With the Major League Soccer (MLS) playoffs kicking off today with DC United’s visit to the Chicago Fire’s Windy City, previews and predictions litter the soccer blogo-verse. Let’s get to those up top before going into some barely-shaped ramblings after the jump. Here’s the good, good stuff from around the soccer blogo-verse (posted far too late; holy shit, was today busy!)
Previews and predictions come in diverse forms. There are the preview-pick variety, which answer the question of who will win and why: for that see ESPN’s Eastern and Western Conference previews (written by Ives Galarcep and Jeff Carlisle, respectively) and Martin Rogers’ column for Yahoo! News. Luis Bueno put a little spin on his playoff preview for Sports Illustrated by opting to dub contenders and also-rans instead of picking winners for all the series. MLSnet.com’s previews passed on calling winners and instead just broke down the Eastern and Western playoff teams by various categories – a decision, perhaps, to treat all their children as equal and maintain their independent brand viability (you all get trophies!!).
Good and sober as all the above are, Luis Arroyave wrote the single best prediction post on his Red Card blog. He only calls one series – DC v. Chicago – but he pours enough angst into the effort that it feels like there’s a life in the balance.
Useful items that aren’t previews cropped up here and there as well. USSoccerplayas.com (has so far) eschewed a “pan-MLS” approach for tidy features on individual teams heading into the series: for instance, are the Fire the favorites or can Red Bull New York beat their post-season jinx? (My take: maybe and nope!). Elsewhere, some power rankings survived the post-season: The Fullback Files compiled a set including only the playoff teams, while Dan Loney based his rankings on the number of injuries for each team (he ends the post with each club’s record for September and Octorber). All y’all know this already, but, in case you’ve forgotten, du Nord’s round-up of any given day’s stories will keep you plenty current on injuries and tactical doings.
And now my thoughts – and these won’t be predictions because my powers of prognostication are such that I couldn’t pick the winner of a race after it was run (see the bottom of this and follow the links). This didn’t stop me from making picks, of course (see the bottom of this), but those are short-term, game-to-game kinds of things and new details will inform each successive prediction; besides that, I’m a fiend for betting.
The thing is, I don’t know much about the means by which outside information becomes the thoughts in my head; I only assume it’s a sloppy, non-linear process. As opposed to anything compiled coherently, my views on MLS amount to a mash of impressions, soft spots, and outright prejudices – a result, no doubt, of watching most games half-to-three-quarters crocked and following eight or nine MLS teams only sporadically. I could make grand declarations about Chicago needing to play Chris Rolfe through Cuauhtemoc Blanco to have any hope, or that a half-speed Luciano Emilio amounts to DC United fielding 3/4 of their attack, but they’re barely worth the free ether into which I’m typing them.
Having cheapened the apparent value of what comes below now seems the time to get to it. What will it be? Just a series of perceptions and some thoughts that follow from them. There’s something in there, maybe if you read between the lines or take it apart in reassemble it, anyway. But it’s there; trust me. The teams are listed in alphabetical order and the only other consistently noted detail is the number of times I watched each team:
Chicago Fire (6-7 games on the year)
The Fire’s strong start surprised me, mainly because I didn’t rate them going into the season. That start, however, did pique my interest – just in time for the Fire to start working on the shit-sandwich that proved fatal to Dave Sarachan. The impression that the Fire burns a little feebly never totally left me, even after I witnessed the [Juan Carlos] Osorio Revolution breath life into the side. Helpful as that has been, that breath of life recalls the stubborn force that animates a much-loathed uncle stewing angrily in his death bed; in the end it means he’s not going away, either easily or quietly – and neither are the Fire. Blanco has added a flicker of vitality with passing so smart it’s almost witty, but, at times, the offense fires as if he’s trying to teach geometry to kindergartners.
Bottom Line: The Fire doesn’t impress me much, but tough goes a long way in MLS. Tough plus a touch of slyness goes a little farther.
Chivas USA (5-6 games; out of one eye)
I’ll admit it: I liked ‘em better in 2006, though I can’t say why. Whether it’s valid perception or simple prejudice, I don’t see Chivas playing as loose and pretty as they did last year. Then again, I didn’t pay much attention to Chivas till their dark-horse qualities started commanding attention and, by that time – and especially toward the end of the season – they cooled from boil to slow simmer. I hear talk of injuries now: important as Razov has been for them, Galindo’s pace has meant more, but with one man running at half speed and the other not at all, it’s hard to identify straight-up strengths for the Goats.
Bottom line: Without their starting forward tandem, the Goats are just another solid team in the MLS playoffs.
DC United (6-7 games at least, early and in other competitions)
Somewhere early in DC’s now-annual Streak of Kick-Ass, I saw enough of them to decide they had it figured out. They were playoff-bound so I stopped watching them. This feels like a mistake now, mainly because I’m still not 100% on what makes them tick. What they had figured out, however, was one of those timeless, open secrets: play the game right and having good personnel works like gravy on really well-cooked meat. But personnel counts – see Emilio, Luciano; Gomez, Christian; and, um, Fred – all good players operating in a system that works. In Emilio, especially, DC gets that little something special, a player who scores all kinds of goals, a tough man to defend. And yet, even with nearly everyone obligingly penciling them in as favorites, the sense they could blow it at any time remains. Truly strange.
