May is short on first team action in here in Seattle, but Seattle Sounders FC 2 will start the month off hosting one of four fully independent USL teams on Friday night. The Orange County Blues are the opponent for the 7:30 PM match. Currently the OC Blues are just a single point back from S2 with two matches in hand.
Alicia from The Goat Parade answers three questions about the only active pro soccer team in the LA area that isn't part of the Galaxy monstrosity.
SaH: The Blues have no affiliation. Does that give them significant advantages or disadvantages when it comes to playing talent?
tGP: I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and may write something about it in the future. I think in the short term, there are benefits and drawbacks to being totally independent. As a disadvantage, they can't catapult off the affiliation of an MLS team to try and draw in more supporters, although to be fair the benefits of that may be overstated in most cases. I also think that the reluctance for any MLS team to formally partner with the Blues is a bit concerning, but I think in a lot of ways the club is attempting to correct past issues in the organization and this is perhaps something of a "reboot" year, on and off the field. They need to prove their quality, and initial indications this season are certainly promising on that front.
The advantage to being independent is that the coach is not obligated to play MLS loanees. Yes, they are giving up potentially talented players, but also don't have to deal with disgruntled players, those who move back and forth, and those who are so raw that they may not really be able to contribute to results. While the nature of USL is to give players minutes, especially in situations like this week when the Blues have two games in one weekend, there is no requirement to develop another team's players, which is explicit in partnership agreements. In that way, I think those who are on the squad are motivated to perform since it's less likely a player will be sent from the MLS club and usurp their spot. Obviously, coaches can bench MLS loanees, but if they do this often enough, the whole point of the partnership will be moot. And overall, the cohesion from having a settled squad should help the Blues in finding a rhythm on the field.
SaH: The Blues goal scoring stats are diverse. Is there a single player fueling the scoring fire?
tGP: The standout so far is Swiss midfielder Didier Crettenand. A newcomer to USL this season, he currently sits fourth in the league in points, points per game, and assists. He's got two of the Blues' game winners this year, so he's not notching garbage time goals, either.
Beyond him, there's promise from several attacking players, as former Chivas USA striker Chris Cortez, Salvadoran striker Christofer Ramirez and winger Denzel Slager have all scored as well. Forward Amani Walker has scored off the bench. I think it's not a bad thing if the scoring load is being shared, but it's also a matter of seeing who will emerge from the pack to really become a go-to option, as all of these players except for Cortez are new to the team this year.
tGP: He might be 29, but it would have to be Crettenand. He has been a cut above so far this season, capable of transforming games on his own, and plays well as a box-to-box midfielder on both sides of the ball. If he continues on this track, he should be in consideration for USL MVP come season's end. He's been that influential.
In most cases, I think MLS teams would like a younger player to bring aboard, but Crettenand has experience playing in Europe and could slot into an MLS team right away, as a squad player at the very least.
SaH: Bonus: Goat Parade adopted the OC Blues as a home team of sorts. How is that going?
tGP: So far, so good. The timing worked out in a number of ways, and with more exposure going to USL each year, it was only logical to do regular coverage of the Blues. And I swear, they would have been in our plans to cover local pro soccer even if we had an MLS team playing this year. Plus, it's a fun league to watch -- so many goals!
tGP: Most of the MLS-owned teams getting off the ground this season have struggled out of the gate. Sounders 2 are not one of those teams. Why are they off to such a good start?
SaH: There's a lot of MLS experience on the team. Two direct signings are huge for that - CDM Amadou Sanyang is a former Sounder and TFC player who even though only 23 is already in his 9th pro year and CM/RM Sam Garza is the oldest player on the roster at 25 and spent four seasons in MLS with the Earthquakes. There are also three MLS contractees with two or more appearances (Lowe, Ockford, Kovar) and HGPs Darwin Jones and Victor Mansaray are fringe MLS talents as well. That's a good stockpile of kids that know what it is to be a pro. Rather than just a bunch of Academy fill-ins and failed draft picks S2 has quality talent that will win games while improving.
tGP: I'm intrigued by Andy Craven. He came out of college and if I recall correctly signed a pro deal with MLS ahead of the SuperDraft, only to go unselected until the 3rd round by the Sounders. They signed him to the USL team. He's looked pretty good so far for S2, so is he a player who's found his level, or do you think he could play his way into an MLS contract (again)?
SaH: Craven is showing his speed, physicality and effort quite well. What will determine if he takes the step up to MLS is if he can have greater consistency in his first touch, while improving his passing. He's an intriguing talent that will almost certainly be in MLS in 2016, especially if he continues putting up numbers.
tGP: Who are some other notable players Blues fans should be watching for on Friday?
Pablo Rossi - He may or may not start, but every time he stands over the ball on a free kick he has the opportunity to score. His set-piece play is as good as any player I've seen in MLS. Yes, any player in the history of the league.
Jones - Imagine that Obafemi Martins was from Seattle, came up through American soccer and played at college. That's Darwin Jones. He's compact, fast, with a potent shot and needs a lot of work on his touch. He's thrilling to watch.
Giuliano Frano - The central midfielder tends to be the more forward of the CMs, but is more a defender than a distributor. He will also flash up and harass the opposing defense when they have the ball, allowing the attacking players for Seattle to get back. It looks really odd, but he does it often enough it is clearly part of the plan.
tGP: (Bonus) Prediction for S2 vs. Blues?
SaH: 3-2 - The attack is really good. It's exciting, nimble and quick on the counter. The defense is bound to give up a goal, probably two.