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The MLS Grinder: In the beginning

Written by Will Parchman

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Note: In 2011, I began a series at NoShortCorners.com titled the ‘MLS Grinder,’ which I published there weekly for two years. Beginning this weekend, that series is coming to TopDrawerSoccer.com. We’ll explore all the salient bits from the previous weekend. Sometimes it’s absurdist. Sometimes it’s informative. Most of the time (hopefully) it’s both.

In a lot of ways, it’s been a tempestuous, uncomfortably breakneck offseason for MLS. Speaking personally, I can hardly be sad to see it die.

The league’s draconian rules system was dragged into the burning halogen spotlight again with ubiquitous talk of special discovery players and allocations and transparency and the guts of the unknown and misunderstood machinery propelling the league. The specter of a new CBA swings like a glimmering guillotine over the 2014 season, the television situation continues to be in flux and the league’s refereeing organization has already decided to bar the doors, however temporarily.

The players have not been immune. The Deadspin Column Heard ‘Round the Twitterverse (and subsequent rebuttal from former MLSer Bobby Warshaw) only underscored the continual, swirling din that follows the almost slavish dedication to charting the nearly minute-by-minute progression of the talent level in MLS. Is it better? How much better? What about Europe, that catch-all basket for exclamatory phrases on what’s Right and Good and Holy with soccer? Are we ‘there yet?’ Will we ever get ‘there?’ Where is ‘there?’ More importantly, where are my ‘pants?’

Were I an MLS player, I doubt my thoughts would be as genial and well-metered as Warshaw’s.

The gaze, though, has largely been leveled at the system and the players that populate it. This is no real thunderbolt-from-Valhalla surprise. Players are ultimately the ones yoked with the league’s future, stretched onto billboards, whose jerseys are pulled over real human bodies and paraded in bars and homes and airplanes and awkward Casual Fridays. They score the goals, stop the shots and headbutt the faces.

But lost in the morass of another bullet-riddled offseason is the general well-being of the MLS coaching lifeline. And the closer you look, the more pixelated the picture.

You can think of the coaching profession in the same way you view an atom. In an atomic subsystem, electrons (players) orbit around a nucleus (the league as an entity) to create the atomic particle model you see plastered on walls in high school science labs. But there is an unseen force acting upon the electrons during their sojourn around the center of their mass. This is called an electrostatic force of attraction.

In broader, non-scientific terms, this invisible acting force (which, appropriately, you need a confusing equation to find) is the MLS coach. And despite the growing vitality of his electrons, his rotational push is not getting much stronger.

There are several ways to dissect this information, and it’s not entirely negative. As we know with Caleb Porter, who will be our positive interlocutor for this entire article, lack of experience is not an immediate iron bar to the kneecap of a successful coach. In fact, some leagues are overly dependent on professional experience regardless of the fruit it’s produced in a given individual. This is the work experience-over-life experience model, and as a rule it can be unreliable.

What the inexperience should mean, theoretically, is that younger coaches unburdened by experience and raised by possession (which is admittedly not all, of course) are more apt to try ever newer and more aesthetically pleasing things. More often, what it means is that without the weight of experience behind their decisions (and without the silkiest of players to execute them), the tactics change from a scalpel to a hammer. What does a ‘Mark Watson team’ look like? Or a ‘Mike Petke team?’ The distinguishing marks exist, but in the same way a feint, weather-beaten watermark on a painting blinks out its meager existence in the corner of the pane. It’s pretty tough to see.

For every Caleb Porter and Oscar Pareja, there are half a dozen (at least) first-time coaches hired with the exact opposite effect. Talk all you want about luring away the best players for MLS. But the level of the MLS player is beginning to outstrip the level of the MLS coach, and the gap is becoming more pronounced every time a Jay Heaps or a Frank Yallop or a Ben Olsen finds another top-flight head coaching job.

The vast majority of youth and elite club coaches in this country will tell you the player pool isn’t the problem anymore. One source recently told me that after experiencing both the Premier League youth system and coaching at the highest levels of the USSF Development Academy, the two aren’t as different at the foundational U14-U16 levels as popular perception seems to dictate. What is different is the consistent level of coaching, which begins separating the wheat from the chaff once players reach U18 and beyond. Most notably problematic here, at least historically, is finding training regimens that allow young players to be whimsical while still being tactically sound enough to play from the back. And you expect a Frank Yallop team to be anything but the physical embodiment of a studs-up challenge and a 60-yard long ball?

Every season offers a new chance, but ultimately it’s one few take. As Week 1 in MLS kicked off (and it was indeed as glorious and enjoyable as we’d imagined), it was Jay Heaps’ turn to have us wonder about this all over again.

