Month – November 2014

Landon Donovan Embraces His Inner Heel

Landon Donovan on a mission is frightening.

In six days the Seattle Sounders, will be put in the less-than-enviable position of trying to stop Donovan’s swashbuckling ride into the sunset. In the second leg of the conference semifinals, Real Salt Lake thought they had the Galaxy right where they wanted them: tied 0-0 with a shot at road goals. But Los Angeles went all medieval on their ass when Donovan scored only the third playoff hat trick in MLS history.

Landon Donovan wants to retire a champion. He saw his once-reluctant running buddy David Beckham bow out of MLS with back-to-back championships. He’s been a winner his entire career and he doesn’t expect anything different. Except… in the wake of this summer’s Klinsmanngate, maybe he does. For the first time in his (domestic) career, Donovan didn’t make selection. Pro sports is mostly a confidence game and Donovan’s was surely shaken. He responded to the jilting by playing perhaps his finest season. He has earned more points this season (49, on 10 goals and 19 assists) than any other season of his career other than 2008’s superlative 20 goal/9 assist season. On the pitch, Donovan is determined to prove his doubters wrong. That requires a healthy dose of ego.

Like an old man who just doesn’t give a damn any more, Donovan’s let his sculpted, media-friendly facade fade. At times this season Donovan has been downright insufferable. In an interview following the dismantling of RSL, he said, in reference to whether L.A. preferred facing Seattle or Dallas, “We beat both in our season series.” Maybe he’s been taking jerk classes from coach Bruce Arena but after that response, I just wanted to punch him. Yes, Seattle and L.A. played three games this season and the aggregate score was 5-4 L.A. But who won the Supporters’ Shield? It takes either a monster ego, or quite a spin doctor, to change the narrative of “who was the better team” when L.A. had two straight shots at proving their superiority and failed. Landycakes.

Donovan is embracing the smugness that makes a neutral fan hate the Galaxy. All season he’s run his mouth while embracing the ego-stroking retirement tour. He’s even perfected prick-in-chief Arena’s galling strut. It’s ironic that Donovan’s departure coincides with his finally embracing the banner of douchebaggery in Los Angeles. He always positioned himself on the babyface side of the character spectrum. How he is a total heel.

Los Angeles is arrogant, but Seattle has swagger. This weekend the Sounders and Galaxy square off for what will surely be an epic Conference Final. A determined Landon Donovan will take the field with his cocky L.A. teammates expecting ascension. But you know what? We got Clint Dempsey. Deuce is a grade-A punk. When he puts on that ain’t-no-one-gonna-stop-me face, like he had before the Ghana game in Brazil, he is a man to be reckoned with. And I’d take a mildly perturbed Deuce over a pissed-off Landycakes any day.

Happy Friday!

Happy Friday Raving Readers!

I apologize for the irregular posting schedule. It’s been a crazy week here at the casa de Brent. Since the Sounders are now taking their union mandated break, I decided to as well. Thanks for your patience. I’ll be back Monday with posts galore on why Landon Donovan is so very hateable, the power of big spending, tifo at (American) football games and the Jordan Morris/Jurgen Klinnsman situation.

Enjoy the dry and chilly weather. Feels like home (minus a boat-ton of snow)!!

Previewing the Least Coast: New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution

The Seattle Sounders vs FC Dallas match culminated a less than dramatic second weekend of the MLS playoffs. Unfortunately fans were treated to blowout soccer in the semifinals. My father, who is kindly humoring my encouragement to be a soccer fan, asked which games he should tivo this weekend. Other than the Sounders, I suggested the DC vs. NYRB and LA vs RSL matchups. We all knew the Crew were cooked, but I thought DC could win convincingly at home and RSL would give LA a game. I was so wrong on both counts. Now my MLS playoff bracket is broken (I had DC-Columbus and Seattle-RSL in the final four, like Samsonite, I was way off). Other than Seattle, all of the other Final Four sides simply dominated.

After previewing the Western Conference Finals earlier in the week, I turn my attention to the Least­– I mean, Eastern Conference. The final is set with #2 New England playing #4 New York. Earlier I was laughing at the Red Bulls having won only their third playoff series this past weekend against DC, and then checked myself ‘cause we only just won our second. But an original franchise in a huge market having only won three series in 19 years? Sheesh… we need a new word somewhere between mediocrity and ineptitude, ineptiocrity? medititude? Coach Mike Petke is trying to remake the franchise into winners, and 2014 has so far been a success.

