Tuesday March 13th, 2012

The MLS season is back in full force. Here are five thoughts and Power Rankings after MLS' 2012 First Kick.

1. The West is best

It's not a breaking development that the bulk of the league's upper echelon resides in the Western Conference, but that was pronounced quite evidently on the field. West teams took five of the six West-vs.-East matchups in the opening week of the season.

San Jose topped New England, Vancouver bested Montreal, FC Dallas held off the New York Red Bulls, Colorado blanked Columbus and Portland capped the week with a come-from-behind victory over Philadelphia. Only East-based Houston was able to take points from a Western Conference foe, escaping with a last-gasp goal in its match against Chivas USA.

It should be noted that all of those matchups took place at Western Conference stadiums, and winning on the road, no matter who the opponent is, is no easy feat in MLS. After all, only two teams -- Los Angeles and Seattle -- posted winning road records last season, and that was with a balanced schedule.

With the schedule now unbalanced and each conference granted five playoff spots, winning conference games carries more significance -- but winning out-of-conference ones could ultimately lead to the final distinction in the table. For the West's contenders, who figure to duke it out all season, it is of the utmost importance that they hold serve at home against Eastern foes. In the opening week, that happened for the most part.

At least there was semblance of a definitive divide in Week 1, with no draws among the eight matches. Last season was flush with ties, as there was at least one in every match-week until the final month of action.

2. In game of stars, Velasquez shines

For all of the new international signings and rookies expected to make an MLS impact, perhaps no one came with less fanfare than Real Salt Lake's Sebastian Velasquez.

And in a game featuring two of the league's finest teams and a handful of its biggest names, no one figured to have less of an impact on the final outcome than the unheralded rookie.

But there stood the multicolor-rat-tailed Velasquez, all 5-foot-7 of him, making key passes, taking brash-but-confident looks at goal and sending in the ball that led to the turning point in Real Salt Lake's 3-1 statement victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center.

A little-known commodity out of South Carolina's Spartanburg Methodist College, Velasquez posted gaudy numbers on the junior college level (a nation-best 35 goals and 16 assists last year), something that is far from an indicator of MLS success. But the 21-year-old sparkplug looked right at home in the RSL midfield, earning the start after an injury kept Will Johnson sidelined and giving more credence to RSL's staunch scouting team.

In his 89 minutes, Velasquez displayed accurate passing technique, drew a few fouls and rarely lost the ball in a game during in which RSL maintained the possession edge over the defending champions and mounted a late comeback to deliver L.A. its first home loss in 15 months. His cross that Sean Franklin inadvertently swiped into his own net turned the game on its head and turned the heads of viewers everywhere.

While he is not expected to play a prominent role once Johnson and talisman Javier Morales regain full health, his emergence is a boon for RSL, whose midfield depth was depleted after the offseason departures of Collen Warner and Arturo Alvarez and the retirement of Andy Williams. RSL was the big winner in the first round of matches, and Velasquez, who told the Deseret News that "I never thought I'd get any minutes throughout the season," has proven himself as another option for a team that will look to its depth once the 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League begins this summer.

3. Olympic qualifying takes toll on league lineups

Members of the U.S. Under-23 national team were littered across MLS starting lineups this weekend, with a strong American youth movement playing a major factor in the fortunes of MLS clubs. Now teams will have to prepare for a few weeks without those key parts while the United States' favored side tries to secure a place at the London Olympics.

Following Monday's roster announcement, 13 MLS players will embark on international duty from when camp commences on Tuesday until the CONCACAF qualifying tournament ends on April 2, and doesn't even take into account other nations in the region who are relying on MLS youth (such as Honduras, which has called in D.C. United winger Andy Najar).

In addition to Najar, D.C. loses Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid, two integral parts of the club's lineup. While second-year goalkeeper Joe Willis proved to be a reliable backup to Hamid last season, replacing Kitchen at defensive midfield won't be easy. The club signed veteran Marcelo Saragosa to provide depth behind Kitchen, but the Brazilian's best days are behind him. As for replacing Najar, the club has former Houston Dynamo winger Danny Cruz and rookie Nick DeLeon waiting in the wings.