Heaps’ Revs, of course, received the season’s first unholy mauling in a 4-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo. The scoreline wasn’t nearly indicative of the talent gap between the two teams, which is existent but negligible. The real difference was coaching acumen. Dom Kinnear is no Jurgen Klopp, but his sensible organizational capacity kept his back line in shape, his midfield from overextension and his front line in its trench in front of goal. Heaps’ tactical readout looked a bit like a rest stop dinner mat colored in (poorly) with a broken Crayon.

The absence of Leo Nguyen clearly hurt, as did that of Andrew Farrell, but was Caldwell up to his role as a lone holding midfield against a team that stampeded Boniek and Rico Clark down the middle? The Revs’ hottest action area with possession was in front of their own area, and, well, calling it hot is a bit of a misnomer.

heat

Despite having 47 percent of possession – which is obviously a losing metric but hardly dominantly so – the Revs somehow managed to complete a palsied 208 passes and attempted just 267. You look at this talented, technically able young midfield and you just hope Heaps knows what to do with it.

This is not to say that coaching in MLS is dead, or even necessarily dying. But it needs a standard by which to judge itself, and while Kinnear and Arena provide that from a success standpoint, men like Pareja and Porter are perhaps more in line with how that should look going forward. You see this in Bradley-to-Klinsmann, which I think did more to influence MLS than immediately met the eye. By setting a bar, old models fall away like scales from the eyes.

Welcome to MLS 2014. Another link in the league’s evolutionary chain. The Grinder is ready.

Thomas McNamara’s mullet won Chivas USA a game
You may or may not have been familiar with Chivas USA’s newest rookie Thomas McNamara before Sunday. If you weren’t, don’t blame yourself. The former Clemson man has a mullet and looks like he just rocketed back a six-pack before tottering onto the field. He’s a good player, but top professional prospect he is not. Plus, he went to Chivas USA, immediately discrediting him like Rick Reilly joining ESPN.

But now you know. McNamara scored the second in Chivas USA’s eventual 3-2 win over the Chicago Fire on Sunday, which you can see here. It was essentially an anticipation goal that required most of the heavy lifting before pulling the trigger. But what you need to see, and why you need to watch McNamara going forward, is here.

mcnm

That’s McNamara in the middle with his arms fully outstretched, accosting Dilly Duka like he stole his cache of oatmeal creme pies. The first time I saw this exchange, I cackled into the wind like Julia Roberts unhinging her dinosaur jaw for that infamous, unholy laugh in Pretty Woman. Everything about McNamara is so brashly but genuinely “What the hell ever” that he should immediately become one of the most hilariously enjoyable players to watch in MLS. Imagine Steven Lenhart but without the kickably annoying face and hair and dirty tricks. We love McNamara. You should too.

Also, this, of course.

RSL is still apparently RSL, Kreis or not
Jason Kreis didn’t coach a game for RSL, and the earth didn’t open into a yawning chasm and swallow all of Utah. Hm. Learn something every day.

We’re used to RSL winning in all environments, sometimes paradoxically so. In that vein, RSL’s 1-0 win over the Galaxy on Saturday night – which, apologies to Seattle, was probably the result of the weekend – was another tick on the chart.

But, statistically, RSL’s win was an anomaly, and it provided further fodder for those of us who thought Nick Rimando was robbed of MLS’s best keeper award in 2013. Rimando stood on his head to make eight saves, including an incredible point-blank save on Landon Donovan that wins The Grinder’s prestigious (and completely fabricated) Moment of the Weekend Award. (The movement leading to the save begins around 3:35).

If you look at the comparative heat map, there’s this cone of silence around Saborio and Plata. Creatively, this game was all LA. In execution, it was entirely RSL’s night. A fitting microcosm, I suppose.

cone

The Whitecaps are going to be fun in 2014
Given the way Vancouver’s offseason started, you could’ve been excused from assuming they’d crash into a ravine in 2014. That, obviously, won’t happen now. A 4-1 debut win over NYRB that looked every bit as good as the scoreline.

Sebastian Fernandez, take a bow. You can see a couple of his sweeter highlights in the opening stages of the following video. Those two passes, for me, overshadow his goal.

This is Fernandez’s passing matrix.

fernans

Of his 30 passes, he completed 25, and a mere two of those were longballs. When you watched the interchange in the midfield between Fernandez and Reo-Coker (tekkers!) and Morales, you kind of salivate at the potential here. With respect to Seattle, which Chad Barretted its way through a Chad Barretty game, Vancouver-Portland appears to be the Cascadia Cup game of record this season.

Speaking of.

Chad Barrett scored a game-winning goal by simply being Chad Barrett
Let’s say you came up to me before the Seattle-SKC game kicked off the season, and you told me Chad Barrett would score the winner in the dying moments. After slapping you and shouting you down for hours in an effort to help you regain your senses, I would’ve assented only if you had him scoring the derpiest of derp goals.

Welp. Read ’em and weep, America. Chad Barrett is here. Welcome to 2014, the year in which we admit to knowing nothing at all.

 

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