MLS weekend preview: Bruce Arena is the last of the league's coaching giants

LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena

When Seattle and LA met just a few weeks ago, we were talking about the legacy of Sigi Schmid and Bruce Arena. The league was producing a graphic charting their influence over almost this entire generation of MLS coaches, who’d either worked or played under one or both of them.

And despite Seattle’s poor start to the season, the expectation was that, as usual, a new DP would arrive, inspire the team and life would continue as normal, with every other coach in the Western Conference dealing with the reality that with those two in charge of their respective teams, that there will only be four playoff spots up for grabs in any given year.

Fast forward a few weeks and Schmid is gone from Seattle. The mitigating circumstances of injuries, international absences, and the sudden pre-season loss of Obafemi Martins, could not offset just how lost the Sounders have looked this season. Take away the aberration of their one big five-goal win over Dallas and their goalscoring record has been abject — the ironic cheers that greeted their one (20-yard wide) shot against Sporting KC in last week’s 3-0 loss ended up being the final memory of Schmid’s reign. He’d been vulnerable before, but last week’s game looked to have marked a moment of no return for the locker room, and so it proved. 

And then there was Arena, now the last man standing from the era of college giants turned MLS coaches, and still slapping down the pretenders. His answer to a question about his team being outshot in last week’s win in Portland was vintage Arena:

“We won the game. That’s what you do in soccer games. We were on the road in a venue where the team does pretty well at home. What are we complaining about? Then some moron will write that they had more shots than us, thinking that’s important. 

“Actually, analytics in soccer, if no one here has figured it out, doesn’t mean a whole lot. Analytics and statistics are used for people who don’t know how to analyze the game. I’ll be very honest with you, this isn’t baseball or football or basketball. We have a very important analytic, and that’s the score. That distorts all the other statistics.”

Master mic dropper or dinosaur? You decide. Then you tell him, if you dare. The last of the giants is still with us.

The moveable force meets the resistible object

If you’re looking for a marker of just how crazy the Eastern Conference has been this year, you might want to look at New York City FC’s goal difference. It’s -4. That’s conference-leading NYC FC by the way. Of course shipping 11 goals in two games against the Red Bulls, including last weekend’s 4-1 battering, hasn’t exactly helped, but if there’s an abiding impression of NYC FC this year it’s been of David Villa bailing out a leaking boat.

Against the Red Bulls, NYC FC’s central defensive pairing was awful, but in fairness they got little help from the men in front of them. Somewhat lost in the fuss over Patrick Vieira’s post-game comments about the referee being swayed by Jesse Marsch’s comments the previous week, was Vieira’s own criticism of the lack of defensive support from Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard — two players at the center of Marsch’s claims that MLS referees are too lenient with star players. Lampard called Marsch’s actions the “oldest trick in the book”. By the end of the game he was the oldest player in the book, as 10-man New York suffered yet another derby day humiliation.

And then there’s Colorado — no problems on their defensive side. In fact, the main eyebrow raiser of the All-Star selections was the absence of any Rapids players from this year’s extraordinary defense. They’ve been immaculate — and they’ve had to be. The Rapids do not win by blowout scorelines — they generally win by single goal margins. But they keep doing it. In a league built on forced parity, their 15-game unbeaten streak is a remarkable one, and their durability looks made for playoff soccer, as we start the season’s turn for home. But there is still a nagging concern about the goals, such as they are, drying up. 

If you’d tried to predict, pre-season, that this would be a clash between two first-placed teams after the All-Star break, you’d have been ridiculed. But that’s what we have. Glass half full, it’s the exciting prospect of NYC FC’s attack v Colorado’s defense; glass half empty, it’s the moveable object meets the resistible force on a cramped Yankee Stadium pitch.

Some very MLS trading

Dallas take on Vancouver this weekend, with both sides having been involved in some very MLS transfer business this week. 

Fabian Castillo is on his way to Turkey’s Trabzonspor for what looks like the bargain price of $4m. Reportedly only $2m of that is being paid now, with Dallas still technically retaining Castillo’s right until January, when the other $2m becomes due. Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus has described the deal as a “transfer at heart”, but technically Castillo is on an expensive loan until the new year. As per usual in such deals out of MLS, the league will take one-third of the purchase price and Dallas will have two-thirds available to reallocate.

But Castillo will not be easy to replace — he is the club’s leading source of goals while taking up just over $170,000 of cap space. At 24 and seen as still having tremendous potential to get even better, the speedy winger was perhaps always likely to go to Europe, and Trabzonspor fans were certainly happy to see him (carrying him through the airport on his arrival). But sending one of the league’s most exciting young assets to a team that finished 12th in the Turkish league last season does not sound like a move the “league of choice” will want to shout about.