New York thinks this is their year. With Bradley Wright-Phillips kicking his way into the record books and the always indomitable Thierry Henry serving his goals up on a platter, these Red Bulls are different. There is quality and grit amongst the aritsts formerly known as the MetroStars. Though New York’s team defense is still poor. They tied Seattle for most goals-against amongst playoff sides (and didn’t come close to matching our goals-for). Combined with Thierry Henry’s stance against turf fields (like New England’s Gillette Stadium), New York looks like just another speed bump for the Revolution.

Lee Nguyen has been a revelation with the Revs and his partnership with Jermaine Jones has New England looking like the favorite to win the East. New England has been unstoppable lately, going 10-1-1 (including playoffs) since signing Jones. The last team to beat them, Columbus, just got steamrolled in the semis. If we were going on just recency bias, New England would be the odds-on favorite to hoist MLS Cup. But they must beat a Western Conference team to do so. Curiously, the Revs have only played Eastern Conference foes since the Jones signing. Could the Revs just be the best of the lesser conference?

If New England performs like us prognosticators expect, it’ll be interesting to see them against the last standing titan of the West. Los Angeles manhandled the Revs 5-1 during New England’s midseason swoon. And I am sure Seattle would love to avenge their 5-0 hammering from earlier in the year.

Seattle Sounders Draw FC Dallas, Will Play L.A. Galaxy for the Western Crown

Your Seattle Sounders held off a pesky FC Dallas in a gritty nil-nil affair at a rocking CenturyLink Field. The stadium was loud but really, the Sounders could’ve saved us all a little teeth clenching and heart palpitating by just finishing one of their many quality shots. Or, you know, they could’ve possessed better for the last twenty minutes instead of gifting the ball to Dallas again and again for yet another whiteknuckle siege. Instead the game was one unlucky bounce (or better-sold flop job from Escobar) away from heartbreak late into the night.

After celebration and relief, my first instinct was to be upset with the result. I never, ever in my wildest dreams expected a nil-nil draw. We’re the Sounders, we score goals. Then I checked myself. If we were Italy and expected clean sheets and gritty victories, we’d be over joyed. The attack-first mindset only gets you so far (right Caleb Porter?). The last four games, Seattle’s become a team that gets the result the context dictates. The Sounders are playing the antithesis of Porterball, it’s not play the pretty way, it’s play to win. We lost Ozzie (and jeez was that terrifying), we got jobbed on some serious calls, and got snuffed on some quality chances, and yet we still left the field victorious. Seattle is playing mature, professional soccer at the right time. We took care of Dallas and are one step closer to MLS Cup.

The Western Conference Final pits #1 Seattle against #2 L.A. MLS must be salivating at this marquee fixture. The soccer media in the United States will have two weeks to whip themselves into a fury over Dempsey vs. Donovan, LD rides into the sunset, Arena vs. Sigi, Seattle vs. their past; the story lines are endless. For us here in Seattle, this is the matchup Sounders fans have a love/hate relationship with. We want the opportunity to punch L.A. in the mouth again, but if any team is gonna derail our Treble dreams, it’s Bruce Arena and the Gals. Part of me was afraid that our Shield chasing would meet an ugly end against the Galaxy, but our home-and-home that clinched it showed anything but. Unlike previous seasons, Seattle can dance with these guys.

The Western Conference Finals is a rematch of 2012 when Robbie Keane out-clevered us with that handball in the rain. But this series will be very different. L.A. and Seattle are two teams on a mission. L.A. wants one more ride out of Keane and the (can’t-come-soon-enough) retiring Donovan. Seattle has Deuce trying to win his first club championship with Yedlin still Stateside. When these two take the pitch two weeks from yesterday in Carson, there will be no holds barred.

Seattle Sounders vs FC Dallas Matchday and Bold Prediction

Tonight the Seattle Sounders play FC Dallas for the chance to win only their second playoff series ever and advance to the Western Conference Finals while keeping their Treble dreams alive.

Though Seattle now knows who waits on the other side, an all of a sudden not slumping Los Angeles Galaxy, the Sounders can’t be caught looking ahead. FC Dallas is too talented, pesky and floppy to take lightly. Think of Vancouver, one call can quickly end a season.

Mauro Diaz is available tonight. Dallas coach Oscar Pareja’s single lineup decision triggers Dallas’s entire existential quandary, to play the 4-4-2 or not to play the 4-4-2. Will Pareja exclude his best playmaker to stick with the formation that keeps speedster Escobar and Castillo wide? This lineup (two big men in Akindele and Perez up top complemented by the aforementioned pacey wingers) has given the Sounders fits.

