It's an empty weekend for D.C. United, who along with Montreal got a bye this week for CONCACAF Champions League purposes. The Impact will put it to good use, while United...well, we're just off. Sigh.
With no teams to scout, I thought I'd put my normal habits of jamming as much soccer into my face as possible to a different use. After watching the full slate of games in MLS's first week, I have at least one thought from each match. Here goes:
LA 2:0 Chicago
Nearly everyone that watched this one and tweeted about it savaged the Fire for what was an inept effort. A team that signed 3 new DPs should at least look like it has more than one clever, fun-to-watch soccer player. Spare a thought for Harry Shipp.
So what the hell happened? Chicago's lineup lacks connectors, and on a Frank Yallop team that means long balls. The Fire attack isn't built to do much of anything with long balls, so the end product was junk. The Fire are playing their best (and only MLS-caliber) defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz as a center back. Their other defenders are not particularly capable with the ball, so that means the deeper midfield players must be great at collecting the ball and linking the attackers to the rest of the group.
They are not at all great at this. Chris Ritter's main focus on the night appeared to be launching himself into tackles that would have been dangerous if he hadn't missed both ball and man, while Matt Watson continues to be the kind of guy you're OK with having on your bench rather than as a starter. Few MLS players work harder, but he's technically limited and his soccer IQ is distinctly average.
Chicago needs someone with the skill to reliably find Shipp and Shaun Maloney in spots where they can do something useful. Think Ned Grabavoy, or Lewis Neal, that kind of player. Until that's sorted out, Chicago's collection of DP attackers and guys like Shipp are going to be stuck waiting for the ball to mercifully find them on its own. In other words, they're as far from the playoffs now as they were at the end of last season.
United 1:0 Montreal
The circumstances - a field drowned in rain and then buried in snow, two teams on short rest, and the absence of the home side's two best forwards - promised us an uneventful game, and that's what we got. Still, I'm pleased to see United winning games when their starting forwards are fourth and fifth on the depth chart. And despite the conditions, United managed to connect on 79% of their passes. Uneventful doesn't necessarily equal bad. I don't think this game was the stinker that a lot of people have made it out to be.
Philadelphia 0:0 Colorado
The word that came to mind watching this one was "mismanagement," and I mean that for both teams. Let's start with the home side, who finished 2014 playing pretty decently out of a 4231. Their offseason moves pointed to a team trying to augment and improve upon an existing framework. So naturally on opening day, they trot out a 442 with two target men trying to do the same thing. Cristian Maidana started on the bench despite being the most inventive player on their roster. With no one to offer true creativity - don't mistake Sebastian Le Toux's hard work and speed for invention - the Union threw away the first half of their home opener against a team they should be beating if they want to get into the playoffs.
What's worse: Maidana didn't come on because Jim Curtin figured it out. He came on because CJ Sapong ended up with a fractured cheekbone and a concussion after a collision late in the half. This was not a manager seeing his mistake and correcting it, but rather someone stumbling backwards into a better look.
Meanwhile, the Rapids spent the offseason showing a compulsion towards tidy and/or skillful central midfielders; naturally they ignored the logical structure of their roster to also play a flat 442. The mismanagement here is simple talent identification: There's no good reason for Colorado to start Gabriel Torres in a forward role that he hasn't looked effective in at the expense of a player like Dillon Powers (or even Carlos Alvarez, who was left out of the squad entirely). Powers eventually did come on, but completely out of position at right midfield for Vicente Sanchez. It was maddening. It is maddening, days later. #FreeDillonPowers
That wasn't the only issue, either. James Riley, whose last two seasons involved 2013 United and 2014 Chivas USA, started over Marlon Hairston at right back. Bobby Burling and clumsy rookie Axel Sjoberg started over Shane O'Neill, whose prospects with the USMNT may continue to fade the longer he's stuck in Colorado. Riley and Burling are both out suspended, so at least the Rapids are now obliged to fix their mistake. I respected Pablo Mastroeni as a player, and his facial hair is truly amazing, but there's no way I can dodge the obvious: He is currently the least effective gameday manager (meaning putting together a starting lineup and then adjusting it as games go on) in MLS, and I'm not even sure 19th place is within spitting distance.
Vancouver 1:3 Toronto
What more can be said?
Houston 1:0 Columbus
Let's talk about the declining fortunes of Will Bruin. We all know Cubo Torres will step in as first choice when he finishes his pointless loan to Chivas Guadalajara (who are barely using him). The issue for Bruin is that he might not have a job to lose by then. Houston scored the game's only goal after pulling Bruin for winger Leonel Miranda and moving Oscar Boniek Garcia inside to play underneath Giles Barnes. Barnes was the Dynamo's best out-and-out striker last season when Bruin was unavailable, and he looks like the best #9 they have now that Bruin's back. I'm starting to wonder if Bruin isn't just getting in the way for the Dynamo.
