Andrew Jean-Baptiste

Major League Soccer’s draft: yes, it still matters

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We keep writing the obituary for Major League Soccer’s draft. It goes something like this:

Surely with all the other player acquisition mechanisms, and with such emphasis being hammered into every clubs’ academy and the attached efforts to sign home grown talent, the draft will be drift further and further toward irrelevancy, right? Or, at best, it will be deemed nominally significant as a player personnel tool?

Thing is, we’ve been saying that for several years now. And yet the annual college draft keeps churning out talent that gets regular feature in matches, with various levels of difference-making threat.

Major League Soccer’s pre-draft combine kicked off today; the league’s annual SuperDraft happens one week from today, Jan. 16 in Philadelphia.

So, let’s take a very quick look at how the draft continues to impact the MLS game.

In 2012, Darren Mattocks, Kelyn Rowe, Luis Silva, Nick DeLeon, Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Austin Berry and Matt Hedges all went within the first 11 picks. All are solid MLS starters (or in Mattacks’ case, surely blessed with MLS-starter quality, even if his entire reserve of ability has yet to be tapped).

Four players from the same window of early selections in 2013 are already valued MLS starters: Andrew Farrell (pictured), Carlos Alvarez, Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers. Powers, Brown and Farrell were Rookie of the Year contenders; Brown took the honor.

So, clearly, it’s not just good talent that can be plucked from the draft; potentially greatness is there to be found as well.

After the first 15 picks or so, it becomes a real mixed bag. Yes, there are finds out there; New York goalkeeper Ryan Meara, RSL midfielder Sebastián Velásquez and Houston midfielder Warren Creavalle were all selected near the bottom of the second round in 2012 (between picks Nos. 31 and 37) and any club would be happy to have any of them today. On the other hand, 15 of the 19 picks from that round have yet to make a solid impact in MLS after two seasons.

Injuries finally catching up to Portland as Timbers fall in Salt Lake (Video)

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-pPua2w-SRo]

Mikeal Silvestre and David Horst are slowly working their way back, but for most of the season, Portland has been without their two best central defenders. Futty Danso, next in line, has been out for the better part of a month, leaving Andrew Jean-Baptiste and Pa-Modou Kah to hold down Caleb Porter’s defense. One is a hyper-athletic, promising, but inconsistent player in his second professional season. The other is an experienced stop-gap whose mistakes are adding up. It’s not the ideal duo for a team that found itself competing for silverware, especially when Will Johnson, the team’s linchpin in central midfield, can’t get back on the field, either.

Factor in Jack Jewsbury’s absence and the suspension of Kah (yellow card accumulation) and you can see why Porter went to a three-man defense Friday night at Real Salt Lake. Unfortunately for the him, it only took Jason Kreis’s team nine minutes to exploit the experimental set up, with left-center back Michael Harrington vacating his position, allowing Luis Gil to get in behind midfielder Rodney Wallace for the opening goal.

Six minutes later, Joao Plata, beating Baptiste before a surgical finish from left of goal, doubled RSL’s lead, and although Darlington Nagbe cut that lead in half near the half-hour mark, Portland spent the rest of the night chasing the game. Diego Valeri left early with an injury, Alvas Powell’s introduction switching Portland back to a four-man defense. Ben Zemanski saw straight red just before half time, reducing the visitors to 10. By the time Javi Morales scored with a bicycle kick in the 55th minute, Portland’s formation looked more frenzy than function. Just keep going, play hard, and hope to get the goals back seemed to be the approach, but at that point, desperate times called for desperate measures.

Unfortunately, they were playing the best team in the league. Eventually winning 4-2, RSL extended their lead in the West to eight points (although second place LA have three games in hand). Their 52 goals are 11 more than the league’s next most-prolific attack, already claiming a franchise record with six games to play. And with two wins and a draw from their three August meetings with Portland, RSL won the Admiration Cup the two clubs seemed to create with their effusive praise of each others’ approaches. Be it on results, goals, or style points, RSL is proving themselves the team to beat.

They may not have been the best team for Caleb Porter to try a 3-6-1 against — Salt Lake seemingly blinking only once before pulling the defense apart — but given the Timbers’ fitness, Porter may have felt he had no other choice. With Kah suspended, former RSL defender Rauwshan McKenzie was pressed into his Timbers debut. There was no Will Johnson or Jack Jewsbury, leaving Portland with limited options to protect their defense and match RSL’s midfield. Why not try an approach that overloads in the middle with the hope (albeit slim hope) that you can strangle the game from your hosts?

Of course, that didn’t happen, the result being Portland’s worst performance of the season, one that gives Porter his first two-game losing “streak” since jumping to MLS. Depending on results in Columbus and Vancouver, the Timbers could find themselves in sixth by the end of the weekend, left wondering if their injury woes will cost them the postseason spot many assumed they’d claim.