Bottom line: Best team in the league, regardless of what happens between now and MLS Cup. Unfortunately, winning that matters.
FC Dallas (Upwards of 10, probably 12-13)
A couple hooks keep me watching Dallas, whether it’s Arturo Alvarez, Juan Toja, Kenny “Cooperstein,” or, a personal favorite out of dumb loyalty, Bobby Rhine. There’s something eye-catching about their defense as well: it’s called rubber-necking, a sick fascination at watching something fail/explode/bleed. Let’s just say if every team were like FC Dallas, Ivan Gazidis would get enough goals per game to think he was watching the NFL. This is a team I want to win fairly badly, but I know it’s not on the cards. Even in the first round the expectation is Houston will toy with them like bored bullies before laying in with the killer blow and there’s not a whole lot of reason to doubt that. I’ll watch that game the same way amateur fans watch NASCAR: waiting for the crash. A couple people write about the potential for Carlos Ruiz to get hot, but I don’t see why they’d expect him to given the season.
Bottom line: It pains me to say it, but this is probably the worst team in the post-season. Even Red Bull looks likelier to get things together before them.
Houston Dynamo (something like 9-10 games)
To cut against my own rule about making picks, the Dynamo is my post-season tournament pick. Does this mean they’ll win it? Mmm…maybe. It’s worth counting the reasons why not: there’s the sometimes-predictable offense; if Dwayne DeRosario or someone else (Stuart Holden?) doesn’t pull a wild one out of their butts, they get in formulaic ruts that even Dallas can defend. There’s also the foul-prone defense, which picks up troublesome cards and still-more troublesome suspensions. But this is also a squad of talented players and nearly all of them are healthy; getting them back on the same page may prove tricky, but they’ve got the Dallas series to work on that. More fundamentally, however, when the mood hits them, they move the ball as well as DC and they have players better suited to exploit them. The trick is, the mood strikes DC more often. But they have something else to lean on that DC doesn’t: a damned swell defense.
Bottom line: Takes the “solid” formula one step further by being good.
Kansas City Wizards (5-6 games)
The chief mystery about KC involves their strong start to the season. I have a theory as to how this worked in practice: as we all know by now, KC defends high, hoping to force a mistake and mistakes came easier early in the season when teams were finding their feet; as confidence and form improved, teams started playing out of the pressure; by the middle of the season, they were breaking it for easy goals. Basically, KC has a decent central tandem that gets yanked in four different directions when their flanks wander too far upfield and the other team breaks behind them. On the offensive side, what’s being written about Ruiz goes double for Eddie Johnson: sure, he could break out at any time, but what really makes one assume he will? As I see it, EJ is a confidence player and, unless I miss my guess, his confidence should be shot after only three goals in 13 games.
Bottom Line: They play a lower-percentage formula than Dallas. Better personnel in that exposed defense is their thin saving grace.
New England Revolution (20+ games)
Finally….a leg to stand on. OK, here’s the deal: the same ol’, same ol’ works all right when everyone is engaged, healthy, and able to hold down their specific responsibility. Like any machine, though, when the teeth stop fitting together properly, the machine sputters and jams. Parts of the Revs machine still work: Steve Ralston to Taylor Twellman, for instance, as well as Khano Smith freelancing on the right and Shalrie Joseph holding down the middle. But key cogs are slipping and jamming between the wheels: “Stormin” Andy Dorman isn’t finding his way up the middle and last year’s cardiac defense gave way this year to a series of actual failures; even if they weren’t fatal, they kill the health of the whole bit by bit. And with that last piece – e.g. the end of perfect defensive reliability – the days of riding a Twellman goal to the narrow win are over.
Bottom Line: The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.
Red Bull New York (7-9 games)
A fairly generic metaphor for Red Bull is one of bailing water: can the offense score enough goals to keep the ship afloat with all the leaks in the defense? A different problem showed up in most the Red Bull games I saw: the defense struggles to play out of the back; the midfield can’t keep the ball; and the forwards chase around for scraps. Put them all together and you have the root of the Red Bull’s defensive woes: it’s more a matter of buckling under steady pressure than simple incompetence. Sure, the defenders could be better, but they’d hold up better with help taking off the pressure. When Claudio Reyna is fit, he takes care of this by giving the defenders a reliable outlet and making better passes out of the defense; trouble is, Reyna is too rarely fit. The offense scores a fair number off the scraps, but it’s a race they win only half the time.
Bottom Line: About a third of a good team, half a good team on the right day.
And, I’m spent.
Filed under: analysis, Chicago Fire, Chivas USA, DC United, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, Kansas City Wizards, Major League Soccer, MLS playoffs, New England Revolution, power rankings, Preview, Red Bull New York |