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MLS is Back: Pre-game protests & post-match scuffles dominate the headlines

2:00 AM SGT 15/7/20
Thierry Henry Montreal Impact 2020
There were as many standout incidents off the field as there were on it as top-flight men's soccer made its return in Orlando

MLS is Back.

It is the name of the league's newly-founded tournament to continue the season in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. It is also now a statement of fact, with the first round of matches officially in the books.

In total, there have been 12 games, two withdrawals and plenty of talking points from the tournament in Orlando. It has been a tournament with several memorable moments across the first week, even if not all of them are soccer-related.

With that in mind, Goal looks back at some of the takeaways from the first round of MLS matches...

On-field messages & off-field set-backs take centerstage

For as good as some of the opening games were, the focus of this first week of MLS matches had little to do with soccer.

Sure, there were on-field storylines, big goals and memorable moments, but this tournament's beginning was about two issues that dwarf sports.

From the moment this tournament was announced, it was clear that there were key factors at play. The U.S. is still very much battling the coronavirus, and MLS is very much serving as the guinea pig for all other major men's sports leagues.

If this tournament goes on without a hitch, then leagues like the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL may have hope. If it does not, then we may live in a world without American sports for a some time yet.

So far, there have been set-backs.

FC Dallas and Nashville SC have withdrawn. Several games have been rescheduled. The bubble has proven strong, but not impenetrable. MLS insists everything is under control, but this will be a long month with many people on edge.

And, while the coronavirus remains an everyday issue in American society, so too does racism and the ongoing fight against police brutality.

The display by the Black Players for Change organization kickstarted the tournament with a powerful message, and it has not died down in the days since.

The Philadelphia Union and Portland Timbers honored victims of police violence by displaying their names. Thierry Henry kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds to honor George Floyd. Players across the league have kneeled and raised their first in the air, uniting to send support to the Black Lives Matter movement.

It remains to be seen how much those messages will continue and how much the coronavirus will remain a talking point going forward.

Still, those two issues will remain key aspects of this tournament. They will always be intertwined with the start of this competition.

Crew make statement with thrashing of rivals

The Hell is Real rivalry is still one that is fairly new to MLS.

The Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati had only had three meetings before lining up against each other to kickstart the MLS is Back tournament. Each team had one victory to their name alongside a drawn fixture, with the most memorable of those matches coming in FC Cincy's 2017 triumph, as the then-USL side knocked their neighbors out of the U.S. Open Cup in a stunning upset.

The most recent match was not an upset, and, due to the lack of fans, it may be the most forgettable fixture of the young rivalry.

It was, though, the most emphatic, as the Crew used their local rivals to make a statement.

The Crew absolutely smashed FC Cincy 4-0, marking Jaap Stam's MLS coaching debut with a resounding loss.

It was a near-faultless performance from Caleb Porter's team, with Gyasi Zardes scoring a brace alongside goals from Lucas Zelarayan and Youness Mokhtar.

While Zardes did what he always does, it was Zelarayan's goal that was the moment of the match. The midfielder, brought into replace Federico Higuain (who scored a stunner of his own this weekend), fired in a magnificent free-kick.

"I called it to the coaches on the bench before he hit it because I've seen that goal on film a bunch of times," Porter said post-match. "We've scouted this guy extensively and I've seen him make that play time and again.

"It's one of the reasons we signed him. He has the ability to change a game in a moment, he drew the foul and he hits a dead ball. And top players, that's what they bring and it's just great to see. The best teams have players that do that. "

Porter is right: Zelarayan may just be the missing piece.

For all his naysayers, Zardes is one of the most consistent goalscorers in the league having hit double-digits over the last two seasons. Darlington Nagbe and Arthur give the Crew one of the most talented midfield in the league while the team's ability to stretch the field with wingers and fullbacks will frustrate every team.

The Crew have shined on the counter in recent years, but Zelarayan gives them that player that can break down a team with an individual play.

The early signs are good with Zelarayan, with the Argentine providing two goals and two assists in his first three games.

That marks a great start for a big-money signing, and his latest effort was made even sweeter as it came the expense of a local rival.

Are the Loons for real? Probably

Before play was halted due to the coronavirus, there was no MLS team that impressed more than Minnesota United.

In their first two matches of the season, the Loons absolutely blitzed the Portland Timbers 3-1 before firing five past the San Jose Earthquakes.

These results came on the heels of a 2019 campaign that saw the Loons earn their first playoff berth, providing plenty of optimism for a team that took a little while to get going in MLS.

But, heading to Orlando, there was reason to be concerned.

