Steve Davis' weekly column, drilling down on five hot topics in American soccer
1. The “Drogba dilemma” … which isn’t really much of one
In the turbulent wake of an embarrassing, distracting kerfuffle in Montreal involving star striker Didier Drogba, I read a headline about the “Drogba dilemma.” Only it isn’t one. At least, it shouldn’t be.
Drogba made life hard on his club, creating a wholly unneeded bit of high-maintenance drama by refusing to be included in the 18-man game day roster for Sunday’s important match. Reason: manager Mauro Biello had informed the Ivorian legend that he wouldn’t be in the starting lineup.
Remember a number we gave you in last week’s High Five (updated now with Sunday’s result): the team is 3-7-8 this year when Drogba starts, but 8-3-4 when he doesn’t.
Worse yet: In the former Chelsea star’s last seven starts, the Impact was 1-1-5 with a minus-10 goal difference. Telling numbers, indeed.
For Biello, this was certainly a situation that needed delicate management. The politics of it are difficult; “sitting” a player on high wages, especially a legendary figure like Drogba, is always going to be tricky.
But the decision itself was not difficult.
Biello didn’t have much choice. His team is pretty clearly better when Drogba doesn’t start. It seems like such a no-brainer that at 38 years old, the ideal usage is a “super sub” role. It was certainly a bold call from Biello, still a relatively new manager at the professional level. But there really wasn’t any other decision to be made.
Yes, a coach may theoretically create some tension with ownership or with a GM by benching a high-profile star. But if a manager acquiesces to pressure to “play the stars,” and then subsequently loses games … well, he gets fired anyway. So, really, what’s the point of fostering harmony with upper management (and perhaps with supporters who can’t see that their star player no longer has a full complement of “star quality”) if you’re going to be out of job anyway?
So the wise (and brave) manager does what he knows is best for the team. It’s also an act of self-preservation, the best way to stay employed. All that, plus the coach sleeps better at night knowing he’s doing the right thing for everyone in the locker room, and that earns respect. Benching Drogba and then dealing with the aftermath was a tough call, but pretty much the right one in every way.
2. The sun will come up tomorrow over Toyota Stadium. Really it will
Playmaker Mauro Diaz is lost for the playoffs and for a significant period of time after that due to an Achilles injury.
Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation for Oscar Pareja’s men. Nor for the league; MLS wants its top players on the field, not on the injury shelf – especially the dynamic crowd-pleasers among them. After all, how many players can even see, let alone have the ability to pull off, the sweet dish that led to a late, important, game-winner Sunday against Seattle?
However. here are a couple of things to consider, something to turn that frown upside down:
First, there isn’t a dominant team in the West; every team has flaws. This isn’t like 2014, when the L.A. Galaxy walked into the playoffs with a formidable plus-32 goal difference, and with all the swagger a team should have when the starting lineup includes in-form Robbie Keane, plus Landon Donovan, Gyasi Zardes, Juninho, Omar Gonzalez, Robbie Rogers and others.
Seattle has the West’s best record over the last two months; that’s probably the team everyone wants to avoid now (although even the Sounders have issues). But can good defense and opportunism in front of goal potentially carry a series against Portland, Sporting Kansas City or Real Salt Lake? Probably against the L.A. Galaxy, too, although Oscar Pareja’s would not face the Galaxy in the conference semifinal round if they finish ahead of Colorado.
Second, Dallas is going to have home-field advantage in a conference semifinal, perhaps deeper into playoffs, too, depending on Sunday’s outcomes.
Third, FCD could potentially take Supporters Shield without gaining another point. Every single year in MLS, teams with zero to play for toss a monkey in the wrench for a club with much on the line. It happens on the regular. Houston probably won’t beat Colorado on Sunday – but only a fool would bet the fam farm that Colorado will definitely take all three points. The Dynamo is tough to score against under Wade Barrett; a 0-0 or 1-1 result coming out of Commerce City this Sunday isn’t so hard to envision.
Either way, and there’s no way of getting around it, other FC Dallas players have to step up and find the very best version of themselves. Period. Because while Diaz’s departure won’t smash all hope to smithereens, it does do this: it significantly reduces the team’s margin for error. So …
Michael Barrios, who has looked a bit worn down lately, unable to be as dynamic as during the summer, must find his highest gear. Next to him, Maxi Urruti simply must be more ruthless in finishing those increasingly precious opportunities in front of goal.
Walker Zimmerman must be more cautious about fouling near the penalty area. Atiba Harris cannot give away possession cheaply in bad places. Goalkeeper Chris Seitz has to deal cleanly with balls in the air, catching with calm presence or punching with authority.
