The Vancouver Whitecaps, Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia Union underwent dramatic roster shakeups this winter, and all four teams enjoyed promising 2014 debutsNot all roster makeovers are created equally, and the opening week of the 2014 MLS season provided an early glimpse at which squad reconstructions paid off, and which might yet need work.
The Vancouver Whitecaps, Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia Union all underwent considerable shake-ups in the offseason. All three started the season playing the kind of soccer that has their fans encouraged.
No team was more impressive than the Whitecaps, who absolutely dismantled the New York Red Bulls in Carl Robinson’s professional head coaching debut. Newcomers Sebastian Fernandez and Pedro Morales provided the kind of top-level skill and creativity the Whitecaps didn’t have enough of last season, and their presence suddenly makes Vancouver a serious threat in a stacked Western Conference.
“It's important that they start off on the right foot,” Robinson told media after the win. “It's important that I keep pushing them to those standards.
|PARKHURST TAKES CHARGE
|Taking on the responsibility of a back-line organizer is no small task. Doing so with a revamped defense after joining preseason late doesn't make matters easier. Neither does needing to shake the rust formed during a year of inactivity on the club level.
But as the Columbus Crew rolled to a 3-0 season-opening win at D.C. United on Saturday, Michael Parkhurst didn't look like a newcomer logging his first club minutes since February 2013. Rather, he looked every bit the part of a U.S. national team veteran eyeing a trip to the World Cup this summer.
"These games are really important for all of us, not only here for the Crew and moving forward but for the national team," Parkhurst said. "Jurgen is watching everything, and to be on a winning team going into the World Cup will only do me favors."
“It’s important that you do enjoy it when you do do well,” Robinson said. “We did well today, we got our reward, but it's the first game. There's still 33 games to go.”
Vancouver’s creative tandem wasn’t the only newcomer duo to turn heads on Saturday. The Philadelphia Union’s pair of Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira helped the Union find considerable success in creating chances and controlling stretches of Saturday’s 1-1 tie against the Portland Timbers.
While the Timbers held a 60-40 edge in possession, it was the Union that looked more dangerous on the night, and came within seconds of a major upset. Maurice Edu played his part as well, showing all the signs of why the Union made him a Designated Player.
“I thought we played really well, we played confident,” Edu told Goal on Saturday. “We defended well as a unit and we looked good going forward. We created some good chances in the first half, in the second half as well.
“This is a good starting point for us,” Edu said. “Coming to Portland and getting a point is a good result. Obviously, we feel today we could have taken three points, but we’ll take a point from this and continue to grow as a team.”
“It’s tough giving up the late goal, and feels a bit like last year, but if you would have told us that we’d come to Portland and played that well and got a 1-1 draw we would have taken it,” Union forward Jack McInerney told Goal. “I think they probably came in and underestimated us. We’ve got a good squad over here and it’s going to take a while to mesh together, but having a start like we had is a good sign for the rest of the season.”
The Crew’s 3-0 trouncing of D.C. United might not have felt like the triumph of a rebuit squad, given the contributions of holdovers like Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta. Five of the Crew’s starters were newcomers though, and new head coach Gregg Berhalter has clearly put his stamp on his team. The new central defense pairing of Michael Parkhurst and Giancarlo Gonzalez looked as good as advertised and the Crew’s midfield helped control a game on the road, which isn’t easy to do in MLS.
“Ideally, you want to fully control the game for 90 minutes,” Berhalter told media after Saturday’s win. “I don’t think we did that, but when I look at going on the road and controlling the opponent, I think we did that. I’m happy with that, and we scored two fantastic goals (from the run of play). All of that stuff was very positive for the first game.”
Seattle’s 1-0 win against defending MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City wasn’t the prettiest one, but it was a much-needed one for a Sounders side that underwent a dramatic makeover this winter. The Sounders parted ways with Eddie Johnson, Mauro Rosales, Michael Gspurning and Shalrie Joseph, among others, and the hope was that the team’s chemistry would be better than it was in 2013. Early signs suggest it is, as multiple Sounders players talked about the dynamic in the locker room being better.
“We have a really good mix because we had a mix of all different kind of people come in with experience,” Frei told Goal after the match. “All veterans who kind of want to prove themselves maybe and rejuvenate their careers. Then you have some young guys who want to prove themselves.
“Everybody’s very hungry. You can feel it. “Frei said. “The group has really clicked and everybody’s having fun, but we also know we have work to do.”
On the field, Frei was solid in goal while Marshall anchored the Sounders defense to a shutout. Another new face, Chad Barrett, came off the bench and delivered the game-winner, with help from promising rookie Sean Okoli.
As encouraging as all of these season-opening performances were, there are still 33 matches to play, and it is foolish to put too much stock into single results. After the seasons the four aforementioned teams endured in 2013, though, they will all take the starts they enjoyed on Saturday.
GOOD WEEK FOR NEW HEAD COACHES
A total of seven new head coaches worked the sidelines this weekend, and the combined record for the group was 5-2 (with the two losses coming against other new head coaches).
