How It Happened: Week Two

I’ll be frank: either week two of the MLS season was much less exciting than week one, or I did a poor job of picking games to watch and analyze this week. My bet is that both are true. Anyway, onto the show in which I take a look at three games from the weekend and pick a stat or Opta chalkboard image for each team that tells the story of how they played (last week’s version is here if you missed it):

Sporting Kansas City 1 – 1 FC Dallas

Stat that told the story for Dallas: outpassed 418-213, including 103-41 in the game’s first half hour

A thought occurred to me when watching this game: Sporting Kansas City has to look a lot like a prototype of what Oscar Pareja wants out of his teams. From the formation to the high-pressing, KC has long made their money by manhandling opponents as soon as they get on the ball and not letting them get comfortable. In this game, Sporting came out fired up at home and simply punched Dallas in the mouth (not even completely a figure of speech – this game was brutally physical). The high-pressing from KC’s entire team had FCD out of sorts for most of the first half, particularly the first 30 minutes, when they mustered only 41 completed passes.

But the Hoops managed a road draw against the defending champs, so the game wasn’t completely a story of getting worked over. As the game wore on and Sporting found it difficult to keep up the constant pressure, Dallas was able to grow into the game a bit. They certainly were never dominant, but another very good game from Mauro Diaz and some smart counter-attacks allowed Pareja’s team to stem the tide for the majority of the game. In the end, it was fitting that the slugfest of a game saw just two goals, both from set pieces, but Dallas should feel good about how they played as the game progressed and were able to steal a point.

Stat that told the story for Kansas City: lack of production from forward line: 15 offensive actions in attacking third

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Sporting KC won MLS Cup last year and has unquestionably been one of the league’s best teams for the last few seasons. But few would argue that this success is built on a very strong defense and midfield. The forward line has often been sort of an Achilles’ heel for this squad, especially now that Kei Kamara has moved on. In this game, Graham Zusi was held out so he could stay fresh for CONCACAF Champions League action, and DP forward Claudio Bieler only came on for the last 13 minutes. But the five players who saw time at a forward spot for KC (Bieler, Dom Dwyer, Sal Zizzo, CJ Sapong and Jacob Peterson) combined to register 15 offensive actions in the attacking third. 

To be clear, that ‘offensive actions’ stat that’s illustrated above might have been made up by me just now, but it encompasses successful passes, dribbles, and all shot attempts. Too often on Saturday, and really for the last few years, Kansas City has dominated the game until the last thirty yards of the field, where they lack ideas. Getting Zusi back will likely help, as would playing Claudio Bieler for a full 90 minutes, but Sporting will need some more creativity and production from their forwards if they hope to lift another trophy this season.

Chivas USA 1 – 1 Vancouver Whitecaps

Stat that told the story for Vancouver: only 53 passes in the offensive third (23 of which were after Kekuta Manneh came on in the 60th minute)

I tuned in for the Chivas-Vancouver matchup excited to see an offensive battle between two sides that combined for 7 goals in week one. Instead, I saw an early red card to the Goats’ Agustin Pelletieri followed by a lot of dull possession for Vancouver against a surprisingly organized team in red and white stripes. After looking so deadly in attack against New York, the Whitecaps looked completely lost for ideas on Sunday, with the only forays into the offensive third seeming to come from chips over the top from the superb Pedro Morales. That all changed when Kekuta Manneh came on, as he attacked the Chivas defense with and without the ball, causing fits for Eric Avila and eventually scoring the equalizer for the ‘Caps. Still, after playing 87 minutes against 10 men, Vancouver has to be rightfully disappointed at only earning a point.

Stat that told the story for Chivas: Mauro Rosales turning back the clock: 151 actions

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The Seattle Sounders traded Mauro Rosales to Chivas this offseason because he was too expensive and too old to fit into the club’s plans for 2014. Nobody even really argued with the decision, though Rosales is undeniably a classy player and won the league’s Newcomer of the Year award in 2011. So far in 2014, playing in the red and white of the Goat Zombies, Rosales has looked a lot like the 2011 playmaker that Sounders fans knew and loved. Playing down a man, Rosales was everything you could hope from a smart, skilled veteran; he hoofed it up field when in trouble so his team could get organized, he led smart counter-attacks and he kept the ball when possible (with the help of Erick Torres, who also played very well). All in all, he registered 151 actions in Opta’s chalkboard, 12 more than any other player and a whopping 47 more than his nearest teammate. Not bad for a washed-up 33-year-old.