Dallas has been successful attacking Seattle’s left flank. I have flashbacks of Escobar slashing into the box to score in September and, of course, doing so again last week to earn the penalty. If Pareja keeps Diaz benched, we’d have tough decisions in how to deploy leftback Leo Gonzalez, who’s on a yellow card. Dallas’s offense moves well when, like in basketball, they charge the paint and fish for a foul. But Mauro Diaz is a better player and makes Dallas a “better” team. Though tonight, with both teams’ seasons on the line, Pareja doesn’t need to figure out what makes Dallas the better team, just what they need to do to beat the Sounders.

BOLD PREDICTION: Dallas starts in the 4-4-2 but Diaz is in the 18. Pareja hopes to only use Diaz if the Hoops need to chase a goal late. Which of course they do. Seattle also keeps a talented midfielder on the bench, as Brad Evans again starts in the middle for a not-yet-100% Gonzalo Pineda. Seattle is at home where their defense has been tight lately (only ceding that shady Kekutah Manneh goal in the last month). Dallas does get an away goal but it doesn’t matter as the Clint and Oba show perform under primetime’s lights. Seattle 3-1. Hail Hydra.

Victor Mansaray, Darwin Jones and Tomorrow’s Seattle Sounders

As a slight diversion from the intensity of the playoffs, the Seattle Sounders have been in making waves with Home Grown Player news. First University of Washington forward Darwin Jones announced he looks forward to signing a HGP contract with the Sounders, then Sounders Academy product Victory Mansaray was officially announced as Seattle’s fourth HGP after DeAndre Yedlin, Sean Okoli and Aaron Kovar.

Signing talented HGPs is a very good thing. HGPs are the closest MLS has to the NFL’s top ten draft picks. These guys are the blue chip players, the can’t-miss prospects. Sure they need development and coaching, but good teams stockpile them. Yedlin was a singular success, but even raw players like Sean Okoli have already made their mark in EBFG history (seriously Okoli’s assist way back in the first week of the season to get us the win against SKC was bananas. Who knew those would be some of the only meaningful minutes he’d play all year?). Even better, teams have an economic incentive to sign HGPs, as two per year don’t count against the strict MLS salary cap.

What I find most curious is the timing of the Mansaray announcement. I don’t know much about Mansaray other than he comes highly touted from with the Sounders Academy. He dominated at the U16 level, and was capped by the USMNT U18 squad when they beat the Czech Republic 3-nil. Okoli and Kovar signed as HGPs back on January 9th, in the dregs of the offseason. Mansaray is stating a different trend. The club signs him in the middle of the playoffs and, unlike Yedlin, Okoli and Kovar, before he plays any college ball.

I’d argue that the new USL-Pro affiliate, S2, is already having an impact on business as usual. The Sounders want to fill-out the S2 roster. Players want to see meaningful, professional minutes. If S2 existed 2 or three years ago, Okoli may never have matriculated at Wake Forest or Yedlin at Akron. This is a good thing. More than just offseason Academy games and training, being rostered with S2 fully commits the players to the Sounders system. Think of Jordan Morris, a regular Sounders Academy trainee, who is still flirting with his decisions for the future. Adrian and Sigi want to lock down tomorrow’s Jordan Morris in Rave Green, and S2 allows them to do so.

Home Grown Players are tomorrow’s Sounders. Most of these HGPs will only find regular minutes with S2 for the forseeable future (it’s kinda hard to get time with the first time when some guys named Ozzie and Oba on the roster). But attrition always hits good teams the hardest (unless you’re RSL for some reason). The Sounders have collected a very deep and talented roster this season. But with NYCFC and Orland City joining the league to the tune of two expansion drafts, plus the annual Re-Entry Draft (and DeAndre Yedlin is vamoosing to North London), the Sounders can expect their roster to be poached. HGP will keep this club’s quality intact.

Clint Dempsey On a Cold Streak, or Big Players Play Big in Big Games

Clint Dempsey hasn’t exactly been red hot for the Seattle Sounders lately. One of my favorite clichéd sports axioms is “big players play big in big games.” Dempsey is certainly a big player and the Sounders are playing some of the biggest games in franchise history, so where’s the bigness from Captain America?

