to Minnesota Untied FC, SKC takes a step into the unknown, but with Barath and Rwatubyaye coming in, SKC felt confident enough to take it. They did some high-end scavenging around the league too (wait…it’s “high-end scavenging” here, but “moneyball” when I talk about the bad teams?), with Wallace coming in from New York City FC and, a more exciting stretch, Rowe from the New England Revolution. Hurtado came down from Vancouver as well, but, meh. The important thing is that the West’s best didn’t stand pat for 2019.

2019 Forecast:

Opara is a big hole to fill, no question, but a player with Barath’s pedigree should come through and I’ve heard Rwatubyaye described as a potential sleeper. I keep seeing the name Andreu Fontas pop up, as well, sometimes as a straight replacement for Opara outright, so, barring terrible choices, the depth looks very much in place at centerback. Those are just the additions: who knows what last year’s hope, Felipe Gutierrez, will do after his “adjustment year,” or the size of the step Gianluco Busio takes, or what fresh terrors Johnny Russell has for opposing defenders. They remain the West’s team to beat in my mind.


Seattle Sounders

2018 Finish Line: 2nd in the Western Conference (18-11-5), 59 pts. 52 goals for, 37 goals against

In the previous, depressing portion of these previews, I talked about the idea of “runs,” mostly in the context of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ false signals, but Seattle…they also went on a run. Only theirs burned through all of MLS for the second half of 2018, just teeing up every ass they saw and kicking it. The Los Angeles Galaxy all but patented the “slow start, reanimated monster season” during the mid-2000s, but Seattle has owned it for the past two seasons at least. The Sounders built last year’s model on a fortress of a defense, only to see the floor fall out against the Timbers, of all teams. Holy crap, was that game epic.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: M Lamar Neagle, M Osvaldo Alonso, D Aaron Kovar, D Waylon Francis

IN: D Jonathan Campbell, GK Trey Muse. That’s it.

They didn’t really do one. Apart from bringing in Campbell, a cast-off defender from the Chicago Fire (pause) and calling up a kid named Trey Muse in goal (who sounds like he moonlights in a boy band), Seattle has so far opted to stand pat. Or, probably more accurately, that they’d done enough last season to carry them through to the summer, aka, when Seattle makes its annual major, momentum-altering acquisition – e.g., Raul Ruidiaz last season, Nicolas Lodeiro the season before. Letting go of Alonso was a big deal for the team, though more from a team culture perspective than a playing one. They got value for him when they could.

2019 Forecast:

Seattle has a very sound team, and probably for two more years. Even if Marshall went down, the Sounders are fine between Kim Kee-hee and Roman Torres. And now there’s Campbell. Their roster is a list of players who are not league-best in their position (Kevin Leerdam, Jordan Morris, and Cristian Roldan), and yet other teams would trade large sums and useful bodies to have them. That’s what allows Seattle to flip the script with those mid-summer acquisitions. The real question is how well Jordan Morris reintegrates into the team, against what parts, if any, breakdown, whether by strain or injury. Barring bad luck, the bastards…er, Seattle should be fine.


Los Angeles FC

2018 Finish Line: 3rd in the Western Conference (16-9-9), 57 pts. 68 goals for, 52 goals against

LAFC came out of the gate looking exciting, even exotic. Diego Rossi built a reputation before the season really started and Carlos Vela lived up to his hype. There was that forward-tilting midfield as well – who plays Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen just ahead of the defense? – but that forward tilt left a glass jaw behind it, and that kept LAFC from looking like real contenders. They had the talent to bully weak teams, and that bought them third place, but the league’s better teams reliably reminded them of where they stood. There could be a theory that a team can’t sit at the big kid’s table without some kind of functioning defensive midfield scheme, or I could be making that up. Still, exciting, flashy, and unbalanced: that was LAFC in 2018.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: A lot of who’s that, then M Callum Mallace, F Marco Urena, M Benny Feilhaber, and, why not? (see above), D Aaron Kovar (I don’t make the rules, people)

IN: D Eddie Segura, D Mohamed El-Munir, F Rodolfo Zelaya

Their big drops included Feilhaber and Urena – players more or less expendable – while picking up what strikes me as a nifty throw-back to MLS 1.[X]. Seeing any MLS team sign, Zelaya, one of the best forwards in El Salvador, maybe even all Central America, took me all the way back to Raul Diaz Arce. Some high profile Salvadorans have passed through MLS since him (e.g., Ronald Cerritos and Mauricio Cienfuegos), but the other end of the talent pipeline feeding MLS has by and large shifted to South America in recent seasons. In less retro news, LAFC also added Segura from Colombia and El-Munir from Orlando City SC.