And yes, this is obviously good news for United.
Dallas 1:0 San Jose
In lesser hands, I'm not sure FC Dallas is that great of a team. We're talking about a side that started Atiba Harris at right back, dropped Walker Zimmerman for Zach Loyd despite Loyd barely appearing in the preseason, and dropped Michel and changed formation despite playing 4231 throughout training camp. They also used Tesho Akindele as a winger and Fabian Castillo up front despite the general thinking that those roles should be switched (note: This happened a lot last year too, not that it was often discussed). Oh, and Chris Seitz started over Dan Kennedy as well.
And despite all of that, they were clearly deserving of their 1-0 win over Dominic Kinnear's San Jose Earthquakes. It's not that the Quakes are bad; it's that Pareja may be some kind of wizard.
Portland 0:0 RSL
Jeff Cassar has moved Real Salt Lake into a 433, and I'm not sure it's a good idea. The archetype seems to fit: Beckerman is the anchor, Morales gets the freedom to be a #10, and Gil is the runner that links them. There are two problems: Morales, having aged a year, has now been given a role that requires more running than he used to have to do in the 4312. That didn't come up against the Timbers, but Cassar's Spidey Sense should be tingling. It's a long-term problem if RSL doesn't overwhelm teams on offense. Morales was never quite a passenger in the diamond, but there's even less room for players who need to be carried defensively. It's no accident that RSL's 433 drifted into being a 4231 as the game wore on: The wide forwards had to drop off a few yards so Morales wasn't left with too much space to cover.
The other issue is that Gil - despite looking less like a Morales successor than initially hoped - still sees himself as a potential playmaker. His principle assets are athleticism, dribbling ability in traffic, mobility, and combativeness rather than vision or passing. If this 433 is going to work, he needs to mimic guys like Roger Espinoza rather than Benny Feilhaber. Gil seemed to want to step too high at times against the Timbers, which leaves gaps. If that continues, Kyle Beckerman and Jamison Olave are going to have a lot of work to do behind him.
Meanwhile, Portland only completed 73% of their passes. By comparison, the supposedly sloppy match between United and Montreal saw totals of 79% (for DC) and 76% (for Montreal). But please, everyone, keep telling us about how the Timbers are so skillful and progressive while the teams in the East are all long-balling ogres who are incapable of playing good soccer.
Orlando 1:1 NYCFC
Teams that can't get their defensive basics right - that's winning headers, congesting the middle within 30 yards of goal, and pulling an offside trap - will be sliced to bits by Orlando. It's not even the presence of Kaka, though that obviously sharpens the knife. It's that the Lions are unapologetically direct. They're not playing long balls over the top; rather, this is a team that wants to play through the middle third as fast as possible so they can get to the business of attacking the box. If not for a slew of offside calls on Carlos Rivas - all of them easy - they might not have needed a stoppage-time equalizer. All three central midfielders have clearly been told to play vertically as often as possible. Intriguingly, the least direct players for Orlando in their 4231 were wide midfielders Kevin Molino and Lewis Neal.
NYCFC, meanwhile, keeps not trading Tommy McNamara back to United, so screw them.
KC 1:1 NYRB
This was a fun one because Jesse Marsch wants the Metros to be a high-pressing, energetic team. They actually took the game to KC and were out-Sporking the Sporks even before Matt Besler's dumb second yellow. That KC protested this was a) ludicrous and b) typical of any Peter Vermes-led outfit. I seem to remember MLS installing an onerous fine for frivolous official protests, but maybe they did away with it?
Anyway, the problem for the New York/New Jersey Metro Red Bulls Red Bull New York but actually New Jersey is that their defense looks pretty vulnerable. Damien Perrinelle justifiably was fourth choice as Jamison Olave's barely serviceable partner last year, and I don't see much evidence that he's better than Matt Miazga. Meanwhile, Ronald Zubar looks like a lesser Olave, Chris Duvall looks unimproved from last year, and Roy Miller is still Roy Miller. If United is smart with the ball and can play through the initial layer of NYRB pressure, there will be plenty of chances for the club whose history isn't a constant source of embarrassment next weekend.
Seattle 3:0 New England
We've been moping about United's attack without Fabian Espindola, but it could be worse. With Jermaine Jones still weeks away from playing and Lee Nguyen apparently struggling with a nagging groin injury, the Revs were missing more. They weren't up to the task either, mostly because none of their front four - Juan Agudelo ahead of an attacking trio of Teal Bunbury, Kelyn Rowe, and Diego Fagundez - stepped up to be "the man" in the absence of New England's most vital players. The Revs had a ton of talent on the field, but they're all guys who support the stars. It's not a question of ability, but rather mentality. Jay Heaps needed someone in his attack to embrace the responsibility of leading the charge, and what he got instead was a lot of buck-passing.