Ike Opara, the reigning MLS Defensive Player of the Year, didn not travel. Opara is arguably the league's most vital piece, as Loons' rise and Sporting KC's fall last season could be attributed to the trade that brought the centerback to Minnesota.

Yet, on Sunday, in the club's first match of the tournament, Minnesota made a statement with a stoppage-time win over Sporting KC, showing that they may actually be for real.

Like Minnesota, Sporting KC had won their first two matches in impressive fashion, cruising past both the Houston Dynamo and Vancouver Whitecaps. And, for 92 minutes, they looked to be on their way to a third thanks to a stunning sequence from Alan Puldio and Khiry Shelton.

Yet, two minutes into stoppage time, a Shelton own goal brought Minnesota level. Five minutes later, Kevin Molino added a second, stealing all three points at the death.

The goal was Molino's third of the young season, with the former Orlando City star finally looking like the player that existed before his 2018 ACL tear, the second such injury of his career.

With Opara out, Minnesota still probably are not the favorites to win the competition. They still do not have the starpower of an LAFC, or the experience of Toronto FC or Seattle Sounders.

However, it is clear to see that this team has taken a step forward, even with Opara sidelined. 

Emotions boil over in TFC-D.C. scuffle

Despite taking place at a Disney-owned campus, Sunday morning's clash between Toronto FC and D.C. United was anything but family-friendly.

Instead, it was a match where emotions ran high and, eventually, boiled over.

After the final whistle of a 2-2 draw that saw D.C. complete a stunning comeback, a scuffle broke out between the two sides, with both teams' stars names smack middle of it all.

Bill Hamid and Michael Bradley were two key figures in the kerfuffle, which was the result of perceived disrespect from both sides.

"It wasn't surprising that there was a dust-up, it didn't surprise me that it was a physical game and there was a red card," said D.C. boss Ben Olsen.

"It was always going to shake out that way -- both sides talking at each other. That's OK. It's done, it'll blow over and now we can focus on another team - we've been essentially focused on Toronto for two full weeks."

The incident came after the match was postponed from its originally-scheduled date. Toronto FC arrived in Orlando late as they awaited test results, forcing the original match to be rescheduled.

Then, ahead of Sunday's match, TFC opted not to show up to the stadium after D.C. received a positive test, forcing the match to be delayed by a day.

If you take those situations and add in a hard-fought 2-2 draw that featured a sending off, you find two teams that had plenty of reason to scrap.

"From their side, we've gotten a real sense that they're all p*ssed off and angry that we showed up late," Bradley said. "Almost feeling like we're trying to cheat the system or get a leg up on everybody and that obviously couldn't be further from the truth."

Rodriguez and Dynamo offer glimpse of the future

For at least 45 minutes, the Houston Dynamo's high-powered attack fired on all cylinders against defending Supporters' Shield winners LAFC.

It was a performance that was vintage Dynamo, and the first true shining moment of Tab Ramos' tenure.

And, even though they could not convert the performance into anything more than a 3-3 draw, it did show that there might just be something fun brewing in Houston.

Over the past several years, the Dynamo have fashioned itself into a counterattacking side, albeit with up and down results.

The club won the U.S. Open Cup in 2018, but have only made the playoffs once since 2013. The team has certainly played fun soccer, but the results have not quite been there.

Ramos was brought in to change that after building the U.S. U-20s into a program that routinely makes runs at World Cups. Early results were seen as set-backs: a 1-1 draw with the LA Galaxy and a 4-0 shellacking at the hands of Sporting KC.

On Sunday, that attack was on full display throughout the first 45 minutes, with homegrown product Memo Rodriguez leading the charge.

The young midfielder fired two of the Dynamo's three goals, with the first serving as the game's opener less than 10 minutes in. It was a wonderful bit of skill, as he breezed by Latif Blessing before firing a shot past Kenneth Vermeer.

The second came from a magnificent cross from Zarek Valentin that Rodriguez fired straight at the LAFC goalkeeper. The 24-year-old followed up the rebound by tapping it into the empty net, giving his side the 2-1 lead.

Sunday's doublee came after Rodriguez scored seven goals last season in a campaign that served as his true first-team breakthrough. If Sunday was any indication, there may just be more goals to come from a player who has made the adjustment from winger to central midfielder while displaying the intelligence needed to make perfectly-timed runs into open spaces.

The Dynamo's third came just before halftime in what was the team's last good moment of the match. Alberth Elis' goal to close the first half should have been insurance, but instead, it will largely be forgotten thanks to a stunning second half from LAFC's own young stars in Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez.

With Elis, Darwin Quintero and Mauro Manotas, the Dynamo have one of the most dynamic attacks in the league. Add a goalscorer such as Rodriguez to that list, and the Dynamo may be able to finally push back towards a postseason spot.