Mar 2, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC fans extend a banner prior to the game between the Seattle Sounders FC and the Montreal Impact at CenturyLink Field. Montreal defeated Seattle 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
For soccer fans around the world, their calendars are calibrated to the rhythms of the season. The new year comes not in January but on Opening Day, a rebirth of endless potential as teams return to the pitch.
The opening weekend always offers excitement, hope, and the chance to thaw out a bit after a winter wondering what your favorite team might be able to muster in the new season. It offers a surge of confidence for victors, a range of excuses for the vanquished, and those that draw are left with an ambivalence about where they really stand in the pecking order. Already there is unbounded optimism and the gnashing of teeth.
It also offers an insignificant sample size to really parse out the contenders from the pretenders. But only New England can still live another week without a prior result to think about, the clarity (or confusion) of a 0-0-0 record all that Revolution fans have to ponder.
For the players, coaches, front office and fans of the other eighteen MLS teams, there is no uncertainty. The weekend yielded an answer for every team save New England; the only question now is whether it is an answer that was positive or negative, and how to either maintain that momentum or rectify an early setback.
What does an early victory mean in the scheme of a 34-game regular season? How much does a loss affect the chance to advance to the postseason? When is a draw as good as a defeat, and when is it a victory in all but the extra point in the table?
The MLS season, like any domestic league, is one of ebb and flow. But because there is a postseason attached, we often tend to think about early-season results as less relevant in the scheme of which team will hoist the MLS Cup in the autumn. Like in most American sports leagues, momentum toward the end of the regular season is perceived as more important than how you start the season.
And the stats bear that out. Unlike the six European leagues with which American soccer fans are most familiar — the English Premier League, France’s Ligue 1, the German Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga, the Dutch Eredivisie and Italy’s Serie A — the MLS season is not a home-and-away slog of attrition to see who emerges as the top team from start to finish. And while the Supporters Shield is a worthwhile piece of hardware to seek out, one that showcases a team’s consistency throughout the season, the stats show that being the top team in the regular-season league table offers nothing more than a seat at the table for the big prize.
In the past decade, only two Supporters Shield winners — the Columbus Crew in 2008 and the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011 — have gone on to win the postseason trophy as well. Since 2003 the 8th-best team in the regular season has thrice walked away with the MLS Cup, meaning you would seem to have a better chance tooling your way through the beginning of the season, finding a rhythm, and then catching fire as August and September roll around.
But there is also the matter that qualification for the playoffs is increasingly nabbed by a razor-thin margin. In the Eastern Conference, the 2nd through 6th teams were separated by just six points. In the West, a difference of only three wins separated the qualifying Vancouver Whitecaps from the 8th-placed Portland Timbers. As much as that momentum does matter heading into the postseason, it means nothing if a team squanders too many points at the beginning to put that qualification out of reach.
And so we celebrate an opening weekend where we didn’t get every answer, but we received enough background to start making a few assumptions about how the season might play out. So with that, let’s dive in to the inaugural Tuesday Scrimmage for a look at the way this weekend played out… welcome to the new year!
TAP TUESDAY SCRIMMAGE STARTING XI
TAP Tuesday Scrimmage – Week 1 MLS Starting XI (generated at footballuser.com)
Our first selection for the top honors in this week’s TAP Tuesday Scrimmage Starting XI is molded by the talent that shined this weekend. This week’s selection lines up in a 4-1-3-2, starting with Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen at the back. Nielsen and the Sporting defense were forced to fend off 17 scoring chances from the Philadelphia Union in a come-from-behind 3-1 victory, and the Danish keeper stopped 4 of the 5 shots against him to earn the honors this week.
Mar 2, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC forward Eddie Johnson (7) dribbles the ball downfield while being defended by Montreal Impact defender Matteo Ferrari (13) during the 1st half at CenturyLink Field. Montreal defeated Seattle 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
The back four features two fullbacks who found their way forward along the flanks and impressed over the weekend. Todd Dunivant of the Los Angeles Galaxy not only helped hold the Chicago Fire defense to just one shot on goal, but he also assisted on the first goal of Mike Magee’s hat trick and looked impressive throughout his first appearance of the year. On the opposite side, Kosuke Kimura of the New York Red Bulls was patrolling the right flank from endline to endline and giving his old club fits throughout the night in Portland. Though the Red Bulls gave up a 3-1 halftime lead and had to settle for the draw, Kimura pestered the Timbers on both ends and even assisted on Espindola’s second goal of the night. The center back combination honors go to the Montreal Impact’s pair of Italian defenders, Alessandro Nesta and Matteo Ferrari. The pair went into CenturyLink Field in Seattle and shut down a potent Sounders offense, allowing the home side to get just three shots on net out of their 15 quality chances.
