The MLS XI, Week 1: Toronto, Atlanta Stunned; LAFC's Victorious First Impression

Week 1 of MLS in 2018 saw some big surprises, some youngsters making impressive season debuts and the league's newest club declaring a strong opening statement.
Publish date:

The Planet Fútbol crew channeled our inner Gob Bluth this weekend. 

"I've made a huge mistake."

Our season predictions were all of 30 hours old when Toronto FC, who 75% of us picked to win MLS Cup again and 50% of us picked to repeat as Supporters' Shield winner, went down 2-0 to the Columbus Crew, matching last season's total of home losses in a tidy 90 minutes. Two hours later, Atlanta United, who the remaining pundit picked to do the Cup-Shield double, looked overmatched in a 4-0 drubbing at Houston. Oh, and did we mention that nobody picked Columbus, the 2017 Eastern Conference finalist, to reach the playoffs? (Look, they lost attacking stalwarts Justin Meram and Ola Kamara, and given the uncertainty around the franchise's future location, it seems like a reasonable call, O.K.?)

Now, this is all tongue in cheek, of course. Let it be known that no team's season fate is wrapped up in Week 1 in any league, and we'll stand by our predictions for the remainder of the campaign. But it just goes to show how once the whistle is blown and the games finally kick off, there's much more to the picture than what's on paper. And perhaps MLS still has a bit of that unpredictability and parity going for it despite the widening gap between big spenders and thrifty bargain shoppers.

Here's what stood out the most from a surprising, entertaining and anticipation-ending Week 1 of the 2018 season:

I. They weren't who we thought they were

So about Toronto and Atlanta...

First, the excuses. Toronto FC is in between rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League, and perhaps the cast of stars, still shaking the cobwebs of preseason, aren't fully fit for a congested slate from the jump. 

For Atlanta, star signing Ezequiel Barco was just ruled out for at least the first month of the season, and perhaps that threw off preparations.

Now, the reality. Columbus played with a wonderful sense of togetherness and pounced on a pair of opportunities. Milton Valenzuela, the brilliant 19-year-old Argentine left back, created the first goal just before halftime after taking down a well-weighted long diagonal from Artur with a wonky first touch before showing brilliant inventiveness to launch a cross with an acrobatic left-footed kick. Federico Higuain was there to handle the finish (yes, a Brazil-Argentina-Argentina connection for Columbus in Toronto. Only in MLS.), and the timing of the goal and the stunning nature of it zapped the good feeling from the BMO Field stands. 

When Gyasi Zardes scored two minutes into the second half, the scales were fully tilted in the Crew's favor.

Atlanta, meanwhile, was blitzed to the tune of three goals in the first half hour, and four in the opening half, never having the chance to settle in and enforce its way. For all the starpower on that team, there's worry in defensive midfield, after the departure of Carlos Carmona, and in central defense, where Jeff Larentowicz cannot possibly be a starting center back. The 34-year-old veteran may still belong on the field, just not there.

There's no reason to panic, and let's all remember that no MLS campaign has been won or lost in the first week of March. But it's a reminder to both Eastern Conference powers that they'll need to be on their toes each time out. 

LAFC Veteran Vela, Old Soul Rossi Form Instant Bond in Leading MLS Expansion Club

II. LAFC makes a strong opening statement

When LAFC president and co-owner Tom Penn joined last week's episode of Planet Fútbol TV, he pondered how long it might take Diego Rossi, the club's 19-year-old star signing from Uruguayan power Peñarol, to settle in to a new club and new country. As it turns out, not very long at all! Rossi's gorgeous strike 11 minutes into the season opener was all LAFC needed to win its first match in franchise history, beating the two-time reigning Western Conference champion Seattle Sounders in Seattle 1-0. Kudos to Bob Bradley for getting another expansion team's run kick-started in style.

III. Another youngster makes good on debut

Valenzuela and Rossi made immediate impacts for the respective teams in wins, and so did Jesus Medina, NYCFC's dynamic new Paraguayan attacker. With an insurance goal and a hand in NYCFC's first at Sporting Kansas City, Medina conquered Blue Hell in a nice first 69-minute shift in MLS. Not a bad debut at all.

MLS Target Signings Trend Toward the Rising South American Star

IV. San Jose goes Tiki Taka

So the Earthquakes hire a European coach, and suddenly they've gone from long ball and Goonies-heroics to becoming Barcelona? What a goal.

V. An equalizer well deserved

Orlando City played the final half against D.C. United down a man, but you wouldn't know it based on the run of play. And when Justin Meram and Jonathan Spector combined to tee up 2017 NASL Golden Boot winner Stefano Pinho for his maiden MLS goal in stoppage time, the result was a 1-1 draw that was more than fair. 

Special props go to Mohamed El-Munir, whose hustle play to deny Darren Mattocks on a breakaway helped preserve the 1-0 scoreline and keep OCSC within reach. 

VI. When the product matches the hype

Alphonso Davies, Vancouver's 17-year-old sensation, has been pegged by plenty for a move to a European giant sooner than later, but for the meantime, he's in MLS, and he's worth the price of admission. That much was certain in the Whitecaps' Week 1 win over Montreal, in which Davies assisted on Kei Kamara's opener before scoring one of his own. And for all of the hype surrounding Davies, it's staggering to realize that it was his first goal in league play in 35 matches. It won't be his last.

Unfortunately, Davies isn't old enough to win the team's Man of the Match postgame honors because of its alcohol-themed sponsor. No joke.

VII. Same Kamaras, new uniforms, same results

Kei Kamara has swapped New England for Vancouver. Ola Kamara has gone from Columbus to Los Angeles. Both prolific forwards are still providing the same end product, and both helped their new clubs start their respective seasons with three points.

VIII. Friendly reminder that Kyle Beckerman cut his hair

This remains unnatural to the eye.

IX. A brutal fate

Beckerman's Real Salt Lake was in line for three points on the road at FC Dallas, but it leaves Week 1 with a pair tied for the club lead in goals: Joao Plata and Own Goal. The latter, courtesy of Marcelo Silva, came on a night when Nick Rimando remained on his A Game and RSL offered plenty of reason for optimism. For FCD, the result, coming off the heels of CONCACAF Champions League elimination, will do wonders for the psyche.

X. If you're not first, you're last

LAFC, following club owner Ricky Bobby's lead three points at a time.

XI. They are who we thought they were

The New England Revolution had plenty of skeptics entering the season, and after having both of their starting center backs sent off in a 2-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union (thus eliminating both starting center backs from contention for the next game as well), it sure looks like it'll be the long season many expect for Brad Friedel & Co. You might not want to hold us to that prediction just yet, either.