Steve Davis' weekly column, drilling down on five hot topics in American soccer
1. Center backs aren’t sexy, but they certainly are important
If you ever lined up as a center back, maybe you should stop reading; we don’t need any hurt feelings here.
Thing is, talking about center backs just isn’t, well, sexy. Admit it: right now, you’re thinking about scrolling down … bailing out of a conversation that seems to be about … yeah, center backs.
We love talking about our strikers and their lovely arrows of effort toward goal. We love our key passes from the creators, and we never mind tossing in some talk on wingers and the wonders they conceive from dribbling, combining, etc.
And goalkeepers? Yes! We could plan full dinner parties around all the little sprigs of conversation that develop around these gloved guardians of goal. On it goes – until we get to center backs as a conversation piece.
Generally, we only get there when we’ve run out of chit and chat everywhere else around the field. Still, they mean so much. And the thing with a center back is this: you really cannot talk about just one; almost invariably, the conversation is about center backs, plural. Walk quickly around the league with me here and you’ll see how important they are:
Houston is a 10-car pileup of personnel issues right now. Honestly, beyond DaMarcus Beasley and perhaps Ricardo Clark, who in the Dynamo starting lineup would you want on your team?
Of all the issues around BBVA Compass Stadium – not just in personnel, but in haphazard offensive spacing and improper defensive cover following lost possession – the most glaring one is a faulty central duo, Raul Rodriguez and David Horst.
Rodriguez may (and allow me to emphasize “may”) be OK as a second center back in MLS, alongside a Best XI type. As the top half of your pair, you’re in a bad spot. Horst is a 9th-year MLS man, but he’s yet to be a starter for a team that made the playoffs. No, that’s not all his fault, but it tells us something.
When we analyze Houston, it’s more interesting to talk about Cristian Maidana’s frailties as a creator, his timid positioning and such. Or its more interesting to break down why Giles Barnes isn’t suited to the wing, or how Andrew Wenger loses the ball in bad spots. But the bottom line on Houston: The Dynamo allows 2.17 goals against per game, worst in the league. That’s like a just-add-water kit for not making the playoffs.
Rodriguez and Horst aren’t all to blame, but you can start there; the Dynamo need to be better at that position and build from there.
2. Yet more underwhelming center back duos
The only Western Conference team that has allowed more goals overall than Houston is Portland, where veteran center back Nat Borchers has struggled at times this year.
Last year around playoff time, Liam Ridgewell and Borchers were performing as well as any center back combo around MLS, a shining example of what a high functioning central defensive duo can achieve. Heck, Borchers practically won an important playoff series for his team in two mammoth moments: his late goal in Portland in the Western Conference finals first leg, and then that heroic, desperate intervention that kept Dallas from drawing level in the series late in Leg 2. Later, his aerial dominance was critical as Portland went into Ohio and left with the MLS Cup.
Meanwhile, Ridgewell was a solid cop on the beat, doing his part in the club’s run to its first MLS title. But Ridgewell has been out since Week 1. (And the club might want a do-over on allowing the veteran Englishman’s winter loan spell, significantly reducing rest and recovery for a 31-year-old.) The Timbers have allowed 13 goals in 7 matches since then.
Ridgewell’s replacement, Jermaine Taylor, just hasn’t been up for the job. And the collective net-out for Portland is worse than the Taylor-for-Ridgewell exchange. Borchers, 35, is showing the strain of carrying added load. He looks tired and he’s making mistakes.
Borchers is still Borchers, and he’ll probably recover and be OK this year. But the veteran defender’s ability to contribute is tied into his partner’s capacity on match day.
At least they still have one good, healthy center back in Portland. For an example of a complete team collapse borne of center back woes, see the New York Red Bulls. Matt Miazga’s departure and a crush of back line injuries have left Jesse Marsch with – if we’re honest – a reserve team roster of center backs. We talked last week about how the Red Bulls’ defensive collapse is partially complicit in its offensive woes, but this flashing red light of a stat is worth pointing out again:
The Red Bulls have conceded more goals (15) than any other MLS side. And not coincidentally, the Red Bulls have the league’s worst record.
3. Let’s talk about those troublesome power rankings
Two things to know about power rankings: First, a lot of us question the very necessity. We already have the ultimate “power rankings,” such as they are: We call them “the standings.” Or the “table,” for those of you who spell “color” with a “u” and drop the article on words such as “university” and “hospital.”
But people like “power rankings” and content providers like to give the people what they want. So power rankings persist as a thing.