2019 Forecast:

LAFC has some interesting-to-great parts, but there is something really wrong with its player acquisition process. Mark Anthony-Kaye appears to be the only true defensive midfielder on their roster…and so they add two defenders (one 22 years old, the other, an escapee from the horrors of Orlando City SC’s 2018), and a forward? Excited as I am about the latter (clearly, see above), I’m struggling to see a better 2019 for LAFC until they add players where they need them. At the same time, there’s no reason last season’s formula of having the talent to bully weak teams won’t hold up this season, and that’s good enough for the playoffs.


FC Dallas

2018 Finish Line: 4th in the Western Conference (16-9-9), 57 pts. 52 goals for, 44 goals against

Dallas started 2018 strong enough to top the Western Conference (off and on) till the end of July. And then, as if it’s etched onto this team’s motherboard, they fell apart down the stretch, losing the last three regular season games – including a loss in Dallas against Sporting KC that all but announced they would never make MLS Cup, not these guys. Sure, enough, it was the Portland Timbers, in Dallas, just one game later with a 2-1 win. They had the opposite problem of LAFC: a solid defense, but no reliable way to score. The decision to play Maxmiliano Urruti as a No. 10 gives at least one of the reasons.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: M Roland Lamah (hello, Cincy!), F Tesho Akindele, F Maxi Urruti, D Chris Richards, M Victor Ulloa (hello, Cincy!)

IN: F Zdenek Ondrasek, D Bressan, D…sure, John Nelson

After nearly five years of stalling in the same general time and place, FC Dallas parted ways with long-time head coach Oscar Pareja. In a move that underscores Dallas’ investment in its academy, they promoted FC Dallas Academy Director/U-16 Academy team head coach, Luchi Gonzalez to head coach. They like to keep teachers and students together down in Dallas.

Dallas very quietly cut some losses after 2018 – e.g., your Urrutis, your Lamahs, your Akindeles – but otherwise kept faith in what they have on hand. For the past several years – maybe even for the length of its frustrated existence – Dallas has produced sound, well-constructed team after sound, well-constructed team. Last year was no different, but it was always a matter of when they would die, not if. Dallas has made MLS Cup just once, and the universe showed its sense humor by having them lose to the Colorado Rapids. (Colorado was not favored.) So far, all they’ve done to change that was sign the three players named above.

2019 Forecast:

Of all their pick-ups, Ondrasek, a forward from Poland, has plausible potential to change that. Dallas hasn’t had a forward since Blas Perez, and Ondrasek has the scoring history (1 goal every three games, or thereabouts), and in multiple countries that says he can do the same in MLS. It’s not like the Brazilian, Bressan, will hurt them, but a central defender won’t help them fix their biggest weakness – i.e., a permanent failure to find a higher gear. They’ve relied on players like Mauro Diaz to do that, and his replacement has yet to materialize. If there’s a worry, it’s that Ondrasek doesn’t make up for everything Dallas’s F.O. subtracted.


