Sunday, April 23, 2017

Rd 8: Injuries = Loss

Columbus traveled to Red Bull Arena for their eighth game of the season. Not only was it a loss, I was one that may impact team results for the next few games because of injuries. A double-whammy, if you will.

Artur, who had been performing pretty will in the midfield, appears to have broken wrist/arm not long after kickoff. The injury completely through Crew SC off their game. His sub, Mohammed Abu, came in in support but it took him a good chunk of the game to get comfortable. Note here on Abu: Fans immediately took to disliking him. It's like fans have to have at least one player they do not like.

NY came in with the high press type of approach that gives Gregg Berhalter's team fits, so it's difficult to tell if it was the Artur injury or the pressure and intensity of NY that got Columbus on the ropes.

After getting a goal early, NY doubled their lead off a miserable challenge in the box by Alex Crognale. Adding insult to injury (literally), Crognale injured himself trying to make the play. I have a feeling that his ego was also damaged on the play. This is what you get with inexperienced college players. They tend to have strengths that they focus on, but eventually, the truth of their ability comes out. This was one such play.

The other college player to mention alongside Crognale is Niko Hansen, who had a horrid game. Both players have worked for their time in the line up off of good play but they were going up against a good opponent who have some sort of pre-game planning (you'd be surprised at how many do not). Players who are not well rounded (ie. college players) get completely exposed.

It's important to note that this is where having a place to put players like Hansen and Crognale come into play. An affiliate isn't the right place. Having a "B" team or "II" is better. In a perfect world, there would be free movement between divisions and leagues in the US without all the roster restrictions and we could get a lot more out of players like these guys. Sadly, we might have just seen the best we will ever see out of these guys after such a high the previous weekend.

Regardless. Columbus is still in okay shape, as far as their record goes. It's just a loss. That said. The damage done here might be in losing Artur for a bit. Abu, even if he were a great player, will need an adjustment period.

Crew have the next three at home, however. It'll give them time so sort the loss of Artur and figure out if Ethan Finlay is worth starting again.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Rd 7: Burying the Ghost of 16

Columbus Crew SC defeated Columbus Crew SC of last year (Toronto FC standing in) at Crew Stadium this past weekend.

Toronto is coming off a similar MLS Cup loss hangover as Columbus was last year. The similarities are there after the devastating loss along with a shortened offseason. Crew SC this year was up to the challenge of burying a nasty ghost from last year by holding a lead all the way through the second half.

This game has the markings of two teams splitting off into completely different directions. Toronto's season looked wanted to break one way or another and Columbus was looking to firm up their believe that they can compete with the best near the top of the table this year.

It wasn't a particularly good looking game for Columbus. 1st-year players Niko Hansen and Alex Grognale had nice games (both with assists), but outside of that the two teams looked fairly even save for the discipline and desire to win in the second half.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Rd 6: Missing Pieces = Loss

Columbus traveled to Bridgeview last weekend without three key starters and lost in an uneven match. Three wins was enough for Gregg Berhalter's side as he opted to look at the long term instead of a relatively meaningless early-season match.

Federico Higuain, Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah sat out the match for various non-serious injuries. From the outside, it looks like it was better to get them healed up versus risking further injury in a stadium that the team has never performed well in. The basic question was asked; "Do we need this game?" The clear answer was a firm "no."

It's likely the smart move considering the team just ripped off 9 points in the previous 3 games. The team proved they could play well and find themselves near the top of the table with breathing room. With no urgency to win the East or even the league, it is more about jockeying for a position near the top of the table and staying there.

What this tells is is the Berhalter is confident in his team at full strength and that he'll get the wins he needs on down the road. Time will tell if this is the correct approach. With 3 wins in 6 games, and the near fact that 12 wins will probably get his team into the playoffs, the team is in fine shape.

Pulling back to the bigger picture. MLS rosters are thin. Missing one key player sets you back. Missing three - you're done.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Updated Helltown Ratings

13.2% of the MLS season is complete, which means it's time to update my player ratings (on the right-hand side of the desktop version of this site). First up are my team rankings so far. It's based on individual player ranking.

91FC Dallas91796792
91Sporting KC97668494
88New York City FC796493100
86Orlando City SC781009076
86San Jose98718380
82Toronto FC86706281
74New England76557773
64New York61535665
52Los Angeles52324462
50Real Salt Lake50414251

And here are my top 20 players so far:

Player ScorePlayer Name(TEAM)Pos
10.00Erick TorresHoustonF
9.64Diego ValeriPortlandMF
9.64Fanendo AdiPortlandF
9.23David VillaNew York City FCF
8.96Yamil AsadAtlantaF
8.89Cyle LarinOrlando City SCF
8.80Josef MartínezAtlantaF
8.54Maximiliano MoralezNew York City FCMF
8.54Justin MeramColumbusMF
8.41Miguel AlmirónAtlantaMF
8.28Gregory GarzaAtlantaD
8.24Federico HiguainColumbusMF
8.23Diego CharaPortlandMF
8.23Lawrence OlumPortlandD
8.18Tyrone MearsAtlantaD
8.14Ola KamaraColumbusF
8.12Héctor VillalbaAtlantaF
8.11Sebastián BlancoPortlandMF
8.10Alvas PowellPortlandD

There has been a change the last couple years in MLS. Defending has changed. I'm not sure if it is the fact that defending is just not as good (less investment in that area) or if tracking has changed (STATS, inc). Either way, My formula has not changed since 2011. It has served me well.
Of note for Crew SC fans - Justin Meram and Higuain popping up here is a good thing (along with the above average team grade). The team never really got off off the ground last year. Good start this year.

