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.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Red Flags (already)


We are only two weeks deep into the 2017 season and it is crystal clear that Columbus did not knock the stink off the team from last year.

No doubt that Crew SC has not been able to win much on the pitch over the last 12 months, as the team record in that time is one of the worst in franchise history. There are some quality problems, but the issues we are going to be talking about now aren't so much about results or expected goals or quality of play in this half or that - as they are about the soft skills side of the game. As in - players, coaches and front office working together towards a common goal. Here is where Columbus Crew SC is failing.

All organizations have issues that crop up between people. Especially in sports where so many "type-A" personalities mix together in an intense and small environment. But there are signs in Columbus that point towards some severe issues with fundamental team building blocks.

FIVE RED FLAGS

Red flags have become difficult to see in MLS. It seems as access to franchises increase via the world of social media, the availability of raw information decreases. What "raw" refers to is non-filtered information. MLS is still relatively small in size so they have the unique ability to control most of the information that gets distributed.

Columbus was not able to hide a few things that happened last weekend, however. By a few, I mean more in one game than I've ever seen in one game.

1. Poor Play: Harrison Afful sub at halftime. It was basically a like for like sub and no injury. Afful was not playing all that well, but it wasn't a miserable performance. If he shuts down? It's going to be a long painful year for Crew SC. Whatever the issue. It's not looking good.

2. Bad Fit(s): Artur (who clearly has talent but isn't an easy fit for the team) was subbed off at 58' minute for Abu (who also hasn't really fit in with the team). Both of these players are just sort of dangling out there. Fill-ins for Tony Tchani? And where the hell is Tchani? It's unclear. We know Berhalter wants more interplay up the pitch from at least one of his central defensive mids, but he insists on trying everything besides shifting Wil Trapp out. This leads us to...

3. Leadership Questions: Wil Trapp was given the armband, but with a qualifier. He doesn't have broad enough shoulders to carry the full load of it (per his head coach!) so a sort of captaincy support group was created that includes five other members of the team. It sounds bizarre because it is. This type of action is what you might expect during an intense all day corporate brainstorming meeting at the local hotel to spruce things up. It's completely inappropriate in a sports setting and doomed to fail. One specific example of Trapp not doing his leadership thing was when it started raining last weekend. Both teams just rolled over and accepted the result early in the 2nd half. It was a huge opportunity for Columbus to jump back in. Seems small (and abstract), but leaders see those opportunities. The good ones do, anyway. Houston was ripe. At the very least, let's see some fight.

4. Conflict Avoidance: As mentioned in #2 and 3, working around the Trapp problem instead of addressing it. He had one of his worst games last week (after a down year last year) and he's not able to carry the captain role by himself, yet it was given to him. I'm not sure what the solution is right now. Bench him and it'll be chaos. Keep playing him instead of Artur or Tchani or Abu and the team will not be as good as they can be.

video

5. Player Turmoil: It's no secret that something hasn't been quite right about the Crew locker room ever since the Kei Kamara issues last year. We don't get to be in that locker room but we can see outward signs of continued problems. Specific example last weekend was the late game argument between Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain. It was more than a minor spat. There is something deeper and darker there.

What this adds up to is; some rooted issues that need to be cleaned up.

After two years of building/rebuilding off the previous coach and investment group's work, Gregg Berhalter is struggling with making this team his own. The transition is sloppy and the roster plan is not cohesive.

All the expected goal metrics in the world are not going to make up or cover up the issues mentioned above. It was an Achilles heel a couple years ago, but now it's a massive issue hanging over the team.

It can be fixed, of course. The process has to start now. Issues have to be directly addressed soon or it's going to get worse.

HOW TO FIX IT

1. Address, don't hope: More than likely, Afful's approach to the team and game was something that was noticed before the start of last weekend (if it wasn't, then we've got some much more severe issues going on). If he wasn't all in, don't start him. You can't just hope it goes away. Most of the time it will not.

