What Really Separates Timbers from the Sounders (It Ain’t 6 Spots in the Rankings)

Image“They were probably six minutes from entering crisis mode. Then Clint Dempsey rode to the rescue, and Seattle got themselves a valuable road point. Still have to figure out that midfield, though.”

The problem with power rankings is the way they force false choices. For instance, in this past week’s rankings (wait…is it Week 6 or Week 5? Goddammit!), the Rankings Politburo commented on the defensive frailties of no fewer than five MLS clubs – six if you count the note on Houston’s “surprising” (yet real) trouble covering set pieces. That’s fine, of course, defensive problems are a thing, but how to rate one team’s defensive problems over or under the other? For example, why judge the Montreal Impact’s old/slow defense more harshly than the Portland’s Timbers’ flailing one?

Yes, yes, there is an answer, and you’re still comparing apples with apples; it’s just all Fuji versus Braeburn versus Gala. But citrus products of all kinds come into the mix, too, once one goes beyond the defense – e.g. when one calculates what a better offense (theoretically and practically) means to any given team’s overall comparative quality. Combine form, available personnel, and the way any given team stacks up against another and it starts to feel so much like a crapshoot to call the whole power rankings frame into question…

…which brings the discussion to the quote up top. How the fudge do six scrappy minutes meaningfully rescue  a team from “crisis mode”? Now, presumably that means one of those scourings of the soul in which jobs are lost and reputations spoiled – the deep, heavy shit that implode teams from within. Instead, Seattle rounds up to a #7 in the power rankings and a week of white-hot love for Clint Dempsey. So, does that work?

My short answer is, no, it doesn’t. When the Rankings Politburo writes that “still have to figure out that midfield,” I can only assume they’re talking about the full collapse that allowed Portland to shake ten layers of rust off their attack to score four goals from the heart of where the short-yet-towering Osvaldo Alonso usually roams. That’s not minor, for one. For two, how many defenses are going to full-time fuck up the way the Timbers did down the stretch? Yes, yes, I’m a Portland fan. I’m also a Portland fan who feels like we’ve earned that #13 ranking. And I’m not the only one.

The point isn’t to just shit on Seattle. Or power rankings, for that matter. My argument is that Seattle is still in crisis. Moreover, given what happened last year with Sigi Schmid, plus all the money they’ve invested on high-profile signings, they’re walking a margin of error with a razor’s width. It’s not just the escape velocity that’s evil in this situation, but an even more nefarious problem: if bad results cause Seattle to can the Sigi or, god forbid, blow up the team, the safe bet points to another year in the wilderness minimum.

Portland doesn’t have this problem. Caleb Porter is in Year 2 of his 5-Year-Plan, so the hiccups – even the reliably-egregious defensive clusterfucks – can be viewed with some indulgence. I have to think that it’ll be next year before those very real defensive lapses really start to dog Porter.  And he might have more time still. That goes double if Portland, as a team, refrains from breaking the bank. When that temptation creeps in…fascinating time will arrive.

Seattle isn’t playing well. Or, more fairly (and, full disclosure, this is only judging by appearances) they played well once this year and that was against Montreal. The (super-handy; XOXO) results map bears that out, for me, at least. For as much as I’d be relieved the rescue a draw out of last weekend’s game against Portland, I wouldn’t put much stock in that draw against a Portland club that, let’s face it, defends so very badly…

…though, apparently, not so badly as Montreal.

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