They say to never underestimate the importance of a first impression. There’s no more important moment than an introduction, the instant where you announce to the world who and what you are. It’s an impression that lingers, one which is hard to erase from memory until time has worn on and on.
MLS first impressions, in some ways, are a bit different. In a league that recently crowned a champion that seemed all but dead at summer’s end, it’s easy to remember that the MLS campaign is a grind. It’s months and months of highs and lows, wins and losses, and all that matters is where you end up at the end of it all.
Still, a lot can be said about starting on the right, or wrong, foot. It’s a new season with new life and new hopes, new faces and new franchises. Several teams, like the Portland Timbers, started on the highest of notes, thumping newcomers Minnesota United in a manner that exceeded even the loftiest of expectations. Others, like Toronto FC or the Montreal Impact, started a bit flat, a somewhat predictable symptom of a return to league play after grinding through preseason.
At the end of the day, a lot will be decided in the months to come but several players and teams offered glimpses into what could be. An MLS first impression may not the be-all and end-all, but it’s certainly a hell of a start.
Here’s a look at some takeaways from the first week of MLS action:
TIMBERS SHOW OFF IN THUMPING OF MINNESOTA UNITED
As kickoff approached, the Timbers Army unveiled a tifo depicting artist Bob Ross painting his latest masterpiece. Before becoming an internet meme, Ross was known for his soft voice, mellow catchphrases and ever-growing afro even moreso than the masterpieces he created on the canvas in front of him.
In the 90 minutes that followed, the Portland timbers unveiled their version of a masterpiece, one which should serve as a harsh warning shot from what could be the league’s best attack.
Even putting away the hype and preseason expectations that surrounded them, the Timbers were on another level on Friday en route to a 5-1 thumping of Minnesota United. Diego Valeri made the attack tick as usual. Sebastian Blanco jumped in seamlessly, providing an assist in his MLS debut. Fanendo Adi added two goals late after a match full of dirty work.
It was an incredible step, one that showed balance on all levels. Diego Chara and David Guzman worked the Minnesota United midfield to death, allowing the forward unit to fire salvo after salvo at the Loons defense. As the second half wore on, the visitors finally broke, and the goals poured in.
Now, there’s a lot of work still to be done. Minnesota United is, admittedly, far from the league’s toughest opponent, and they’re a team that will certainly see better days. However, the Timbers showed a legitimate display of force on Saturday and, if they can replicate even half of that week in, week out, their 2016 failures will be erased very, very quickly by 2017 goals.
ACOSTA CONTINUES TO BLOSSOM INTO POTENTIAL STAR
For years, we’ve been able to watch the growth of Kellyn Acosta. He began as an up-and-coming Homegrown and slowly morphed into a starting piece. His U.S. Men’s National Team debut came soon after as he began to transition towards the next level.
To start 2017, Acosta continues to push the envelope, and it appears the FC Dallas midfielder is edging closer and closer to becoming a legitimate star.
After shining in CONCACAF Champions League play, Acosta began his MLS campaign with yet another standout performance. Against a rebuilt but still tough LA Galaxy team, Acosta popped up with another goal, one which sealed a season-opening win.
His defensive chops have never been in doubt, but Acosta’s attacking game was always seen as a work-in-progress. That progress appears to be happening as the attacking game has finally seemed to click for the young midfield. He’s making intelligent runs, finding himself in space in dangerous situations. When the time comes, he’s finishing, providing his team with an attacking presence in the absence of Mauro Diaz.
If, and if is a big word, Acosta continues on this ascent, there’s not limit for FC Dallas, a team that once again looks poised to compete for trophies galore in 2017.
CUBO, DYNAMO SIGNAL RETURN WITH WIN OVER SOUNDERS
Since acquiring the services of Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres several years back, the Houston Dynamo’s failures have mirrored those of the young striker. Once promising and strong, both the team and the forward languished through setback after setback. Both were facing a personal internal crisis as they looked to find their way back into relevance.
Saturday was a step, and a big one at that. The Mexican forward unleashed a free kick that will be replayed for weeks, helping guide his team to a 2-1 upset of the Seattle Sounders. It was a goal years in the making, his first in MLS since departing the wreckage of Chivas USA in 2014.
As for the pieces around Torres, Saturday was a step in the right direction. Romell Quioto bagged a goal of his own while DP Alberth Ellis looked a good 74 minute shift. The defense, meanwhile, held strong, save for one shot for Clint Dempsey, who eased Seattle’s concerns with a goal of his own.
Dempsey’s finish may steal the headlines, and for good reason. His return bodes well for the Sounders and perhaps even better for the U.S. Men’s National Team, but the Dynamo deserve credit for starting what could be a rejuvenated season on a high note.
ATLANTA UNITED SHOWS BOTH THE GOOD AND THE BAD IN WEEK 1
For one half, Atlanta United looked like the world-beaters many saw them becoming eventually. They were full of energy, full of life, as one would expect from a franchise-opening match in front of 50,000 fans. They pressed hard and pushed even harder, finally producing a goal from the feet of Yamil Asad.
However, the second half showed the expansion handicaps, the naivety that comes with a group loaded with newcomers. The New York Red Bulls adjusted and delivered a pair of gut-punches, leaving Atlanta reeling in their opening match.
Jesse Marsch called for more energy from the Red Bulls following a lackluster first half, inserting Mike Grella and Derrick Etienne to provide a burst. The team shifted to two forwards up top, giving Bradley Wright-Phillips room to create much like he has through his goalscoring MLS tenure.
Atlanta failed to adjust and paid the ultimate price. The first half, one dominated by the speed and creativity of Miguel Almiron, was a sign of what could be. But the second, one that saw three points squandered, was a sign of what currently is. Atlanta may someday be great, and that day may be sooner than expected, but for now, they’re an expansion team that is still in need of seasoning as they push into the MLS waters.
STADIUM EXPERIENCES IN ORLANDO, ATLANTA SHOW ANOTHER STEP FORWARD
Every year it seems as if the league takes another step. Whether it’s the introduction of new teams or new players, MLS undergoes a facelift each and every year, for better or worse.
On Sunday afternoon, on national TV for all to see, MLS unveiled its latest step, and it was a big one.
The day started in Orlando with the unveiling of Orlando City’s new home. The result? A positive one for the hosts, even with Kaka’s injury. But the real story was away from the field and in the stands. In a league where clubs and supporters don’t always see eye-to-eye, the bond between Orlando City and its fans was on full display. The standing-room wall of fans was magnificent, offering a display of what American supporters look like at their best.
Atlanta Unites, meanwhile, packed over 50,000 into Bobby Dodd Stadium for its MLS debut. No matter your scale, 50,000 is an incredible crowd for a soccer match anywhere in the world. The optics were beautiful, even if some late incidents beer-throwing added a bit of a negative to the game. Atlanta United’s true home is still yet to be unveiled, but the initial impression was a good one.
You can also add in a season debut in Portland to the mix, one which saw the Timbers Army unveil a hard-to-top Bob Ross tifo. MLS still has a long way to go, in many ways, but opening weekend showed that soccer and its support has come a long way from the days of MLS 1.0.