2. Make a bad fit good: Sign another Brazilian. Even if it's one currently in MLS, go find him. One thing that stuck with me from reading Soccernomics years ago was signing players in pairs (or groups) to help them feel comfortable. I've recently heard scouts talk about the issue of comfort and to recognize that you aren't signing just the player on that youtube highlight video and that the environment that player is in played a significant part. Artur is such an odd signing for Columbus. There could be something I'm missing about it. A connection with another player or coach, but right now he is just dangling out there. The odds of it working are not good.

3. Realign leadership: And by "realign" I mean blow current structure up. Give the armband to the longest tenured player or to who you believe is the best and or most worldly experienced player. Giving it to hometown kid Wil Trapp isn't going to work. Not in today's MLS where over half the players are from all over the globe and have played in several countries AND at higher levels. The second part of this... the sub-committee on leadership. Dump it. Captain and Vice-Captain and leave it alone. This whole thing is way overthought. Way overcooked.

4. Again. Address issues: A pet-peeve of mine with Berhalter for a while. He's skipped post-game talks with his team because he was disappointed and this past weekend he told the team something to the effect of just pretend it didn't happen. That's bad. Like, really not good. The process should remain the same in loss or in victory.

5. Mend Bridges: Nobody on the outside knows what players do not get along in the locker room - and how deep those problems are. But it's the responsibility of the coaches (and leadership!) to sniff them out and work on them. No, they can't be fixed overnight or even in months, but they have to be in the process of repair. At least pointed in the right direction of repair. I don't see that right now.

The Beginning of Nothing

Things for this team have not improved since the departure of Kei Kamara last year. It might even be generous to just to say that they are about the same. One thing you cannot say is that "it's just two games into the season." Deep team issues don't just magically disappear over the offseason. You can't hope it away. You have to work at making it better.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Round 2: Troubling Loss for Crew

Crew did what most teams do after they are scored on early - they focus / re-focus and look razor sharp.

Head coach Gregg Berhalter praised the way the team played the first half, even though they finished it down two goals.

The 2nd half was a different story. Rain started falling and the game devolved into a sloppy mess.

An Erick Torres goal midway through the 2nd half saw Crew SC players dropping their shoulders and showing frustration with others.

By the end of the game, it was clear that there are more deeply rooted issues with Columbus Crew SC. The sub of "Harry" Afful at halftime and the early pull of quasi-captain Wil Trapp were concerning. Both of them were largely anonymous in their time on the pitch.

Late in the match cameras picked up a pretty good dust up between Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain that looked like it had more history behind just what happened during the match.

We are only two games into the season and critical team issues are already showing. These types of things manifest themselves in arguments, preventable errors and bizarre halftime subs of non-injured players.

Might be a long season for this 2017 team.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Crew Open 2017 Season

Federico Higuain turn.
The 2017 Crew season opened with a 1-1 draw, at home, to Chicago. After jumping out to a 1-0 lead in the first half via a beautiful cross from Justin Meram to Ethan Finlay's head, Chicago were able to level the match in the 2nd half (nifty footwork by David Accam).

This would be just another game were it viewed on its own, but it dropped a stink bomb on the opening week fanfare because of the issues Columbus had with closing out games from leading positions last year.

Good performances were turned in by new signing Jukka Raitala, as well as Justin Meram. Both commanded the left side for and owned the first half for Columbus.

For Chicago, it was the David Accam show. He was everywhere. Notable, however, was also goalkeeper Jorge Bava who made a handful of difficult saves taken by Crew players in and around the six-yard box.

Final Thought:

Columbus was the better of the two teams, but Chicago played the kind of game that neutralizes Gregg Berhalter's style. The secret to bottling him up has been out for over a year now, it's just a matter of whether or not opposing teams bother to shut it down or just play their own game.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Consecutive Wins

Every once in a while you'll see consecutive win streak for superclubs across the world. Because of social media, it may seem like a more common occurrence than it is, but it does seem to happen much more in open leagues.