They might also hope that another of this week’s transfers, Sending “Vancouver” player Fabian Espindola to Necaxa, is quietly forgotten about. Espindola never played a minute for Vancouver after being notionally traded there last week from DC, with the Whitecaps reportedly profiting by some $20,000 in the reshuffle that has eventually seen NYC FC’s Patrick Mullins and New York Red Bulls’ Lloyd Sam move to the capital.

Espindola was once a Red Bull himself. The Guardian interviewed him just after his surprise move there from Real Salt Lake — a club where he’d come to seem like an institution during the Jason Kreis years. When we spoke to him a bewildered Espindola was coping with the reality of trying to move his young family from the new house they’d just bought in the Salt Lake City area to the rather more challenging real estate market of New York, after being suddenly shuffled out of RSL. And when he and his awkwardly structure contract (for MLS capologists) were soon on the move again, to D.C., it was hard to imagine Espindola’s, or his family’s, patience with the increasing uncertainty of life as an MLS employee lasting much longer. In that light, another move, and to Vancouver no less, looked like a perverse joke, unless of course there was a transfer in the offing and DC needed to clear the cap space on any terms. Let’s hope the Whitecaps spend their handler’s fee wisely.

Giovinco’s back...

...he never really went away. Sebastian Giovinco may not have been posting as many eye-watering numbers as he did last season, and he may have had an eight-game scoreless streak leading into last week’s hat-trick game, but on stats alone he is still well up there in the MLS MVP race. 

And at Toronto, Giovinco personifies the ideal of Most Valuable Player. Without his contribution and the goals and assist that come from him, Toronto can look frighteningly moribund. At the start of the year, they looked like the side most likely to kick on from last season, with their acquisition of solid veteran MLS talent to add depth and resilience to a historically flaky franchise, but if anything they’ve relied even more on Giovinco to carry them so far this year. 

But they’re still in the playoff hunt and with the four teams above them cannibalizing points off each other over the past couple of weeks, and a favorable home schedule coming up, Toronto have the inside track in the East between now and the end of the season. Expect to hear Giovinco’s name a lot more often.

And it doesn’t hurt that they’re hosting Columbus this week. Now, rivalry games generally offer a certain degree of exception to trends, in their degree of intensity, but Columbus are a team whose confidence looks shot at the moment. They just can’t hold a lead, and even on the occasions that they do so, it’s rarely without a game-threatening scare. The quality from last year is still there in patches, but last year’s MLS Cup finalists are living on shredded nerves.

Portland contemplating another grind

Speaking of MLS Cup finalists, last year’s winners, Portland Timbers travel to Sporting Kansas City on Sunday, dealing with yet another crisis, after defensive bedrock and follicly-pandering-Portlandian Nat Borchers went down with what looks like a bad ankle injury during the loss to LA Galaxy.

The Timbers had only just reintegrated Borchers’ defensive partner Liam Ridgewell after his own injury — a fact that Celeb Porter has been keen to emphasize in recent weeks as he put his team’s slow start to their title defense into perspective. They’d been grinding the gear without him, but watching the team in person at Red Bull Arena a few weeks ago, it was easy to see the value of Ridgewell’s calm at the back. There was a definitive sense that Portland were starting to move forward at just the right time.

They still might. Diego Valeri was a criminal oversight for an All-Star selection, and while he and Darlington Nagbe are influencing games up front the champions will be a danger, particularly to a Sporting KC team about to face rather less obliging opposition than the Seattle team they rolled over last week. But without Borchers those Timbers gears might be grinding a while longer.

Sporting KC will know how they feel. It’s been a struggle for them this season, and they’ve never looked like they’ve recovered from the loss of Krisztian Nemeth, with Dom Dwyer in particular in indifferent form up front. Thankfully for Sporting fans, Dwyer has been rounding into form in recent weeks, and even more thankfully for them, Sporting just turned down a $3m offer from Olympiakos for him. Peter Vermes knows that there’s a pretty steep drop off to plan B. If his team are to maintain their playoff hopes they face a grind of their own.

This weekend’s fixtures: NYC FC v Colorado; SKC v Portland; Seattle vs LA; Dallas v Vancouver; DC v Montreal; Chicago v NYRB; Philadelphia v RSL; Toronto v Columbus; Orlando v NE; Houston v SJ

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Graham Parker, for theguardian.com on Friday 29th July 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

 

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