The season is just nine days old, and we’re still not sure what it all means. March is far too early to draw any conclusions or construct much of a narrative, and the early story in MLS remains the three Concacaf Champions League survivors.

By Brian Straus
March 12, 2018

The season is just nine days old, and we’re still not sure what it all means. March is far too early to draw any conclusions or construct much of a narrative, and the early story in MLS remains the three Concacaf Champions League survivors.

But Week 2 sure was fun. There were 38 goals across nine games, and just one of 18 clubs—the Portland Timbers—was shut out. Three teams tallies winners in the 86th minute or later, Adrian Heath engineered a homecoming that’ll live in Minnesota lore, and there was a record crowd in Atlanta, where Tata Martino finally got the best of his unexpected nemesis.

The most spectacular display, however, occurred outside Salt Lake City, and that’s where we begin this week’s MLS XI.

I. LAFC SETS AN EARLY STANDARD

You won’t know them by their kits, but you’ll know them by their football.

Bob Bradley once won the double with an expansion team. So while we’re not ready to peg Los Angeles FC as an MLS Cup favorite, let’s be clear—the man has proven he can build something from the ground up. And two decades after managing the Chicago Fire to two trophies in its maiden season, Bradley has guided LAFC (2-0-0) to a pair of road wins over Western Conference favorites. They opened with a 1-0 triumph in Seattle and then this weekend, LAFC demolished Real Salt Lake, 5-1, with a jaw-dropping display at Rio Tinto Stadium.

If LAFC can have a tactical DNA this early, then it was evident in that signature performance. Watching Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela carve up RSL with well-timed, angled runs through the seams of a bewildered back four left an impression, and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t a sign of things to come.

Behold…

LAFC is only the third expansion team to start 2-0-0 and the first to do so on the road. And Rossi, who was born the year the Fire won it all, became just the sixth MLS player—and the first since 2008—to be involved in five goals in one game. He scored two and tallied three assists.

II. SLEEPLESS IN SALT LAKE

LAFC’s second goal probably shouldn’t have counted (what’s VAR for again?), but RSL goalie Nick Rimando was well aware that Saturday’s beat-down didn’t hinge on that non-call.

Coach Mike Petke summed up a brutal day for his club, which has been unbeaten in its 13 previous home openers.

“I apologize to my owner. A lot of places in the world, I’d either be fired right now or i would resign—in a lot of places in the world,” he said. “It’s embarrassing, and it starts form the top. I apologize to the fans who came out here for this.”

There was no evidence that the crowd of more than 20,000 followed the instructions on their tickets. It was rough, but Petke promised the result “was an anomaly,” and RSL (0-1-1) still has 32 games to go.

III. ATLANTA CATCHES FIRE

The flames represented by a chunk of the record crowd in this spectacular tifo at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (72,035 was the largest attendance for a standalone MLS game) must’ve mirrored those inside Atlanta coach Tata Martino, whose high-flying side was brought to Earth three times in 2017 by Ben Olsen’s relatively pedestrian D.C. United (0-1-1).

Note the “RIP The Lions Heart” banner—was that a reference to this iconic DCU display honoring Olsen?

Atlanta (1-1-0) and Tata finally vanquished their bogey team, 3-1, and did so without little trouble—looking like the dangerous, energetic and fluid side we saw last year instead of the one dismantled by Houston last week.

IV. LATE HOME HEROICS LIFT THE CREW, REVS

In an emotionally-charged home opener that could be their last, the Columbus Crew (2-0-0) won their second straight on a 94th-minute penalty kick from Gyasi Zardes. The hosts wasted a two-goal lead, but pulled ahead in stoppage time after Luis Argudo was tripped up in the Montreal box.

That’s three goals in two games for Zardes, who managed just two in 24 appearances for the Galaxy last year. Despite the spirited second-half comeback, Montreal fell to 0-2-0.

In Foxborough, Brad Friedel earned his first victory as New England manager thanks to Chris Tierney’s 93rd-minute free kick. The veteran outside back is one of MLS’s most underrated strikers of the ball, although he got a bit of help here from Colorado goal scorer Niki Jackson.

The Revs are 1-1-0, and Friedel was fired up.

V. HEATH PROVES YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN

That must’ve felt really, really good for Minnesota United (1-1-0) and coach Adrian Heath. The Loons won at Orlando City, 2-1, notching their first road victory of the season more than five months earlier than last year. And they did at the club where the former Everton and Stoke City forward made his managerial name, taking the Lions to two USL championships and into MLS before he was fired in July 2016.

Saturday’s game marked his first visit to Orlando as an opposing coach.

