On MLS, the Statement Game Trope, and Whaling

Where an otherwise reasonable person attempts to apply silly and sometimes gimmicky narratives to a group of six to nine mostly unconnected soccer games.

Eight teams won last weekend, and all but one of them were either down on their luck or had something significant to prove. “But Ian, that’s stupid, you always have something to prove unless you win Supporters’ Shield and then MLS Cup and then CONCACAF and then Club World Cup and then the actual World Cup.” That’s kind of true. But would it have meant much had Real Salt Lake taken 3 points in San Jose, a place where LA, DC, Dallas, New England, and Chivas have all won?

Likewise, what if Dallas and Columbus had won in Chicago and Montreal, respectively? The league looks at the score, nods their head, and goes about their business. That’s not to say this weekend’s results were particularly shocking, just that a bunch of teams proved stuff.

The theme of this weekend could have been statement games. But if the whole “statement games” thing sounds a little vague, almost like I could apply it to ten or twelve weeks of the MLS season, it probably is. So let’s make it a little more interesting.

I’m 500 pages into Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s a book about a guy who wants to kill the whale that ate his leg. But it’s really a book about (spoiler alert) everyone slowly going insane on a whaling vessel. About a hundred pages ago, the 2nd mate, whose name is Stubb, demanded that the ship’s chef preach to the sharks nibbling on a Sperm Whale they caught. Stubb then admonished the chef for swearing while delivering a sermon. After about a few minutes, Stubb and the chef agreed that preaching to sharks was probably a pointless task.

Every MLS team is chasing some sort of whale. Every team that won got a little closer. I won’t equate each situation with a whale because a) I’d have to explain it and b) to explain it, I would have to re-read the fifty pages Melville wrote about the whales you can find at sea. I would prefer not to do that.

I will, however, analogize how likely a team is to complete their objective to how adept a given Moby Dick character is at killing whales. I’ll call it a threat level to demonstrate how threatened those particular whales should be. If you’d like to catch up on your Melville, Clickhole has you covered.

Montreal Impact

Whale they’re chasing: Relegation Line

Whoops, my bad.

Whale they’re actually chasing: The playoffs?

Threat level: The chef.

The chef is a 90-year-old man from New Orleans. Also, according to Stubb, he’s not particularly good at making whale steak.

So yeah, the playoffs are a stretch at this point. If the Impact win their final nine games, they’ll be sitting on 47 points. Last year, Chicago missed out of the weaker conference’s playoffs with 49 points. That said, if you multiply 5th place (by points-per-game) Columbus’s PPG by 34, you get about 43.

Okay to stop this crazy train of thought, here’s their remaining schedule: @Houston, vs LA, @New England, vs San Jose, @Columbus, @Chicago, vs New England, @Toronto, vs DC United. They need to win eight of those for a realistic shot. 4-4-1 from that stretch is optimistic, nine points sounds about right. This doesn’t include their impending CCL home-and-away with New York, by the way. So no, they’re not chasing the playoffs, not really.

They are chasing respectability, though. It’s not often that a midseason DP makes an immediate impact, but Ignacio Piatti is. It’s a good thing about the whole CCL thing because otherwise I’d be disappointed about not seeing him in a major competition this year.

Obviously, that CCL thing isn’t unimportant. It won’t get quite the same press, but to some extent, the New York series is more important than the upcoming USOC Final. A big reason (to some MLS fans) US Open Cup is exciting is it provides a path to CONCACAF. But Montreal’s already in CONCACAF. They’re playing to make the quarterfinals, where anything can happen. Who knows, maybe they’ll be the first MLS side to win it all since 2001.

Chicago Fire

Whale they’re chasing: A playoff spot

Threat level: Ishmael

Ishmael is the main character but he’s a hopeless whaler. He dozes off when he’s entrusted to be a lookout, spotting not even a single porpoise. He almost drowns when he’s sent with the boats after a Sperm Whale. And he almost lets his good friend and chief harpooner Queequeg slip while the latter was slicing up the Sperm Whale hanging off-bow.

The Fire, this weekend notwithstanding, have been aggressively mediocre. I’ve been saying for half the season that they look like a team built to win MLS Cup 2009. Lovel Palmer, Patrick Ianni, Sanna Nyassi, and Logan Pause have all seen better days. So let’s be careful not to cast expectations on the Fire when one weird and surprising result defies a season-long trend of mediocrity.