In MLS, consecutive wins = pure evil. Why? The theory is that team parity is a key driver in interest in the league. Simply put. If your team sucks, nobody shows. For the most part, this is true. Especially in a closed league. You HAVE to have some hope year to year because there is no chance at glory in the league you drop down to.

There is also a business reason. Well, not also. Business IS the reason. Here, you can't have chronically underperforming teams when you are sharing revenue. A poor performing team in key revenue/interest generating areas (example: Chivas USA) becomes an anchor to the other investors.

The Chicago Fire are in this situation right now. They are not an asset to MLS. They should be, however, so the league is placing the annual MLS industry meet and greet they like to call the all-star game at Soldier Field.

All this said; Outside of the fact that MLS controls player contracts, it has dozens of rules in place to ensure teams do not get too good or too bad.

Here are all the teams since 2000* that have managed 6 or more wins in a row >

Consecutive Wins, Team
7 : Sporting KC (2012)
6 : New England Revs (2015)
6 : DC United (2007)
6 : DC United (2006)
6 : Miami Fusion (2001)
6 : San Jose Earthquakes (2005)
6 : New England Revs (2005)

*There were no draws before 2000.

What's interesting here is that we don't even have to look up as to why these teams somehow managed a nice run of form. Starting from the top - KC... new ownership, completely new rebrand and new stadium. It was a huge win on and off the field for them. The momentum has been sucked away, though. 2015 Revs signed Jermaine Jones. That's basically it. In 2005 they had Clint Dempsey. That Miami team is basically a who's who of MLS now. Current RSL coach Jeff Cassar, Kyle Beckerman, Brian Dunseth, Preki, Nick Rimando, Pablo Mastroeni. The DC team also had Rimando one year and Perkins the next, but were lead by Ben Olsen (current coach), Bobby Boswell, Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez. The 2007 added Greg Vanney (who now coaches in Toronto).

Columbus hasn't managed to win more than two in a row since the end of 2014.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Montreal Impact are from San Jose, California


The scoreline through two preseason friendlies for Crew SC against Brazilian competition isn't pretty - 10-0, if the handful of reports online are true.

You will not find that on the Crew social or site news feeds. Some might say that it isn't meaningful enough to comment on. But, is it not? And what of the larger picture of general talent levels this rare event of an MLS team traveling outside their comfort zone gives us?

What is happening in Brazil can't help but overshadow training when your team isn't able to manage a single goal after conceding ten in just two sessions/games. Is part of the mission to get some important team building time in and learn a new system? Absolutely. But, players are competitors. None of them play at a pro level without having won a lot at some point in their life.

Because of the complexity of purpose in the preseason, this doesn't mean that what is happening down is Brazil to the Crew is necessarily bad. After all, failure is an important part of learning. It is entirely possible that when the team returns back to the MLS bubble to play in South Carolina they will be two steps ahead. Maybe even closer as a group for having made the journey. But, you see? This is the very part of what matters about preseason. Why it is important to think about how this impacts the group going into 2017.

The second part of this unusual expedition by Columbus to a foreign land is that it gives us a rare opportunity to see MLS players outside of their comfort zone. You can even lump the overall USMNT program into this. All of them are accustom to playing in friendly and familiar environments.

Much of this is extremely planned out, not for the sake of getting better but for the sake of building a positive narrative. Positive momentum. Look at your EA FIFA game or even Sega's Football Manager. The player ratings and value of MLS and USMNT players is so far inflated when you put it up against reality... it's ridiculous. Look at where players are. US born and trained players rarely transfer for over $500k and there are practically zero performing at all, let alone well, in the top five leagues in the world.

The US Soccer Federation has done such a remarkable job at creating a "product" by carefully curating when and where things happen that it has many believing a fantasy.

Did you watch the "January Camp" USMNT games this past week? Another example of "preseason" and the excuses we get along with it. Excuses flowed for below standard players and lack of energy despite having a new coach while playing in extremely friendly confines of carefully selected cities that MLS wants to squeeze over 100 million dollars from.

