Major League Soccer marked the start of its platinum anniversary with one of the most anticipated opening weekends of play since that first one in 1996, when 18 players currently in the league weren’t even alive.
Two more expansion teams entered the field, Orlando City drawing New York City FC 1-1, while just three of the remaining nine original franchises won their 2015 openers.
One of those originals, the five-time MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy, began with an emphatic 2-0 win, bested only by the Seattle Sounders’ 3-0 victory on Sunday.
Win, lose or draw, all 20 teams have just begun an eight-month haul toward one of 12 playoff places. The Montreal Impact also remain alive in the CONCACAF Champions League, with a semifinal series against Costa Rican champion Alajuelense looming.
Here are a few thoughts on the opening weekend of the 2015 MLS season:
Parity ruled supreme, with just two matches seeing goals before halftime
The Sounders’ dominant first half in a 3-0 win over the New England Revolution and the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC’s dueling goals were outliers in an otherwise closely contested first 45 minutes across the league. MLS’ teams looked as competitively similar as they ever have.
In a league structure that emphasizes that closeness, winning franchises will be ones that find a way to differentiate themselves. The LA Galaxy, Toronto FC, New York City FC and the Seattle Sounders have their big-name stars, but others such as Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers could cause problems through their team chemistry, while FC Dallas emphasizes its youth.
All indications are that MLS will be a hit in Orlando, much like in the Pacific Northwest
A raucous crowd of 62,510 greeted Orlando City and NYCFC at the Citrus Bowl on Sunday, and second-half goals from Mix Diskerud and Kaká rewarded the persistent support throughout the match. Orlando’s starting lineup seemed to be closer to the finished product than NYCFC’s, which will be waiting until summer for Frank Lampard’s appearance.
David Villa lacked service, and NYCFC managed just one shot on target: Diskerud’s curling strike. Meanwhile, Orlando’s midfield trio of Cristian Higuita, Amobi Okugo and Kaká showed great understanding and some dynamic interchange in combinations through the middle of the field. The Lions also controlled most of the game but just couldn’t score, as forward Carlos Rivas strayed offside five times.
Defending champion LA started the next season off on the front foot
A 2-0 win on opening day over a lackluster Chicago Fire side showed that, despite losing Landon Donovan, LA has plenty of firepower remaining in its two top goalscorers from 2014, Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes.
Keane seemed to shoulder even more of the leadership load, and his passionate style has not diminished at age 34. For the most part, the Galaxy looks much the same as it did last season with the exception of Donovan being gone. LA didn’t miss a beat as Stefan Ishizaki filled in the right-wing role against Chicago.
Despite all this, let’s not get carried away with Week 1 conclusions
The first of 34 matches after which half the league gets into the playoffs becomes fairly meaningless after the opening month of the season. Toronto’s golden trio of Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore clicked, as did Seattle’s strike partnership of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, but that’s ultimately worth just three points.
Any performance, good or bad, can easily be reversed at this point by earning or dropping three possible points in Week 2. In England in the days before the internet, when newspapers were the most reliable source of information, league tables were only published after the third week of the season. Individual matches become more important in mid-summer and autumn in MLS, although no team wants to dig itself an early hole.
Week 1 Best XI
GOALKEEPER: Tyler Deric (Houston Dynamo)
DEFENDERS: Ray Gaddis (Philadelphia Union), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders), Zach Loyd (FC Dallas), Alvas Powell (Portland Timbers)
MIDFIELDERS: Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), Amobi Okugo (Orlando City), Kaká (Orlando City)
FORWARDS: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)
1. Seattle Sounders
Record: 1-0-0; Last week: 3-0 vs. New England
Seattle took a strong first step toward that elusive MLS Cup victory, with a win hardly ever in doubt against New England.
2. LA Galaxy
Record: 1-0-0; Last week: 2-0 vs. Chicago
Both wingers stepped up to overshadow Landon Donovan’s midfield absence in LA, with José Villarreal scoring the winner against Chicago and Stefan Ishizaki turning in a strong performance opposite him.
3. Toronto FC
Record: 1-0-0; Last week: 3-1 at Vancouver
On his second MLS debut, Jozy Altidore already scored more league goals than he did in the year and a half at Sunderland, where he didn’t have the likes of Sebastian Giovinco providing him service.
4. FC Dallas
Record: 1-0-0; Last week: 1-0 vs. San Jose
It took Óscar Pareja’s team a while to break down ever-physical San Jose, but Dallas eventually found the breakthrough it needed to give the better team on the day its three points.
