The complexities of the Western Conference playoff race allow us to have a bit more liberty when deciding the key players that will drive the playoff push. Three clubs are riding hot stretches into the final week (Seattle Sounders, San Jose Earthquakes, Portland Timbers). Two teams continue to nosedive (FC Dallas, Vancouver Whitecaps). The other three have been threading water for the past month (Colorado Rapids, LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake). The squad that gets quality performances out of their designated players, new arrivals, and super subs, will ultimately determine who plays in November?
Javier Morales – MF Real Salt Lake: The MVP candidate is the attacker in the RSL diamond midfield that guides the league’s best offense. RSL needs to maintain possession to win as a function of their attacking and defending strategy. The team passes with purpose; the team leads the league in goals, assists, and shots on goal (perhaps the statistic readily available to the public that indicates quality ball movement). Morales accounts for 10 of RSL’s 50 assists. If RSL wins the Supporter’s Shield with a few ifs, ands, and buts, Javi is the MVP.
Adam Moffat – MF + Lamar Neagle –MF Seattle Sounders: Most interesting stat I heard last week (courtesy of ESPN): the Seattle Sounders have only conceded two goals in the final 15 minutes of games. Of course, a few moments after the graphic appeared RBNY’s Tim Cahill tucked a shot into the top left corner at the 76’ mark… Despite their late game proficiencies, their bench could be the difference between ending the year with or without hardware. Adam Moffat gives the Sounders a second holding midfielder option plus, he has playoff and MLS Cup experience. The Moffat, Evans, and Alonso midfield trio should hold leads late and pack the middle in the playoff when they need to keep opponents out of the net in second legs. Lamar Neagle’s speed is a necessity on the CenturyLink turf. If he plays up top, Obafemi Martins finds him, assisting on half of Neagle’s eight goals this season.
Maximiliano Urruti – FW Portland Timbers: In Urruti’s two starts for Portland, Porter used him as a target man in the center. Urruti appears to be an ideal fit for Porter Ball, a willing defender with a nasty streak that puts pressure on the centerbacks when they handle the ball. Portland defends as a team and attacks as a team. They are a short blanket vulnerable to the counter. If Urruti can stretch the field and be a legit threat, his effort can neutralize the counter and turn some of the draws into victories.
Jaime Penedo – GK LA Galaxy: The two time Gold Cup Top Keeper (2005, 2013) immediately improves the Galaxy. Carlo Cudicini is what the book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong refers to as the O-Ring. All this time, money, and attention constructing a team, it’s the weakest link that leads to disaster. Improving or replacing the weakest player is the most effective method to improve a team’s performance. Cudicini had the worst save percentage in the league among goalies with more than seven games (57%). Even if Cudicini wasn’t a liability, Penedo is an upgrade and in a limited sample size of 6 games has performed better statistically. Penedo strengthens what is probably the strongest spine in the MLS.
Center Midfielder – MF Colorado Rapids: Dillon Powers, Vicente Sanchez, and Martin Rivero have played the center mid role in Óscar Pareja’s 4-2-3-1. Powers got the bulk of the starts during the impressive 13 game run starting at the end of June (W-D-L: 7-4-2). Yet, as Rivero slowly returns to health and Sanchez becomes more familiar with the league, Pareja switches Powers to the holding or box-to-box role. The team sitting in fifth place is not a finished product and their backline/ keeper combo is solid enough to keep them in post-season contention. Their future success depends on whether the team gets more creativity out of the position.
Steven Lenhart’s Chia Pet Head – On the end table next to the Window - San Jose Earthquakes: Since Steven Lenhart’s Chia Pet Head night the Quakes have won three and drawn one, putting them only a point out of the fifth spot. Truthfully, the Quakes started finding their form in mid July, right around the time Chris Wondolowski was tearing it up at the Gold Cup. So what will carry them into the post-season beside a clay head with salvia hispanica growing out of it? Bunker defense with an opportunistic counterattack, they are allowing .8 goals per game since July 11th (this includes a 3-0 loss to the LA Galaxy). Much like Portland, it’s a team effect, or I can just mail it in and say Wondo.
This week’s Throw-in:
- Teams omitted from the main post:
- FC Dallas and Vancouver Whitecaps are mathematically alive with four games in season but neither team has shown any consistent quality. A good 10-week run does not make a season. FC Dallas only lost two games in their first fourteen games. In the next seventeen games, FCD only won two. Vancouver had a ten game run from mid-May to mid-July with one loss, only four wins from the other twenty games.
- I saw Dallas in person a few weeks back. Offensively they were a one trick pony, attacking up the left with Castillo and Ferreira. Erick was in support but couldn’t provide service to Blas Pérez in a position where he could be effective. They had no plan B. This probably sounds familiar for the fans of a team that had a 5 game stretch without a goal.
- Aside from Camilo Sanvezzo hovering around the top of the goal lead, Vancouver has been unremarkable this season. They will end the season neither at the top nor bottom of any statistical category. Nevertheless, in the season of parity they are still in it with two games left against the current fifth place team, the Colorado Rapids. Can fans expect four more performances like the one in Montreal where they grinded their opponents backline before Sanvezzo put in two late goals. Or something similar to the uninspired home loss to what was basically the Real Salt Lake reserve squad. Those are matches that grind down the supporters’ nerves.
- FC Dallas and Vancouver Whitecap supporters can hate on me if they want. Last week I predicted Philly was dead money and guaranteed an RSL Open Cup victory, so enjoy your weekend.
- I said last week I was watching the Breaking Bad Finale and recording the Seattle-New York game. Probably unsurprising to most I wasn’t alone, the Sounders-RBNY didn’t’ make the top 100 most watched CABLE shows on Sunday. That list doesn’t include NFL games on Network TV, but House Hunters International, Call of the Wildman, and American Pickers sneak into the top 15 spots.
About the author:
Jay’s first memory of professional soccer was watching a flaming haired pirate in a blue shirt with white stars menace a golden shirt lion on the field of roses. Since then, he has followed the game from the cradle of US soccer, Northern Jersey. Tracking the progress of the sport in the states through the international team and Major League Soccer he has become a student of tactical football, the business of sports and the cultural impact of the game. Jay enjoys the view from the ivory tower but is not afraid to be in arm’s length of the ultras in the South Ward. You can follow Jay on Twitter@rescindedred.