All of this is okay if you look at it for what it is, but that doesn't happen as often as it should. The narrative of "it's just warming up" took hold for the USMNT this past week because the play was not good. Imagine if results against a Serbian "C" team (jumping 4 time zones) and a Jamaican team, who look like they were just scrambled together, went well? Now imagine if this USMNT made up of MLS players traveled to Serbia to play or even a neutral site.

The reality of the situation is that if the US played more of a balanced international home and away schedule the marketability of the product would suffer (take a look at the US record away the last few years, or even games in Texas or southern California). We are starting to see this with the women's national team as well, although the forces at work there are different in regards to the global game.

Going back to the rare event that is the Columbus Crew making the trek down to Brazil.

Well... back up. I'll get to the Crew in a minute.

Let's go back a few years to 2014 when Fluminense FC traveled up to Orlando to play in what then was called the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic. A fun tournament and a great way to see a lot of teams all in one place in a short period of time.

U23 Fluminense FC, March 2014
The way the tournament was constructed you could watch four teams in various stages of preparation and play at any given moment. In front of you might have been a match between, say the Philadelphia Union and NY Red Bulls and behind you, in clear view, was Columbus Crew SC warming up and Toronto FC players cooling down.

That year Fluminense FC fielded a U23 team in the tournament that in reality was mostly a group made up of teenagers.

What was immediately and strikingly different was the way Fluminense handled each of these stages. Their pregame warm-ups were different. It was intense but controlled. Organized. Most of it away from the goal and in small groups, all close to a ball. Coaches close by. Across the field was Toronto FC, their next opponent. It was random. Players 50 yards apart launching passes. There was also, what appeared to be, a shooting drill from outside the box that looked not unlike one you might see before a high school basketball game. There were also players clustered around the sideline talking with coaches or players from other teams in the stands. It was very casual.

Fluminense controlled the match from the whistle. Even after scoring early they didn't change their approach to the match. When Toronto's newly signed Michael Bradley scored from a free kick 25 yards out, Fluminense just continued about things, weaving in and out of TFC defenders, and jumped back ahead not long after.

Behind the stands was a collection of Crew players arriving to get warmed up. They were doing what looked to be shuttle runs in between chatting and stretching. Players arrived intermittently but were more focused than the other MLS teams there. It was Gregg Berhalter's first preseason and no doubt that had something to do with it.

In the stands with the fans was a collection of Philadelphia Union players sitting behind Fluminense bench watching. Attention and conversation was centered around a player named Fabinho, who is from Brazil and has played for no less than ten teams as a pro and as far away as Australia before being signed by MLS. The English speaking US players were poking fun at him for thinking that the Montreal Impact were from San Jose, California. Fabinho, who is still with the Union, was sitting sort of separate from the group and seemed more interested in what Fluminense were doing.


[U23 Fluminense in white, Toronto FC in Red. March 2014]

As the game progressed there as a change to the attention of the Philly players. They were all watching more intently. Toronto was being outplayed and it wasn't even close. Anyone who watches soccer knows the familiar possession statistic can often be misleading, which it is, but it wouldn't have been here. And, if there was something that measured control of the ball it would have been 90% Fluminense. Toronto couldn't figure out how to get the ball for most of the match.

THE UNUSUAL EXPEDITION


Columbus is in the final act of a three-part play down in Brazil right now. In the first act Crew SC prepares, travels, brushes the cobwebs out and loses to São Paulo 7-0 in two games consisting of four 25 minute periods. The second act had the team playing a closed door match against Gremio Osasco last night where they were beaten 3-0. The final act is a preseason match against Ituano on Monday. It might not be a great play so far, but it may turn out to be an important one.


[Columbus Crew SC in gray. Sao Paulo in red/black. February 2017]

Win or lose, these games are valuable for Columbus if the leadership handles the experience correctly and no question it is and trip of a lifetime for many of the players. The hope is that everyone in the organization is sitting up, paying attention. Taking notes. Taking it in.

