Monday, April 23, 2012

The MLS Grinder: The anatomy of a rivalry

Bas Rutten: "Knee to da groin"
Game of the Week
DC United 4, New York 1

In the Barra Brava, the atmosphere rained down richly, chants and middle fingers and lager-infused songs spilling down harder and faster than the rain pelting and deadening the RFK playing surface. But on the field, there was little evidence of this being the most heated, longest-running rivalry in the league — the first leg of the Atlantic Cup. New York was beat into submission so early, so heavily, head forced into the mud so completely that it almost seemed like the Red Bulls had conceded this one themselves. Thierry Henry's free kick goal to set the final scoreline was hilariously sedate. He dumped it past Joe Willis, dropped his head, spun on his heels and stalked away from the spot, ignoring his congratulating teammates. He might as well have been speaking for the rest of them.

Something tells me Ben Olsen reads NSC. Actually nothing tells me that except my own bogus intuition, but he apparently figured his formation was suffering the same lack of inspiration we did, that being Dwayne De Rosario's inability to find the game pushed well upfield. Olsen kept his diamond midfield in place but stuck Maicon Santos back up top to pair with Chris Pontius and put DeRo at his rightful role as the central creative midfielder. It's clear that even in his most comfortable role, DeRo is not up to form yet. I have no explanations for the defending MVP's slow start other than to say that he has a lot of time yet to formulate a response. He did assist on New York's third and wasn't entirely lost, but this is a far cry from his blistering form from the second half of 2011. We'll hang on and see if this move backfield does the trick long term.

This was undoubtedly Chris Pontius' day. He scored three times and looked convincing in doing so. I'll have to rethink my position on Pontius' role in the 4-4-2. I was previously beholden to having him forced outside, which is where he'd made his mark in the league, but Nick DeLeon's emergence has forced Olsen to be elastic. So, with DeLeon ensconced on the left, Pontius has made hay up top. This creates an interesting battle for the second striker role between Hamdi Salihi and Maicon Santos, but you know what they say about competition.

New York's defensive wattage failures have to have Hans Backe tremendously concerned. They've never lacked ambition in the opposing third, but the defense has been mediocre to bad to abysmal. Thierry Henry can certainly tell you, though he has more to do with the problem than he'd probably be willing to admit. Chris Pontius' opening strike, aside from being fantastically pretty, illustrated the dangers of New York continuing to allow Henry to drop into the midfield to do whatever it is he thinks he's doing. Pontius stripped Henry just inside New York's half of the field and ran free until his sidewinder beat Ryan Meara for the first goal before we'd hit 10 minutes. Henry complained for the foul, but he should've been looking at himself. Viciously talented though he may be, Henry is not a midfielder, and the deeper he drops, the less dangerous and more susceptible to failure he gets. He undoubtedly understood this and spent the rest of the game walloping chances.

Both of New York's fullbacks had a miserable day and deserved some culpability for the second and third goals, which came rat-a-tat like machine gun strikes in the first half. The second involved a hilariously easy romp down the left touchline from Maicon Santos and ended with Meara casting quizzical looks toward young'un Connor Lade, who was beat so comprehensively by Pontius at the far post as to lead me to question his ability to comprehend the notion of crosses. The third was even worse. Victor Palsson's clearance was vaguely reminiscent of a girl's middle school junior varsity effort, allowing DeRo to body up Lade, beat him easily and dangle a rolling cross in front of a hungry Nick DeLeon, who did the rest thanks in part to even more middle school defending, this time from Jan Gunnar Solli on the other side. Pontius' third, wonderful in its simplicity, exposed Markus Holgersson, leaving Stephen Keel as the only one of New York's four defenders to not be completely embarrassed one-on-one in a 70-minute time span. That, to put things mildly, is not good. Not good at all.

Backe's puzzling exercises in team sheet calisthenics continued without understanding. Even without Rafa Marquez, who is serving a suspension for being a neanderthal, Backe left ironman mainstay Joel Lindpere out of the starting XI. In an Atlantic Cup game. He also gave three players their first caps in a game between two of the top three teams in the East. Yeah, it's only April. And yeah, it was still puzzling. I've tried reasonably hard to understand Hans Backe and have failed in just about every respect.

As it is only late April I will avoid any real big picture thoughts here other than to say New York is saddled with some of the same problems we projected (no Ream + young GK = no defense), and DC has terrifying potential. If nothing else, look on the bright side, NY fans. Things are about to get very entertaining. More unamused douche-y thoughts out of Henry in that bemused French accent. More assurances from Hans Backe that he's intent to "do things his way regardless" and more shootouts. More rottenly hilarious Marquez chants. If that's what you're into, strap in.

And then there's this. I had a stinging riposte all cued up, but DC went and embarrassed New York. But it's still an unfortunate design flaw that allowed Henry of all people to out-size the reigning MVP on a DC poster. Oops.

Best of the Best

- Goal of the week falls to Columbus' Eddie Gaven. It's a good thing, too, because otherwise Columbus would've fallen into the bottom feeder category this week. They gave up an 81st minute goal to blow the full three against Houston at home. No team in the league is more featureless, more without personality than Columbus. You get a cookie if you can name more than three current outfield starters. Emilio Renteria, Chad Marshall and... Schel... no, no. Robbie Rogers? Dammit.