SI Cover Change

Monday, April 3, 2017

Rd 5. Crew Navigate to 3 in a Row

Columbus Crew SC moves past Orlando City SC to notch a third win in a row. A brace from Justin Meram, who is in incredible form, was the difference this week.

The overriding story this week is the simple fact that Columbus finally achieved a third win in a row. Two in a row was a hurdle that the Crew hadn't jumped over since the end of the 2014 season.

Between 2013-2016 MLS seasons, three wins were the high water mark for teams 25 times (most frequent). Columbus and Portland, 2015 MLS Cup finalists, are the only teams thus far in 2017 to have reached that mark.

The achievement is something I've been looking for this season. It might not be much of an indicator of success later in the season, it does show me that the team is putting forth the extra effort this year to right the many wrongs of last year.

One asterisk to this streak is that it occurred over a swiss cheese like MLS schedule due to an important international break. While that might tarnish it a bit, it isn't much. Navigating a lumpy competition is part of the deal with this league.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Meram, Trapp Rewarded

Earlier this year both Justin Meram and Wil Trapp signed new contract deals that, under today's MLS roster rules, ensures they remain under the $480k max budget hit range. Details, of course, are not exactly known but it's understood that allocation money was used to buy down the player deals to prevent them from becoming "Designated Players." (Teams are only allowed three.)

In many ways, this is a reward for the two players for being above average performers since Gregg Berhalter's arrival. Both of them were important ingredients in his first offseason that late laid the foundation for what the team became in the successful 2015 season.

Both are contributors in different ways and both deliver in key areas for the team. Meram provides a wicked attacking ability in Berhalter's system while Trapp provides stable defending and distribution from the back. Beyond those things, both check off many soft skill boxes like being a team player, leadership, and work ethic.

Strong parallels can be drawn between this contract event and what happened in Kansas City a few years ago with Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. The two of them were important parts of a complete re-branding event and helped guide the team to a couple of the best years in franchise history while earning calls up to the US Men's National Team.

That was about two years ago. There was some concern at when the deals were struck that paying high wages to them would mean the movement of other, less sellable, players. Turns out that it did happen and the team did/has struggled since (I looked at that > here).

History should always be a guide in these situations. Especially when these types of events happen within a restrictive salary capped league. By increasing two player wages as much as they did, and moving out a key midfielder, Sporting KC chose style over substance. Marketability over results and it burned them.

Will that happen here in Columbus? Will the team now be strapped for money for a few years to come because of Meram and Trapp contracts? Large pay increases for individual players often lead to contentment (Ethan Finlay a possible example in Columbus). But it's going to be difficult to track. Rapid expansion of MLS and ever-changing roster rules will make it nearly impossible to tell.

What we do know is that two players got improved wages. Always a good thing, especially in a league that is tight with money in regards to player wages. Especially organically formed talent.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Rd. 4: International Break Broken

Crew SC finished off the Portland Timbers last weekend 3-2 in Columbus. The win is their second in a row and puts them one step away from finally getting a third. Something they haven't done since 2014.

The game was just one of three over the weekend, as MLS trimmed the schedule to make way for World Cup Qualifiers. What this means is that it is a random "Broken Game." While it's important for the teams that participated, the actual result might as well been decided by a role of the dice as both sides were missing key folks (more notably Portland with Darlington Nagbe out with USMNT duties).

Despite these things, the gears of the PR and hype machine continued turning. The lead has players and coaches on a high.

"The idea was to send a message,” Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter said after the match. “Send a message that we're a good team, that we can hurt teams.”

Justin Meram, de facto team captain, echoed Berhalter's feelings, saying: “To [Portland] or to the league, to everybody, this is a team with a lot of quality,” Meram said. “We’re going to compete with the best of them.”

Columbus can compete with anyone. Confidence is good but this game vs. Portland isn't an indication of much. Crew SC were at home and facing a team without a couple of their best players.

Columbus looks for that elusive third win in a row this weekend vs. Orlando.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Rd. 3: Crognale shines in forgettable game

1st-year player and locally raised Alex Crognale had a successful debut playing central defense for the Crew as they went on to see off DC United 0-2, in Washington.

The takeaways beyond the Crognale, are slim. Last weekend's game was everything early season MLS is and has been for the past handful of years. Sloppy play, lumpy surface, and varying degrees of interest from players on both sides.

DC is a bad team this year. They haven't scored a single goal through three games and have given up six. To make matters worse, they only real threat they had in attack (Patrick Mullins) pulled a hamstring in the opening half hour of the game.

Things weren't much better on the Columbus side. While they did create a couple good chances, they ended up playing most the match close to the chest due to (finally) rolling out a new formation that often times left a six(!) player back line (Afful, Williams, Trapp, Crognale, Naess, Riatala). Ben Olsen's DC side had no key to unlock that besides crossing it in (29 times!) towards a poor José Guillermo Ortiz or trying to play it over the top of a non-existent Crew midfield.

In the end, the formation change worked out for Columbus. Olsen sucks at figuring that stuff out, even if he bothers to try and Columbus benefitted from incredibly poor play in the box from fringe USMNT player Steve Birnbaum that resulted in two penalties for Columbus.