Portland Timbers

2018 Finish Line: 5th in the Western Conference (15-10-9), 54 pts, 54 goals for, 48 goals against

To speak as someone who watched from the front row, taking notes all the while, Portland’s 2018 shouldn’t have felt like a credit card binge, but it still does. The team rode The Holy Trinity – Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco and Diego Chara – and thin margins all the way to MLS Cup. They enjoyed two great runs – a 15-game unbeaten streak from April through July, then a methodical march through the Western Conference playoffs (steely dans, to the last man) – and without a reliable option at forward and back-stopped by a defense that looked more suspect than it was. If the Timbers have a strength – across two coaches now – it’s what Dallas lacks: a knack for finding a higher gear.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: D Alvas Powell (hello, Cincy!), D Liam Ridgewell, M Lawrence Olum, GK Jake Gleeson

IN: GK Aljaz Ivacic, D Claude Dielna. M Marvin Loria, M Renzo Zambrano, D Jorge Moreira

The Timbers let a couple anchors float away – e.g., Liam Ridgewell for sure, but maybe even Alvas Powell and Lawrence Olum (not the best, but a supreme known quantity). Portland brought in Claude Dielna from the New England Revolution to deal with the loss of Ridgewell. The ambition finally showed up in the most recent acquisitions, attempted and otherwise. It looks like Portland will acquire Paraguayan right back Moreira, thereby filling the hole left by Powell. They’ve also made a very expensive approach toward Eduardo Vargas, a forward currently signed to Tigres in Mexico. They also signed Slovenian ‘keeper Ivacic on top of calling up Loria and Zambrano from Timbers2.

2019 Forecast:

If all those signings land, Portland should be very competitive next year, if not in 2020. Dielna looks like the key signing at time of writing, but the Timbers will be a very different team with a 15+ goals per year forward – which obviously assumes the team can land Vargas and that he can hit that number. If the Timbers can just work the same defense in 2019 as they did in 2018 – something that relies depressingly heavily on a healthy Diego Chara – that’ll be enough to keep them in the mix on its own. As noted above, this is my first team, so I know more about them than any team in the league, and they have some potential that could come good as well – I mean beyond Loria (who I’ve seen, and not bad) and Zambrano. The list starts with Lucas Melano, but he’s got a lot of company, especially in central midfield.


Real Salt Lake

2018 Finish Line: 6th in the Western Conference (14-13-7), 49 pts, 55 goals for, 58 goals against

Speaking of the Timbers, they really should have ended RSL’s 2018 early by dropping two losses in a late season home-and-home series that saw RSL outscored 1-7; that they gave up four goals at home, where they’d been great all season, twisted the knife. They ultimately backed into the playoffs on the back of the Galaxy’s baffling Decision Day choke against the Houston Dynamo. While RSL has the talent to beat anyone, it took that gift to get them to the post-season.

Offseason Overhaul:

OUT: D Demar Phillips, D David Horst, M Sunday “Sunny” Stephen, F Luis Silva

IN: F Sam Johnson, M Everton Luiz, D Danny Toia, and a literal handful of homegrown players

To give positions to that clutch of homegrowns, they include Julian Vazquez (F), David Ochoa (GK), Luis Arriaga (M), Tate Schmitt (F), and Erik Holt (D), but RSL did two smart things besides that. First, they brought in Everton Luiz to (perhaps permanently) spell all-around legend Kyle Beckerman, but they also signed Liberian international Sam Johnson at forward. Those were enormous positions of need for this team.

2019 Forecast:

RSL has a decent history with homegrown players, even as Aaron Maund and Justen Glad have become something close to cautionary tales; I think Maund just got cut loose by Vancouver, but Glad’s still with RSL, but neither is exactly thriving in the moment. Based on that, I present the list above as (again) a handful of unknowns, a list of names waiting on context (that may never come). The thing with RSL is that a good forward can carry them a long way. They’re one of you more pure academy teams in MLS and, as such, it might take a while to see how far their foundation carries them. That said, I’d expect another marginal season in 2019.


And, between the two articles, that’s everyone in MLS’s Western Conference. Now, if I were a betting man (I am, and I lose frequently), I’d name RSL, FC Dallas and maybe LAFC as the teams likeliest to fall out of this, the Winner’s Bracket. At the same time, I’ll be damned if I can figure out which teams from last year’s wrong end of the West takes however many places become available. The Galaxy feels like a good bet, maybe the Vancouver Whitecaps, but after that…yeah, it’s gonna be a weird one out west. Buckle up, buttercups.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of MLS and FC Cincinnati’s preseason.