Week one is done and dusted, which means it is time for our first in season MLS Big – 5.
1) The New Guys
Both of the league’s debutantes fell to defeat in week one, although Atlanta will certainly come away from the experience in the better humor.
But first, Minnesota. The Loons traveled to Portland to begin life in Major League Soccer and the welcome from the 2015 MLS Cup winners was a fairly rude one as the hosts’ hung a 5-1 whuppin on the newcomers.
In fairness to Minnesota, the game was in the balance until Diego Valeri’s 82nd-minute goal gave the Timbers a 3-1 advantage. Christian Ramirez had halved the visitors 2-0 deficit just three minutes prior to Valeri’s second tally of the day before a late brace from Fanendo Adi put the final, embarrassing look on the scoreboard.
Atlanta opened at home Sunday afternoon against the New York Red Bulls and what an opener it was. The loud, colorful sellout crowd of 55,297 that packed Bobby Dodd Stadium thought their newly minted heroes were headed for a win but like their fellow first timers from Minnesota, the late stages of the match proved Atlanta’s undoing.
Playing an entertaining, freewheeling style Atlanta gave that crowd plenty to cheer early about and were justly rewarded in the 25th minute when Yamil Asad scored the first goal in Atlanta United FC history on a feed from Tyrone Mears.
AUFC carried that slim margin into the break before eventually being reeled back in by a Red Bulls team badly in need of a win after bowing out of the CONCACAF Champions League in an aggregate goal series with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
MLS assist king Sacha Kljestan sparked the Bulls turnaround when he picked up his first helper of the season when Daniel Royer headed home his perfectly placed corner kick in the 76th minute to level the match. Six minutes later the tie was lost on an Anton Walkes own goal and while the Red Bulls comeback gave the MLS originals the win, early indications are that soccer in Atlanta is a hit.
2) Orlando Lose in Win.
Only a 13th-minute injury to Kaka could put a damper on Orlando City’s day, well that and a problematic sprinkler system that left the field soggy after the halftime break despite a cloudless sky over the beautiful new Orlando City Stadium.
On a day when Orlando emerged with a 1-0 victory despite being out-possessed and outplayed by their Class of 2015 fellows, even Kaka’s injury worked out for the Lions when his replacement, Giles Barnes, set-up Cyle Larin for the game’s lone goal.
Despite defeating the team that fired him after one expansion season, Jason Kreis’s day wasn’t quite perfect. The Lions coach described Kaka’s injury as “potentially serious,” and Larin limped off with a possible cramp. Kaka has been ruled out for six weeks.
3) Dempsey – Back Amongst the Goals
Heart problems are scary. Professional athletes injure ankles, knees, backs, shoulders. Sophisticated sports fans know the rehab schedules for an ACL tear, an MCL strain, and Tommy John surgery but when but when the head and the heart enter into it those same fans shrug and hope for the best.
That was the case late last season when Seattle Sounders and U.S. MNT star Clint Dempsey was sidelined with a heart problem, a problem that kept Deuce out of Seattle’s MLS Cup-winning run and out of a pair of U.S. MNT World Cup Qualifier losses. Even as reports trickled out that Dempsey had been cleared to return to soccer activities, we held our breath.
It was a relief then when Dempsey returned to the Sounders lineup this pre-season and even more so when he received the starting nod and went 90 and scored in Seattle’s opening 2-1 loss to Houston.
4) Positive Start for ‘16 Strugglers
12 of the league’s 20 teams qualified for the playoffs in 2017, making it fairly difficult to miss out on the MLS second season. With that in mind, let’s check out the weekend results featuring the the eight clubs that fell short of last season’s MLS parity party.
Of that Hateful 8, only New England failed to garner at least a point from opening week, losing 1-0 at Colorado. Houston, last in the West in 2016, started the Wilmer Cabrera era in fine style with a 2-1 win over defending MLS Cup champions, Seattle. Goals from Cubo Torres and Romell Quioto secured the points for the Dynamo, who suddenly look a lot more “dynamic” as that goalscoring duo combine with Alberth Elis to give Dynamo fans hope of a climb up the Conference standings.
Of course, the Timbers had the biggest win, even if we grade on a curve, with Orlando, and San Jose, 1-0 at home over Montreal, also recording wins.
In a matchup of two teams that sat out the eight, last year’s Eastern Conference cellar dwellers Chicago had an encouraging 1-1 comeback result at Columbus, who may consider this a case of two points dropped, rather than one earned.
The final team of the octet, the Vancouver Whitecaps, could only manage a 0-0 home draw versus Philadelphia. With a two-leg victory over the Red Bulls in CCL play already under their belt the Caps might have expected more but with 33 games left to play both teams will take the point and move on.
5) The Future is Now?
The confluence of the U.S. Men winning a first ever CONCACAF U20 Championship with yesterday’s penalty kick victory over Honduras and the start of the MLS season is too great to overlook, especially with former youth internationals like Kellyn Acosta and Zack Steffan shining for their respective MLS clubs.
Acosta is the veteran of the group having previously established himself as an FC Dallas regular and even picking up four senior international caps. The 23-year-old played in the 2011 U17 World Cup for the U.S. followed by two U20 Mundials.
As bright a prospect as Acosta has been, 2017 has the feel of a breakout year for the Dallas Homegrown star. Before this MLS season even began Acosta was making headlines with a pair of goals in the first leg match against Panamanian side Arabe Unido to send FCD to a 4-0 win and on to the CCL semifinals.
On Saturday Acosta followed up by ruining Curt Onalfo’s L.A. Galaxy coaching debut, scoring a brilliant game-winner as he continues to challenge the limits of the defensive midfielder tag.
And while he had to settle for a 1-1 draw in his Columbus versus Chicago, 21-year-old goalkeeper Zack Steffan was solid in his Crew debut and his progress gives Columbus and U.S. MNT fans one to watch for the future.
And what about Alphonso Davies! Just 16 years old the Liberian-born Canadian national scored in Vancouver’s CCL win versus the Red Bulls earlier in the week before impressing in a 90-minute stint in the Whitecaps 0-0 MLS season opener versus Philadelphia Sunday night.
There were other youngsters on display across MLS on opening weekend, including Philadelphia’s 20-year-old midfielder Derrick Jones, who battled Davies Sunday night.
It’s early yet but if some of the U.S. U20’s can make a mark when they return from winning that CONCACAF title, then 2017 could go down in MLS legend as the Year of the Kids.