At holding midfield this week is Ricardo Clark, who was dynamic from box to box for the Houston Dynamo in their 2-0 victory over DC United. Clark first forced United defender James Riley into a blunder of an own goal on a corner kick in the 80th, then potted a goal of his own in the waning minutes — not just holding possession but making the opposition pay from the position in front of the defense.
Mar 2, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Sporting KC midfielder Graham Zusi (8), scores a goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half at PPL Park. Mandatory. Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
This week’s three-man attacking midfield features Davy Arnaud, the goal-scoring hero of Montreal’s upset victory over Seattle, on the left side of the midfield. On the other side is Graham Zusi, who played at right wing for Sporting Kansas City and had a goal and an assist in their 3-1 comeback over the Union. In the middle is Portland’s Diego Valeri. The new Designated Player for the Timbers controlled the possession for Portland, scoring a first-half goal that kept the Timbers within reach before proving the catalytic force in their second-half comeback.
Up top, the man of the week is undoubtedly Los Angeles’ Mike Magee. With his first career hat trick, Magee showed that the Galaxy were always far more than either David Beckham or Landon Donovan. Also at striker is Alvaro Saborio, the Real Salt Lake forward who had a late brace to lead his side to a road victory over last year’s Supporters Shield winner San Jose.
TAP TUESDAY SCRIMMAGE TOP FIVE
Mar 3, 2013; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio (15) moves the ball upfield during the second half of the game against San Jose Earthquakes at Buck Shaw Stadium. Real Salt Lake won 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports
REAL SALT LAKE (1-0-0/+2) — With two late goals from Alvaro Saborio, Real Salt Lake went on the road and knocked off the defending Supporters Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. The back four frustrated Chris Wondolowski and a potent Quakes offense to claim a crucial three points in the Western Conference race, while simultaneously starting off a rival in a deficit.
Most people will be turning their focus across the Atlantic for this week’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal fixtures, but there is another intercontinental competition worthy of attention right here in North America. The CONCACAF Champions League kicks off tonight with the first match of its own quarterfinals, pitting the Houston Dynamo and Mexican club Santos Laguna at BBVA Compass Stadium in Texas. With US men’s national team striker Herculez Gomez on the Mexican club, this will prove an interesting test for the Dynamo.
For all three MLS clubs remaining in the final eight of the CONCACAF Champions League, this will be a test of roster depth as a fresh slate of regular-season matches awaits next week. On Wednesday, Seattle will hope to rebound from their loss to Montreal with a matchup against another Mexican club, Tigres de UANL. Nine matches into the Liga MX season, Tigres has yet to lose in domestic play and is the overall favorite in this year’s Champions League, making this a tough test for the Sounders at CenturyLink Field. The other Wednesday matchup sees Monterrey head to Guatemala to face Xelaju.
Thursday wraps up quarterfinal play when the Los Angeles Galaxy head to Costa Rica for their first-leg battle with Herediano. Will Bruce Arena field a second-team unit and hope for the best, or will the Galaxy weave in starters like Robbie Keane and Mike Magee into their attack?
They may not be the clash of the giants you see in Europe, but there is plenty of excitement to be had in this year’s CONCACAF version of the Champions League. So enjoy Real Madrid-Manchester United and the rest of the galactic battles, but don’t forget about the quarterfinal action on this side of the pond. For the last three MLS sides standing, this will either be an invigorating addition to the calendar or a draining experience. We’ll know soon enough which is which by the time we return next week for another Tuesday Scrimmage…
(The top three matches on my radar next weekend)
- COLUMBUS @ VANCOUVER — The Whitecaps, after becoming the first Canadian team to reach the postseason in MLS history last year, got the opening win against Toronto FC in the all-Canadian derby. The competition ramps up this week as the Columbus Crew come to town. The Crew dominated Chivas USA last weekend thanks to the attacking prowess of Federico Higuain and crew, and this matchup will determine how far along these two playoff bubble teams are in their quest to compete for the MLS Cup in 2013.
- MONTREAL @ PORTLAND — Montreal is a dark-horse candidate to make waves in the Eastern Conference playoff race in 2013. Portland is retooled and, as their come-from-behind draw against New York demonstrated last Sunday evening, the Timbers have the firepower to potentially reach the postseason for the first time since being promoted to MLS status. This showdown at JELD-WEN Field offers another quality test for both sides to gauge their credentials as they enter the heart of the season.
- NEW YORK @ SAN JOSE — Neither team started their 2013 campaign the way they would have wished. The Red Bulls appeared to have victory firmly in their grasp when they reached halftime against the Timbers last week; then Diego Valeri and company stormed back on their home pitch, nearly stealing away the victory in the 3-3 draw. San Jose fared even worse, dropping a late 2-0 decision to Real Salt Lake despite having the brunt of the opportunities. In the second ESPN2 Sunday-night game of the week, both contenders have plenty to prove if they want to remain contenders.