Carl Robinson and Gregg Berhalter enjoyed the most impressive starts to their tenure, with Robinson’s Whitecaps looking extremely sharp against the Red Bulls and Berhalter’s Crew dominating D.C. United.
Columbus held a 57-43 edge in possession, and completed 85 percent of the 505 passes it attempted (the completion percentage and total passes were the best totals in MLS in week one). The numbes fall in line with Berhalter’s desire to make the Crew a possession-oriented team.
Oscar Pareja’s tenure in FC Dallas began in good fashion with a 3-2 win against Montreal, and its own first-year head coach in Frank Klopas. FC Dallas only had one player in its starting lineup that wasn’t part of the team’s set-up in 2013 (Hendry Thomas), but the group looked to respond well to Pareja’s direction in outplaying the Impact.
Pareja’s former assistant coach in Colorado, Wilmer Cabrera, had to be encouraged by how his Chivas USA team fared in his debut. The Goats played attractive soccer and gave their long-suffering fans reason to believe that the final year of Chivas USA will be one worth watching.
For Real Salt Lake head coach Jeff Cassar, his tenure got off to a heart-racing start as it took Nick Rimando’s nine-save masterpiece to help RSL escape with a 1-0 victory against the LA Galaxy. In a clash of long-time rivals, RSL created chances and played the kind of attractive soccer people have come to expect from Real Salt Lake, which helped ease concerns about whether the team would change drastically in the post-Jason Kreis era.
SLOW START FOR TIMBERS, BUT NO PANIC IN PORTLAND
When Gaston Fernandez’s last-second equalizer hit the net, the Timbers Army erupted in celebration in a way that made you feel as if Portland had actually the match against Philadelphia.
Caleb Porter’s body language after the match provided a dose of reality, as the demanding Timbers coach surely knew his team didn’t play the way an MLS Cup contender needs to play.
“I give our guys a lot of credit for pulling out a point," Porter said after the match. "You can look at it one of two ways, we lost two points or we pulled out a point.
“We're going to build on the positive, pulling out the point. Because under the circumstances, I think almost everybody thought it was over.”
For Portland’s Diego Valeri, the draw was a case of the Timbers not taking advantage of early dominance, as well as an opponent that caught him and his team off guard.
“They tried to take the ball from us and they did it very well,” Valeri told Goal after the match. “They were very well organized, and opened up the field well and played well. They game was an even one in terms of chances, but we didn’t finish well enough.
“What was missing today was a bit of order, to not panic when they scored, and as always the most important thing in soccer is efficiency,” Valeri said. “We needed to convert the chances we had in the first half. That was what was missing the most, our finishing. We know it will come because we are a team that generates chances.”
Valeri admitted that Philadelphia caught him by surprise with the way it looked to play creatively rather than just take the normal defend-and-counter approach most visiting teams use in Portland.
“It surprised us because we expected another kind of Philadelphia honestly,” Valeri said. “We expected a Philadelphia that would keep numbers in the back and look to counter. We ran into a team that has changed its look.”
For Gaston Fernandez, his Portland Timbers debut was one which wasn’t that memorable until his 93rd-minute equalizer, which capped an evening he won’t soon forget.
“I had my baptism in the league and I’m very happy and enthusiastic about being here,” Fernandez told Goal. “I was anxious and nervous before the game, like it was the first game of my career, and I enjoyed it very much and am glad I was able to find a goal in the end.”
“It was beautiful, with the banners and fans and excitement,” Fernandez said when asked about the atmosphere at Providence Park. “It surprised me a bit, without a doubt, and what I really liked is that people were happy, and were here to celebrate like it was a big party, which is a different kind of atmosphere than the one back in (Argentina).
MLS WRAP WEEKLY AWARDS
Player of the Week: Nick Rimando. The Real Salt Lake goalkeeper reminded everybody why he’s considered the best goalkeeper in MLS, and a lock to make the U.S. World Cup team. He produced multiple highlight-reel saves and a win-saving penalty stop on Robbie Keane in Real Salt Lake’s 1-0 victory against the LA Galaxy.
Team of the Week: Vancouver Whitecaps. The creative duo of Pedro Morales and Sebastian Fernandez gave the New York Red Bulls fits and helped the Whitecaps roll to a thorough victory.
Free Kick of the Week: Mauro Diaz. The FC Dallas playmaker gave Troy Perkins no chance with his perfectly-struck free kick, which curled over the Impact wall and into the net from 20 yards out.
Tifo of the Week: Portland Timbers. The Seattle Sounders’ supporters get an A for effort with their multi-faceted tifo, but the Timbers Army pulled off its latest masterpiece with a simple, yet, beautiful display which included a recreation of the Portlandia statue known so well to Portland residents.
Replacement Ref of the Week: Ioannis Stavridis. The Greek referee came into the Union-Timbers match with a reputation for being card-happy, but he maintained his composure in a contentious affair that threatened to boil over at times. Stavridis made the correct decision on all key plays, and the result was a good match.