This was supposed to be a season of maturity for Major League Soccer, but as Portland’s 4-2 win over Houston showed, it still has some growing up to do
International breaks in the Major League Soccer season, like the over-emphasized punctuation marks in a Victor Borge stand-up routine, are interruptions that take on a comedic effect. One could lament the nascent season’s loss of important players so that Canada can play a friendly against Scotland, or so the US can continue muddling through World Cup qualification. Laughing, however, is more enjoyable. One might as well embrace the opportunity afforded by the strip-mining of rosters for international matches to ruminate on the state of the league. The three-week marker in a 34-week season that will end with most teams making the playoffs in an inopportune time for prognostications, but why should that stop anyone?
This was supposed to be a season of maturity for MLS. Cured of their addiction to geriatric has-beens, franchises were even rumoured to be interested in defenders. That is largely what happened, and yet this season has thus far proven to be classic MLS, a cornucopia of goals, goofs, and gaiety. Case in point: Portland’s 4-2 win over the Houston Dynamo.
The weekend’s highest-scoring game started with penalties for both sides. Diego Valeri shot over Tyler Deric after DaMarcus Beasley was somehow adjudged to have committed a handball in the box, even though the ball had struck his elbow while it was firmly pressed against his ribcage. Be that as it may: 1-0. The banner night for elbows being confused with hands continued in the 38th minute, when Portland’s Diego Chara conceded a penalty by covering his face with his elbow while defending a free kick. Erick “Cubo” Torres promptly equalized with his third goal in three matches. His team-mate Romell Quioto matched that feat just before half-time, sneaking in behind three Portland defenders to give Houston the lead.
The fun was just getting started. Valeri, who is average height for a human male if not a footballer, scored with a header – the second of his MLS regular-season career. 2-2. He celebrated by tripping over Deric while attempting to recover the ball in what may have been the game’s standout defensive moment. Eight minutes later, after Houston spurned a half-dozen chances to clear a bouncing ball in their box, David Guzman gave Portland the lead. For good measure, Fanendo Adi danced past Deric in the 88th minute, held up the ball long enough for the goalkeeper to track back, and still managed to score. With three wins from three, Portland remains 100%; Houston suffered the season’s first loss.
Saturday, incidentally, was the night Portland formally bid adieu to defensive stalwart Nat Borchers, whose beard still requires its own area code. It was therefore inevitable that the evening’s theme would be “the lost art of defending”. That tired canard is still in use because it can describes matches such as this one, where attacking talent overshadows all else. “I thought they left it all on the field today, and that’s what it takes to win in this league,” Portland manager Caleb Porter said after the match. “You can’t take a night off.”
One couldn’t help but notice that Porter’s description of what it takes to win didn’t include any hallmarks of the newly mature and sensible MLS. Why should it? Portland’s panoply of attacking talents has been doing the job nicely so far this year. The same holds true with Atlanta, which scored four goals again this weekend. Houston and Dallas – despite the former’s loss to Portland – also remain teams to watch because of their giddy attacking styles. The league’s lesser lights – here’s looking at you, DC United and San Jose – are notably and comparatively dour.
Since the only real point of football is to outscore your opponent, this phenomenon is all well and good. But if this is the season when MLS actually grows up, the early results are not wholly convincing. Three weeks in, it’s still a place where silliness reigns supreme. The main difference is simply that the silliness – as embodied by the likes of Portland and Atlanta – is of a reasonably high quality, and continues to be amusing. Instead of embracing adulthood, Major League Soccer is doing the sports league equivalent of prolonging its adolescence with the purchase of a jaunty skateboard and some neon hair dye.
This is only a problem insofar as Major League Soccer seems insistent on being a serious league, whatever that means. The league is currently at a crossroads. It could become a serious place that values austere playing styles as proof of tactical nous. It could just as easily become a place where attacking players score at will and fans wonder if they could do it anywhere else. [Just imagine the Eredivisie, but with less youth development and more men named Chad and Chris.] The former is probably more in line with Don Garber’s dream of building a world-class league, but the latter, as shown by Portland’s performance against Houston, might be the more desirable way forward.
Minnesota United may still be a long way from keeping a clean sheet, but the club’s third MLS match was far more respectable. The Loons netted their first point in a 2-2 draw with a possibly decent Colorado Rapids side. They even had their first ever MLS lead in the second half, albeit one that lasted about a minute. Theirs is not a great team, but hopefully this result puts to rest some of the hyperbole about their being a bad NASL team competing in the top flight.
Seattle played its first home game since winning the MLS Cup in front of a record crowd, and opted against a repeat of their no-shots-on-goal performance in that match. It worked well in the playoffs but it’s nice to see they can actually score in the regular season. Even with a spate of injuries that at one point forced midfielder Christian Roldan to fill in at right-back, the Sounders looked potent against a strong New York Red Bulls side.
Things are so bad in DC that the local MLS side last scored a league goal before Donald Trump was even elected president. Goalless through the season’s three games, Ben Olsen’s men made things worse by conceding two penalties in Columbus’s 2-0 win. Their season could get ugly in a hurry.