Houston Dynamo 1 – 0 Montreal Impact

Stat that told the story for Montreal: Marco Di Vaio‘s non-existant heat map

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I’ve watched about 120 minutes of Montreal Impact soccer in the season’s first two weeks, and just about every one of those minutes has been more impressive than I expected from the Impact this season. Despite having zero points from their first two games (both on the road), they’ve actually looked pretty good on the field. Justin Mapp is doing Justin Mapp things (like this awesome run & assist from week 1), Hernan Bernardello and Patrice Bernier are pinging beautiful balls to open up space, and Felipe and Andrew Wenger are getting in pretty good goal-scoring spots. So what’s the reason behind the zero points? Well, not putting chances away against the Dynamo killed Montreal. ASA’s shot numbers had their xGF at 1.15 this week, but there were plenty of other times that they wasted dangerous opportunities (one particular Wenger near-breakaway early in the first half stands out). If All-Star Italian striker Marco Di Vaio wasn’t suspended, I have a hard time believing the Impact gets shutout last week.

Stat that told the story for Houston: 8 fouls conceded in the defensive third

This was another game where what I ended up watching did not line up with the expectations I had going in. After an open, attack-filled opening game with New England, Houston came out and didn’t really do much offensively against Montreal. It was actually sort of a gameplan of old-school Dom Kinnear, as the Dynamo got an early goal thanks to a deflected Will Bruin shot, and then packed it in and made themselves hard to beat. They sat in two organized banks of four so that only the perfect ball from Montreal would be enough to beat them, and when it looked like they might get beaten, they did the professional thing and took a foul. Eight of Houston’s 14 fouls conceded were in their defensive third, and while I can’t offer much perspective on whether that’s a high proportion compared to league average, I can tell you that many of them occurred when Montreal players were breaking away and getting ready to provide a scoring chance.

Agree with my assessments? Think I’m an idiot? I always enjoy feedback. @MLSAtheist or MLSAtheist@gmail.com

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Season Preview: Montreal Impact

The newest franchise in Major League Soccer, the Montreal Impact, has carved out its niche pretty distinctly since inception in 2012. With strong ties to Serie A through multiple Italian players, Montreal has seen decent success for such a new franchise. They just missed the playoffs in their expansion year, and sneaked in as the five seed last year. But with the success has come another reputation: they already seem rather fond of changing coaches. Entering their third season of play, Montreal’s owner Joey Saputo is already onto his third manager, with Frank Klopas taking the wheel in 2014.

2013 Finish: 49 Points, 5th in Eastern Conference, Qualified for MLS Cup playoff, lost in conference play-in round.

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Name Position Acquired from: Player Lost Position To
Eric Miller D SuperDraft (Creighton) Alessandro Nesta D Retired
Santiago Gonzalez F Free (Sud America) Paolo DelPiccolo M Option Declined
Maximiliano Rodriguez M Option Declined
Sinisa Ubiparipovic M Option Declined
Davy Arnaud M DC United
Zarek Valentin M Transfer to Bodø/Glimt

Roster Churn: 82.98% returning minutes (4th highest in MLS)

roster-Montreal2013 started out about as perfect as any Impact fan could have hoped. But the team then coughed, sputtered, and wheezed its way into the wildcard round of the postseason, where thMTLINFOe coughing and wheezing turned to seizing, and Montreal’s campaign met an early demise. Marco Schallibaum’s tenure started with a bang, as Montreal won each of its first four games by one tally each, all of them by a scoreline of 1-0 or 2-1. Those close, low-scoring victories figured to set the tone for the season—Montreal was a stout defensive team who would get bodies behind the ball and look to finish swift counter-attacks through Marco Di Vaio. This formula helped them to win the Canadian Championship for a second year running, qualifying them for next season’s CONCACAF Champions League. Unfortunately, their tactical secret wasn’t particularly well-kept throughout the league, as opposing teams figured out how to counter the Impact’s strategy after about the first third of the season. The regular season’s final 20 games saw only five Montreal victories, as they earned just a point per game during that span while simultaneously crashing out of last year’s CCL.

