FCD radio voice Steve Davis gives his thoughts on five hot topics in the week that was in American soccer...
1. No choice in Seattle; Schmid can win in MLS, but he had to go
Assigning blame is tricky business, usually more “calculus” than simple addition and subtraction.
So it is with Sigi Schmid in Seattle, where his time as the MLS club’s only manager is up. Schmid and the club mutually “parted ways” on Tuesday, which is of course a silly and pointless euphemism for “fired.”
“Blame” is tricky math because it gets tangled up in expectations, in the boon and bane of longevity and in the perception of talent.
The man’s trophy wall is stacked: MLS Cups from 2002 (with the L.A. Galaxy) and 2008 (with Columbus) in addition to four U.S. Open Cups with Seattle. The Sounders never failed to make the MLS playoffs, including its season as an expansion club in 2009.
Yes, Seattle immediately went out and spent money: famous underwear model and former Arsenal man Freddie Ljungberg was the club’s original DP. But that initial Sounders MLS roster also included holdovers from the club’s second tier days, plus plenty of expansion draft cast-aways. If you think winning comes easy for a first-year MLS club, consider this: five teams have entered MLS since then, and five have failed to make the playoffs in their initial season.
There is zero question that Schmid’s knows his way around MLS quirks and peculiarities like no one this side of Bruce Arena. The MLS interstate is full of dead man’s curves: roster constraints, debilitating travel, disparate playing surfaces, weather extremes and a fair amount of institutionalized parity. And did we mention those roster constraints?
Clearly, the man knows how to win in MLS. The problem is that he forgot how to win in Seattle.
Something was undeniably broken. That fiasco that happened Sunday in Kansas City was all kinds of wrong. Seattle lost 3-0; better finishing on KC’s part and it would have been 5-0 or 6-0, a far more serious shellacking. Seattle nearly became the first team in MLS history (21 years – as long as All-Star Kellyn Acosta has been alive!) to fail at recording a single shot. They had one … and needed 87 minutes for it.
It felt for all the world like a breaking point; the team was emotionally spent and tactically bankrupt. Something had to change. That doesn’t mean it was all Schmid’s fault, but evidence of sufficient blame was stacking up.
With Seattle, it seemed the answer too often was “go get a better player.” But this is MLS, where making due is just part of the deal. At some point, you look at what you have, assess, tinker, adjust … and then squeeze the heck out of that orange, see how much juice you can wring from it. That’s where Seattle came up short. With most teams, we can watch the matches and pinpoint what they are trying to do. With Seattle in 2016? Not so much.
Seattle has great fans. Soooo many of them. So everything is magnified – including those expectations. The Sounders took down the Galaxy in last year’s playoff and made the conference semifinals. That’s better than 12 MLS clubs – but not satisfactory for the Sounders. There, they talk about a season that launched with great promise (a 9-4-2 league start) but then drained away into something mostly “meh.”
More byproduct of amped up expectations: GM Garth Lagerwey has come in for criticism for not replacing Obafemi Martins lickety-split. But the Nigerian powerhouse left Seattle a month before the season. It’s not like DP strikers are just falling off the back of pickup trucks up and down I-5, waiting to be scooped up and kitted out. What did Sounders fans expect Lagerwey to do less than a month before the season?
But that’s life in Seattle. That’s what the next manager will find, too.
Again, Schmid lost some mojo. Or the players weren’t responding to him. Or the chemistry of this particular roster went sour. Something happened. Something had to change.
Now it’s on Lagerwey to reassemble the pieces. And it’s on the players to up their games individually. Because Seattle may not have an MLS Cup-caliber roster right now – but they darn sure have players who should muster more than one shot against a mid-table side.
2. Who is next in Seattle?
As Seattle hangs the “Now Hiring” sign for a new manager, we can surely consider the usual suspects, the respected assistants around domestic soccer: Tab Ramos, Mike Petke, Richie Williams, Denis Hamlett, Robin Fraser, Wilmer Cabrera, Steve Ralston. Did we miss any?
But the Sounders are a club that hunts big game; they go for big names and big personalities – all the better to fulfill those big boy expectations. Ljungberg and Clint Dempsey are the best examples. So you wonder if an MLS assistant will suffice, or if they need a real BMOC, a big man in charge? That is, someone who has handled big ego and big personality before.
So, two names to consider: First is Bob Bradley, the 58-year-old former U.S. national team manager just into a second season at Le Havre in France’s second tier.
Bradley enjoys a challenge, which is why he still resides in Europe, eager to push into the highest management level possible in the Old World. But if Bradley is ever to return to MLS, doesn’t Seattle look like a place he’d consider? They’ll pay, and he’ll have talent. It will just be a matter of organization, game-planning and creating accountability.
Another name to kick around: John Harkes, who has done good things this year with start-up Cincinnati. He certainly has some chops in the world’s game, having played in England and famously captained the national team.
It takes a bit of ego to deal with egos, and Seattle is more likely than other MLS addresses to have them locker room. Seattle does “big” in MLS. Big crowds, big player signings, big demands; they may need to go big with a coaching hire to keep the balance just so.
3. Creeping age concerns at Real Salt Lake
There is a lot to like about Real Salt Lake, mostly in a front line that can compete with any around MLS. Yura Movsisyan, Joao Plata and Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez have 18 goals and 10 assists between them. Those numbers would likely be higher; Plata was gaining serious steam earlier this year when an injury interrupted his momentum.
But you know what’s a lot harder to like about RSL? The fact that they are fading lately – and it’s easy to wonder if age has something to do with it?