The Philadelphia Union will suffer from the exodus as well, as they'll be without midfield cogs Freddy Adu and Amobi Okugo. But there's depth at both positions for the club to stem the tide. The Union was spared a bit considering that goalkeeper Zac MacMath, right back Sheanon Williams and forward Jack McInerney weren't selected after previously spending time in U-23 camp.

FC Dallas must learn to cope without Brek Shea, which will become doubly challenging if Fabian Castillo's injury, one that forced the club's other winger to exit in the first half of FCD's victory over New York, keeps him sidelined for an extended period of time.

Sporting Kansas City will be without Teal Bunbury, but the Eastern Conference favorites have a ready-made replacement in 2011 Rookie of the Year and Week 1 hero C.J. Sapong, who some would argue should be starting anyway.

New York finds itself in a similar position, with Juan Agudelo giving way to Kenny Cooper. The draft-day acquisition and veteran striker likely should have earned the starting nod against Dallas after meshing with Thierry Henry and emerging from the preseason in fine form, whereas Agudelo barely trained with the club given his U-23 commitments (and wouldn't you know it, Cooper's entry into the Red Bulls' match coincided with a turn in the club's fortunes).

Los Angeles will part with midfielder Michael Stephens, who provides depth for the Galaxy more than anything else, but could have been useful during a busy stretch in which the club has four meaningful games in a span of 12 days.

Columbus, meanwhile, was set to lose rising winger Dilly Duka, but his hamstring injury in the Crew's lifeless loss to Colorado prevented his inclusion with the U-23s. Either way, Columbus now must budget for his loss.

Four teams already accounted for their players to be out for the near future by not playing them at all in Week 1 (purposefully or not): Houston (Kofi Sarkodie), San Jose (Ike Opara), Montreal (Zarek Valentin) and Chivas USA (Jorge Villafana). Chicago, which boasts Hamid's U-23 backup Sean Johnson, was on a Week 1 bye.

This much is clear: After just one week of play, it's already adjustment time for more than half of the teams in the league.

4. NBC's debut draws passing grade

Of all the sterling debuts on the season's opening weekend -- and there were plenty -- none was holds as many ramifications as the debut of the league's coverage on the NBC Sports Network.

The new media platform is charged with providing a boost to MLS television ratings and captivating the existing audience along with potential new fans, and Sunday's broadcast of the FC Dallas-Red Bulls match marked a strong first impression.

The on-site pregame show that featured Russ Thaler and Robbie Earle was professional, slick and all business. Lineup graphics were clean, and most importantly, accurate. Production quality was would be expected of a network that has taken the lead in evolving the NHL's television coverage, and interviewing Henry on-field just before the game and a winded Shea just after the final whistle only added legitimacy to the broadcast.

The only real hiccup was the decision to show a replay of Blas Perez's saved volley while the ball was still in play, which nearly caused viewers to miss a turnover and an ensuing Shea shot. Finding the down time in a constantly active soccer match to show replays is an exercise in patience, but an easily rectifiable problem.

Lead broadcaster Arlo White and analyst Kyle Martino were all over the most unusual moment of the game, supplying quick analysis that Thierry Henry's quickly taken free kick, which would've leveled the score if not for hitting the post, was fully within the player's rights despite Dallas' wall not being granted time to set up. The ability to interpret key moments on the spot is critical, especially when trying to educate a new audience, and White and Martino succeeded in doing so.

All things considered, the league's newest TV partner has given early indications that the fan viewing experience will be an enjoyable one going forward.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid (D.C. United)

Defenders: Young-Pyo Lee (Vancouver Whitecaps), Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes), Hernan Pertuz (FC Dallas), Drew Moor (Colorado Rapids)

Midfielders: Kalif Alhassan (Portland Timbers), Ricardo Villar (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), Colin Clark (Houston Dynamo)

Forwards: Fabian Espindola (Real Salt Lake), Sebastien Le Toux (Vancouver Whitecaps)

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