Thoughts from Sounderland — A point is a point, and that’s the point

Win at home, draw on the road.  If the Sounders can accomplish that they will win back the Cascadia Cup, even with the disadvantage of having four road games in the competition this season.  They are one-third of the way there after an improbable 2-2 draw at Vancouver on the weekend.

A draw has to be considered a good result any time you are out-shot by a 3-1 margin, both in total shots (24-8) and shots on target (6-2).  And what is indicative of those shot totals?  Passing, of course.  The Whitecaps throughly out-passed the Sounders — with 106 successful final-third passes to 61 and 17 key passes to 6.  Overall they won the possession battle by a 54-46 margin, a relatively narrow margin given much the flow of the match was towards the Sounders goal.

Of particular note was the fact the team’s two formations virtually shadowed each other, despite their nominal differences.  One particular spot the Whitecaps enjoyed an enormous advantage in was in “the hole”, i.e. the 2nd-striker/CAM spot.  Pedro Morales had seven key passes and was 49 of 63 overall. Kenny Cooper had just 31 total touches in his 71 minutes, although one of them was good for an assist at least.  Gershon Koffie had a Man of the Match performance as the more advanced of the two holding midfielders and put in a better shift than his Sounders counterpart Gonzalo Pineda both defensively and in possession.  Matias Laba was about equal to Osvaldo Alonso, giving the verdict in central midfield to the Whitecaps.

I have been perhaps overly critical of Marco Pappa, mainly because I feel like gives the ball away too much, and although clearly possessing some technical abilities he seems to lack clear judgement.  On Saturday he put in his best performance in a Sounders shirt and was our best player.  Despite his limited defensive acumen, he put in an astonishing eight tackles to co-lead the game with Koffie.  He was the Sounders best player in possession and buildup, two departments they desperately needed help in.

Goals can be an incredibly crude judge of quality.  It’s too easy to focus on the mistakes or calls that can lead to goals and overlook the true lessons of the game.  In this case, that lesson is clear: the 2-2 scoreline flattered the Sounders.  This match is more to do with the two points kept from the Whitecaps than the one earned.  If the shoe is on the other foot we are likely praising our player for his calm control and shot after the ‘keeper’s ill-advised clearance and furious with the ref for gifting them the equalizer, and shaking our heads at how close we came to an unjust loss with that shot off the post minutes later.

My MLS Power Rankings — Because I feel like it this week

1) RSL: 24 points through 12 matches, +10 GD.  Tied with Seattle for best PPM, best GD, 12 matches without a loss.  Deal with it.

2) New England: 23 in 12, +7. Five straight wins, including a 5-0 whipping over the No. 3 team. One point off the pace in PPM.

3) Sounders: 26 in 13, +4.  You can’t be rated higher than third if you’re giving up a well above-average goals per game (1.62 vs 1.42).

4-8) in no particular order (GD): Sporks (+6), DC United(+3), Rapids(+1), Whitecaps(+4), Galaxy(+5).  Whitecaps are on a 1.55 PPM pace, the rest are right at 1.5.  L.A. have won two straight; Whitecaps have seven points in their last three while Sporks have just one.  L.A. best in goals against average with .9, Whitecaps worst at 1.27.

9-13) – in no particular order (GD): Crew(+1), Dynamo(-8), Toronto(0), Portland(-2), San Jose(+1).  Highest PPM is the Crew’s 1.33, lowest is Portland’s 1.08.  So why is Portland in this group?  Power rankings have a recency bias, and the Timbers are unbeaten in five straight now, and are in the best form in the group with nine points in those five matches.  The Crew finally won a match after eight straight without a win.  Portland have the worst defense in this group giving up 1.75 goals per game, next-worst is Houston at 1.71, but the other three all are better than the Sounders’.

14-16) Dallas hasn’t won in seven matches but has the best PPM and GD, NYRB hove lost three straight and have the same GAA as Seattle, Chicago managed back-to-back wins after being the last MLS team to win, but lost last weekend again.

Ugh: Philly, Chivas, Impact.  Montreal appear to be a special kind of bad.

Champions League Final review

Atletico came achingly close to a dramatic 1-0 win and an improbable La Liga-Champs League double.  We have seen teams bunker before and persevere, but too often it just seems like only a matter of time before they concede, and sometimes they are just fortunate to have the game time run out first.

Atletico simply couldn’t sustain enough possession to hold off Real, and once the match went into extra time the Atletico players seemed too exhausted to do much more than try to force penalties.  Extra time is generally a somewhat arduous affair, featuring two fatigued sides mainly looking to not screw up.  It strikes me how often a match will just lose all its snap and just become a sloppy, plodding game once extra time strikes.  I’ve long wondered why FIFA doesn’t consider alleviating this by allowing more substitutions one a match goes into extra time.

Madrid, however, were finally able to burst the dam and score three late goals, establishing a scoreline which does not do justice to the oft-overwhelmingly taut nature of the match.