Javier Morales is 36, and he simply can’t keep on keeping on forever. Last year at age 35, it seemed like maybe he could. But his production has fallen sharply this year (one goal, three assists so far), while injuries have limited the longtime RSL playmaker to 13 starts.
Kyle Beckerman keeps getting the job done. And he takes amazing care of himself, too. But he’s 34, so it’s fair to wonder if he’ll need to back off the accelerator a bit here and there in his 17th MLS season? Yes … his 17th.
On the left, Chris Wingert is 34. It’s hard to get up and down the line in meaningful ways at 24, much less 34. It’s not a deal-killer for Wingert – but in a such a stacked Western Conference race, a goal here or there might be the difference between a playoff spot.
Jeff Cassar’s side went on the road to beat Sporting KC in late May, a win that gave RSL 20 points in its first 11 games (a 6-3-2 record). But Real has collected just 11 points in the 10 games since. It’s not terrible; they still reside above the red line. But you do wonder about the creeping influence of age.
Finding an experienced center back to pair with either Justen Glad and Aaron Maund would certainly help, and RSL may be on the verge of doing just that. But the age issue, particularly at two critical spots in the middle of the field (Beckerman’s and Morales’) isn’t going away.
4. Nothing sinks the ship like a bad “D”
I hear a lot about how new Orlando City manager Jason Kreis has to build bridges with Kaka, the Brazilian star who seems to have ample string-pulling leverage with the club. And that’s probably true; Kaka doesn’t appear to be going anywhere; in fact, he’s a big draw at the MLS All-Star Game this week.
But you know what Kreis really has to do at his new address? Fix that busted back line of his!
Allowing 1.75 goals a game, the Lions are 19th in a 20-team league in defense. In shots against, Orlando is slightly better – 17th in a 20-team league.
We know it and we preach it – winning starts with solid defense. And yet we always seem to lose our way, eager to talk about the next offensive signing. Who will score the goals? Who will feed the striker? Can the new midfielder get forward? We yawn at rumors of a fullback or center back transfer – but we just might hyperventilate at the very whisper of a fast, exciting attacker who might be interested in the possibility of a move.
Which is OK. Because we’re fans (or in my case, a journalist); we don’t have to be right. We can assemble a fantasy dream team of attackers – then pop back into reality, no worse for it. “So, guys, what are we thinking about for lunch?”
Kreis doesn’t have that luxury. He’s got to get it right, which isn’t going to be easy. That back line is a mess.
Credit Orlando for a lot of heart in a 2-2 draw with Columbus. But for goalkeeper Joe Bendik and some poor Crew finishing it would have been another disheartening loss. Center backs Seb Hines and David Mateos were all over the place. The fullbacks weren’t much better. Tommy Redding, nearing a return from a hamstring injury, has a bright future at center back. But he’s hardly a finished product, prone to occasional concentration lapses – not a surprise for a 19-year-old, first-year MLS starter. He needs a steady hand alongside him, a mentor.
Screening midfielder Servando Carrasco is OK as depth, but there’s a reason he’s 27 years old, now in his 8th MLS season, and has never been a starter. (He’s has started 10 of Orlando’s 20 games … so you can almost count him as one now.)
Incoming transfer Jose Aja might help in defense. But he’s young and still unproven at higher levels. So, creating defensive structure and keeping players vigilant on all the little tenets of opportunity stinginess (For instance, getting players to constantly ask, “Where are we when we lose the ball?”) will have to work for now.
Let’s add this to Kreis’ to-do list (along with managing Kaka and fixing a badly broken defense): manage expectations. Kreis can fix all this, but does anyone honestly see Orlando as an MLS Cup threat in 2016? No, they aren’t.
So the best strategic approach is fixing things in ways benefiting the long game, setting up next year’s arrival into a splashy new stadium. Hopefully Kreis can convince his bosses that playoff soccer is no “must have” for 2016.
5. The Little Five
5a. Updated MLS Cup odds – with one caveat: LA (4-1), FC Dallas (7-1), Colorado and New York (8-1) and NYCFC (10-1) followed by Sporting KC, Vancouver and Portland (all at 12-1), according to oddsmakers. The caveat is this: they haven’t been updated to account for Fabian Castillo’s possible departure at FC Dallas.
5b. Anybody else get the feeling that the top three Western Conference teams, FC Dallas, Colorado and the L.A. Galaxy, are slowly pulling away from the field? Before long, we might just look up to see two races in the West: a three-way run at the two MLS playoff byes and the Supporters Shield, and; a mad 5-, 6- or 7-team scramble for the other three playoff spots.
5c. I’m happy a big club like Arsenal is in the States for this year’s MLS All-Star game. And I suppose it’s great that the annual parade of brand name clubs are barn-storming in and out of U.S. cities, piling up cash with exhibitions that let fans here see their Euro faves up close. But for the life of me, I cannot see how clubs can have a useful, proper preseason while they hopscotch around, here one day, there the next.
5d. hearing Patrick Vieira whine about Jesse Marsch’s whining was a real chuckle. Because Vieira clearly missed Rule No. 1 of MLS Management: “Coaches will whine and complain about officiating!” Which means he probably doesn’t know Rule No. 2: “Coaches will conveniently forget the equal number of times officiating helps their own club.”
5e. Here is a great, data-driven look at D.C. United’s latest season of discontent. Here’s one number that wasn’t listed: Ben Olsen’s career mark as a head coach is 69-85-48. All his fault? Of course not. But at some point, you have to ponder cause and effect.
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.