No team will win or lose either the Supporters' Shield or the MLS Cup on the opening week of the season. That is not the joy of First Kick. An opening weekend is all about hope. Every team's fans can celebrate at the start of opening weekend. It's the only point in a season when the entire league has the same record. We can all dream.
But once the games are in the books, we should step back and take an objective look at what transpired. We can begin the process of seeing how each team's front office dealt with the offseason and whether those moves appear to be fruitful. We gain a valuable first impression. Of course, first impressions are not everything. Last year the Sporks started a road odyssey that left their mid season record a wreck, yet, by the end of the season they were one of the strongest teams in the Eastern Conference. Two years ago, the Seattle Sounders started slowly and built to a late season flurry.
But first impressions can be surprisingly germane. At the start of 2011, the Sounders looked like a team that simply needed time to gel. That impression bore out over the course of the season, even with the devestating injuries to Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White. At this point every team but Chicago has played a meaningful game. What did this past week reveal?
Works in Progress
Most of the teams can simply be described as works in progress. Teams like Columbus, Colorado, DC, San Jose, and Houston looked respectable but didn't light anyone's hair on fire. It was a first game and it looked like a first game. Even some of the weaker teams like New England and Montreal simply looked like they need time together to become a team. Neither team was embarrassing, but neither looked ready for prime time just yet. Their coaches need time to try multiple combinations and build team chemistry. They both need time to build quality depth. But this was expected.
Other teams looked dysfunctional in their opening matches. Chivas USA is using a formation that puts all of the offensive impetus on Juan Pablo Angel as the lone player up top. The team played well within what their coaches asked of them -- JPA had some stunning moments against Houston and looked dangerous at times. But relying on him for all of their offense is going to make this a very long season. As good as he is, soccer is still a team sport and this tactical focus strikes me as problematic; call it a tactical dysfunction.
Philladelphia is suffering from a similar problem. Their front office decided to serve the youth of their team and infamously offloaded Sebastien Le Toux to the Vancouver Whitecaps near the end of training. Peter Nowak continues to want to play a gritty, defense oriented version of the game. That's OK, but his youthful roster doesn't seem to fit the mold well. Going up by a goal on the road, on a cold and rainy night, should have suited the style of play he wants. Instead they gave up 3 goals to the Portland Timbers and looked lackluster doing it. The season is young and one night does not give the measure of the team's offseason focus, but they have work to do.
Yet for all of Chivas and Philly's problems, neither looked anywhere near as dysfunctional as the New York Red Bulls. Individually the Red Bull players had their moments. Thierry Henry made some beautiful passes and linked up very well with Kenny Cooper. Cooper looked revitalized coming in off of the bench. The team's young goal keeper, Ryan Meara, made some good plays. However, except for their goal, the players didn't seem to function as a team. Defensively they were constantly caught out of position and the FC Dallas players were being hacked down right and left as the Red Bull players tried to compensate for getting beaten. The offense was equally abysmal with everyone on different pages -- Juan Agudelo and Dane Richards never seemed to be on the same pitch as Henry. And the team's set-piece defense looks as awful as ever. The players have skills, but there doesn't appear to be any cohesion to how they are being used tactically. After the game, I got the distinct sense that Henry has had it. It was almost as if he was going to take the entire team by the scruff of the neck and start coaching. Maybe he should. Someone needs to.
Teams You Don't Want to Meet in a Dark Alley
The Opening Week also revealed some pleasant surprises. Kansas City, Toronto, Vancouver, Portland, LA and Seattle all hinted that this season is going to revel in offensive firepower. Kansas City continues to show that it has the tools to be a force in the East. They won their game on a late goal against DC, but they still looked dangerous most of the night. Their offensive weapons should continue to wreak havoc through the league. If they can continue to grow defensively, they should have a good season.
Toronto's fan base deserves credit for an amazing CCL turnout and the team responded with two early goals. But they couldn't weather LA's late push in the first leg of the QF. That's nothing to hang their head or hat upon. Last night they came out and scored two more goals in LA and this time they weathered the storm. If they continue to grow and learn, Toronto will turn heads this season. A big test for them will be seeing how they weather the skills of Santos Laguna and how their playing in the CCCL Semi Finals impacts their MLS play. I will root for Toronto to beat Santos, but I would be lying if I said I think they have a strong chance of advancing. This weekend in Seattle will be a good bell weather for both teams.
