RSL 1.0 players still have plenty to offer
A wild wild night in Portland ended with honors shared, as the hosts came back from 3-1 down to tie 3-3. You could be forgiven for thinking there were three teams on the field as well, as the ghost of the first great RSL team built by Jason Kreis dominated proceedings. Two RSL 1.0 players scored the three goals that gave the Red Bulls a 3-1 half-time lead, as Fabian Espindola had a sharp first half that saw his opportunism and cool finishing plunder two goals. Meanwhile Jamison Olave forced a loose ball over the line to ensure that the teams went into the locker room after 45 minutes with only Valeri's wonderfully deft finish consoling the Timbers that they were still in it.
The second half was a different story. Another former Salt Lake man, Will Johnson began to assert himself winning balls in midfield and Valeri pushed a little further up to cause problems as the playmaker the Timbers have lacked. Portland swiftly pulled one back, after Darlington Nagbe's diagonal run from midfield saw him arrive in the box to knock home a rebound from a vicious Valeri shot, and with less then ten minutes to go they pulled themselves level with another goal from a former Salt Lake player — sadly for New York it was an own goal by Olave, who had a solid league debut for New York marred by Valencia's fierce low cross coming off him and in. Mike Petke had tried to preserve the win by bringing on Jonny Steele (ex-RSL) to shore up the midfield, but in the end he was relieved to leave with a point after Ryan Johnson (not part of the recent Real Salt Lake roster purge, though he did play for them in 2006) sent an acrobatic overhead kick just wide of the post, and had another point blank shot palmed away brilliantly by Luis Robles.
Nobody will be more grateful for the Salt Lake storyline than Mikaël Silvestre - the former Manchester United defender had a torrid welcome to MLS after his misjudged backpass to his keeper gifted Espindola the New York opener, and another poor touch allowed Espindola in again in the 24th minute, to coolly slot a second. Olave's o.g. spared Silvestre a rather more humiliating inquest after his debut. As it was, both the rookie MLS coaches, Porter (honored by a "Porterland" banner by the crowd) and Petke saw plenty to be encouraged by and plenty to work on. Both their sets of formerly successful Salt Lake players suggested a couple of possible blueprints.
RSL 2.0 get off to a winning start, thanks to a familiar face
Nobody looked forward to playing Real Salt Lake over the past few seasons - even as the 2009 MLS Cup winning side began slowly to break up, Jason Kreis kept them as a formidable unit that were capable of beating any team on their day.
Any team except San Jose, it seemed. The Earthquakes asserted their Supporters Shield credentials last year with a 3-1 home win over RSL last April, before taking a 2-1 road win in June, and most humiliating of all, crushing Salt Lake with a 5-0 victory a few weeks later, behind a Chris Wondolowski hat trick.
So you could have forgiven Wondo, now a designated player after his record-equalling goal haul last year, if he had started Sunday night's home game against Salt Lake in the expectation of adding to his total. The Quakes duly started the game with understandable confidence, despite missing four regular starters to injury, but after keeping cool under pressure, it was the opposing striker Alvaro Saborio, a survivor of the recent first team cull at RSL, who scored twice to beat the hosts. In doing so he continued another rather more welcome streak for Salt Lake — this is the the third time in four years the two sides have met at Buck Shaw on opening day, and the third RSL victory. And just as they did to LA Galaxy last season, RSL visited a defending Supporters Shield holder, coming off a season where they were unbeaten at home, and beat them by two clear goals.
They did so with contributions from new faces likely to figure more in the so-called RSL 2.0 Kreis is building. Just as he had done as a rookie against the Galaxy last season, Sebastian Velazquez made constant nuisance of himself, scrapping and sprinting for every loose ball, while the introduction of former Toronto misfit Joao Plata turned round a game where an injury-hit RSL had had to fend off the Earthquakes for long stretches. Plata's 71st minute pass sent in Alvaro Saborio to poke home the opener, while the familiar face of RSL 1.0 (technically Kreis RSL 1.0) added a second after a typically deft ball touched in behind the defense from Kyle Beckerman.
Beckerman and Saborio were untouchables in the latest Salt Lake overhaul, and arguably their level of production was the minimum Kreis expects. So perhaps the sight of Velasquez and Plata using their speed to trouble the San Jose defense was a better indicator of RSL 2.0 - speed was missed in the 2012 campaign. Meanwhile the Earthquakes, injury hit and now beaten in a home MLS regular season game for the first time since August 2011, will be hoping that suffering the same fate as last year's LA side isn't an omen for an equally tough start to the year. Speaking of which...
For Mike Magee and Robbie Keane, 2012 hasn't ended
After last year's Jeckyll and Hyde season, Bruce Arena claimed that the 2011 season never ended for the Galaxy with the off-the-field distractions and obligations that came with the team's first MLS Cup with Beckham in the side. The result was an awful start to the 2012 season, that only got truly back on track in July - and of course ended with the Galaxy lifting another Cup in front of their fans.
