Playing with style in MLS gets you, well, “style points.” That’s great and all, and there is plenty of value attached, although more in terms of fan and media acclaim and similarly intangible elements that probably don’t matter to the bottom-line biz of Ws and Ls.
On the other hand, regardless of the lesser aesthetic, the useful ability to faithfully grind out results is golden stuff at this time of year. Two prominent clubs are learning how to do so right now – and that’s code for “Watch out!”
Portland took MLS by storm earlier this year, earning acclaim for a stylized approach under first-year manager Caleb Porter. Indeed, the Timbers became a fun club to watch, forming an identity around the highly practical balance of tidy possession and precision counter attacking.
But the next step for Porter’s reconstruction project around Jeld-Wen was going to be tougher, this ability to instill a healthy dose of “find a way to win.” So when Portland outlasted Colorado a week back, claiming a 1-0 win over a Rapids club that out-played and out-passed the Timbers, evidence was mounting that Porter’s team had seen the light.
Sunday’s performance against the Galaxy in the Oregon rain and wind should remove any lingering doubt that “grind” is not just a rumor around Jeld-Wen. Yet another 1-0 victory against a quality Western Conference side says more good things yet about the team’s quick learning curve.
Will Johnson’s recent return to the field and even more recent return to form is such a big part of it. Go back and watch Sunday’s victory over Los Angeles; Johnson’s significant imprint is all over it. Johnson (pictured above) is winning balls in the midfield, drawing fouls, lobbying the referee, providing some snappy dead ball service. In short, he is getting involved in every way possible, willing the team toward results (no pun intended).
Teammates feed off that steely, unbending determination.
New York is another MLS club learning the ways of the grind. My favorite line of the MLS weekend came from ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, who said the Red Bulls “have no idea” how they have gotten to this place where they may claim Supporters Shield, the Eastern Conference crown or both.
They may not – but it may not matter. Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Seattle checks the box on “big accomplishment” for a club missing its top attacker (Thierry Henry) and top defender (Jamison Olave). A week earlier, New York needed an own goal to get past Dallas in New Jersey. No, it’s not pretty, but the three points count the same in the standings.
We can keep tracking back through the Red Bulls schedule, continuing to pick apart the team’s string of shaky achievement (and I did last week). But at some point you have to say, “Well, it doesn’t matter how they are arriving at these convenient results; they are getting the points they need.”
Whereas Johnson is the emotional fulcrum and veteran shepherd for Portland, Tim Cahill fills the same role for New York.
Credit to manager Mike Petke, a grinder himself back in the longtime MLS defender’s playing days. He cannot teach what Henry does on the field; that’s just special talent at work. But Petke can guide in the ways of fortitude and resolve. Apparently, he’s making progress there.