By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (July 3, 2012) US Soccer Players – Major League Soccer has seven games on the schedule over the next two days, and another opportunity for a team or two to separate themselves. Up first is an unlikely choice. Houston plays Chicago in a game that could give us enough to argue one or the other as the true contender in the Eastern Conference.
Why are we putting that on teams currently ranked 4th and 5th? The unbalanced calendar is part of it. Chicago and Houston are four points apart with 16 games played. DC has two more games in the bag and won’t be playing Tuesday or Wednesday. Should Chicago win and Sporting Kansas City lose against Montreal on Wednesday, New York would have the best record in the East for teams that have played 17 games. So again, why the focus on this particular game?
It’s the recent results attracting the attention. Chicago has three wins in a row while Houston has only taken seven points out of their last five games. Should Chicago win again, they’ve shown two things quite clearly. One, that they belong in the conversation for Eastern Conference contender, and two that Houston is a team in trouble. Ok, there’s a third. Chicago would show they’re playing a more effective style of soccer than Houston.
The Fire this season hasn’t been a good team. They’ve won games through a pragmatic understanding of what it takes to get three points in this League. They’re an MLS-specific team in that regard, offering very little that translates past this League this season. If that continues to produce results, it should be taken as a warning by the rest of the League.
Chicago isn’t a DC in waiting. They lack the designated player injection that is currently turning DC from overachiever into odds-on contender. What they have is that stubbornness that they’ll find a way to take three points. This was Chicago coach Frank Klopas after Friday’s 1-0 win over Kansas City.
“They push numbers forward, we talked a little bit about that in the game in that the transition and the ability to play away from the pressure would help. We wanted to push forward to try to win numbers right away. If the first pass was played away from pressure we would find space. I think the ball just came out and we had numbers forward and then we had transition numbers up 3v2.”
What Klopas is describing is the theory put into practice that produced Marco Pappa’s goal. For long time MLS watchers, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a Tim Hankinson or Fernando Clavijo describing how something almost worked for their Rapids or Revs teams back in the early 2000’s. The thinking is sound, but the application can be flawed.
Good teams in theory might as well be a slogan for Major League Soccer. We’ve seen designated player teams struggle, multiple visions for what an MLS team should be fall short, and good ideas that simply didn’t work. Meanwhile, there are teams that seem to win enough games in spite of themselves. There’s no obvious cohesion and no real sense that this is the team to beat at any point in the season. Yet there they are in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, there are teams like Chicago. Pappa, their standout attacking player is a midfielder who is 16th in the scoring chart. Their goalkeeper, Sean Johnson, is 12th in the overall keeper ranking. Chris Rolfe and Dominic Oduro are still working out their strike partnership. This should be a team showing signs of life one week only to struggle the next. Yet right now, Chicago is as in sync as any team in MLS, including those running up the goals in shutout performances over the weekend.
Houston is the next test, a team and a setting that needs to be handled in a way that won’t be the same as what got the Fire points against Kansas City. Houston is tough to judge. They have a sizeable home field advantage still in the works. Their forwards are good enough to cause problems for any team in the League. What this means for Chicago is making the tweaks that count rather than falling into the trap of tinkering. For Houston, it’s as simple as showing they’re a better team than the one that couldn’t beat Toronto and Montreal.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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