US Pyramid Rankings: Everybody in the Pool Edition

One little holdout prevented this from going up earlier: Orange County needed to play a home game. Once they beat LosDos (8 SoT for, 3 SoT conceded), we were able to put together the big table.

Big Surprise: San Jose at #4 overall, #2 from MLS. The two initial home wins were a big boost to their ranking, and as their effect is diluted with more home games, you would expect them to fall. And yet, they have an away win against the much improved Minnesota, and their new 4-3-3 formation is working quite nicely at the moment.

2017 05 07 USA

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US Pyramid: April 28

A Brittle Shape:

Live soccer, man. The first game I attended this season was a tense affair as FC Dallas edged Sporting KC, 1-0. On TV, this may have been a boring game, but in the stadium it was a little nervewracking as it became clear that the posted lineups were misleading. And that gets into teams having different looks. 

I wrote in my Week 6 about Javier Morales, and how his return to the lineup could portend a return to the more adventurous FC Dallas team we saw last season. His presence in the lineup against Dallas seemed to hint that Oscar Pareja would be returning to that attacking mindset. Instead, Dallas kept the 4-4-2 shape, and Javi worked and worked. Playing a 4-4-2 against the Sporting 4-3-3 means that you are outmanned in midfield, but Javi continually worked to press Opara, Besler, and Sanchez into lateral and backwards passes. Feilhaber and Espinoza pushed higher and wider to offer passing options to their teammates, leaving Sanchez responsible for more and more area, and requiring more and more precision as the game wore on. Combined with Sinovic and Zusi pushing forward into the attack, the whole team shape for Kansas City became more and more precarious as they tried to avoid Dallas’ pressing traps.

Eventually the second half subs broke Dallas, with Michael Barrios scampering into space on the right and crossing for Maynor Figueroa to head home. It was a deserved win on the back of some superhuman performances for Dallas, with Acosta and Gruezo covering so much ground in the middle of the park. Their efforts really prevented Sporting from generating much offensively, isolating Dwyer from his midfield supply lines.

Sporting’s reliance on one shape, the 4-3-3, and a high tempo has worked for several seasons now, and it’s still effective against most MLS teams. But it looks like the Western Conference will run through Dallas this season, so Peter Vermes may want to look at a different approach in the future.  

Game of the Week:

Columbus v New York City: the two most pass happy teams in MLS meet. NYC completes 549 passes per game and Columbus 512, good for first and second place in the league. And they are able to put shots on target, with 40 for NYC and 35 for Columbus.

Both teams are coming off losses in “New York”, with the Cityzens losing 2-1 to Orlando in Yankee Stadium while Columbus dropped a 2-0 to the Red Bulls in Harrison.

There are also lineup questions for both teams: how will Columbus adapt to the absence of rookie Homegrown defender Alex Crognale and midfielder Artur, who broke his wrist. Columbus looks to be a bit more solid with those two than their replacements in Mensah and Abu.

For Patrick Viera, the question is whether he will persist with Andrea Pirlo from the start. Pirlo is still the best passer in the league, but his presence at the back of midfield invites a great deal of trouble, and Pirlo has been subbed out in recent appearances. It might be a chance to see if the Venezuelan youngster Herrera gets a chance to protect the space in front of New York’s improved backline. They’ve gone from the third worst expected Goals Against (xGA) in 2016 to the best xGA in 2017. That probably has more to do with increased spending on the center back positions, the addition of Alexander Ring in midfield, and a great ability retain possession.

D2 Games of the Week:

  1. Miami v Edmonton: The team with the most SoG at home this season takes on the early basement dwellers. Edmonton hasn’t been great on the road so far, and Miami will want a home win to keep pace with Jacksonville and keep the pressure on rivals old and new in San Francisco and the Cosmos.
  2. Real Monarch v Swope Park Rangers: there has been a rivalry at the 1st team level for these clubs, and while they square off in Kansas City on Saturday night, the second and third place teams in the Western Conference play with Swope Park having a chance to move level on points. As these are both small market teams that will rely on internal development of talent, there is a chance we could be seeing stars of tomorrow.