Dempsey has only two goals and two assists in his last five games (last month of the regular season plus the first playoff game). That’s not horrible, but it’s not Dempsey. He also has 16 shots in this stretch (simple math here: this averages out to a smidge over 3 per game). Is this normal for Deuce? I looked over his game log from this season to find comparable stats.

Dempsey has not started many stretches of at least five straight games. He is currently on a 7 game start streak, and I only found two other such stretches from this season: he started seven straight games beginning with the comeback against Portland way back on April 5th. He also started five straight games beginning when he returned from World Cup duty on July 13th (coincidentally, also against Portland). In the post-Brazil run, Dempsey had 26 shots in those five games, over 5 per game. And taking the first 5 games after the Portland comeback, Deuce had a whopping 28 shots, nearly 6 per game. Obviously only 16 shots in his last five is well below what we have come to expect from our star forward.

Data without context is just garbage (didn’t I just write a post yesterday about the futility of statistics?). The Sounders just played three defense-first matches in the L.A. series and the away playoff game. Dempsey going all “man on fire” was not nearly as important as earning results. There’s a good chance Sigi told him he had other priorities than just firing away (referee Allen Chapman also limited Dempsey in Frisco. Maybe I am wearing my Rave Green-colored glasses, but what oddly complemented Dallas’s flopping tactic was that Chapman seemed determined to call Clint Dempsey for a foul at every opportunity. Kind of hard to get hot when the ref won’t let you step sideways). Of course Deuce could just be tired. Much was made of this earlier in the season. I, for one, was pissed when he travelled to and started at Chivas USA back in early September and then when he came in down three to New York), as he’s been playing for about eleven months straight now. “Man on fire” can quickly become “man real tired.” Lastly this could just be Deuce being Deuce.

Dempsey has always been a streaky scorer. Check out his career numbers from the EPL and even way back to his Revs days. When he’s hot, he’s hot and when he’s not, he’s not. If Deuce has been on a cold streak for a while now, it reasons to say the heat is coming. Which will make Sigi happy. He said before the playoffs that you need your special players to be special. The Sounders definitely need Deuce more involved.

Doesn’t it feel like any minute now Deuce is gonna go on a tear? When he does, it’ll be perfect timing.

Marco Pappa: The Seattle Sounders X-Factor

Sorry Raving Readers. I’ve been less than regular with my posts lately. It’s midterm time and us composition adjuncts are swamped. But I’m back today with a post on everyone’s favorite Guatemalan midfielder.

Despite the notoriety of the big name, big money strikers and a certain future Spur, Marco Pappa is the Seattle Sounders’ X-factor. Despite misuse in the pop culture vernacular, an X-factor can have either a positive or negative impact. For some reason, Marco Pappa directly influences the Sounders’ fortunes. Pappa’s been mostly positive for the majority of the season, it was mostly early on we saw his volatility.

Earlier in the season, we suffered from bipolar Pappa. He was either hard-charging into the attack or lackadaisically allowing his mark to pass him. Sunday’s game wasn’t this Pappa. He tracked back on Escobar. He was playing defense, something he’s been doing much more regularly. Unfortunately he over-hustled. Lazy Pappa would’ve never given up a penalty. I can’t bust his chops too much for that. What is Sigi supposed to say, Hey Pappa don’t try so hard next time? Long and short is, one minute we’re losing because of one player, Marco Pappa. But then, not long after the break, it was Pappa’s free kick that found Ozzie Alonzo’s big bald head for the equalizer. All of a sudden, we earned a result and road goal because of Marco Pappa.

Marco giveth and Marco taketh away. I used to do a plus/minus statistical study on this blog (and haven’t done it since… oh, the Portland comeback in early April). The impetus for the project was Marco Pappa. He offered a lot to the attack but was a glaring liability in defense. It was a simplistic study but the goal was to gather data to measure a (usually offensive) players contribution to the overall game.

I then expanded the plus/minus from just the simple hockey stat to adding in points (see my old post for the specifics) and called this PMP or plus/minus + points. I abandoned the plus/minus study for many reasons, one being soccer doesn’t lend itself well to stats. Yes, Americans love statistifying our sports, but soccer is much more qualitative than quantitive. You can easily see the story that numbers can’t tell. Prime example is one Marco Pappa.

