Despite FC Cincinnati’s encouraging draw against a Sporting Kansas City squad that had obliterated Montreal 7-1 the week before …
Despite FC Cincinnati’s encouraging draw against a Sporting Kansas City squad that had obliterated Montreal 7-1 the week before, a few “what-if” statements still linger. What if FCC had a healthy Manu Ledesma and an available Fanendo Adi? What if Greg Garza and Spencer Richey didn’t miscommunicate? What if Nick Hagglund’s goal was good? What if I didn’t accidentally smear ketchup on my orange suit?
(Okay, that last one is probably not a game-changer.)
However, it might also be wise to ask “what-if” questions in the other direction. What if Sporting KC hadn’t played a CONCACAF Champions League match three days before? What if Peter Vermes wasn’t resting eight players of his Starting XI? In the end, perhaps getting the 1-1 draw in front of a national audience isn’t a bad result.
Two Steps Forward
Statistically speaking, the Orange & Blue held together for a solid attack in the first 45 minutes. Not only did FCC match SKC in shots in the first half (7-7), but they penetrated the box with their attempts and put more on target (3-1). Many of the defensive numbers (clearances, blocks, saves) favored SKC, indicating that Cincinnati was penetrating better than usual.
The first-half possession numbers were also a bit misleading, despite SKC owning a slight advantage (52%-48%). When Sporting KC possessed the ball, they kept it mostly between their center backs and midfield. Much of their passes were relegated to the defensive third and midfield. However, FCC distributed the ball uniformly and depended on Kenny Saief and Leo Bertone to feed Darren Mattocks when the window of opportunity opened. FCC owned a 92-61 advantage in passes in the attacking third of the field.
For the most part, this was an attack that could have pulled off the home shocker had the game ended at halftime. FCC held an 11-5 advantage in forcing loss of possession, while successfully out-dribbling SKC 7-2. Unlike last week against Philadelphia, this could have been the perfect storm.
Of course, games do not end after 45 minutes.
Two Steps Back
Perhaps it was when Roland Lamah came off due to injury at
halftime, forcing Alan Koch to substitute earlier than required. Perhaps it was
Sporting KC holding the ball long enough to get their own resting substitutes
in. No matter how you slice the halftime orange, the second half was a
completely different game.
FCC’s inability to finish the attack in open play eventually caught up to the team as Sporting KC slowly reintroduced their normal starters. The possession was dominated by the away squad as SKC brought in midfielder Felipe Gutiérrez and forward Krisztián Németh. Had the blowout at Monterrey midweek been closer, perhaps they don’t see the pitch, but once more familiar players came on, FCC were on their back heels. SKC owned a 59%-41% possession advantage in the second half, as well as an 11-3 shots advantage. Nine of those shots by SKC were in the penalty box, while FCC could only fathom one.
If a second half MVP is to be found, it’s likely the duo of Hagglund and Kendall Waston who kept the draw in check. Both made three solid clearances out of the penalty box in the second half, while Hagglund almost certified himself as a hometown hero with the header in the 83rd minute that was juuuust offsides. Both were also solid at backing the other up and are legitimate reasons why FCC have made it through the first six games with a 2-2-2 record.
No Ground Lost
Over the first six games, it’s not surprising that FCC have experienced
some growing pains. The team has settled into one that will not win with
possession, as they’ve yet to lead a game in that category. They’re also not
winning with their offensive attack—only Columbus (8.3) takes less shots per
game than FCC (9.3).
However, this isn’t to say that FCC is the 2019 version of Minnesota United’s maiden voyage. Six games might be a small cross-section, but if we take a look at the “expansion” teams from the past decade, FCC’s not struggling yet.
Yes, the goals are not coming in bushels, but not many teams
in the past had more than ten goals by this point. At the same time, not many
can say they’ve let in less than ten. Sure, FCC cannot boast a three-game home
winning streak like Portland from 2011, but they haven’t struggled on the road to
start like Montreal did in 2012.
We knew that this FCC squad wasn’t going to be setting
records like last year. Granted, a projected 45 points hasn’t gotten many teams
into the playoffs. It’s only happened once in the East since the expansion to a
34-game schedule in 2011. Still, 8 points in the first six games—that’s still a
solid start in a conference where dominant teams like Atlanta and NYCFC have
stumbled out of the blocks.
Daunting matches against LAFC and New York Red Bulls loom on the horizon, but let’s not lose faith in the team after a draw that felt like a loss. Maybe 45 minutes of magic is all FCC needs.
Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for FC Cincinnati’s upcoming return to the West Coast against LAFC.
Darren Mattocks scored the lone goal for FC Cincinnati from the penalty spot in the 19th minute. Sporting KC equalized in the second half,
Darren Mattocks scored the lone goal for FC Cincinnati from the penalty spot in the 19th minute. Sporting KC equalized in the second half, playing with a rotated-roster after Thursday’s loss in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal. Their goal came from 16-year-old Gianluca Busio, who capitalized on a miscommunication between Spencer Richey and Greg Garza, passing an angled shot into an empty net. Both teams had several chances to do more damage but could not capitalize on the opportunities they created.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.)
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 realupside). 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.
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…
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*.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.