MLS Predictions:

I picked up 15 points last week, my best score this season. There were 7 correct results and 8 correct team score guesses. This week seems even trickier since MLS averages 1 or 2 away wins each week, and it’s hard to see where they are coming from here. I guess the big questions is whether Los Angeles is bad enough to let Philadelphia win on the road.

2017 04 28 MLS Predictions

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MLS Week 8

Building Wide, Not Tall:

When there is a gap in the market, someone will fill it. At least that’s the way it was supposed to work. When the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) gave USL and NASL provisional Division 2 status in January 2017, there was suddenly a void at the Division 3 level, with no clear replacement. Since the divisions in US soccer are not linked and don’t constantly have teams move between them, it’s not strictly necessary to have a D3 league, but it does leave a niche to be filled.

News broke this week that there are not one, but two leagues aiming to fill that niche. One is a USL backed league, and the other is aligned with Peter Wilt’s Club 9 group, which means it has an organizer with a plan and a good track record of finding ways to make soccer work in various markets. Brian Straus’ take on the USL D3 can be found here, and SocTakes broke news of the alternate D3 league here.

While there’s always going to be drama in the lower tiers of US Soccer, this is encouraging news. MLS has certainly clung to the traditional American sports building tall: limit the number of teams, put them in great cathedrals, and build the fan base through the draw of bright lights and big names. Unfortunately, the lights south of the border and across the ocean are a little bright, their cathedrals a little more hallowed. MLS doesn’t have the qualities necessary to outshine LigaMx and the Euro leagues, so it’s efforts have not garnered the attention it hoped for.

What the D3 news means, I hope, is that MLS and US Soccer are realizing that most places the game has really taken root, it is due to a very wide base that links the local leagues with the upper echelons. Most countries do it through pro-rel, but at the moment it seems unlikely for US Soccer. But having an option of a next step, a new division, a wider ranging challenge for teams is a start: teams will determine their own level of involvement through investment, not invincibility, but that seems rather American to me. Going from a state or regional league to the semi-pro/amateur NPSL/PDL, then maybe up to a new D3 league should be attainable.

To make it really work in linking the top and bottom, US Soccer needs to make some changes. On a night where we saw Monaco advance to the Champions League semifinals despite having a population of 38,000, it’s time to loosen or ditch the overly restrictive population requirements for leagues. It’s also a necessity to allow a broader form of fan ownership in lower leagues. Making those two changes would bring a whole swath of new cities and towns into the fold, helping to build the pyramid in a way that encompasses a wider range of population centers and all the attendant local weirdness that goes along with it.

Games of the Week:

MLS: FC Dallas v Sporting Kansas City: It’s the two best teams of the early season facing off. Success has been built on defense, with the teams allowing 5 goals in 11 games between them. Per American Soccer Analysis, both teams would have been expected to give up 6 goals however, which would have put them in top half, but outside the best four defensive teams if we were to use xGA as our main metric. The relative anemic offensive performance so far can likely be pegged to missing Mauro Diaz for Dallas, while Sporting have re-worked their midfield to work Graham Zusi in at left back and to account for the injury to Benny Feilhaber. This will also be my first MLS game of the season, so I’m excited.

NASL: New York Cosmos v Jacksonville Armada. While the NASL has four unbeaten teams, the only one with multiple wins is Jacksonville. Seeing them on top of the league is surprising, but they have some decent talent on their roster and the season is young. They will have a good test away to the Cosmos, who are playing their second home game at MCU Park at Coney Island. The Cosmos got a late start in preparing for this season due to off the field troubles, but managed to trade away wins with the other new money team in NASL, Miami FC. A week after losing at home without a shot on goal, the Cosmos managed to get a win in Miami. That should provide an early bit of momentum for Gio Savarese to work with as he seeks to reestablish his team on top of the league.