Second, they are difficult to generate. There’s a lot going on, and even the methodology is highly subjective. Are you ranking form? Because that might be a lot different than ranking season-long performance. And should you account for injured players? Because the Galaxy with Robbie Keane waiting to get back on the field, for instance, may rank differently than the Galaxy assessed without him.
So that’s my disclaimer. That said …
The big problem with generating these “power rankings” is overcoming our own need to be right. In other words, it’s about over-turning our own pre-season perceptions and projections. To wit, and let’s just speak honestly here:
We all thought Colorado would stink. Well, here we are, into MLS Round 8, and Pablo Mastroeni’s team definitely doesn’t stink. The sample is large enough, and it shows Colorado as the league’s top defensive unit. That means a lot. Plus, the Rapids have two losses, both on the road by narrow 1-0 scores. And both to teams that are darn tough at home, San Jose and Real Salt Lake.
The Rapids are third in the West, which is easily the better conference again in 2016.
Or, let’s look at Toronto FC. In the official MLSSoccer.com rankings, the Reds are 5th, which seems about right. Starting with eight games on the road, Greg Vanney’s team is a hardy 2-2-2 so far. Show me a team averaging more than a point on the road, I’ll show you a pretty good team. So why does this version of rankings have TFC no better than 13th? That makes zero sense.
Some of the rankings still reflect an admiration of what Seattle has this year. Seriously? A team that needed a narrow win at home over Philadelphia to climb out of the Western Conference cellar probably doesn’t deserve to be ranked 6th. Maybe later … once Chris Henderson and Garth Lagerwey are done wandering the world looking for the missing ingredient, but not now.
As stated, these things are hard. Probably impossible. And thank goodness … otherwise, what would have to gripe about?
4. In Week 8, “You are what you are”
There comes a time in a season when, as they say, “You are what you are.” Entering Week 8 in MLS, we’re there. Aren’t we?
Yes, MLS is a forgiving place due to the summer transfer window, when teams can still make significant improvements. Honestly, MLS can be an odd place that way.
Still, if we look at DC United, it’s hard not to see some denial at work. The facts: United wasn’t good down the stretch in 2015. In most opinions, they didn’t do enough to improve in the off-season. Finally, the least subjective measure available: United has one lone win in its first seven contests.
And yet, manager Ben Olsen says major changes aren’t needed. OK.
5. The Little Five
5a. If you had to pick Major League Soccer’s MVP today, could you do better than Real Salt Lake’s Joao Plata? Probably not. With four goals and four assists, he’s the offensive straw the stirs the league’s last unbeaten team. Nor could you go back over Major League Soccer’s first 20 MVPs and find a less likely out-of-nowhere candidate.
5b. A documentary has been made on Jason Kreis and NYCFC’s first season? And it has already been screened? Mark me down as a “Cannot wait!” for this one. That’s a quick soccer movie report. And for a similar, quick “soccer book” report …
5c. This book will surely go on the summer reading list: It’s American Huckster, the story of Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer and how the infamous scams unraveled – and became an early domino in taking down corrupt soccer officials across continents. This is an excerpt to get you going. As you’ll see, the level of hubris and greed is stunning. For instance, FIFA “sold” Warner the Caribbean broadcast rights to the 1990 and 1994 World Cups for $1 each. He re-sold them for millions, essentially free to use the proceeds as he liked. Well, it worked so well, they did it all again in 1998, this time under a new FIFA president, Sepp Blatter.
5d. Obviously, losing captain Matt Hedges for 5-6 weeks is a tough break for FC Dallas. Week after week, Hedges’ quietly gets the job done, so technically gifted at the art of “stop and distribute” that we probably don’t recognize it enough or talk about it enough. On the other hand, the team’s front office looks even better now for signing Maynor Figueroa, who is probably better as a left back but who has played centrally for Honduras for years. He was stationed centrally for several Dallas preseason friendlies, too, which gives manager Oscar Pareja some additional cover and options there beyond Zach Loyd and Walker Zimmerman.
5e. Maybe someday … just maybe … I’ll figure out why Chris Klute wasn’t wanted at Colorado and then at Columbus. At Mapfre Stadium, at least, he had competition from Waylon Francis, a solid MLS left back. So that provides some level explanation. Either way, Klute looks pretty good as Portland’s left back. Even in last week’s loss to Dallas, when the Timbers looked nothing like defending champs, Klute certainly wasn’t the problem.
Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for FourFourTwo 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.