Will all this matter when the games finally matter? That's a tricky one. When do MLS games matter? Summer? Fall? Looking at it this way you can make an argument that these games are even more important than half of the domestic season and for most of the players who don't see time, this is the moment of their year.

It matters.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

MLS Ohioans

Fig. 1
Rounding out the 2016 MLS season with a dive into minutes and where players are from. A couple of items stick out. 1. US born players now play less than half the minutes, and 2. There is a strong group of Ohioans in the league right now.

In regards to the first point, MLS is starting to look more like the English Premier League. There's nothing right or wrong with who is playing as it should always be the best available player. But there are forces at work here that might be something to keep and eye on. 

The EPL has the entire globe of which to draw the best players. Players are signed based almost entirely off playing ability. Teams cannot afford to lose. Keep in mind that it is a matter of degree, as well. Teams like Arsenal and Manchester United have to remain in the top four. Anything less is a failure. Others, like Sunderland or Burnley, are trying to not get relegated.

Things are different in MLS. Teams bounce around the table all year, every year. The way rosters are constructed are influenced by a number of factors outside of where they will finish. Jersey and ticket sales are at the top of the importance list. Making a splash in the news (social, mostly) is also critical. 

Nestled in there somewhere is how competitive a team is. There is a bit of a myth out there that says MLS teams don't suffer consequences if they are bad. For the most part, that is true. No matter how bad they are, they stay in MLS. That said, bad teams do suffer in attendance (the real kind, not the "announced" kind). Bad teams like Chicago or what was Chivas USA or Colorado before the end of last season draw half full stadiums.

Ohioans, 2016 MLS regular season
With the way MLS is constructed this not only hurts the teams but the overall league. The pitifulness of Chivas USA drew the attention of the league office and eventually a sale was attempted. When no buyers emerged, the team was folded. It was a drag on the rest of the teams. The Chicago Fire are currently living the same state of affairs. Have you seen the news that the MLS Allstar game is going to be in Chicago, but not at the MLS stadium in Bridgeview that is the home of the Fire? In recent years, the annual all-star game is usually reserved for new stadiums. This year's game being played at Soldier Field has everything to do with trying to resurrect the MLS franchise there.

Now, to the second point. In the midst of all the wackiness that is how MLS rosters are constructed, the state of Ohio continues to produce a strong stable of good players. This past year was no different. 

One piece of information that is a testament to many of the qualities I've witnessed first hand in my ten years here is how teams with Ohioans perform strongly in the MLS Cup Playoffs. In Fig. 1 up there (extra time playoff games trimmed to 90 mins) you'll notice that the percentage of minutes played increases measurably in the playoffs.

It's a one year look in, but it's enough to pull out a thing or two. It's an impressive list of players. There are two players, in particular, to make mention of. Evan Bush and Nick Hagglund. Hagglund wasn't a lock in Toronto's XI during the regular season but did play five playoff games, notching a goal and two assists in a defensive role.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

MLS Mins by Age

Finally getting back to checking in on MLS player minutes and age after touching on the lack of minutes played by young players in MLS a few months ago.

MLS teams finished the year not giving many minutes to young players. Spending a few weekends watching widely available on TV leagues in England, Spain and Italy will tell you, in general, that they are playing younger players more. Beyond that, a quick look up at whoscored.com or Squawka will tell you how MLS compares to many of the other top leagues out there. Going in on MLS regular season data it should be expected. With that, I'm not (nor do I have the time) going to data mine those figures. Safe to go with observation on this one.

Dropping the info into a spreadsheet it wasn't surprising to find that young male players in MLS aren't playing much. By young, we mean under 20 years old or so. That said; there was something else. Something... unexpected.



Click around. A gap has formed in MLS. Players in their prime aren't getting minutes. Mid to late twenties. Not sure why this is happening, but it shouldn't be what MLS wants. You want those guys. As it stands right now, you have a group of older (established-ish) players going up against college kids. It's like playing your EA FIFA game on a difficulty level a notch or two below what challenges you.