Portland and Vancouver both served notice that they are going to play creative attacking football. Call it MLS the Scottish Way. Martin Rennie and John Spencer are both fielding teams that should excite their fans and make other teams nervous. Interestingly, the two teams reached a similar functionality from opposite directions. Vancouver already had a powerful striker in Eric Hassli. They now have the pieces to go with him such as Darren Mattocks and Le Toux. Portland had the creative wingers in Kalif Alhassan and Darlington Nagbe, and added Kris Boyd. The result is the same: two teams with creative and skillful firepower. Both teams continue to be suspect defensively, but have made improvements. If either team gets hot at the right time, they could go far in tournament play. Neither team is likely to be a patsy this season.
One of the most interesting developments for me of the Opening Week was the play of the LA Galaxy. Their vaunted offense is everything that was promised. When Marcelo Sarvas rang a deep shot off the cross bar against RSL, I had flashbacks to last year's game against LA when Juninho defeated the Sounders on an identical strike. With both Sarvas and Juninho, their offense got stronger, and Edson Buddle showed flashes of what sent him to Europe in the first place. They could have had many more goals this past week.
But the most telling stat wasn't how many goals LA scored. It was how many goals they surrendered. In three games, this team surrendered seven goals. Stop and think about that for a moment. In 2011 the LA Galaxy gave up just 24 goals in 34 MLS games. That's 0.82 goals a game. They've given up 7 goals in three games so far this year, including 5 in LA. Yes, they looked tired against RSL. But that is part of this team's problem. You might be able to chalk it up to early season fitness, if their core players hadn't been playing through the winter. I am more inclined to think of it as fatigue from age and overuse. They have a busy schedule and their defense has been significantly weakened. They will still be a force, but, for all of their fire power, the back end, the grind and their age could all take their toll. Many people wondered during the off season, but seven goals in three games is concrete proof that the issue is real. Being bounced from the CCCL knock out rounds might be a blessing in disguise. It gives the team time to regroup and rest.
Seattle had a Jekyll and Hyde first week. In Seattle they looked every bit the championship contender that many, including me, think that they will be. But in Torreon last night they were dismantled by a better team with ~4 times their budget in midseason form. Santos Laguna shifted tactics and used their skills and experience to patiently secure possession in the defensive third last night before starting their attack. This enabled them to leverage the strengths of their team to exploit the weaknesses of Seattle's personnel and form.
Essentially, Santos put on a clinic that demonstrates the dark side of the MLS salary cap. The salary cap makes it difficult or impossible to keep a team together and insures that every team must make some compromises in its approach to the roster. Seattle was not able to upgrade its left back situation in the off season and its defense has been overhauled. By contrast Santos has been able to use its budget to keep the same players together for a number of years and can afford quality options at every position. This was all compounded by the fact that this was Seattle's second game of the season and it showed.
The good news is that while last night's results stings, it is also a good wake up call and can be used to help the team grow. It means that the team can now focus exclusively on getting a running start to the MLS season and that they can buckle down and get comfortable with the new tactical formations they want to employ. Seattle is definitely a team that other teams should worry about meeting in a dark alley.
The Balance of Champions
This brings us to the final two teams that have played; Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas. RSL dismantled LA in LA, and they looked dangerous and organized doing it. They started the game with a mix of starters and subs and then brought in Javier Morales late in the game. They played possession soccer and were strong up the spine of the field. Yes, LA was tired and distracted. But there is a kernel of truth to Kyle Beckerman's comments: LA doesn't have the same possession game they did. As this game showed, RSL is likely to be consistently dangerous all season and their balance should enable them to adjust their game according to the opponent.
FC Dallas surprised me. A year ago they withered in the late season heat as their coaches ran their core players into the ground and their season ended in a whimper. Part of the problem was the schedule, part of the problem was a lack of rotation and part of the problem was a lack of depth. Sunday they showed just how far they have come. Blas Perez gives the team a striker who is willing to work with his back to goal. Fabian Castillo looked creative and dangerous. Hernan Pertuz gives the team a solid third CB. And Ricardo Villar acted as the engine while David Ferreira continues to recover. Adding 4 starting caliber pieces to the spine of their lineup, combined with their easier schedule in 2012, bodes well for their chances.
The MLS Season Begins in Earnest
A new season beckons. Saturday is Opening Day for the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC. It's a chance for Toronto to prove that they are the best of the 3 MLS teams to reach the QF round of this year's CCCL tournament. It is a chance for the Seattle Sounders to relegate last night's game to memory. This game will help cement the first impressions of the 2012 MLS Season. Fitting Toronto with a nice new pair of cement shoes and giving them a tour of Elliot Bay would be a fitting impression, don't you think? It's Sounder's Season. Are you Sounder's Ready?