- This is just... fantastic. Any time I get to trumpet the SKC front office I will. Dudes get it.

- I'm not sure where this falls, but I think the good from RSL outweighs the nearly-embarassing from San Jose here. I think. Maybe. It's also a sign that this league is so unbelievably topsy-turvy so as to render SKC's accomplishment (thus far) all the more impressive and TFC's all the more awful. But anyway, RSL nearly held off San Jose on nine men until the Quakes put in two goals in stoppage time. San Jose saves face (barely) and Jason Kreis can give his boys some kind of strange squawking rallying cry. I think. Maybe.

Worst of the Worst

It gets worse.
- Pump the brakes on this little MLS 4-3-3 bonanza. As Toronto proved this weekend, the formation is only as relevant as its win/loss record allows it to be, and when you're free falling like the Reds are, you can more or less forget formation allegiance. Sorry Jurgen. The league, it seems, has other plans for your formation of choice.

When life throws a Molotov Cocktail through your window, you learn not only how you cope with adversity but the level and effectiveness of your response. That, in the paraphrased words of Rudyard Kipling (and without the incendiary device-as-example), is the essential measure of a man. When Toronto was at its neediest on Saturday, tied 2-2 with Chicago after Gonzalo Segares' 41st minute equalizer, the Reds' formation did a somersault and landed on its neck. TFC began the game in a 3-4-3 (!) that looked more like a 4-3-3 (!!), that transformed into a 4-4-2 (?) after the Fire went up 3-2 and then turned into something that looked like a lopsided 5-4-1 (???) by game's end. Er... yeah.

What this says to me is that A.) Aron Winter is not at all convinced that the 4-3-3 project he's tried so hard to cultivate has any lasting value, and B.) He really has no idea what formation fits this crew best. Is it any wonder TFC pulled a reverse SKC and has started the year a pristine 0-6-0 with four goals from six games?  If Winter is indeed implementing a system, he's either doing a poor job of it or his players simply don't have the capacity to carry it out. Either way, the Santos Laguna fixtures have the stinging potential of being the final meaningful games this team will play all year.

- Apparently only Sporting Kansas City can beat Sporting Kansas City. What on earth is Chance Myers doing? It looks like he's trying to avoid taking a boot to the face, but how can you not notice you're tracking a cross with no green shirts in the immediate vicinity and then end up knocking it in? It was a bang-bang play that an otherwise very good defender got horribly wrong. Get 'em next time, bud. (Gaffe at about 2:10).

- As The Rafa Turns takes another interesting twist. Rumors abound that New York is interested in shipping the wayward defender to incredibly frustrating Chivas USA, which drops points like a murder weapon at home and is unbeatable on the road in the league's most hostile environs. And JPA is almost back to full fitness. What New York would ask for in return I can only ruminate upon. A mannequin? A handshake? An antique armoire for a Marquez-less locker room? One can only speculate.

- Will Parchman


jon said...

It hardly matters, but your description of Lade's defensive abilities on the 2nd DC goal is harsh. He's running to where the cross was heading and Meara's touch puts it behind him.

Anyway, top notch recap of the weekend's action as usual.

Tom said...

Agree with jon. Lade was not really at fault for the 2nd goal. On the third goal, you'll also note DeRo's "body" was accompanied by quite a bit of plain ol' shoving.

UnitedDemon said...

DC has Chris Pontius, Rookie of the Year, an inspired Maicon Santos, last year's MVP and Andy Najar- on the bench. That, and one of the best starting back fours in the league.

NY has excuses, and a DP who can't believe what he's playing with. As it should be.

Will Parchman said...

It may have been harsh. At the time I thought his positioning was pretty awful, but it may not have been as miserable as I remember.

Phil McCracken said...

Will - Great round-up as usual.

I'm not sure if I've ever seen a more immobile central defender in MLS than Markus Holgersson. His nickname of the "Swedish Statue" is very appropriate. Pontius walked around him on his 3rd goal, Holgersson couldn't even reach him in order to foul.

BTW, anyone know why the Players Union hasn't posted the salary listing yet. It seems very late this year.

jon said...

Last year the MLS player's union released that info sometime in early May (the news write-ups I could find from last year are all dated May 9 or 10th.)

Will Parchman said...

Sitting on the edge of your seat for that Dan Gargan contract info, huh? Me too.

Phil McCracken said...

Exactly! I'm somewhat embarassed to write that I really enjoy looking through it and seeing some of the good & bad salary numbers.

My only complaint is that I've only seen it in PDF format so you can't slice and dice the numbers. Although last year, a writer here in Philly put it into Excel which was great.

dikranovich said...

Don gorgan has to be one of, if not the best, rappers on the planet. Murder dem.

Matt said...

is NSC ready to admit they were wrong on DeLeon?

jon said...

@Matt, does anyone care? Seriously, I'd wager that every soccer news outlet (from bloggers to bigtimers) that wasn't based in Louisville had no idea how DeLeon would do in MLS. I'm just grateful that anyone is willing to dive into the college soccer quagmire and try to predict how these kids will do ahead of time.

I remember someone on NSC (my apologies to the offender) wrote off Velasquez as a throwaway pick for RSL. I demand justice! (I know, I know, that's apples to oranges since nobody but RSL had seen the kid play).

Matt said...

That Bobby Convey thing is classic. Dude looks like a complete wingnut in that clip.