1. The Sounders will make the playoffs … Probably … Won’t they?
If you sat a bunch of MLS supporters around a table back in March, before the first kick of the league’s milepost 20th season, the Seattle Sounders would be a splendid launching point for robust MLS debate.
Is this an MLS championship team or just another very good side? Is it MLS Cup or bust for long-serving manager Sigi Schmid, or would a deep push into the playoffs be enough? Will Clint Dempsey or Obafemi Martins be the stronger league MVP candidate?
Good topics, all. So … go!
Or, wait. Did we forget to run this around the table? Surprisingly, perhaps shockingly, this is a relevant conversation: “Will this talented club, one with such high expectations and unmatched fan support, even make the MLS playoffs?”
As we sit here today, August melting into September, it’s a perfectly legitimate question. Or, if you wear the rave green of Seattle, the question turns into something more dire, like whether it is time to hover unsteady hands over the panic button … or perhaps even time to start banging on that puppy?
Seattle sits sixth in the West, where six teams qualify for this year’s MLS playoffs. But it’s a tenuous sixth. In fact, seventh-place San Jose, with a game in hand on the Sounders, actually has more momentum and more points per game.
As the Sounders dropped points through the summer – Schmid’s club is 2-9 in league play since mid-June – we all dismissed it as a blip in time. Martins, Dempsey and Osvaldo Alonso would get back on the field, and the sun would shine anew on the Emerald City. Right?
Only, it’s just not happening. Dempsey and Alonso remain sidelined. Martins got back on the field, the roster was reinforced through summer signings and clouds temporarily lifted from CenturyLink. But a shutout last week at Real Salt Lake reminded everyone that the Sigi Sounders were still very much a team on the brink.
And make no mistake, missing the playoffs would cost jobs in Seattle, not to mention a serious, comprehensive look at personnel across the board. Suffice to say, the sword of reckoning would be sharp.
Seattle has eight games remaining, four at home and four away. The visits are to San Jose, Vancouver, Sporting Kansas City and Houston, so you won’t find any “gimmes” there. Houston under Owen Coyle sits 8th in the standings, but given the Dynamo talent and the desperation Coyle and Co. will feel, that trip into sultry South Texas promises to be as big a bugger as the rest.
The home schedule is only slightly more forgiving. Portland is up first, and then a match against Toronto (4-7-3 as travelers) that will count as an “absolute, 100 percent, no questions asked, gotta have it” kind of contest for Seattle, no matter which Sounders turn up healthy and sharp.
Because after that it’s Vancouver and the MLS Cup favorite Galaxy en route.
All that, and Dominic Kinnear is being, well, Dominick Kinnear at San Jose. His teams tend to rise around playoff time, so the Earthquake’s amazing week – that’s not hyperbole – is sounding alarm bells for the rest of MLS. Over four days, Chris Wondolowski led the charge as the Earthquakes clobbered Sporting Kansas City in the Midwest (5-0) and then went into RFK to shut out D.C. United (2-0).
That’s the team Seattle may have to fight off to gain that playoff spot.
Things can swing quickly in MLS, as we know. A three-game winning streak is practically a lottery win in terms of how it changes your outlook and circumstance. (It works the other way, too; there was Supporters Shield talk around FC Dallas earlier this month, but three losses in a row and, well …)
Playoff races are interesting, of course. Nowhere around MLS will the watch for points be more dramatic than around CenturyLink.
2. Let’s go with “Rivalry Week Lite”
It’s Heineken Rivalry Week. Well, in most places. The most important places for MLS marketing purposes, I suppose.
Look, scheduling is tough. I get it. It’s not as tough as back in MLS 1.0 days, when so many clubs (in shared stadiums) needed to consider professional and college football schedules and build from there. Still, assembling the schedules with so many moving parts – FIFA dates, CONCACAF Champions League, Canadian Championship, Open Cup, special events, TV concerns, etc. – is not easy.
But I keep saying the league must continue digging earnestly into improvement efforts. It will never be perfect, but league leaders must continue pushing to make all this, well, less imperfect with each passing year.
Here’s one way: Make sure your commercially branded Rivalry Week includes all the league’s rivalries. It shouldn’t be that tough. It just takes a little recognition that MLS outside of New York, L.A. and the Pacific Northwest isn’t just “flyover country.”
FC Dallas and Houston is a legitimate, geographical rivalry, one that has built some historical heat. Or have they not heard of El Capitán?
Same with Real Salt Lake-Colorado. Or have they not heard of the Rocky Mountain Cup?
3. Howard v Guzan – and this is no court case
Choosing between Tim Howard and Brad Guzan is like choosing between butter pecan or mint chocolate chip ice cream. Clearly, there are no losers here. Only glorious, tasty ice cream!