Weird and surprising results happen all the time in MLS. On August 3 of last year, DC United beat a playoff-bound Montreal 3-1 at home. The next day, Toronto went to Foxborough and beat a young and promising Revs team. Later that month, Chivas surprised the eventual Supporters’ Shield winners 3-2.

However, they sit just 4 back of 5th place Columbus with a game in hand. They play four of the teams they’re directly competing with over the next five weeks, and they’re probably back in the conversation if they earn 7 to 9 points over that stretch. Not to mention, I’m about to give Houston a decent shot at making a run, even though they sit a point behind Chicago and sport a much worse goal differential.

So who knows? Chicago fans are borderline suicidal right now, which wasn’t helped by losing the Jermaine Jones lottery, but this is a team that hasn’t lost a lot of games. They’re stubborn at home, only losing 3-2 thrillers to Real Salt Lake and Seattle in Brodgeview, and Mike Magee’s been absent of late. If they can bring him back relatively quickly and pair him with a Quincy Amarikwa who suddenly looks like he’s starting to figure this whole MLS thing out, this aggressively average team could turn aggressively slightly above average. Which might be enough to nab one of the three available playoff spots.

Houston Dynamo

Whale they’re chasing: The Playoffs

Threat Level: Stubb and Tashtego

Stubb and Tashtego are ruthless

I loved watching Houston embarrass SKC in Kansas City because it offered my DC the opportunity to go four points clear in the East. But I hated watching Houston embarrass SKC in Kansas City for the same reason everyone else did: No one wants to see Houston in the playoffs. Eastern fans don’t like Houston because Houston will eliminate a favorite or two in a shitty playoff series. Western fans don’t like Houston because they don’t want to watch a shitty playoff series.

It was so much fun to cross you off the playoff contenders’ list, Houston. And it was so easy and defensible when you were sitting at 5-11-3 with a -18 goal differential!

But if I’m going to interpret DC United winning by 3 in Kansas City as “We’re hosting MLS Cup this year” like I did last week, I can’t well shrug off a 2-goal away win against an SKC team that had a week to get pissed off. I also can’t in good conscience write off a team sheet that includes DaMarcus Beasley, Brad Davis, Will Bruin, Oscar Boniek-Garcia, Tally Hall, Ricardo Clark, and Kofi Sarkodie.

Houston’s next four games are at home to Montreal and Columbus, away to Philadelphia right after Philly plays for the USOC, and at home to Chicago. They could win all four of those games. Just to be a prick, they probably will.

New England Revolution

What they’re chasing: The playoffs

Threat level: Midnight

We’ll take a break from Melville to honor the obvious pun I set up.

I can’t remember a team that’s lost more games than they’ve won and yet look so complete. I’m not one for hyperbole but midfield destroyer/creator/long-distance threat in Jermaine Jones might have been the final piece in an MLS Cup champion.

The Jermaine Jones signing cements this team atop my “I Never Ever Want DC United to Play This Team, Especially Not in the Playoffs” power rankings. All of these difference-makers will be available against Kansas City on Wednesday: Kelyn Rowe, Scott Caldwell, Lee Nguyen, Diego Fagundez, Teal Bunbury, Charlie Davies, Jermaine Jones, Jose Goncalves, Andrew Farrell, Patty Mullins, Daigo Kobayashi. And I’m probably underrating Chris Tierney, Darrius Barnes, and Kevin Alston. Suddenly, the 2-seed is within reach. Win on Wednesday and the Revs are just six back with a game in hand.

Playing New England in the playoffs means playing all those guys on Gillette Stadium’s awful turf, probably losing, and then turning around three or four days later for the second leg. There are a lot of definitions of fun, but that isn’t one of them.

Also, it’s not often that you dominate one game so badly that everyone gets fired.

Fun fact: The Revs’ seven-game losing streak, longest in MLS this year, was preceded directly by their MLS-best five-game winning streak. Our league is funny sometimes.

A word on their vanquished foes: Ishmael noted an inefficiency several chapters ago with which whalers conduct their chases. The crew of the Pequod, in common fashion, heads out in four boats, commanded by the captain and his three mates. Each boat’s crew is urged on by her captain or mate, and contains a skilled harpooner at the stern.

