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MLS Talking Points: Early statement games headline opening week

5:45 PM EST 3/1/19
Wayne Rooney D.C. United 2018
Atlanta United's visit to D.C. United and Sporting KC's trip to Los Angeles FC should offer some contenders a chance to show they're serious in 2019

Last season, D.C. United needed to wait until the summer for Wayne Rooney to arrive and help lead a dramatic turnaround that made D.C. a contender. In 2019, D.C. fans will have to wait just one game to see how serious we should consider Rooney's team.

D.C. United plays host to reigning MLS Cup champion Atlanta United on Sunday in a match that should be a good litmus test for a team with high expectations after Rooney helped transform the group.

An early exit from the 2018 playoffs tempered the overflowing enthusiasm surrounding D.C. United's surge, but now a new season has D.C. fans excited at the prospect of having the English star for an entire season, as well as welcoming back Luciano Acosta after the playmaker reportedly came close to a winter move to Paris Saint-German.

D.C. will be facing an Atlanta United side in the midst of its first foray into the Concacaf Champions League. The Five Stripes eliminated Costa Rica champion Herediano, but now a date with Mexican power Monterrey awaits on Wednesday and Frank de Boer may have no choice but to rest some starters given how early in the year it is, and how unlikely his squad is ready to play three games in one week.

The potential absence of some key players for Atlanta won't take away from the significance of the match for a D.C. side that has aspirations of breaking up the Eastern Conference's domination by Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls.

Here are some other talking points to watch for in the opening weekend of the 2019 MLS season.


Does a dream debut await FC Cincinnati, or a nightmare start?


You have to think FC Cincinnati head coach Alan Koch cursed the MLS schedule-makers who decided a road trip the hostile environment at CenturyLink Field was the ideal place for Major League Soccer's newest team to debut.

Not only is FC Cincinnati being made to wait until week three of the season to make its home debut in front of what is sure to be a sold-out crowd, but the first two matches are against two of the best teams in MLS in Seattle and Atlanta United. Talk about baptism by fire.

The road trip to Seattle is particularly harsh, but the early gauntlet could be a blessing. It's a good bet the first-year team was going to struggle no matter who it faced, but now Cincinnati will have a close-up look at just how high the standard is in MLS (Atlanta and Seattle could very well be meeting in the MLS Cup final later this year), and how far FCC still has to go.

Any points Cincinnati can generate in the opening weeks will be gravy, but a pair of losses seem inevitable. On the bright side, Cincinnati knows that one heck of a homecoming awaits, and two of the toughest road trips on the schedule will be in the rearview mirror.


Can LAFC pull an Atlanta United?


Stop if you have heard this scenario before: high-scoring expansion team with star power and great crowd support sees its first season ended prematurely in an upset playoff loss.

That was what Atlanta United experienced during its expansion season of 2017, and a year later the Five Stripes rebounded and went on to win an MLS Cup title. Los Angeles FC also endured that same scenario, and now heads into its second MLS campaign with high expectations.

We will find out right away just how seriously we should take LAFC when Sporting KC comes to town in the midst of an impressive CCL run. Peter Vermes' squad dominated Liga MX side Toluca, and is now looking at a favorable path to the CCL semifinals. Will Vermes tap into his team's considerable depth in order to rest some starters, or will he want as strong a team as possible to send a message to LAFC that SKC is the team to beat in the West?

Sporting KC isn't without some questions. Ike Opara's departure means the pressure is on Andreu Fontas to replace him, while the team's search for a striker continues to put pressure on the forwards currently being shuffled around by Vermes.

LAFC won't want to give up home points to start a season. Bob Bradley has surely pointed out to his team that it failed to win at Banc of California far too many times, and dropping the season opener — even against a team as tough as SKC — would make for a bad omen. That being said, Atlanta suffered a 4-0 loss in its first match of 2018, though that was on the road in Houston.


Can Porter ride Crew's momentum into fast start?


The Columbus Crew were saved this winter, and now it's up to new head coach Caleb Porter to make the most out of the team's second chance.

Porter has replaced new U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter as Crew boss, and he inherits a team with plenty of talent, and plenty of momentum after the team was kept from moving out of Columbus. The vibe in Ohio's capital is as positive as it has been in a decade, and Porter has the pressure to put his own stamp on a team that Berhalter built and molded.

The Crew will be facing a tough opening challenge against the New York Red Bulls, even though Chris Armas could decide to rest some starters ahead of New York's CCL quarterfinal clash with Santos Laguna. When you consider the fact that Columbus was eliminated by the Red Bulls in last year's playoffs, beating those same Red Bulls would be a good way for Porter to introduce himself to fans who are riding high after their role in keeping their team from disappearing.


Week 1 Predictions


(*Best Bet)

UNION 2, Toronto FC 1. TFC's woes continue after an ugly CCL elimination. Philadelphia is a team that could make a big jump in 2019, and a season-opening win with a strong Marco Fabian debut would be a good start.

ORLANDO CITY 2, NYCFC 1. Are the Lions capable of a big turnaround in 2019? There have been signs in preseason that they could. They face an NYCFC side adapting to life without David Villa.

Crew 1, RED BULLS 2. Will Chris Armas rest starters ahead of the CCL quarterfinal showdown with Santos Laguna? It's possible, but even so, the Red Bulls should still trot out a defense that causes problems for Caleb Porter's Crew debut.

FC DALLAS 3, Revolution 1. Luchi Gonzalez earns a win in his head coaching debut, with Dominique Badji picking up where he left off in preseason, and Michael Barrios exposing Edgar Castillo.

Rapids 0, TIMBERS 1. The Rapids added several upgrades to its squad, but it will take some time for the right chemistry to develop. The Timbers don't have such concerns, and Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco shine.

Dynamo 0, REAL SALT LAKE 2. Even if Houston doesn't rest starters for CCL, it could find fatigue a factor against a Real Salt Lake side with a dangerous attack, but poor road record in 2018. That is something Mike Petke will be looking to change.

Whitecaps 1, MINNESOTA UNITED 2. The revamped Loons take on the completely reconstucted Whitecaps in a battle of extreme makeovers. Give the edge to Minnesota United, which should have more chemistry than a Whitecaps side where players are still learning each other's names.

GALAXY 3, Fire 1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic begins his march toward the MLS Golden Boot with a hat-trick on opening day, while the Fire quickly realizes that its defense is as bad as advertised.

EARTHQUAKES 2, Impact 1. The Matias Almeyda era begins in San Jose, and it starts with a victory over an Impact side being tipped for a turnaround season by some. That turnaround won't start at Avaya Stadium though, and Chris Wondolowski will see to that by scoring the goal that helps him catch Landon Donovan for the MLS career goals record.

*SOUNDERS 3, FC Cincinnati 0. The league's newest expansion team is given a brutal welcome to the league, courtesy of a Raul Ruidiaz double.

D.C. United 2, Atlanta United 2. Frank De Boer is likely to rest some starters, but Atlanta will still have enough firepower to score goals against D.C. United, but the D.C. attack ensures comes away with at least a point against the champions.

LOS ANGELES FC 2, Sporting Kansas City 1. While SKC may have as good a second team as there is in MLS, that depth won't be enough against a full-strength LAFC attack, and MVP candidate Carlos Vela.