Monday, May 28, 2012

The MLS Grinder: The league's best

CJ Sapong is scoring again. Loogout.
With May just about in the books, the Grinder is feeling fairly list oriented this fine (unbelievably hot) Memorial Day. I have little use for weekly power rankings, those tropes of hyper analysis. But they can serve a purpose when pulled out to a macro level every now and again, and that's where the Grinder goes today. Boldly sloshing into the knee-high wastes of my first top 5 of the season. What follows are my top five best teams through May and a few salient bits on each squad to this point.

Disclaimer: TFC's first win did not push the Reds onto the list. It was a close call, though. Wink, wink.

#5. Seattle Sounders

Seattle has the potential to climb well above No. 5 later in the year. With a roster like this and a raucous home field advantage, Seattle will likely be hovering among the league's elite all season. But thanks to highs tempered by some deep craters, it's still to be determined whether Seattle has enough gumption to get it done on a consistent basis. Four straight wins over the Fire, Galaxy, Union and FCD were great, but I'd be more concerned with the ensuing 1-0 loss to RSL, a perennial thorn in Seattle's side when it counts. As is, Seattle is a fringe elite team. This could have easily been San Jose at #5, but I prefer a staunch defensive team over one that presses high on goals. Those teams tend to have a tougher time sustaining form.

The name atop our newcomer lists the start the year was David Estrada, who wowed with ascending goal totals that had fantasy owners scrambling. But as Estrada's rocket gradually soared back to earth, Fredy Montero's took off. Montero has long been the most enigmatic figure in the league, vacillating between moments of incredible form and disappearing acts of the highest order. But Montero has been banging in some incredible goals and finding some paper-thin creases, so we'll see where that train leads. Alonso remains the holding midfielder of record in MLS, and a back line blighted by the injury to Adam Johansson, who has a right foot like a howitzer, has still surrendered a league-low nine goals through 13 games.

#4. New York Red Bulls

The volatility of New York's locker room has been well documented over the past few years, and Rafa Marquez is a continually ticking incendiary device. Thierry Henry is getting brittle, and I have a hard time believing Kenny Cooper's torrid form of late has any life to it beyond mid-summer. And yet. I find myself wondering when New York will finally break down and collapse for good, and then they flash all these shiny attacking toys behind Henry and you begin to wonder. New York's form in the last five: win, win, win, win, draw. Most of that has been without Henry. I wanted to give up on my preseason MLS Cup pick, but that seems like a foolhardy proposition right now. And I can't explain exactly why.

Hot form aside, New York was drifting toward the dust bin without some back line help. And like a white knight, in rode Heath Pierce to bolster a defense that ranked dead last for the first several weeks of the season. Pierce himself is not a salve for 100 percent of those issues, but he's as close to it as New York could've gotten. Kenny Cooper is bound to slow down sooner or later, but he's as hot as anybody in the league for now. That's a horse Hans Backe won't mind riding for the time being. And if Rafa can keep it together and produce a string of positive games, New York could be leading the East fairly soon. And they'd deserve to.

#3. Real Salt Lake

It's incredible to me that RSL has kept up this form for a sustained period of years, and that the Royals continue to rescue wins from the strangest, darkest corners. RSL's 3-2 win over FCD last weekend moved them to the top of the West after Nat Borchers hit the winner in the 93rd minute. It was RSL's third stoppage time winner of the season, and the latest contest forced RSL to retake the lead twice after FCD equalizers. With the league's best coach at the helm and various moving parts clicking into gear, this is not a team I'd bet against winning the West on its current form.

The most remarkable bit about RSL's mounting win total is Jason Kreis' ability to swap out pieces like car tires and rarely miss steps. Right back Terukazu Tanaka (not this one, FYI) made just his second career MLS start against FCD and supplied the assist on Alvaro Saborio's game-opening goal. And backup keeper Kyle Reynish extended his shutout streak to 325 minutes before getting his hands on both FCD scores. The ballyhooed depth Kreis has created has been on full display this year. Which is why this team only tends to get better as the weather heats up.

#2. DC United

Shocked to see the DC boys this high? You shouldn't be. It's always been a mere matter of moments before this team gelled into something more closely resembling a fully formed transformer than a toy car. The slow start is there, of course, but so too is DC's blistering form to end May. Four wins in five got DC to the top of the East on points, and a mirroring slow start from DeRo has all been wiped out by his league-leading assist tally, which sits at eight. DC has so many dangerous pieces that it's just been a matter of time. What should be interesting will be watching whether this team can sustain its good run once the season slows to a heat-induced crawl.

Of course it starts with DeRo, but have you guys watched Andy Najar this year? The wide midfielder with the fancy footwork has been as skillful as anybody in the league through May, and his wide partner, Nick DeLeon, is up toward the top of most rookie of the year ballots right now. In fact, the problem will be getting all these pieces on the field at the same time. DeLeon, Najar, Chris Pontius, Hamdi Salihi, Maicon Santos and DeRo all deserve first team minutes, but there needs to be some defense in there too. If that group crystallizes soon, as they appear to be doing, watch out.

#1. Sporting Kansas City

A lot will be made of SKC's brief mental lapse that resulted in an 0-3-1 run of form after a 7-0-0 start. But KC's 2-1 win over San Jose was an emphatic way to break those doldrums into a hundred tiny bits. SKC's defense is the best in the East because it does more than any other unit. Chance Myers beats up and down the right touchline like a duster over the Oklahoma plains, and there are few central units more cohesive than the one helmed by Aurelien Collin. On its day, SKC is as close to having no discernible weaknesses as anybody in the league. Troughs are a natural part of the game, but what the San Jose win showed me was that this is a team with a relatively short memory. Which is essential.

The most encouraging bit of news from the weekend was CJ Sapong's goal, which could herald an end to the defending rookie of the year's slump. With Bobby Convey out with an injury, Peter Vermes put Sapong on the left with Teal Bunbury at center forward and the shot-happy Kei Kamara on the right. This is the formation that made so much noise last year once SKC moved into the StrongBox, and it resumed dominance over the weekend. I spent a lot of time last weekend trying to discern the root of SKC's problems and came out without anything profound, which told me that SKC would soon bounce back. And so they did.

- Will Parchman

1 comment:

dikranovich said...

i told t boyd he should come to dc united. could you imagine the firepower. then this would be a team that would be truly ready to take on the champions league. im not sure boyd realized that rapid vienna players were coming to dc united, not the other way around.