As the moment to strike the whale approaches, the mate and harpooner switch places. The inefficiency is this: The harpooner is the lead rower for much of the journey, exhausting him for the attempt on the whale, known as the Dart. As such, the Dart is successful just 5 to 10 percent of the time.

While the harpooner is often also the strongest rower, Ishmael believes that exhausting the harpooner is not worth the slight edge in speed, and he’s probably right. It seems a waste of Queequeg’s, Tashtego’s, and Daggoo’s talent.

Likewise were bungled tactics wasting Michael Bradley’s, Gilberto’s, and Jermain Defoe’s talent. Toronto should have been competing with DC United this year. Indeed, ten days ago, Toronto was but five points back with a game in hand. Since then, Toronto has played two home games against Chicago and New England while DC has traveled to Kansas City and Los Angeles before returning home to play New York.

The Black-and-Red earned six points. So too should have the Reds. Yet today, TFC sits 13 points back of the conference lead, albeit with another game in hand.

Because I’m curious, let’s take a look at all the Eastern playoff contenders’ remaining schedules, omitting DC and SKC (who’ll obviously make the playoffs) and Montreal (who won’t). For fun, I’ve compiled a table listing my most optimistic and pessimistic outcomes for each team, averaging them out to my personal projected standings:

 

Team (Current Pts) Optimistic Final Total Pessimistic Final Total Average Final Total
New England (33) 55 points 41 48
Toronto (33) 56 41 48.5
Columbus (33) 55 40 47.5
New York (31) 50 33 41.5
Philadelphia (30) 53 36 44.5
Chicago (29) 45 31 38
Houston (28) 53 38 45.5

 

Ian’s Projected standings among these seven:

1. Toronto

2. New England

3. Columbus

4. Houston

5. Philadelphia

6. New York

7. Chicago

A midseason coach firing could go either way for Toronto. Sometimes it’s a kick in the pants to a team that knows deep down they haven’t been performing to the best of their ability. Sometimes it’s a death knell to an already reeling team.

Seattle Sounders

Whale they’re chasing: 1998 DC United and 2011 LA Galaxy

Threat level: Ahab

1998 DC United and 2011 LA share Greatest Team in MLS History honors. I could (and probably will) spill thousands of words on why that’s the case, but the point is that this Seattle team has the opportunity to meet or even eclipse them. A League Double would enter them into the conversation, a Treble would win it.

Before the World Cup break, I told Pete that this was in play. I still believe it. MLS is more talented than it’s ever been, and between RSL, LA, Dallas, Portland, Kansas City, and DC, there are a lot of teams with sufficient talent to trip them up. That toughens the prospect of achieving such heights, but of course further strengthens their bid if they do.

The first task is straightforward: Beat Philly for the US Open Cup. The Union are by no means a walkover, and winning in front of those doopy fans will be hard. And again, it’s possible to earn the distinction without the Open Cup, but no MLS team has ever won a treble (1997 DC came closest, winning the Shield and MLS Cut but losing the USOC Final to Dallas).

The second two will likely come down to four games against LA. To wit, here’s Seattle’s and LA’s projected outlook through 32 games, again done in the Ian way:

 

Team (Points) Optimistic Week 32 Total Pessimistic Week 32 Total Average Week 32 Total
Seattle 69 58 63.5
LA Galaxy 67 56 61.5

 

There’s a fine chance both sides earn equal points from their next seven matches, leaving Seattle exactly where they are now: two points ahead of the Galaxy. In that situation, LA dashes Seattle’s dream with a win and a draw.

The question can be begged: Are the players of Seattle really thinking about these kinds of comparisons as they go about their preparations for Chivas USA this week? Probably not. Tis merely a fan dalliance.

But oh what a dalliance! They call soccer the beautiful game, part of its beauty lies in the ability to historically contextualize. Multiple trophies allow more convenient indicators of total dominance. I grant the potential fluky nature of a team winning both Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. But to retort, I offer this complete list of all those who have such accomplished: 1997 DC United, 1999 DC United, 2008 Columbus Crew, 2011 LA Galaxy.

Among that list are the three greatest groups that our fair domestic league has seen. Why be one champion among any when you have the potential to complete the Mt. Rushmore of pre-NYCFC MLS?

The Ahab analogy may unease some Sounders fans, but be mindful that I have yet to reach the part where he ruins everything. Were I a Sounders fan, I would obsess over my team’s opportunity to make history only slightly less than Ahab obsesses over whale migration patterns and jet stream charts.

