Know your Major League Soccer -- Five things you should know about Week 1:
1. Questions at Qwest: Everyone loves Sigi Schmid and his Sounders. (Well, almost everyone. You folks in Portland and Vancouver may raise a hand of objection here.)
Generally, if you like MLS then you have to respect the young, innovative organization's accomplishments. The Sounders raised the marketing bar for everyone, and you certainly can't help but appreciate Qwest Field on game day.
All that said, it's time for a talk. It's time to begin asking serious questions. Because the same organization that gets a "thumbs up" for everything outside the lines is establishing some pretty shaky history in personnel selection.
Everyone seemed willing to give the Sounders a pass when the Freddie Ljungberg thing went south. That was after management declined to protect Sebastien Le Toux, who then had the best year ever for an MLS player left unprotected in an expansion draft. Seriously.
Then they gave Uruguayan international Alvaro Fernandez a DP deal. Most of us raised a curious brow on that one. We can all debate what we want from our DPs -- but we can all agree they should be starters, right? Fernandez wasn't even a first-11 fixture last year.
But, what the heck. Look at the waves of rave green! The whole franchise is a rock star. They must know what they are doing. Right?
Well, this is it. They are fresh out of "benefit of the doubt." This Blaise Nkufo matter is leaving a pretty harsh aftertaste. The team suddenly cut ties last week with its Swiss international striker. No, we won't remember Nkufo as a historic DP bust. He's not Mista or Nery Castillo or Denilson.
But he is the sixth MLS DP who failed to last even a full year. So, to sum up: Seattle has had three DPs. Ljungberg was a whiny underachiever. Fernandez seems to fall somewhere between average and pretty good, which qualifies as highly insufficient return on the DP dollar. And now Nkufo is just a stain on the Qwest carpet.
Toss in the fact that Seattle has begun 2011 with two losses and zero goals and, well, the line to ask those questions forms to the left.
2. Charlie Davies' storybook tale: Davies will get the ink after a pair of goals in his storybook storyline. That's fine. It's a tale worth telling. But there may be another worthwhile narrative in the works for D.C.: United looked pretty darn good in its 3-1 win.
Yes, it was against Columbus, a team with seven new starters. Still, Ben Olsen's reconstructed side was well in control and probably would have won by a greater sum but for Joseph Ngwenya's poor night, partially due to the striker's hobbled state. United looked organized and committed, and there were individual outings to be excited about.
New captain Dax McCarty was sharp, winning balls in the middle and distributing crisply. Rookie center back Perry Kitchen looked every bit as proficient as all those preseason reports suggested. In fact, the entire back line did fine. Meanwhile, midfielder Chris Pontius enjoyed some good moments.
And who shot Josh Wolff out of a cannon? Davies took the penalty kick and then exploited a slip from Crew center back Chad Marshall to nail the late goal. But don't let the box score fool you; he never presented a quarter of the danger that Wolff did. The veteran forward's movement and work off the ball was superb, and his skill on the ball looked better than it has in years.
3. Picking Newcomer of the Year will be a toughie: This may be the best year for MLS newbies since, well, everyone was a newbie back in 1996. There was plenty of sparkle from new names and faces.
In no particular order: Jay DeMerit, Davide Chiumiento and Eric Hassli all shined on a day of magic in Vancouver.
Milos Stojcev was spunky in Kansas City's midfield. He worked behind Omar Bravo, whose technical ability on two goals was YouTube-worthy. Julio Cesar had some nice moments in the middle of Sporting KC's back line.
Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and center back Carlos Valdes, fellow Colombians, appear to be Philadelphia's new defensive rocks. Jan Gunnar Solli was busy and adept at right back for New York, while teammate Teemu Tainio effectively tamed the center of the park.
Chicago had three strong performances from debuting types, Diego Chaves, Josip Mikulic and Jalil Anibaba. Anthony Ampaipitakwong, another rookie from Akron, was strong off the bench for San Jose. Jermaine Taylor did little wrong in his debut at center back for the Houston Dynamo.
Davies, of course, was an MLS debutante. There were a few others.
But perhaps the best performance over the weekend from an MLS man you probably haven't heard of: Chivas USA attacker Marcos Mondaini, who owned the wings at the Home Depot Center. If Chivas USA can be better about getting to those crosses, coach Robin Fraser's team will never be an easy out.
4. More soccer, less crash-boom-bang: A few of the men in the middle helped make good on commissioner Don Garber's promise that MLS 2011 would lean more toward soccer and less toward the usual demolition derby on cleats.
In Colorado, Ricardo Salazar didn't even wait until halftime to show Conor Casey the persistent infringement yellow card. (Casey, of course, is a persistent infringement yellow card waiting to happen.) Referee Mark Geiger went to the pocket early when Columbus' Dilly Duka tackled D.C. United Chris Pontius American football style. Terry Vaughn did an admirable job keeping the peace in a physical game between two old rivals, Dallas and Chicago.
Mistakes were made, of course. You could argue that Abby Okulaja should have ejected Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz for a nasty elbow on Houston's Andrew Hainault. (That didn't take long with Ruiz, eh?) And Hilario Grajeda, officiating the sopping-wet Galaxy-Revolution match, apparently missed the memo entirely, smiling right through way too much rough stuff.
Still, for Week 1, it was a promising start at least. Here's what they'll discover if they stay the course and further enforce Garber's mandate: By policing the doctrine of tackle-by-collision, they'll cool the overall match temperature. Then, in a more settled environment, they can deal with some of the little issues of gamesmanship, kicking balls away on free kicks and such, which we still saw too much of.
5. Team of the Week:
Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: Jan Gunnar Solli (New York), Josip Mikulic (Chicago), Carlos Valdes (Philadelphia), Zach Loyd (FC Dallas).
Midfielders: Dax McCarty (D.C. United), Juninho (L.A. Galaxy), Davide Chiumiento (Vancouver)
Forwards: Josh Wolff (D.C. United), Omar Cummings (Colorado), Omar Bravo (Kansas City)