Major League Soccer’s 20th season kicked off Friday, but Saturday included a slate of six matches. It started with D.C. United, an MLS powerhouse at the league’s inception, hosting the first of the day, and finished in Portland, where the Timbers Army showcased the very best of MLS’ new fan culture.
Close battles in every game again reminded many fans why they watch the league: Any team can beat any other team over a 90-minute period. Not every match was a gem, but plenty of talking points emerged from the first full match day of the 2015 MLS regular season.
Here are 10 quick reactions to Saturday’s action:
• Moving MLS to a fall-to-spring schedule would be a poor decision. Field conditions at RFK Stadium showed exactly why, as D.C. United defeated the Montreal Impact, 1-0, in a battle of teams that played CONCACAF Champions League matches midweek. The teams should have been sharper, considering that their competitive seasons began a couple weeks before every other team’s, but neither could maneuver as it wanted on the surface and in the cold.
The weather didn’t help attendance, either, as just 11,549 fans rolled through the gates. The field in Philadelphia looked better despite similar weather, but it also didn’t host a match just three days prior. Thinking about how outdoor matches would have looked in Montreal (high of 28 degrees on Saturday), New York or Columbus (both 39 degrees), it’s probably a good thing the league office’s schedule-change discussions seem to have been tabled.
• Justin Mapp’s injury summed up the eventual approach both teams took in D.C. The conditions didn’t offer much opportunity for cerebral football, and a gutsier type of battle ensued. Neither team had any players booked; it wasn’t a particularly dirty match, just unrefined. Mapp suffered a freak injury on an otherwise innocuous play, streaking into the penalty area under pressure.
It looked gruesome, but a dislocated elbow heals much quicker than a broken bone—Carles Puyol returned to full action for FC Barcelona after about six weeks in 2012—but he should miss the Champions League semifinals. It could offer Patrice Bernier a way to get back into the starting lineup after he missed both matches against Pachuca.
• The Colorado Rapids look much different now than under Óscar Pareja. When Pablo Mastroeni drafted central-defensive behemoths Axel Sjöberg (6'7") and Joe Greenspan (6'6"), it didn’t look like he would maintain Pareja’s technical-based player identification philosophy. That proved to be true on Saturday, as a long-ball effort to speedy draft-pick forward Dominique Badji in the 62nd minute was Colorado’s best chance of the game.
Bobby Burling’s second yellow card summed up the Colorado defense in a risky move that always looked likely to draw a booking for breaking up a counterattack. The Philadelphia Union couldn’t break through, getting a legitimate penalty appeal shot down and failing to score despite dominating the match. Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin’s save on a point-blank header from Conor Casey in the 86th minute secured a road point for 10-man Colorado.
• Toronto FC’s attack will cause problems this year. Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco form a dangerous target-shadow partnership, and Michael Bradley’s role ahead of the back line seems more defined. Altidore needed just 90 minutes in a 3-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps to surpass his league goal-scoring total in a season and a half for Sunderland, and Toronto’s first two goals came off a couple crafty passing moves.
The Reds’ defense looked vulnerable as ever, though. The Whitecaps exploited their bizarre high line on Octavio Rivero’s opening goal, and Vancouver featured a venomous counterattack all game. On the other end, Vancouver had similar defensive troubles, as the back line lost its shape a couple times to allow Toronto in behind.
• The Columbus Crew’s offseason acquisitions complement the pre-existing players nicely. Gregg Berhalter’s system now features Argentinian fullback Hernán Grana streaking down the right and Emanuel Pogatetz holding down the same side of central defense next to Michael Parkhurst. That should be Columbus’ more dangerous side in attack this season.
Wil Trapp’s role will be magnified with both fullbacks going forward at the same time. He has to hold a little deeper, as he did on Saturday, to prevent Columbus being counterattacked with fewer numbers in the back. The Crew was the better team in Houston, although it couldn’t score, but forwards Federico Higuaín and Kei Kamara should cause trouble for any team they face.
• Houston doesn’t seem to have much identity yet under Owen Coyle, but some groundwork has been laid. The attack looked like a work in progress against Columbus, but a moment of ingenuity perhaps showed where the Dynamo are headed. Kofi Sarkodie went down the right and squared to Giles Barnes for a one-touch finish in the 66th minute to provide the only goal of the game.
The stereotype seems obvious, but Coyle’s background points to a preference for wide play and endless service into the penalty area. Sarkodie and right-wing partner Óscar Boniek García should benefit from that, especially if García plays primarily wide this year after moving centrally in 2014. Barnes and Will Bruin provide contrasting yet equally dangerous presences to latch onto crosses.
• The San Jose Earthquakes seem to be the same physical team as always. They launched plenty of long balls out of the back, completing just 36 percent of those attempts, and knocked 23 crosses toward the FC Dallas goal in a 1-0 loss on Saturday. The match featured 31 total fouls, although Dallas committed one more than San Jose.
Ironically, the winning goal for Dallas came on a play more characteristic of its opponent. Victor Ulloa smashed a long ball from near the halfway line that goalkeeper David Bingham punched right to an opponent’s foot. Blas Pérez redirected the ensuing shot on target, and Dallas secured an opening-week victory.
• Dallas might not start as impressively as seasons past, but a steadier approach could be better anyway. In each the last two seasons, Dallas’ frustrating inconsistency made building toward the playoffs difficult. After starting well, it went on long winless streaks and eventually had to push just to get into the postseason.
Saturday’s performance didn’t point to the same type of offensive explosion as its 13 goals in the first five games last year, but Pareja’s men looked dangerous all night. FC Dallas had trouble coping with San Jose’s physicality and created just one more goal-scoring opportunity than its opponent, but it has plenty of time to be effective. It looks like it intends to build up more slowly this year.
• The intense atmosphere at Providence Park provided a great stage to finish the day. The Portland Timbers celebrate their 40th season this year, taking into account their old North American Soccer League, A-League and United Soccer Leagues history. The fans again brought a passionate display to opening weekend in Cascadia, with another pregame tifo and consistent chanting the whole game.
Manager Caleb Porter survived a rough 2014 and learned about the practicality it takes to succeed in a physically testing league such as MLS, reinforcing his back line with Nat Borchers and new goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey. The Timbers didn’t have trouble scoring goals last year, and although they didn’t score against Real Salt Lake on Saturday, Porter should be pleased with a defensive display that showed major progress from the end of last season.
• Don’t be fooled by a formation change ... RSL is still RSL. Much has been made of coach Jeff Cassar’s decision to implement a 4-3-3, but a similar style of play that MLS has grown accustomed to seeing remains. One fewer number in central midfield didn’t diminish the position’s influence, with Kyle Beckerman, Luis Gil and Javier Morales set to shoulder the load this year.
However, RSL managed just two shots on target with Álvaro Saborío playing as a lone striker. The team will miss Joao Plata’s creativity as he recovers from a broken metatarsal; the starters held his jersey with them during the traditional pregame photo. When he returns, RSL could move back to a two-forward system or play him wide, but until then, it needs to find some attacking support for Saborío from somewhere.