Week 1 breakdown
MLS Thoughts: FC Dallas, Jordan Morris, Thierry Henry, all stand out in opening week
March 02, 2020
THE 25th SEASON of MLS kicked off on Saturday and continued into Sunday. There were some high moments, poor moments, and one particularly awful moment that robbed the league of one of its best and most entertaining players for likely the rest of the season.
Quality generally improves as the season goes along, and that is a good thing because the first game on Saturday between DC United and Colorado was absolutely terrible. While it had a late game winner from Jonathan Lewis, it was exceptionally boring and both teams couldn’t get anything going. Both team’s need a lot of work and some luck along the way to make the postseason.
Fortunately, the weekend improved after that game and it was a decent weekend by opening weekend standards.
Here are some of my thoughts on the opening weekend.
Martinez tears ACL
The announcement that Josef Martinez tore his ACL in Atlanta United’s 2-1 win over Nashville was heartbreaking. It was a terrible blow for Atlanta’s chances this season, it was likely a fatal blow for Atlanta’s chances in the current CONCACAF Champions League, and it was a sad news for fans who enjoy MLS.
Martinez was not only one of the best goal scorers in the league, he was also one of the most entertaining players in the league who brought an electric personality and an imposing presence. His loss for likely the remainder of the season is significant.
A human moment in the postgame after Jordan Morris learned of Josef's torn ACL. "That just sucks, man. It's brutal." Morris knows what a long road it is back, and looked genuinely bummed despite being the hero of #SEAvCHI— Matt Pentz (@mattpentz) March 1, 2020
Atlanta must now find a way to adjust. The loss of Martinez means the CONCACAF Champions League is surely a bridge too far. To win the tournament, MLS teams need difference makers to shine – just remember what Sebastian Giovinco did in 2018 when Toronto nearly won it. Without its top scorer, beating Liga MX teams will take remarkable luck.
For the MLS season, Atlanta can still find a way. The league is forgiving and the team can find ways to score goals through multiple options. Midseason, it can acquire another striker although Atlanta is limited in what it can spend.
But it is a loss for all of us to see one of the league’s most entertaining players tear his ACL in Week 1.
After 45 minutes of its game on Sunday, the Seattle Sounders were on pace for an abysmal week. Obviously, the team crashed out of the CONCACAF Champions League with an embarrassing loss to Olimpia – which made them the only MLS team to fail to advance. Then, at halftime on Sunday in its season opener, it was trailing the Chicago Fire at home 1-0.
Seattle has earned its reputation of being slow starters. Normally that is fine, but when a team has to play Champions League games inside of the first month of its season, it is very bad.
But Seattle salvaged its season opener thanks to a terrific effort from Jordan Morris, who came on at halftime and changed the game. The U.S. international scored two goals in the 2-1 win and nearly had a great assist with a chip over the backline which Raul Ruidiaz failed to convert.
For Morris, he’s picking up where he left off. His 2019 was important in that he showed his ACL injury was firmly behind him. Now he’s looking as if he’s not hitting his ceiling. At some point, his value might hit a level where he will move abroad. He’s probably the best left winger in the league.
For Chicago, the team lost but looked improved from its forgettable season in 2019. Raphael Wicky was visibly frustrated when Morris scored the winner but his team looked more organized in the past. Chicago still has a talent deficit between itself and other teams, but the Eastern Conference is anyone’s game.
Red Bulls nearly blow it
The Red Bulls defeated FC Cincinnati on Saturday by a 3-2 scoreline. The Red Bulls were the better team over 90 minutes but gifted Cincinnati two goals thanks to dumb mistakes. Normally you could pass that off on early-season form. But not necessarily with the Red Bulls that were plagued by second half collapses in 2019.
Watching this game, there were two ways to look at the Red Bulls. First, they’re probably a more talented group of players than people are giving them credit for. Sure the team lost a lot of players, but some of the departures might not be too costly. Michael Murillo had good games but also made a lot of mistakes. Kyle Duncan might eventually be an improvement. Bradley Wright-Phillips was a sentimental favorite but not what he once was. Brian Write’s scoring ratio in 2019 before his injury was really good. Then there is the possibility that Cristian Casseres develops further now as a starter.
But the return of Florian Valot from his ACL tear and the fact that Duncan is a set starter now are upgrades and both of those players were most responsible for the win. Valot had two assists and Duncan had a goal and an assist. For Duncan, he is a legitimate option to make the U.S. U-23 team.
The Red Bulls might lack depth but there is talent to win. It might bank on some players continuing to develop or at least maintain previous form (like White), but it’s not science fiction that the club could return to the playoffs yet again.
But yesterday, also showed the worst of the Red Bulls in 2019. The second half mistakes which gift momentum to opponents was apparent. The subs from Armas didn’t help much.
The Red Bulls remain an open question. Can the team avoid mistakes? Can the young players continue to improve? Can it stay healthy?
As for Cincinnati, there really wasn’t much to change my opinion that it will be a bottom feeder in the Eastern Conference.
FC Dallas kids on display
When FC Dallas hosted Philadelphia on Saturday, there were plenty of domestically-developed kids on display.
As far as U.S. youth national team-eligible players: FC Dallas started Reggie Cannon, Jesus Ferreira, and U.S. U-20 hopeful Tanner Tessmann who only signed last week. Dallas also had Ricardo Pepi and Jon Nelson on the bench as well Paxton Pomykal who missed most of the preseason with an injury.
Philadelphia meanwhile started Mark McKenzie, Matthew Real, and Brendan Aaronson along with Anthony Fontana on the bench.