For the United States national team, only one man can play in goal, and this surely will be a well of conversation we return to again and again. So we may as well start dipping.
Howard primed the debate by declaring himself “available” anew following a year hiatus. U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann was happy to have him back.
Which is all fine, because almost every red-blooded American soccer supporter loves them some Howard. He was faithful guardian of U.S. goal for two World Cups, punctuating his run with that brilliant afternoon against highly fancied Belgium in Salvador, Brazil.
But now it’s Brad Guzan’s job. So says Klinsmann, who has declared status quo for the time being. Howard will land in camp for the upcoming early-September friendlies as second choice.
But whether the ranking stays that way, well, that’s another matter. If Guzan has endured a poor performance in U.S. goal, someone will have to go back and show it to me. If he shows well against Peru and Brazil, can Klinsmann really make a change, especially as Guzan is six years younger and seems a better long-term choice. Howard would be 39, after all, when we arrive into Russia 2018. (Howard is 36 today, Guzan just 30.)
This may come down to performance across Premier League matches; that will be the “tell.” So take note that Howard made some fine saves, as usual, against Manchester City last weekend. But Everton’s longtime No. 1 didn’t look great on either goal from the Blues and, in fact, made a fairly significant mistake on the Aleksander Kolarov’s opener.
So, advantage Guzan. At least for now. There’s a lot of soccer to be played through the fall and beyond.
4. Good content, but let’s refresh our supplies of “perspective”
The narrative read: “Seattle is back!” That was after they clobbered Orlando City at home.
A week later the narrative read something like this: “A brilliant, timely tactical shift leads the way as Toronto FC finds its best self!” After they clobbered Orlando City at home.
Let me say this quickly: The rise of niche media, plus more newspapers assigning actual beat writers who actually know a little bit about the game – as opposed to the old practice, sometimes still in use, of assigning the intern or one of the old-timers they’d like to run off, to the MLS beat – has done great things for domestic soccer supporters. Compared to 10-15 years ago, there is so much more great content on domestic soccer out there.
That said, we do sometimes need a wee bit more context and perspective in the analysis. Not to kick a first-year team when it’s down, but a win over Orlando City is hardly something to dance in the end zone about. Wins against OCSC should be “catch-and-release” right now; no one landed a big fish here.
Adrian Heath’s team is singing the expansion team blues. In full voice. They’ve been out-scored 13-1 over the last four matches. Yes, injury has hammered Heath’s side, but so have red cards at an unprecedented rate. All that, and the expansion roster was never good enough to begin with. Some of us tried to tell you so all along.
So let’s just tap the brakes a little. Especially if you’re in the new day, wiser media; you should know better.
5. The Little Five
5a. I’ve said it before but it deserves to be said again: Frank Yallop’s inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for his part of the ongoing Chicago (tire) Fire is hard to watch. His record over the last three years in MLS: 15-29-29. Yallop has had a losing record in four of his last five MLS seasons.
5b. We talk a lot about how DC United is the ultimate grinder’s team, and the RFK gang deserves credit for digging in and finding a way to points. Then again, it might just be down to one thing: its outstanding goalkeeper Bill Hamid. The club is 9-5-4 with Hamid in goal, but a far more mediocre 4-4 without him. His saves percentage (79.8) is easily tops in MLS, as is his goals-against average (.83).
5c. I still love watching Andrea Pirlo perform, mostly for the effortless way he controls possession and how he eliminates defenders with forward passes that slice through the passing lanes. But I do wonder: when is the last time the man was in a full-blown sprint? It has probably happened in his City FC time … I just haven’t seen it yet.
5d. In a recent piece, I wondered aloud whether Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes might be the best choice as next, eventual, U.S. national team manager? I’ve also said that a manager’s true worth can be found in how he deals with crisis. Welp, here’s Vermes’ chance. Because his Sporting Kansas men have recently: 1) been whupped at home, 5-0; 2) conceded twice after 80 minutes to see a potential road win evaporate into a disappointing loss, and; 3) allowed 11 goals in their last three contests. If that’s not a “crisis,” it’s pretty doggone close to being one.
5e. You forget how many good, potentially international caliber Americans are in MLS employment until you start counting them on your fingers and toes. For assistance, use this link as you consider how many good candidates Klinsmann, who will soon name a roster for upcoming friendlies, has from MLS.
Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for World Soccer Talk and Fusion TV’s Soccergods, and co-hosts the weekly radio show/podcast ESPN Soccer Today on 103.3 FM in Dallas. Davis is also the radio play-by-play voice for FC Dallas on 100.7 FM.