Lately Pappa’s been mostly in the giving mood, providing key assist and goals. In the recent Los Angeles series, Pappa came off the bench and immediately contributed. If I was doing the plus/minus for those two games, Pappa would have a solid +4 +/- with 6 points giving him a crazy 10 PMP rating from just two games. What complicated this further was that Pappa is not usually subbed on (he hadn’t been subbed on since May 3rd. He’s been either been in the starting eleven or away on national team duty). Then back as a regular starter Sunday against Dallas, Pappa had only a 1 PMP (+/- net zero for being on the field when we gave up and got a goal, but earning 1 point for the assist). Pappa’s influence on the Dallas game was huge, not properly reflected in a 1 PMP. Already you can see the inadequacy of this stat in particular, and most stats in general, as they relate to soccer.

Marco Pappa truly is our X-Factor. Stats don’t properly quantify his contribution to this team. One way or another, Monday night against Dallas, Pappa will be the difference.

Seattle Sounders Earn Gritty and Professional Draw At FC Dallas

The Seattle Sounders played FC Dallas to a 1-1 draw last night. Stellar result for Seattle, sure we would’ve liked to see a 4-2 road thrashing like the Revs displayed, but we clearly “won” the draw.

If this was the regular season, maybe we would’ve been disappointed with only a draw at short-rested Dallas missing Mauro Diaz. In the playoffs, especially with the narrative of Seattle and two-legged series, this result was far from a disappointment. Around the league only the aforementioned New England did better as a higher seed. L.A. also drew while playing RSL Saturday, but L.A. failed to register an away goal. That changes the complexion of the entire series and slightly tilts the series in RSL’s favor. #1 seed in the East, D.C. United, straight lost 2-0 at New York. We may expect brilliance from the Rave Green, but it is refreshing to see professional, gritty results.

Results have been hard to come by for the Sounders in the postseason. Yesterday was only the second time, in Seattle’s entire playoff history, we earned a result in the first game of a two-legged series. The other being the 0-0 draw against RSL in the 2012 Western Conference semifinals (which is the only two-legged series we’ve ever won). Seattle has, as Coach Sigi Schmid likes to remind the media, always performed well in the second game. Normally it is a backs-to-the-wall, so-close-but-not-enough affair, but now we go home in the driver’s seat. Last night we performed well in the first leg, despite some Dallas gamesmanship.

Oscar Pareja is no Caleb Porter. He doesn’t care for the style of play at expense of winning. Pareja understands coaching is a results business, as Dallas played an extremely cynical game. Dallas flopped with shocking regularity. ESPN commentator Taylor Twellman pointed out that when Dallas was in the final third, their players hit the pitch every time a Sounder got within a yard of them. Sadly referee Allen Chapman bought it. Pareja knows his team scores the majority of their goals off set pieces and they did their best to manufacture (to put it lightly) those opportunities.

Dallas didn’t have to finagle their best scoring chance. The only set piece Dallas did convert was the highest percentage opportunity in the game. Dallas midman Andres Escobar earned a silly penalty from Marco Pappa as he was running himself out towards the endline. It was an easy call for Chapman and that pesky Michel converted a well-struck penalty. Luckily Pappa did redeem himself later, serving up a free kick that found Ozzie Alonso’s beautiful bald head for the equalizer. Shortly thereafter Pappa came off for defensive mid Michael Azira, and Sigi was clearly parking the bus.

Thus the series comes home next Monday night, as the Seattle “Ain’t Got No Quit” Sounders find themselves in yet another “most important game of the season.” I got my tickets and can’t wait for gameday.

Seattle Sounders at FC Dallas Matchday

Sounders Matchday! Arguably this game isn’t as big as our last when hardware was on the line. However with Seattle’s history in the first game of a playoff series, I am pretty keyed up about this game. I am more nervous than when we only needed a result at home against L.A.

I was worried about Mauro Diaz. I wasted a lot of words in my game preview about the impact of Diaz in this series. Then the MLS Discipline Committee goes and suspends him for his part in the fracas on Wednesday night. Bad for me, good for us. His absence relieves some anxiety. We are 2-1-0 against FCD this season, beating them with Diaz in the lineup, and splitting games with him out. I do look forward to Paraeja’s lineup shuffling.

Bold Prediction: As the #1 seed, the Sounders won the honor of flying 1,681 mile to Dallas. We’ll be travelling to the farthest outpost of the Western Conference (just wait ‘til SKC and the Dynamo joing next year). Yes the Hoops will play their third game in eight days, but it will be their third straight game at home. Dallas has to deal with fatigue, but we have to deal with travel and time zones. I want Seattle to just get the job done (and socre an away goal). I am going to go conservative here: 1-1 draw.

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