MLS hot takes! Why you shouldn't rush to judgment after Week 1
A few things should be pretty doggone clear now that we’ve had one full weekend of MLS to study:
Toronto FC is clearly moving at bullet train speed toward MLS Cup glory. Only the brilliantly reinforced L.A. Galaxy, powered by Mike Magee’s impending MVP season, could possibly subvert a Giovinco-and-Bradley powered romp from the BMO Field bunch.
By contrast, the New York Red Bulls are finished, dead as civility in politics. Probably won’t even make the playoffs. Vancouver, too, for that matter. Oh, well, that Whitecaps’ youth movement was fun while it lasted.
Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti is surely this year’s Sebastian Giovinco. Well, unless it’s Dallas’ Mauro Diaz, now statistically on pace to collect 68 assists this year. (Somewhere, Carlos Valderrama, he of the otherworldly hair and the current single-season assist record, just felt a disturbance in The Force … and doesn’t know why.)
Oh, one more thing from Week 1 in MLS: a bunch of goalkeepers were drunk. Or so it seems.
Rush to judgment much? Of course … that’s what we do. It’s what we all do in sports.
Generally, when we start comparing MLS to big brother American sports, the NFL, NBA, etc., we’re getting into apples-and-oranges territory. These entities remain worlds apart. Same for MLS when held up against the biggers and betters of world soccer - EPL, Bundesliga, Liga MX, etc.
But one thread surely binds them all: supporters and well-meaning members of the chattering class (media, that is) practically knock each other silly in the rush to early judgment. Week 1 overreaction is a rite in pro sports, as much a ritual as gathering ‘round the 55-inch LED screen, pizza and beer in hand.
GRAHAM PARKER ON MLS
It’s understandable, of course. MLS supporters are emerging from a brief-but-still-difficult hibernation, something we almost comically call the “offseason.” So they are jonesing for a fix of their local club. Once they get a taste, the urge to autopsy what it all means is just too much to overcome.
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Do know these things: the season is long; injuries happen (and sometimes the ones you suspect won’t be as meaningful will crush a club). Coaches change their minds, flip-flopping on formations or preference in personnel; some teams are slow starters that will surely kick harder in the summer, while others will fade like a cheap paint job.
And here is something that gets habitually overlooked in this predictable stampede toward Week 1 judgment: half the teams are playing on the road!
Yes, there was some success from the travelers; road teams went 4-4-2 on opening day. Mark this down: it will not last! Normalcy will resume, especially when home teams stop getting players thrown out, which happened in Orlando and Seattle.
Elsewhere, the fact that teams played on the road simply didn’t seem to register in post-game assessment. Good example: Columbus lost on the road in a swell rematch of last year’s MLS Cup final. Yes, the Crew looked vulnerable to the counter, a byproduct of those adventurous fullbacks. But let’s not forget, playing at Portland is hard! Caleb Porter’s team lost just three times there in 2015. And, no, Ethan Finlay didn’t look like a U.S. national teamer in his 2016 Crew debut, but he’ll have 30-or so more chances to fulfill those elevated expectations.
Now, as we exit the realm of “rash conclusions” and move closer to “suspicions being faithfully validated” … yeah, we can probably go there a little. New York City FC and Chicago yielded seven goals between them. The defending on both sides at Toyota Park was somewhere between “bad” and “shockingly bad.” So, yeah, the new men in charge -- Chicago’s Veljko Paunovic and New York City FC’s Patrick Vieira -- have miles to go before they get the back lines and midfield screening right. We suspected as much.
And speaking of NYCFC: some of the league’s show ponies will continue to struggle with fitness in 2016. Frank Lampard, we are looking at you (and your calf strain). Same for Kaká, who missed Orlando’s opener against Real Salt Lake. Injuries have been a problem for both; this isn’t sure-fire confirmation that sprains, strains or worse will keep these game-changers out for significant stretches of 2016, but it moves us closer to it.
You get the point: in a few days we’ll have a sample size exactly double what we have right now. Soon thereafter the sample will be three times the current size, and so on. At that point, feel free to swing away with those breathless conclusions. Until then, just take a breath.
My two cents
And now for some (hopefully!) more grounded, early analysis after opening weekend: I’d love to see …
A little more of this: All 10 games on opening weekend packed into one day. It pushed a certain “big event” feel that MLS lacks with a slower rollout. Generally speaking, supporters love their clubs but they aren’t “MLS fans,” not the way basketball fans love their locals but also consider themselves “NBA fans.” More big-occasion days like Sunday might help move MLS in that direction.
… and a little less of that: Some of the bad goalkeeping around MLS. The goal L.A.’s Dan Kennedy allowed (before he got hurt) to D.C. United is not doing much to allay concerns that sprouted in CONCACAF Champions League. North of there, the shot that beat Seattle’s Stefan Frei was certainly tricky, but a veteran should do better. Vancouver’s David Ousted was in never-never land on Montreal’s second goal. New England’s Bobby Shuttleworth needs to command his box better and … well, we could go on. Get it together, guys!
… and a little less of that: the Fagundez that we saw (or more accurately, didn’t see much of) in a couple of years of regression in 2014 and 2015. He’s 21 years old (although already in his 6th MLS season), so it’s time for Fagundez to improve – or begin looking like another young star who never quite reached full potential.
A little more of this: Fans calling Ben Olsen into question. Actually, D.C. United fans calling the club’s entire front office structure and management into question. Olsen’s record now stands at 64-78-41, and a fluky U.S. Open Cup is pretty much the net-out for a guy who took over back in 2010. It just doesn’t look like United is going anywhere.
… and a little less of that: Fans in Philly somehow criticizing Jim Curtin for losing in Dallas. A team in big transition, visitors against an MLS Cup contender, were without Maurice Edu and Tranquillo Barnetta, toting a roster still being re-made, deliberately and prudently, with Earnie Stewart’s precise definition of roles. And yet the Union still had a chance to steal a point until the 80th minute. And fans are, uh, somehow holding Curtin’s feet to the fire over this one? That makes no sense.
A little more of this: Sensational fan support in Orlando. They filled the bowl again with 60,000 and change. We should all be delighted that they scrapped plans last summer for a 20,000-seat stadium for a more ambitious 25,000-seater. Good stuff, guys.
… and a little less of that: Stop telling me about “better” artificial turf, wherever you are installing it. The new stuff may be slightly better at CenturyLink Field, but anything that we don’t call “real grass” needs to go the way of the floppy disk. Games at CenturyLink and most other parks with artificial turf simply lose something in flow, skill and aesthetics. The atmosphere is always brilliant at Seattle’s downtown ground; the soccer itself, not so much.
A little more of this: Mike Magee presiding over L.A. Galaxy valley.
… and a little less of that: Gio dos Santos. (Serious question now up for debate: Who will give Bruce Arena the bigger problem to solve this year: The slow and minimally effective Steven Gerrard, or the speedy but still curiously ineffective Dos Santos? My guess is that Dos Santos gets sold in the summer transfer window, therefore nullifying this debate and giving The Bruce just one, giant headache to deal with.)
A little more of this: Praise for Diego Chara, who may be the league’s top holding midfielder now. On a team with lots of other pretty, shiny things to distract us, he’s such a steady destroyer and distributor in there. He was probably Portland’s top man Sunday against Columbus – and he didn’t have a foul? Heavens, when did that last happen?
… and a little less of that: My own skepticism on Ashley Cole. (We’ll see what the guy looks like in August, but for now I’m standing down on the embattled Galaxy left back. He was skillful, smart and active in his L.A. debut.)