USL: Gonna mention three local derbies worth checking out on YouTube:

  1. Rochester v New York Red Bulls II – last year’s champs visit the 2015 playoff winners
  2. Los Angeles Galaxy II v Orange County SC – a minor league battle foreshadowing the coming LAG-LAFC fight in MLS.
  3. FC Cincinnati v Louisville City FC – two of the biggest movers and shakers in USL are only two hours apart. Cincy draws big crowds, which adds to sense of occasion.

Predictions:

I did terribly last week, only getting two results and six score guesses right. Here are my picks for this week:

2017 04 21 MLS Predictions

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MLS Week 7

National picture: The long-running joke about MLS is that the season doesn’t start until August. Mess around all you want before then, just turn it on in time to make sure that you are hot for the playoff. This isn’t really true, though with the threat of relegation teams have tolerated very poor seasons without removing coaches or GMs. It’s early still in the 2017 season, but we have seen Real Salt Lake fire Jeff Cassar after three games, and a 13 game winless streak means that Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin is facing rather more pressure than he may be used to. The same could be said of Carl Robinson in Vancouver and Jesse Marsch in New York. For each, the circumstances are different, but there is a growing need to get the season back on track.

Curtin, Robinson, and Marsch all have a chance to build some positive momentum this weekend with games against teams that could be considered rivals. While MLS mostly lacks the proximity to have derbies, Vancouver-Seattle, New York Red Bulls-DC United, and Philadelphia-New York City are all close enough for MLS rivalry week purposes. A win is nice, but sending your opponent’s fans home on the bus empty handed is priceless.

Vancouver hosts Seattle as part of the Cascadia Cup. The Canadian side performed a bit of surgery on their attack this offseason, adding four new pieces to their midfield and strikeforce, but those pieces have not had the desired effect. The defense is full of solid no-frills defenders, and it seems like Robinson could look the channel Colorado’s 2016 habit of winning games 1-0. Whether Robinson has the pull in the dressing room to pull that off remains seen, but Seattle would be a good team to start against.

Similarly, Philadelphia’s off season centered on some interesting pickups that didn’t solve the problems the team faced. Deep-lying playmaker Medunjanin can provide key passes (15 so far, second best in the league), but may not do enough defensively. Alejandro Bedoya’s been tasked with filling the #10 role, but that role doesn’t maximize his strengths. The simple change would be to play Alberg as the #10. A long term solution might be to reconfigure their formation to do chance creation by committee, using Sapong as a target forward and letting him link with the wide attackers while Bedoya and rookie Derrick Jones take turns pushing forward.

Jesse Marsch has both a more complicated situation and a more straightforward solution. He’s part of the Red Bull international soccer group, which provides opportunities to move up the corporate ladder. There were reports that he was interviewing for Red Bull Salzburg job this offseason before he returned to the US for the SuperDraft in January. His insistence on playing a 4-2-2-2 formation this year despite the poor results seems to hint at him auditioning for a job in Europe. Red Bull’s soccer operations are run by one man, Ralf Rangnick, and he has asked for the European Red Bull teams to play this 4-2-2-2. Now, Marsch is pragmatic enough to be able to realize that a switch to the more successful 4-2-3-1 formation could be needed to jump start their season. Maybe a home game against DC United would be just to time to return to his roots.

Game of the Week: Vancouver-Seattle. It’s a geographic rivalry that also has sporting history, and it’s two teams used to playing on terrible turf. The South American duel of Laba v Lodeiro in midfield, and Fredy Montero facing off against Seattle for the first time since his stint abroad ended. Vancouver has been sort of aimless through a mix of incompetence and injury this season, while Seattle has been improving bit by bit as they try to get Morris healthy and Dempsey and Lodeiro on the same page. Having someone step up and really seize that right back spot would be useful.