World Cup preview

There are six South American teams in this year’s World Cup — 1.5 more than usual. We all know about current global Super Power Brazil, and former-and-perhaps-soon-to-be-again Super Power Argentina, but this year’s tournament also features Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador.  Uruguay appear to have the best squad of the four on paper, but of special interest to me is Chile.  Most Americans don’t pay much attention to countries like Chile, but they should.  Chile decided to get their shit together around about the late 80’s and since then have been kinda kicking ass in the whole economic prosperity and human development realm of things.

Oh, yeah, but we’re here to talk about football, with which Chile has a rich history.  They hosted the 1962 World Cup and finished third, and have played in nine World Cups overall.  Most recently they advanced out of the group stage in South Africa before being knocked out by Brazil in the round of 16.

They will take to Brazil a considerable roster headlined by Barcelona winger Alexis Sanchez and Juventus box-to-box midfielder Arturo Vidal.  Their roster is dotted with enough talent from players competing in places like Spain, Italy, Holland, and England to be considered a team likely to make a deep tournament run.  They look to be a federation on the rise, and may be coming into a “golden generation” of their own.  At any rate I look forward to see what they can accomplish in Brazil next month.

Meanwhile in Camp Klinsmann

The USA soccer world reacted with confusion and anger at Landon Donovan’s exclusion from the final 23-man roster picked to head to Brazil.  Various rationalizations were offered up but none really hold water considering that Donovan is still easily one of the 23 best American players, and the USMNT lacks the depth of talent to leave players of his experience and quality off the roster.

I can’t help but feel like the decision is mostly psychological, seeing as how Donovan’s introspective nature and the sort of open and honest self-doubt that can come with it stand in stark contrast to the American ideals of bombastic extroversion and outsized self-esteem.  It’s important to remember that Klinsmann is very much an American now, having lived here for years and being married to an American.

Whereas many high-profile professional athletes would’ve managed to take a “sabbatical” without being so overt about it — perhaps flying to Europe for a vacation under the guise of receiving some form of controversial treatment for a mystery ailment, Donovan had the audacity to simply say he needed some time off — an alleged crime from which he has never really recovered.  He entered camp talking about the realities of being older and what that does to your body, but it seems as though this was all turned against him and provided Klinsmann the opportunity to cut him as a way of establishing his control over the team.

Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that Klinsmann has been given the keys through the 2018 World Cup, and in a way the tough draw into the alleged “group of death” may be the best thing that ever happened to him.  Expectations are reasonably low, and a group-stage flameout is unlikely to damage his reputation in the eyes of US Soccer going forward.  But should something crazy happen — as is wont to occur in the World Cup — then he will be hailed as a hero and a genius.  He really has nothing to lose, and is in a fantastic position, a spot he has carefully crafted for himself through years of playing “hard to get” until he had Sunil Gulati wrapped around his finger.

So I completely understand why the temptation is so strong to believe in Klinsmann and assume he knows what he’s doing, despite little actual evidence that this is the case.  If you’re a USMNT fan or supporter you are essentially forced to, because the alternative is to devastating to ponder.

Although it isn’t really Klinsmann’s fault, the USA enters this World Cup as relative minnows.  Since they returned to this stage in 1990 — having qualified thanks in no small part to Mexico being disqualified from that cycle — and hosted the 1994 edition, the Federation has hoped to turn that aforementioned American ideal into consistent success on the world stage.  What they have found is that the rest of the world is stubbornly good at this silly little game — a fact that seems to fill the Federation bosses with consternation, to which they reply with even more bombastic extroversion and outsized self-esteem.

At the end of the day, the squad the USA has sent to the World Cup has been gradationally better for each subsequent iteration — despite results that may indicate otherwise (soccer is a funny game, and the draw is probably the single biggest determinant of the team’s success at each tournament).  But I do not think this is the case this time: for the first time in this “era” this World Cup team is not as good as the last.  The inclusion of Landon Donovan wouldn’t have changed that, but it still seems like an egregiously dubious decision to leave your most experienced and accomplished international at home.

Looking Ahead

Real Salt Lake comes to town for a massive top of the table clash.  Once again we can thank MLS for scheduling this rivalry match during Camp Klinsmann.  And this is a rivalry — born of playoff battles and a history of table-topping classes between the two perennial western conference contenders.

Remembering the lessons from Saturday, I will certainly hope to not see a right side of Barrett and Anibaba again.  Barrett, in fact, I would love to see get the start at forward, hopefully with a chance to play up top as a target man.  Assuming Neagle can go (and lets hope so) then I’ll take Brad Evans at right back.  Anibaba was never a defensive liability against Vancouver but I need more in the possession game from my Fullbacks against RSL, where I’ll need to fight a tense midfield battle.  If Neagle can’t go I’m fine with Evans taking that spot with Anibaba at fullback.  Cooper can go to the bench where I may call for him late in the match.

RSL will be missing some top-end talent as well with Rimando, Beckerman, and Saborio off on World Cup duty.  Their co-leading scorer, forward Joao Plata, subbed off with an injury in the first half of their desultory 0-0 draw with Dallas on Saturday.

This match obviously isn’t the be-all end-all, seeing as how we aren’t even to the half-way mark, but a win would be massive, and a loss would suddenly have the demons of a poor run circling the team.  As usual when these two get together, a draw is a safe bet.