Before Portland hosts Toronto next Saturday, things should improve. Johnson, Jewsbury, and Frederic Piquionne aren’t that far away. Bright Dike, the linebacker-esque striker out all year recovering from an ACL tear, dressed for the first time on Friday. Danso and Horst’s returns can be charted in weeks, not months.

Every team seems to hit a rough patch, and between injuries, suspensions, and schedule, this is Portland’s. It’s the first rough spell of the Caleb Porter era, one that’s cost them shots at the U.S. Open Cup and (likely) the Supporters’ Shield. But for Portland, the goal this season should have always been making the playoffs, so while more grandiose achievements were briefly in view, if the injury bug leaves in time for the Timbers to claim a top-five spot, the season can still be seen as a successful one.

Series of troubling Saturday results for MLS contenders

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Methodically, Real Salt Lake has opened up a four-point lead in the Supporters’ Shield race, and while that’s a testament to the quality Jason Kreis has forged within a rebuilt squad, standing in a race is always relative to those around you. While RSL has continued to post impressive results, the rest of the league is failing to keep up.

Among those falling behind, four teams’ Saturday results are going to force them to take another look at the drawing board. In some cases, that drawing board had already seen new plans drawn up. With others, Saturday’s results will force new perspective on their ongoing problems:

FC Dallas – Nobody expected Schellas Hyndman’s team to compete for the West, but for much of the season, they sat at the top of the conference. But after Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake, Dallas have dropped to third, with last weekend’s 2-0 loss to the Galaxy serving as further notice Dallas isn’t  on the same level as the West’s best. Now the question is to accept that and consolidate around a more-modest vision or to strive for a standard which, while achieved over the season’s first two months, may be unrealistic. Hyndman’s already hinted at changes.

LA Galaxy – Some how, some way, the Galaxy need to stop giving away points at the end of matches. Andrew Jean-Baptiste’s 94th minute goal in Portland left the defending champions with nothing from a match they could have won, a result that conjured memories of their collapse in Stanford as well as a number of other capitulations. After Saturday’s game, player acknowledged the problem and were clearly frustrated with this inverse Goonie-ism they’ve developed. Unfortunately, they also had no solutions. At key points of games, the Galaxy are just being outplayed. They need to be better.

Montréal Impact – Like Dallas, they may have been playing over their head through the season’s first two-to-three months, but now having fallen out of first in the East, the Impact need to address that defense, one that was blitzed in a 4-0 loss at New York. They’re old, at times slow, and lack athleticism, and by now, teams have figured out how to get at them. Right now, Montréal doesn’t look like a team that can keep its place near the top of the Eastern Conference. They need a new plan, not just better performances.

Seattle Sounders – Again with Seattle, it’s not that they lost. It’s how they loss. The attack didn’t register a shot on goal until the 83rd minute, and while head coach Sigi Schmid spent time post-match pointing to San Jose’s style of play, at some point, his underperforming team has to develop a sense of urgency. With 17 games played, they still have a number of matched in hand on all of their conference competition. The more worrisome thing, after being shut out in three of their last four road games: The team just doesn’t look playoff caliber.

Thriller in Portland sees the Timbers win 2-1 at the death (Video)

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What a match last night in Portland.

The Timbers and the Galaxy – knotted at 30 points each in the Western Conference heading into the match – met at Jeld-Wen field for an absolute cracker that Andrew Jean-Baptiste put the exclamation point on by hammering home a 94th minute header to give the Timbers a 2-1 victory.

Los Angeles opened the scoring in the 17th minute when Hector Jimenez put his cross on a silver platter for the on-rushing Marcel Sarvas, who expertly placed his header into the bottom corner.

Nine minutes later, the Timbers answered in clever fashion. With a re-start ten yards outside the right corner of the Galaxy box, Diego Valeri slipped a near post pass to Darlington Nagbe, who squared the ball to a wide open Ryan Johnson to slot home from two yards out.

Both sides pushed hard for the winner but Portland goalkeeper, Donovan Ricketts, who had no chance on Sarvas’ opener, produced a number of fine saves to deny the Galaxy.

In the 37th minute Ricketts athletically tipped Juninho’s top-corner bound free-kick over the bar in a save-of-the-year candidate. Four minutes later Gyasi Zardes looked in on goal but Ricketts saved in dramatic fashion yet again, bursting off his line to close down the forward with a sliding tackle.

With mere seconds remaining, Jean-Baptiste shook himself free of Zardes and rose strong to thunder home Valeri’s curling corner kick to hand the Timbers a massive three points.