The MLS XI, Week 2: Slow Starts for MLS Cup Finalists; Teens, GKs Show Their Chops

FC Cincinnati earned its first point at the expense of stunned champion Atlanta United, while Tim Melia, Zack Steffen, Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson all played vital roles for their clubs in MLS Week 2.
Publish date:

For a second straight year, last season's MLS Cup finalists are off to a rough start.

Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers have combined for two points through the opening two weeks of the 2019 season, following in the footsteps of Toronto and Seattle a year ago for varying reasons. On the other side of the spectrum, the three 2-0-0 teams are Seattle, LAFC and Minnesota (?!), while San Jose, Vancouver and Philadelphia find themselves without a point after two weeks. 

Amid all of the results was a week marked by clutch goalkeeping, teen prospects making the most of their opportunities, a pair of Texas golazos and a surprise at the home of the champions, which is where we'll start our weekly XI:

I. Early pressure in Atlanta, and a historic first point for Cincinnati

All is not well in Atlanta at the start of the Frank de Boer era. Despite bossing possession for two-thirds of the home opener vs. expansion FC Cincinnati, Atlanta conceded an 86th-minute equalizer to Roland Lamah and was forced to settle for a 1-1 draw. Coming on the heels of a 3-0 loss to Monterrey in the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals and a 2-0 loss to D.C. United in the season opener, the early angst is real in the house of the defending champs. De Boer is preaching patience and also leaning on the very real fact that Atlanta has played five matches in less than three weeks after a long offseason, and there's something to that, but the odd toothlessness with which Atlanta has appeared to play thus far bears watching in the coming weeks when the fixture list thins out.

The point for FC Cincinnati, meanwhile, is a huge boost. Not much was expected of the first-year side in Atlanta, and the presumption was that it'd head into its first home game after consecutive losses to Seattle and Atlanta. New signing Kenny Saief made an instant impact in his first appearance with the club with a sumptuous through ball, and Lamah beat Brad Guzan on the break to polish off a historic first.

II. Seattle's Rapid start

Two goals in the first eight minutes. Two wins in the first two matches. After the Sounders' horrid start to 2018, in which they didn't win two games until eight matches in, things are off to a markedly better start (albeit with a favorable runway on the fixture list). Perhaps the annual summer surge won't be required in 2019.

III. Try going to Zack Steffen's left, perhaps?

Zack Steffen saved another penalty kick for the Columbus Crew, denying Diego Fagundez in an eventual 2-0 win in New England. The penalty save joins a collection that Steffen has amassed in a short time in MLS, but there's a common theme between all of them. Let the next PK taker take note.

IV. The Union's hat trick of infamy

A missed PK, a red card and an own goal. Not going to take many points playing at Sporting Kansas City that way.

The 2-0 loss to SKC was a particularly costly one for Marco Fabian, whose ejection means he'll miss the 0-2-0 Union's next match at an Atlanta side that will be desperate to turn around its fortunes.

V. The teens are all right

After Alphonso Davies and Tyler Adams' departures to the Bundesliga, all eyes are on the rising talents in MLS and what they can do when finally given the chance with their respective first teams, and a number of teens delivered in Week 2. From 19-year-old Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas) to 18-year-old James Sands (NYCFC) to 16-year-olds Efrain Alvarez (LA Galaxy) and Gianluca Busio (Sporting Kansas City), the teen spirit was strong over the weekend.

Pomykal was 48/57 passing, 10/10 in duels, while churning out three key passes and an assist in a midfield start for FCD. Sands was 48/58 passing, also with 10 duels won and seven recoveries and had no problem getting stuck in against a D.C. attack with dynamic potential.

In the second start of his career, Busio went 22/25 passing, put a couple of shots on goal and drew a penalty converted by Ilie Sanchez to open the scoring for Sporting KC, while Alvarez was a spark off the bench for a second straight week for the Zlatan-less Galaxy, providing a moment of magic in stoppage time that was only bested by Jesse Gonzalez's heroics in goal.

That doesn't even take into account the glimpses Andrew Carleton, 18, provided when freed off the Atlanta bench. There's more to come from this bunch of rising talents, as long as their coaches keep giving the opportunities to show it.

VI. An odd detour

Minnesota United is off to a perfect start to its 2019 season, with Saturday's 3-0 win over lowly San Jose another impressive showing for Darwin Quintero & Co. Even more telling was the clean sheet, a rarity for a club that conceded 141 goals in the last two seasons. So manager Adrian Heath used the occasion to ... defend his honor and essentially say the club was a patsy the past two years?

He's not necessarily wrong, and in some corners that honesty will be lauded, but it'd have been just as easy to smile, say this year has had a different feel to it and move on without taking a torch to his past players. 

VII. Are we just going to pretend this isn't an ongoing problem?

NYCFC playing at Yankee Stadium has never been ideal, and the pregame shots of the baseball stadium surface on Sunday–when the Yankees aren't even in season–were another stark reminder of how awful the optics can be.

The club has managed to draw well in the Bronx, and the atmosphere is passable, but the club needs better. Suppose Wayne Rooney's blunt words could be the motto for the entire fiasco, which was supposed to be very temporary, yet is in Year 5 with no imminent resolution in sight.

Then again, if Grover is going to show up and give coaching advice on the sideline, perhaps it's not all bad.

On that field Sunday, the goalkeepers were the story of a 0-0 draw vs. D.C. United. U.S. internationals Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid each were tremendous in keeping the clean sheet, with D.C. the only club not yet to concede through two weeks.

VIII. PK or no PK?

The decision wound up being the difference between a draw and a 1-0 win for Real Salt Lake against Vancouver. But was Corey Baird even touched by Jake Nerwinski before leaving his trailing leg for the defender as he was already going to ground? 

IX. Which Texas golazo was better, this rocket from Memo Rodriguez?

Memo Rodriguez, the Houston Dynamo's 23-year-old homegrown midfielder, fired in this equalizer from 23 yards, helping the hosts in an eventual 2-1 win over Montreal.

X. ... Or this laser from Bryan Acosta?

FC Dallas got its money's worth from its new DP signing with this stunner that put a cap on a 2-0 win and a three-point haul vs. the Galaxy. Given Gonzalez's late save on Alvarez, it could've wound up being even more important than it was.

XI. LAFC takes early strides in Year 2

LAFC has had the pleasure of having its first two games at home, but it's also arguably had the most difficult schedule to start the season, with back-to-back matches vs. Sporting KC and Portland. That makes the fact it's 2-0-0 one of the early success stories in the league. Carlos Vela's one-goal, three-assist masterpiece will rightfully steal the headlines, but the play of the game may well have been this block by Walker Zimmerman, robbing Jeremy Ebobisse of a chance at his second goal and preserving LAFC's 2-1 lead at the time.

The match devolved from there for Portland, and Diego Chara's needless second yellow card for flicking Diego Rossi on the ear as he ran by through the midfield, is not exactly a harbinger of success next week. The Timbers haven't won a game without Chara on the field since 2015, a span of 22 matches, and they'll have to try to break that as the guest of honor for FC Cincinnati's first MLS match at what will be a rocking Nippert Stadium this weekend. Good luck.