5. Houston Dynamo
Record: 1-0-0; Last week: 1-0 vs. Houston
Goalkeeper Tyler Deric saved Owen Coyle’s managerial debut with a series of stunning stops, giving Giles Barnes time to find a winner on the other end.
6. D.C. United
Record: 1-0-0; Last week: 1-0 vs. Montreal
It wasn’t pretty, but D.C. took a step toward overturning a CONCACAF Champions League disappointment with a win over Montreal, courtesy of Jairo Arrieta’s first goal for the team.
7. Portland Timbers
Record: 0-0-1; Last week: 0-0 vs. Salt Lake
It’s a phrase Caleb Porter threw around often last year, and it’s just as applicable already in 2015: Portland got “Rimando-ed” by the Real Salt Lake goalkeeper again on Saturday despite multiple chances to win.
8. Real Salt Lake
Record: 0-0-1; Last week: 0-0 at Portland
The attack still needs some work, as Jeff Cassar’s new system has yet to take firm hold, but RSL looked strong defensively in the Providence Park gauntlet thanks to the leadership of its backbone, goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
9. Orlando City SC
Record: 0-0-1; Last week: 1-1 vs. NYCFC
Behind 62,000 purple-clad fans, Orlando made the stronger of two MLS debuts on Sunday against New York City, although it took former FIFA World Player of the Year Kaká to save Aurélien Collin’s blushes after his sending off.
10. Vancouver Whitecaps
Record: 0-1-0; Last week: 1-3 vs. Toronto
A potent counterattack couldn’t make up for a weaker defensive performance, as Toronto stretched Vancouver’s back line across the park on Saturday to put three goals past it.
11. New York City FC
Record: 0-0-1; Last week: 1-1 at Orlando
Without Mix Diskerud’s goal, New York City comes away from its debut with a much more sour feeling, but the U.S. international masked some serious deficiencies with his Goal of the Week-worthy effort.
12. Columbus Crew
Record: 0-1-0; Last week: 0-1 at Houston
Despite being the better team and looking fairly dangerous in attack, Columbus came up empty in Houston; Justin Meram’s return from suspension should help balance a right-leaning attack next week.
13. Philadelphia Union
Record: 0-0-1; Last week: 0-0 vs. Colorado
Against a clearly weaker Colorado team, Philadelphia just needed something to fall its way, but even Conor Casey’s bullet header from close range fell victim to the Union’s greatest nemesis on the day: goalkeeper Clint Irwin.
14. New York Red Bulls
Record: 0-0-1; Last week: 1-1 at Kansas City
Lloyd Sam’s strike from long range offered a positive in an otherwise uneasy opening match for the Red Bulls, who need a new on-field leader to step up after offseason departures of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.
15. Sporting Kansas City
Record: 0-0-1; Last week: 1-1 vs. Red Bulls
Without a midfielder controlling tempo as Uri Rosell did last season before his return to Europe, Kansas City could have trouble enacting the style of play manager Peter Vermes preaches.
16. Colorado Rapids
Record: 0-0-1; Last week: 0-0 at Philadelphia
Not much went right for the Rapids in their 2015 opener, but Pablo Mastroeni’s questionable player selection led to Bobby Burling being sent off and the team receiving no real attacking thrust from anywhere.
17. Montreal Impact
Record: 0-1-0; Last week: 0-1 at D.C.
Spare a thought for Justin Mapp, who dislocated his elbow on an innocuous-looking play inside the D.C. penalty area in a manner gruesome enough that left opposing goalkeeper Bill Hamid with both hands on his head and a look of terror on his face.
18. New England Revolution
Record: 0-1-0; Last week: 0-3 at Seattle
It wasn’t the start New England wanted or expected after trudging to the MLS Cup final last year, but CenturyLink Field is never an easy place to play, and the Revs were without Lee Nguyen, Jermaine Jones and Charlie Davies.
19. San Jose Earthquakes
Record: 0-1-0; Last week: 0-1 at Dallas
It looks like the same San Jose from years past, more concerned with banging heads and launching balls off clouds to get it into the opposing half of the field than playing actual soccer.
20. Chicago Fire
Record: 0-1-0; Last week: 0-2 at LA
The only reason Chicago sits beneath the Earthquakes here is that while San Jose’s approach may be negative and ugly, the Fire seemed to lack a philosophy of any sort in a miserable loss to the Galaxy.