And so it goes. These are details. The same details that Pareja came into the season saying FCD, to take the next step, had to clean up. Now, without Diaz, it’s the same deal. The only difference is that the margin for error has shrank. With Diaz around to create something special and help manage possession, Dallas could get away with a boo-boo here and there. That’s gone now.
3. Where do top defensive teams finish in MLS?
When I pass, I want my epitaph to say, “He spent his life trying to stomp out bad narrative – with both feet!” It’s what every good journalist should do, whenever and wherever we can. So here I go again:
I don’t know if the Colorado Rapids will win MLS Cup. It’s a tournament, which means being a good team isn’t always good enough. You need to be right at the right moment. And you need some luck. (Or maybe you don’t remember a penalty kick bouncing twice off the posts in Portland; a half-inch the wrong way and the Timbers would have been eliminated straight away instead of moving toward an eventual MLS Cup title.)
So, will Pablo Mastroeni complete this remarkable turnaround? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. BUT … I’m a little tired of hearing that the Rapids can’t win it because they don’t score enough goals. Simply put, there is very little evidence to support that claim.
Let’s look at the hard facts. We’ll look at the last 10 years, more or less “modern” MLS, or the era of “MLS 2.0,” whichever you prefer.
First, barring something historically ridiculous, Colorado will finish as the league’s top defensive team (with 31 goals allowed, the only club currently under a goal a game). Over the last 10 years, the best defensive team has won MLS Cup four times. Consider this: only twice did the best offensive team take the trophy.
What about goal difference? Probably a better indicator, right? Colorado’s goal difference in +7, is a bit low, but not ridiculously so. Average goal difference over last 10 years for MLS Cup winners: +14.1
There are other numbers, but here is the one you really need to take in – because form heading into playoffs can be a dependable indicator (although even that is hardly definitive): The Rapids are 4-1-2 in the last 6 weeks. They’ve scored 10 goals in that time, which isn’t great, but it’s not awful, either.
Will Colorado do it? Can’t say – but people should stop saying they can’t. They play great defense, and that can take a team far.
4. Decision Day: good and getting better
Sunday is a big day for MLS. And a big day for MLS on TV.
“Decision Day” is made-for-TV gold. Generally speaking, professional soccer seen, felt, heard and smelled in person creates a superior experience to watching from home. In this case, for this one day, you could actually make a case that watching everything happening, whip-around style, is the way to go.
It’s something MLS is getting right these days. But here’s something important to know about it:
It’s going to be even better in other years:
Quite a bit has been decided heading into the final two hours of the 2016 regular season. We know who will make the playoffs from the East. We know who is locked into the top three spots in the West. Past that, four teams are competing for three more spots.
Oh, there’s plenty to get excited about, especially in Dallas and Colorado. One bunch will be Supporters Shield winner – the other will look back on the schedule and lament “this” match or “that” one where a couple of points were thrown away.
In years ahead, there will be five teams (or more) still competing for two or three available post-season berths. There will be years when four teams (or more) are still jostling for first-round byes. There will be years when Supporters Shield hope will still float for three or four teams (or more).
It will be fun in 2016. In years to come – not all of them, but some – this Decision Day thing with its simultaneous kickoffs will be absolutely unforgettable.
5. The Little Five
5a. There’s so much to talk about in MLS that a lot of people missed this: Landon Donovan started Sunday for L.A. against Houston, clearly an effort to “force” fitness as the playoffs approach. He went 63 minutes in the 1-0 win over Houston, playing wide on the right. (Wide, but slicing liberally inside, as vintage Donovan always did. He can do that when Robbie Rogers, sufficiently pacey to get up and down the wing, plays behind him as right back.)
5b. If you are into stadiums – personally I am a self-declared, 100 percent, unabashed stadium nerd – then this was your favorite piece of digital content last week. It’s an update on all the stadium developments. It certainly was my favorite.
5c. This is odd, considering that the West has once again been the stronger conference in 2016, but here goes: You could absolutely make a case that New York Red Bulls and D.C. United (out of the East) are the two best teams at the moment. Both are on form at the very best time.
5d. Take a few moments to review Alexi Lalas’ latest Mutant Gene Podcast. Most of it is a great interview with former Seattle manager Sigi Schmid. Lalas asks great questions about how things worked around CenturyLink, about his future and about the United States national team. Schmid has some great, candid answers.
5e. One spoiler: Schmid says the way things unfolded in Seattle has “lit a fire” in him. That is, he still has energy and drive to go make things happen. So he wants back in. And he should get back in somewhere. If you saw his ESPN studio work Sunday, you see he’s engaged and informed; he’s good at that work, and it wouldn’t be a bad place for Schmid. Nor would a GM role; he clearly knows what kind of player works and doesn’t work in MLS, and has contacts in Europe and South America. Or, of course, LAFC and perhaps Minnesota still need managers as they make their way into MLS.
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.