This type of article isn’t novel or new. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. My favorite sports writer, Zach Lowe, has one of my favorite takes on this and I’m emulating that here.
It felt like a short off-season but an important one in MLS. The first week of 2017 is in the books and teams have had a chance to showcase some of their fancy new signings. Whether it was the Chicago Fire’s new face and new place combination in Nemanja Nikolic and Dax McCarty (pending Juninho’s debut) or Atlanta’s young South American Designated Player signings.
It was a fun weekend on the whole with some predictably uninteresting games mixed in. Some games flowed like LA vs. Dallas. Some were a tale of two halves like Chicago at Columbus. And some saw late heroics like Atlanta vs New York Red Bulls.
I enjoyed a lot of it and found a couple of things to gripe about. MLS is a really enjoyable league to me, but it’s far from perfect. Here are seven things I like and dislike.
1. San Jose Playing Well
The internet pundit world of MLS loves Tommy Thompson and his first game of 2017 showed a lot of potential. He’s bound to deliver on some of that internet love this year if he gets consistent run with the Quakes.1 San Jose was the popular pick for worst team in the league this preseason and it’s nice to see them off to a good start.
Let me be clear, one game does not a quality side make. But, it’s great for San Jose to see homegrown rookie Nick Lima play so well,2 Florian Jungwirth to play well alongside Victor Bernardez, Anibal Godoy to have such a well-rounded game, and to beat one of last season’s Eastern Conference Finalists. Even if Montreal is due for a slide.
This chip goal was fantastic – starting with Godoy putting on the turnover pressure – and I genuinely hope all teams play well despite the fact that, well … about half won’t. I enjoy surprises even if it’s only in the short-term. Don’t forget though, Houston looked alright early in 2016.
2. Some Fans
Fans will get their due below, but I have to point out the inevitable at any large sporting event. The ones that make everyone look bad. This is by no means an indictment on any particular fan base as a whole. People like this exist in all large gatherings.
Atlanta had a great stage for their first grand opening3 and it sounded fantastic. But two things mar the overall fantastic crowd for me: the beer thrown on referee Mark Geiger and the Red Bells’ Sacha Kljestan; and the puto chant.
The beer throw happens, I wish it would stop – beers are very expensive first of all – but I get that when consuming beer in large quantities, it makes a person want to do something like throw said beer at someone that displeases them.
But I’m pretty done with the puto chant generally. I applaud the organizations that have come out and openly expressed displeasure at its use – looking at you Chicago.4 Atlanta has gotten off to a good start and expressed their displeasure to its use to ESPN via a statement.5
Not everyone needs to agree with me on its’ meaning or that it’s distasteful, but it’s just time to retire the chant. Whether it’s for good reasons – it’s not funny and offends a particular group of people – or pragmatic reasons – it has no markers of a good chant – let’s all move on.
Finally, the traveling NYCFC fans seem to have gotten a bad rap according to various Twitter reports and been treated very poorly by some police and Orlando City supporters. That doesn’t excuse stealing the seat that you presumably used during the game. Just stop.
NYCFC fan tried stealing a seat wtf pic.twitter.com/aEjcyyMdzy
— gg (@Giroudaholic) March 6, 2017
3. The Crowds
Moving on to the good of the crowds this weekend; Atlanta sounded fantastic, Orlando was rocking in their new stadium, Portland was packed, and Real Salt Lake had that take it or leave it song really belting.
Look, I’m an unfeeling robot when it comes to fandom. I’ve lost most of my fandom that I had from my childhood over the last few years of writing about various sports. Without crowds like this though, even I don’t have as much fun watching and analyzing the game.
The desire and urgency of the crowd bleeds into the game and a lot of the marquee matchups had that this weekend. Listen to the crowds in Orlando and Atlanta after their opening goals.
Can’t forget about those tifos either. Halfway through viewing the Portland tifo I thought, “That looks very Bob Ross, they should just own that.” No more than 10 seconds later, the full tifo was revealed and the beauty of Bob Ross was before me. Fantastic work.
4. Some of the Sorry Looking Fields
MLS starts in early spring in a country where portions of the country still have (see: used to have) snow falling. That doesn’t fully excuse this issue for me. Real Salt Lake was covered in snow in the week leading up to the game and still had a great field.
New England wasn’t so lucky as their patchy field, in their final season in the stadium, looked rough to say the least. This extended highlight is the best showcase of it I found. Watching the game live truly did it justice from some of the higher camera angles.
Last but far from least is the brand new and beautiful Orlando City stadium. It sounded great. I’m sure the fans had a great time in the standing supporters sections. But they have to get this drainage issue fixed. You just can’t flood your field every half time.
5. Greg Garza Cutting Inside
Pep Guardiola made a novel use of his fullbacks at Bayern and his early games at Manchester City. Instead of the beloved overlap style of fullback, Guardiola pinched his backs into the center of the field normally occupied by central defensive mids. This allowed for the midfielders to roam more while giving the back four an easier reset upon a counter attack.
We don’t have that here, but we do have a much more attacking style of left back in Garza than the majority of left backs in MLS. The overlap is the de jure route of attack for a fullback in club and world soccer. I’m not criticizing it at all, I just like to see variation and MLS is getting that with Garza’s play … through one week.
Don’t get me wrong. Garza did a majority of his work on the wing overlapping and looked dangerous doing so. He also isn’t the first fullback in MLS to focus on things other than the overlap. It’s just nice to see.
6. Long Ball Dreams
Counter attacking is a legitimate – and yes, exciting – tactic in soccer. The rise of teams like Atletico Madrid on the club side and Chile on the international side have shown the high level ability of a quality counter or pressing scheme. A counter does not equal, or necessitate, a long ball.
Used sparingly, the long ball is a great tool and can have a very exciting feel. Atlanta used it very well as they launched the second most of the week with 95. Montreal, Orlando, Vancouver, and Philadelphia were all above 80 long balls this week for various reasons and none of them performed well or were aesthetically pleasing.
This doesn’t tell the whole story of course. Minnesota had the fewest long balls and fifth-most short passes of the week and didn’t look much better than the post-Larin goal Orlando side. FC Dallas was right at the bottom of a short passes per long ball stat I quickly put together, right near the bottom with Orlando and Atlanta.
There’s more to this issue and I don’t expect nor want to see every team play a short passing game. But, I don’t want to see a lot of Orlando after Larin’s goal, Chicago in the first half, or the Vancouver/Philadelphia game. Use the long ball effectively or use it less often.
7. Quick Yellows for Delays
Games should not be changed just to attempt to bring in a sect of potential fans that might not be attracted even with the change. That being said, there are two things that I’ve wanted to see leagues all over the world crack down on to improve my enjoyment of the game (an admittedly selfish viewpoint): time-wasting and post-game fines and suspensions for obvious dives (see: NBA).
PRO and MLS has started to attack the time-wasting issue. We’ll see if this is something that will fall to the wayside as the season progresses or if it will be a continued sticking point for quick yellows. I hope for the latter – though I’d prefer teams and players adjust and we stop seeing the time-wasting and unnecessary yellows generally.
I’ll leave you with the most obvious example below. The Federico Higuain yellow is the most stark as the time-wasting yellows given out to Chris Schuler, Steven Beitashour, and Erick Torres may well have been yellows in the past.
About those post-game diving fines … probably minimum salary first.