Head to Head matchup: McCarty-Nguyen. Chicago’s midfield has been changing a bit with the addition of Bastian Schweinsteiger, and though they should have Juninho back to add a little more bite and cover to the midfield. They will need it with Lee Nguyen’s ability to thread passes through to the strikers and midfield runners. New England’s diamond offense gives Nguyen some freedom to drift into spaces, and communication will need to be tight for Chicago’s midfield three, especially as McCarty is the deepest lying of that group.
Predictions:

2017 04 13 MLS Predictions

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MLS Week 6

National Focus: It’s that time of year where MLS teams exit the regional club championship, the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL). And true to form, FC Dallas and Vancouver Whitecaps were unable to defeat Mexican opposition this week. The results were a little closer than in previous seasons, with Dallas is particular creating enough chances to win the overall series.

Dallas is especially interesting this week, as they are an MLS team that has two very distinct styles of play. For their most fluid attacking moments last season, they played a 4-2-3-1 and ran their attack through Mauro Diaz. When Diaz went down injured, they tend to revert to a 4-4-2 that exploited the speedy wingers while sacrificing some chance creation from their central players. In the off-season, they acquired Javier Morales, who would slot directly into Diaz’s slot and run the offense until Diaz returned. That hasn’t happened in league play yet.

Instead, Dallas has been playing in their 4-4-2 formation, bolstered by the evolution of Kellyn Acosta to a strong two-way player. But now that the CCL play has stopped, might it be time to really open things up and let Morales pick defenses apart? He has willing runners in Barrios, Lamah, and Urruti/Colman, and they are facing Minnesota, whose defense struggled against a similar setup for Atlanta.

Game of the Week: San Jose Earthquakes v. Seattle Sounders. San Jose is a bit confusing. They started their season with two strong home wins against a hapless Montreal and a 10-man Vancouver. They may not have had a true playmaker, but they pressed and took the game to their opponents in a style not associated with Dominic Kinnear. Then DomBall returned for away losses to Sporting Kansas City and New York City. Their ultra-defensive outlook and lack of a plan on how to create reliable scoring chances had returned. Now back at home, but faced with a superior foe, how will they approach the game? Seattle was forced to lineup a number of inexperienced defenders against Atlanta next week, and Atlanta was able to carve out some decent chances. Will Kinnear show the same level of ambition?

Seattle comes into this game on the back of that 0-0 draw boasting the form player in US soccer in Clint Dempsey. The other pieces have only sparkled intermittently between injury and international duty. Head coach Brian Schmetzer could feel that a win is there for the taking, though he may want to avoid having playmaker Nico Lodeiro drift too far into central midfield, where some combination of Anibal Godoy, Fatai Alashe, and Darwin Ceren could limit his effectiveness. Getting Joevin Jones on the left and someone, anyone on the right to create width and gaps between San Jose defenders will be key for giving space for Lodeiro and Dempsey to work their magic.  

Matchup of the Week: Gerso Fernandes v. Mekeil Williams. Williams is a well-traveled defender who stepped in for the injured Eric Miller in Colorado’s last game on March 18. While modern fullbacks are generally expected to contribute offensively, Pablo Mastroeni’s system sees the outside backs focus on defense first. Williams did not have a key pass or cross in that game, though he did manage 4 tackles and 2 clearances.

Facing Miller will be one of Sporting Kansas City’s new signings, winger Gerso Fernandes. Signed from the Portuguese top division, Fernandes was ostensibly brought in to help add some goals from wide areas, though he has not yet contributed in that regard. He does average 3.5 shots per game and 1 key pass per game. American Soccer Analysis pegs him for an xG+xA of 1.57, which is not league leading, but is ahead of names like Gio Dos Santos and Cyle Larin.

So why pick a backup fullback and a under-performing winger for my match up of the week? Well, Colorado moved two big pieces of their defense this week, sending Sam Cronin and Marc Burch to Minnesota United. Taking two pieces out of a league-leading defense is going to have ripple effects, which will only be magnified by injuries. That, combined with Colorado’s remarkable record of winning their previous five games (four of them by a single goal) against KC means this match will be finely poised.
Predictions:

MLS Week 6 Predictions

Just the two away wins predicted this week.

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April Power Rankings

It’s early in the season so there are some issues with sample sizes, but here are the current rankings for MLS teams. USL and NASL will be added in the May update, once they have enough games to get going.