Even as the Galaxy celebrated back-to-back wins, Arena was dropping broad hints that there would be no repeat of any post-season tour, even with the lucrative possibility of wringing a final income boost from the presence of a still under contract David Beckham. He and the head of the club's business stream, Chris Klein, seemed pretty much on the same page with this, as the club drew a fairly emphatic line under the 2012 season (Donovan, of course, famously took this to method acting extremes...).
The first focus is on a much stronger showing in this season's CCL, starting with this week's quarter-final against Herediano. But if Chicago thought they might benefit from facing an LA side with their eye off the ball, they reckoned without Keane and Magee, neither of whom appeared to have got the memo about the new season. Keane in particular was causing havoc everywhere, using that low center of gravity to spin off players and slip passes behind the Chicago defense (he had a hand in all three Magee goals), and generally keeping up the form he displayed throughout the playoffs and which had him at the top of the Castrol stat standings last year.
Magee meanwhile, bagged himself a hat trick. So much for the assumption he might struggle playing with a less creative Galaxy midfield than he'd been used to when Donovan and Beckham were in the side — the orthodoxy being (and I do tend to subscribe to this) that Magee does best ghosting in to spaces between defenders preoccupied by what appear to be more obvious threats. At his best Donovan makes a lot of such space with his forward runs both on and off the ball. But as Keane showed, he makes plenty of space for others himself, just by his speed of thought and touch on the edge of the box. If he keeps playing like this in 2013, Arena will be happy for a little bit of 2012 to carry into 2013.
Le Toux is back, but so are Union's defensive woes
Before the season started, anyone looking down John Hackworth's off-season acquisitions for Philadelphia Union (artfully shaped round an unmoving Freddy-Adu-shaped blockage in the salary calculations) was immediately struck by the return of the original Union talisman Sebastien Le Toux. The hero's return was not welcomed without reservations, since some wondered if we'd seen the best of him in 2010, when Le Toux opened the Union's MLS goalscoring account with a hat trick against D.C. and never looked back. After that high point and a decent 2011, Le Toux fell foul of the last days of Peter Nowak's reign in Philadelphia, and spent last season bouncing from the Union to the Whitecaps to New York - where he was wholly anonymous.
Yet even at New York, Le Toux was making noises about his affection for Philadelphia — and whether or not he did enough on footballing terms to merit a return, it was a popular sentimental decision that saw him back and suiting up for the 2013 Union. And within a quarter of an hour of his return, he looked to have turned back the clock when he scored the first goal of the 2013 MLS season and sent the Union crowd into raptures.
The storybook return ended there. The problem for Le Toux and the Union was not just that their opponents were Sporting Kansas City, who may have lost Espinoza and (temporarily at least) Kamara, but apparently had lost none of their self-belief — the problem was a familiar one regarding the Union's ability to defend aerial balls knocked into the box, especially on set pieces. It's hard to choose the most egregious example - was it Sporting's second in their 3-1 win, where MacMath was stranded in no man's land as Rosell raced free of no marker in particular to glance a Zusi free kick home? Or was it worse to see Myer's cut back for Bieler's third after the ball had been obligingly left untouched by the better placed Union player Keon Daniel.
Sporting left with what in the end was a comfortable 3-1 road win, as the young and still brittle Union side lost belief in the second half, while Sporting, prompted by the crosses of Zusi and a promising debut for Bieler, kept their patience and got their reward. Meanwhile the Union fans got the moment they wanted, but three too many of the moments they've got used to.
Seattle introduce a homegrown prospect, but it's Montreal's veteran's day
The 18th MLS season kicked off with an incremental increase in expectation about the potential contribution of the players added to club rosters via the homegrown rule. Gyassi Zardes might have gone as number one in the draft had he entered it, but as it was he went straight into the Galaxy squad. Meanwhile, with their defense reshuffled without Burch, Seattle started a young 19 year old homegrown player in their home opener against Montreal.
DeAndre Yedlin had a great game in the Seattle defense, looking confident and competitive, and even giving the veteran Italian Di Vaio problems in what was a memorable debut. Not a wholly happy debut though. The new look Sounders 4-2-3-1 huffed and puffed and even crashed (shots off the woodwork) against Montreal, only for a beautiful piece of invention from the Impact's Davy Arnaud, to give the second year team a surprise road victory.
Eddie Johnson led the line for the Sounders with Martinez and Zakuani behind him to provide width, and Rosales nominally playing underneath him, but often drifting off to the right to find angles for crosses. It produced chances, and on another day the result might have been different (and on another day, one of that supporting trio might find themselves replaced by a new attacking designated player - probably Obafemi Martins). As it was the Sounders missed the bite of the suspended Alonso in midfield and Montreal were able to ride their luck a little bit and get the break when it mattered.
Not that the Impact didn't deserve something. New coach Schallibaum had assembled a backline of six footers who made themselves favorite for every aerial ball into the box — and Arnaud and Bernier used all their nous and experience in midfield to choose wisely when to go and when to stay. As Seattle chased the game, Montreal did briefly stir memories of their many late collapses from winning positions last season, but as it was they held on, and looked like they'll generally be more solid at the back this year, on their way to a surprise win.
Seattle will want to move on swiftly to thoughts of Champions League play and forget most of this game. Only the newcomer Yevlin will have much cause to remember this one with any fondness.