That is a total of 10 USYNT eligible players on the matchday roster - and all but Nelson played.
Tessmann was terrific in his debut where he played deeper in the midfield and was able to bring a defensive presence, along with skill on the ball.
Meanwhile in the game, Pomykal came off the bench and had a terrific goal while Ferreira and Tessman also had assists.
Great sign for FC Dallas, great sign for the U.S U-23 team. Paxton Pomykal is back pic.twitter.com/p96Ck1KxcA— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) March 1, 2020
Philadelphia wasn’t bad and actually controlled the game for longer stretches. The difference, however, was Dallas’ quality in the final third to capitalize on opportunities.
Pomykal only played the final 15 minutes but scored a great goal and was effective in other areas. His return was great news for both FC Dallas and the U.S. U-23 team.
But overall, for those wanting to see young Americans on display, this was a very good game.
Miami & Nashville arrive
The most eagerly anticipated games this weekend were the inaugural games of Inter Miami and Nashville SC. Expectations are low and both teams lost to superior talent but both teams had their moments as well.
Inter Miami’s 1-0 loss to Los Angeles FC had a scoreline that was flattering to Miami. Luis Robles made a lot of big saves and LAFC was also a little rusty and emotionally spent from the CONCACACF Champions League win over Club Leon on Thursday.
Atlanta’s 2-1 win over Nashville featured an effort and style from Nashville that was expected. The team has experience up the middle on the defensive side and that should keep it in games. Goal scoring, meanwhile, will be tough and Nashville will have to hope chances shake free on set pieces or against the run of play.
So as it was to play out, Nashville was tough to break down and scored on a Walker Zimmerman header. This game will be remembered as the one where Josef Martinez tore his ACL. But Nashville wasn’t in control but hung with Atlanta for long stretches. If you understand that Atlanta was one of the best team’s in the league, then Nashville will win games as it uses this year to build a foundation.
Both of the expansion teams lost but both gave their opponents a run for their money – and required great goals to beat them.
Good or bad for Houston?
Most people attended or watched the Houston game vs. the LA Galaxy to watch Chicharito. That makes sense given his quality and star power – but also to Houston’s failure to be relevant in the league in years. But with the decision to bring in Tab Ramos as its coach, there is curiosity as to what the Dynamo can do.
Houston were without Darwin Quintero and Alberth Elis but still outplayed a very talented Galaxy for most of the game. If Houston had found a winner, a 2-1 score in its favor would not have been unfair and would have been the biggest surprise of the weekend.
Pavon.... a beauty... from Bingham pic.twitter.com/w8xaJp0iQC— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) February 29, 2020
Ramos-coached teams play hard, and Houston had all of those elements of being one of the U.S. U-20 teams under Ramos that punched above their weight. Houston will have more potential once the team returns to full strength but this is a long-term project for Ramos.
As for the Galaxy, their shortcomings were on full display. The team is too vulnerable up the spine and its defensive midfield and central defense is not at the level of typical contenders. When Chicarito hits his stride, the team will be lethal in attack and others like Cristian Pavon and Jonathan Dos Santos should score more without Zaltan. But Houston came into this game with a good plan.
Henry’s strong debut
Thierry Henry has had very strong past two weeks. His Montreal team got past Saprissa in the CONCACAF Champions League and won its season opener in a 2-1 decision over New England. The team lost Ignacio Piatti and still has among the weaker rosters in the league. Henry, coming off a failed stint at Monaco, is a question mark as manager.
For Montreal right now, Henry is pressing and bunkering. The degree to how deep they sit or how aggressively they press has varied but he’s gotten the most out of his talent. Like the second leg against Saprissa, the team’s defense was very effective. While the team sat back, opponents rarely had anything decent. Meanwhile, his teams have been able to create magic with limited time on the ball. Urruti’s goal was one of the best of the week.
If this is the style of play Henry plays after a year when new players will arrive, then there should be concern. For now, it is just a sign the Frenchman is making the most out of what he has.
As for New England, this was just a squandered opportunity. While it’s too early to watch the standings, this might be a game where in August or September Bruce Arena looks back and determines that it was a costly defeat.
Sporting Kansas City defeated Vancouver 3-1 on the road. It was a nice first step for Kansas City in terms of putting a dismal 2019 in the rearview mirror. But Vancouver is a team just starting a serious rebuild so it is tough to read too much into it except that Alan Pulido looks like the No. 9 Sporting has needed for years. But how will its defense play against tougher competition?
Toronto, another team that sometimes starts poorly, was pretty good in a 2-2 draw away at San Jose. San Jose’s late equalizer from Oswaldo Alanis probably gave the hosts a generous point. But San Jose is not a very athletic team, and when games get ugly – the Quakes fade. It was the problem in 2019, and since the roster is mostly the same, is the problem in 2020. Meanwhile Toronto is without Bradley and is extremely experienced. Greg Vanney’s men are likely disappointed in conceding the late equalizer but an away draw on the West isn’t a bad result. Toronto put out a result that will win most times.
Orlando and Real Salt Lake played to a 0-0 draw and both these teams looked like they’re several pieces away from making the playoffs. Salt Lake tried to use Justen Glad at right back (which always looked shaky at best at the youth levels) and Aaron Herrera on the wing both of which seemed desperate.
But that is Real Salt Lake now. The signing of Giuseppe Rossi was desperate too given his injury history. But after a full preseason, to tinker so much in the opening week shouldn’t make RSL fans comfortable.