Still, their hot start was enough to squeeze into the Eastern Conference knockout round, as they slipped into the five seed thanks to a superior goal difference to Chicago. But the luck would run out for Schallibaum and the French-Canadian club in a hurry, as they were beaten and outclassed by the Houston Dynamo in the do-or-die playoff, 3-0. The game was as damaging to Montreal’s reputation, too, as Nelson Rivas, Andres Romero and Di Vaio were all ejected for various infractions. The last moments of the match devolved into more of a cat-fight than a soccer match, with the men in blue performing the side of jealous aggressors. In the end, not only was the season over but so too was Schallibaum’s tenure in Montreal; he was fired a few weeks later.

I’ll be frank: it’s hard to imagine that this year’s Montreal Impact is much improved over last year’s iteration. And with seemingly every other team in the Eastern Conference signing big name Designated Players, it would follow that Montreal’s stagnation would see them drop a few rungs in the standings this season. Don’t take my word for it – just ask central defender Matteo Ferrari. Here’s a clue for the future expansion sides in MLS: it’s never a good sign when your club has to release a statement clarifying that one of your top players is in fact on the same page as your technical director.

With that bit of harshness out of the way, Montreal does still have some pretty good players. Troy Perkins is still a quality MLS goalkeeper, the aforementioned Ferrari is a good back line anchor along with Hassoun Camara, and Di Vaio is arguably the best pure goal scorer in MLS. They also return the very good Justin Mapp, Patrice Bernier and Hernan Bernardello in midfield. But there remain holes for this club, largest of them being how they might set up tactically.

As outlined above, Montreal’s plan A, B and C last year was to get behind the ball, make it hard for opposition to score and then counter through Di Vaio and squeak out low-scoring victories. But other teams figured that out, and the Impact’s effectiveness waned as the season continued. With a new coach on board in Frank Klopas (formerly of the Chicago Fire), it’s likely that the side’s tactics will undergo an overhaul. What type of overhaul remains to be seen: Klopas’ teams in Chicago were, for lack of a better word, bleh.

They weren’t a particularly high pressing team or an all-out possession attack, nor did they sit deep and only look to attack on the counter. They did a little of each of these things, but often did none of them well enough to be a real contender. I suppose from a Montreal fan’s standpoint, it might be better to have a team that can give multiple looks than the one-dimensional side last year, but I’m still not sure Klopas is the one to bring the club to the top.

Turning to the players, there are some holes to be filled from last year. All-world defender Alessandro Nesta retired, leaving a combination of Nelson Rivas and Adrian Lopez to fill his shoes. Despite Nesta’s pedigree, he had lost a step or eight at his age, so replacing him shouldn’t be too huge of a concern – if those other guys can stay healthy. Also departed from last season was versatile midfielder, Davy Arnaud, whose leadership will be missed. Felipe Martins and Andres Romero both return and should hope to build on seasons in which they showed flashes of quality, if not consistency, in MLS.

When it comes to conclusions though, it’s hard to be optimistic about Montreal’s season. They added basically no one of impact (no pun intended), and all of their best players are a year older, and in most of their cases, a year further past their prime. Not to mention that our expected goal differential statistic suggests they were one of the worst teams in all of MLS last season. Frank Klopas may find more success in Montreal than he did in Chicago, but I think it’s safe to say he’s not expected to be a coach of the year candidate. Unless the Impact have more moves up their sleeve, or some of the unproven youngsters become stars this season, I can’t see Montreal winning a playoff berth.

Crowd Sourcing Placement: 9th place in Eastern Conference; 65 of the 404 9th-place votes (16.09%).

*ExpGD is the same as our statistic xGD under the shoot table.