“[Orlando is] still one of the first results I look for every week. You don’t spend the time I spent here and not have some emotional attachment,” Heath told reporters. “When I was here, it becomes more than wins and losses. I’ve seen the people that’ve grown in this stadium. It was nice to see The Wall full—nice to see some friends there—but the most important thing for us today is that we won the game.”

Heath’s friends must’ve known it was a big deal.

Ethan Finlay enjoyed a bit of redemption as well, scoring the 79th-minute winner (his second of the game) after committing the foul that led to a VAR-assisted Orlando penalty kick. 

The three points came at a price however, as MNU’s Kevin Molino tore his left ACL early in the second half.

VI. GAME OF THE WEEK, PART 1

But the late drama in Columbus, New England and Orlando had nothing on what went down in Bridgeview on Saturday night. That’s right, Bridgeview was the place to be.

Chicago (0-1-0) had a bye last week and took a while to shake off the rust. By then, Sporting Kansas City (1-1-0) was up two, and things were looking bleak at Toyota Park.

Then we got a look at some vintage Bastian Schweinsteiger.

That 70th-minute assist lit a fire under the Fire, who took the lead with three goals in 12 minute. Sporting didn’t yield three goals in a game in 2017. Chicago’s second two came courtesy of reigning MLS Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic. The big names were getting it done.

VII. GAME OF THE WEEK, PART 2

Not a big name—Johnny Russell. But the Scottish forward introduced himself with a flourish on Saturday. He served notice with SKC’s second goal of the night. The run was well-timed, and the finish through three defenders and the goalkeeper was perfect.

Then after Jimmy Medrenda tied it up in the 83rd, Russell went on this run and helped set up Felipe Gutiérrez's match winner.

Nice to meet you, Johnny.

VIII. BREK BREAKS AWAY

We may never see Brek Shea dominate consistently like he did back in 2011, but the fact that he’s still capable of this should please Vancouver fans and put the rest of the league on notice. That sort of attacking range is rare and on Saturday, it was enough to lift the Whitecaps to a 2-1 win over Houston and a 2-0-0 start.

Shea got some help delivering a rare Dynamo (1-1-0) home loss from Caps goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic, who made saves like this one despite the flu…

…and striker Kei Kamara, who scored from the spot and received congratulations from around the league for notching his 100th MLS goal even though it was his 105th MLS goal.

IX. THE TIMBERS LOOK LOST

This was not a good omen.

Make your jokes about the “New York” team playing in Jersey, Red Bull Arena attendance or Chris Christie. This wasn’t about the Red Bulls. It was about the start of a long night for Portland, which was throttled, 4-0, by a host starting just two regulars.

The Timbers (0-2-0) have a new coach and a team featuring several new faces. There’s no reason to hit the panic button. But they have some questions to answer in back and need to get Diego Chará back on the field. The holding midfielder is recovering from a broken foot suffered in October, and his presence has been proven vital.

It could get worse before it gets better. The Timbers visit Dallas, Chicago and Orlando before finally heading home to a renovated Providence Park in mid-April.

X. SWEET SEVENTEEN

Speaking of omens, this is kind of heavy for a team that destiny regularly dumps on:

But it’s all true. Seventeen-year-old Ben Mines, who wears the No. 17 jersey, did put the ball across the Portland goal line with 17:17 elapsed on the Red Bull Arena clock. And No. 7 Derrick Etienne and No. 10 Alejandro Romero Gamarra—the hyped Argentine playmaker known as ‘Kaku’—provided the assists as New York won its regular season opener.

Like the tweet says, Mines is local who progressed through Red Bull academy and USL squads to the senior team, and this is a senior team that gives young players a chance. Coach Jesse Marsch’s makeshift squad looked comfortable and confident and easily dispatched the Timbers, setting the first-choice players up for Tuesday’s CCL showdown with Tijuana.

Said another NYRB homegrown….

XI. Rested and Ready for CCL

In addition to the rested Red Bull regulars, the league’s reigning conference winners had byes last weekend as part of MLS’s effort to give members a bit of a boost during CCL play. While New York stays home, the Seattle Sounders head to Guadalajara up, 1-0, over Chivas while Toronto FC visits Tigres UANL up, 2-1, in the showdown of league champions.

These games are vastly more important than anything MLS dishes up early in its regular season, so the fact that Seattle and Toronto didn’t play (and New York did what it did), is as significant as those who did. With three wins in three opening legs, MLS should be disappointed not to see at least two sides progress to the semifinals.

Toronto is the most talented MLS entrant but also has the toughest assignment as it visits El Volcán.

Here’s the weekend highlight TFC probably focused on, courtesy of Tigres marksman André-Pierre Gignac

 

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