Portland Timbers

Whale they’re chasing: The playoffs

Threat level: Starbuck and Queequeg

Queequeg is clearly the most talented of the harpooners, but Starbuck has yet to lead a successful whale capture. His most recent attempt was on an old Sperm Whale, whose age and stumpy starboard fin distanced it well behind the wake of his eight fellow Leviathans (yeah, it’s time to break out that word). The chase was actually led by a German captain, whose ship had fallen on hard times and indeed had run out of the oil they sought. Before the whale chase, the captain’s ship was labeled a virgin by the crew of the Pequod, owing to its not having captured a whale.

The inept German captain was on his way back to his ship, gift of spare whale oil from the Pequod in hand, when he noticed the faltering old thing. His start was significant. The pace of his men’s oars was not. The Pequod’s three boats gained swiftly, and as the German captain prepared a long-distance Dart, Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo stood up from behind the German and thrust their harpoons into the old whale.

The German’s opportunism was punished. But triumph soon turned to pity. Ishmael lamented the bleeding whale, as it sunk below, attempting to force the Pequod’s boats to cut their pursuit. But the pressure was too much; the old whale could not escape. Eventually he was forced to resurface, prompting Flask to command Daggoo to stick in the final dagger, eviscerating the noble creature. Starbuck protested but it was too late.

The horrific and unnerving capture was ultimately for naught, as the old Sperm Whale sank well before a barrel of oil could be extracted. Victory was had, but it was gruesome and pointless.

Portland fans are fatalistic enough to find that story relatable in some way. Perhaps in the sense that they’re fighting, and winning, the battle for the final Western playoff spot. Colorado’s lost six in a row. Vancouver has been listless going on three weeks.

But what does that playoff spot really win them? A date in Salt Lake or Dallas three days after regular season’s end? Or perhaps even worse, a reverse of last year’s Portland-Seattle playoff series.

DC United

Whale they’re chasing: Top seed in the East and another CCL berth

Threat Level: Flask and Daggoo

So far, 3rd mate Flask and his harpooner have been involved in killing two whales, a Right Whale and a Sperm Whale, but none on their own. Still, that’s good enough to land them the 2nd highest per100 (pages) efficiency rating. We’ll see if I still like this metric as the inevitable confrontation with The White Whale looms.

It’s nice to beat your rival and go 4 clear at the top of the East. Other than that, I have little to say on the weekend’s triumph over New York. I was, however, disappointed in the reaction to the midweek loss in LA. More than just Reddit commenters claimed, “Oh dear, this is what happens when the top Eastern team meets a top Western team?” It really bothered me that Kansas City could get a pass for having played in Central America four days earlier but DC couldn’t get a pass for having played (and won by three!) in Kansas City four days earlier. But no more of this.

No offense, New York fans, but it occurs to me that our rivalry may be more historically one-sided than I’d thought. I watched the match with a New York fan and at some point I asked him, “Who are your top 5 DC villains?” As if he’d been considering the notion his whole life, he rattled off Jaime Moreno, Ben Olsen (literally the devil apparently), Alecko Eskandarian, Marco Etcheverry, and Dema Kovalenko.

When asked the return question, though, I had to think before sheepishly replying, “Juan Pablo Angel? Tab Ramos? Clint Mathis? Gosh, I really don’t have many bad New York memories.”

Beating New York is always a little more fun than beating most anyone else, and that playoff series two years ago was awesome. But my blood truly boils for LA.

Cobi Jones was castigated on Twitter this week for suggesting DC v LA was the best historical rivalry in MLS. I understand why, both fanbases have closer geographical nemeses that also go back to the earliest days.

Who are we to argue with Cobi Jones though? He played all throughout the time when those rivalries were forming! He probably fucking hated losing to DC twice in two MLS Cups, and it’s a damn shame we didn’t get a 3rd in 1998. I have vague sporting recollections of 1996 and 1997 (DC’s MLS Cups are among those recollections) but the first season I remember intensely following was my 8-year-old season of 1998. All year, it was us vs them. It’s refreshing to know that was the case for some of the players at the time too.

Unfortunately, Chicago ruined everything and MLS was robbed of its own Celtics-Lakers. That’s a subject for another day, but that’s probably why everything about that LA midweek thing bothers an otherwise reasonable soccer observer more than it should.

 

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