The bottom of the table is pretty brutal reading for the great teams of MLS 1.0, and I would not have expected Minnesota to be above so many other teams. As the people at ASA have pointed out, they do play a high risk style that has burned them often this season. Minnesota is averaging 7.5 shots on target (SoT) at home, which is pretty impressive. The other team close to them is Houston at 6.3 SoT per home game.  Defensively, the best performing teams have been San Jose at home with 2 SoT conceded in two games, and New York City FC, who conceded just one shot on target away to Orlando.

2017 04 03 USA

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MLS Week 4

Focus of the Week – Return from international break! I’ll watch soccer in pretty much any form. MLS, European leagues, Texas Premier League, high school games in my neighborhood. I’ve settled on this opinion: the Champions League is the best tournament in the world, but the World Cup is the most interesting.

The Champions League is pure ability and economics rolled up to bring you super-fast technical soccer played by the best players from around the world. The World Cup brings together a collection of run-down parts united only by country of birth, and the coaches need to fashion a working unit out of these tired misfit toys. The renaissance of three and five defender formations began at the 2014 World Cup, with Holland and Costa Rica reintroducing that set up to a modern audience. So the last World Cup was incredibly interesting on a number of levels. Of course, qualifying for the World Cup is pretty different from the main event, and after watching the US snatch a laudable point in Panama, I’m ready for the club games to resume.

Nerd League Standings: Nerd League was also off for the international break, though there was plenty of activity, as teams shuffled players around for the next stretch of the season. There was also the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger in Chicago, who are competing for the World Cup, in the mind of one unprepared reporter. Schweini was snapped up for 22 dollars, which is the third highest player to come out of the blind auction, after Nicolas Lodeiro ($49) and Patrick Mullins ($32) last year. Both of those players were notable difference makers, and while it is harder to see how Chicago will accommodate their new midfielder, he should provide a multiplier effect to the whole team.

The standings as this week kicks off:

NLS 2017 03 21
MLS Game of the Week: Columbus v Orlando. First place in the East versus the last team with a perfect record. Orlando has almost benefitted from removing Kaka from their lineup, as it has forced the team to play a slightly more defensive style. This is evidenced in the fact that the expected goal difference (xGD) was negative for their two wins (-.17 for the 2-1 win over Philadelphia, and -0.62 for their 1-0 over New York City FC.) Source

Columbus on the other hand, has the best xGD in the league at 4.41. Their actual goal difference is just 1 though, so they are still underperforming, especially defensively, where they have allowed two more goals than would be expected, given the shots they conceded.

Match-up of the Week: Almiron v Alonso. To be totally honest, this is the most glamorous match-up of the weekend. Two teams, both alike in annoying fanbases, in fair MLS where we start this Friday. From ancient grudge comes Alonso to break new ankles. Where field turf makes games unclean. From forth the loins of two NFL teams these two foes meet to bury all other fans’ hatred for rivals for one night.

Alonso destroys, and is pretty good at it, with 3 tackles, 1.7 interception, and 1.7 clearances per game, not to ignore the sheer amount of worry for ones ankles that he causes. Miguel Almiron is the conductor for the highest scoring team in the league. Although he only averages 1.7 key passes per 90, Almiron also has the greatest number of passes in Atlanta’s band of three attacking midfielders in two of their games so far. It may be early to say that if you stop Almiron you stop Atlanta, but he will be in direct conflict with the beating heart of Seattle.

Division Two Game of the Week: New York Cosmos v Miami FC. The NASL may be pared down this season while they rebuild, but this weekend brings us the old rich hosting the new rich. Miami’s willingness to pay transfer fee shocked quite a few people last season, and they still have a rather strong lineup to go with their financial backing. The Cosmos may be happy to be back this season, but the return of Savarese and Szetela means that they will be bringing a lot of knowhow and grit. The recent outburst from new Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso about the poor state of US Soccer seems to hint at some unwritten rule of ownership of the club: be loud, be antagonistic.

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