Major League Soccer’s close season saw fans subjected to the increasingly aggravating hype of the college combine, Super Draft, supplementary draft and pre-season friendlies. Jersey Week and a “March to Soccer” address by Don Garber were added to this year’s slate of non-events to compensate for the departure of prized marketing tool David Beckham – the latter appearing utterly irrelevant given the commissioner’s existing annual “State of the League” conference.
The indigestible smoke-blowing did not dissipate during the new season’s opening round of regular-season games this past weekend. A dense cloud descended over the nation’s judgment during Sunday’s second half between Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls as the wheels of sensationalism churned into overdrive. MLS can be reasonably expected to overemphasize its product as it seeks to become America’s league of choice by 2022. A worrying number of commentators, pundits and fans also now appear alarmingly reticent to call out blatantly substandard fare.
Caleb Porter’s Timbers provided a captivating second-half spectacle as they sought to overcome the bromidic Red Bulls before they knocked themselves into submission. Will Johnson fetched, carried, recycled the ball and inspired Portland’s creative players with his compelling industry from deep in midfield. Darlington Nagbe, Porter’s protégé from the University of Akron, grew in confidence and potency with his cutting runs from the left flank. Debutant Diego Valeri introduced himself to the sold out Jeld-Wen Field crowd with stunning poise to round an admittedly statuesque Jamison Olave before stroking home the Timbers’ first goal.
Yet a stunning lack of quality punctuated the game. Spanish winger Ruben Bover looked like a player who was once harried out of English non-league side Kidderminster. Thierry Henry laid a ball off to Roy Miller that careered out of play five yards ahead of the Costa Rican left-back. New York’s ornate designated player responded with a Gallic shrug before executing his all-too-frequent disappearing trick – a feat matched by Australian international Tim Cahill. Goalkeeper Luis Robles flubbed an easy save to fuel the Timbers’ revival, and the 28-year-old should have pushed Nagbe’s effort out of play rather than keep alive the move that resulted in Portland’s equalizer.
“That was a quite magnificent advert for Major League Soccer,” tweeted NBC Sports Network commentator Arlo White after the game. He was far from alone in holding such a sentiment. Magnificent? Well, if you admire woefully botched defending by an aging Frenchman whose form evaporated five years ago, or if you appreciate a creaking Colombian that was surplus to requirements at Real Salt Lake. Olave’s lumbering reached such an extent that Timber Joey must have been sizing up taking a log slice from the 31-year-old to mark the defender’s equalizing own goal.
Screw-ups had already peppered Saturday’s games. Sebastien Le Toux prodded the season’s first goal past Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen at PPL Park after Seth Sinovic angled his defensive run away from goal, leaving the returning Philadelphia Union striker with space to control a long ball just 10 yards out. Le Toux’s finish ended a move that was initiated by Chance Myers taking his eye off the ball. Still, Kansas City recovered due to the Union’s repeated inability to defend the edge of their penalty area.
Houston Dynamo and D.C. United offered few moments of note at BBVA Compass Stadium until visiting substitute James Riley bulleted Brad Davis’ inswinger corner into his own net, and Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Stewart Ceus sabotaged his team’s chances at F.C. Dallas by misjudging a long, bouncing ball toward his penalty area that left him stranded outside his box.
Davy Arnaud received the freedom of the state of Washington to wrap up three points for Montreal Impact after Seattle Sounders left-back Leonardo Gonzalez inexplicably dropped five yards behind the rest of his defensive line. Chivas USA conceded an uncontested goal on a corner kick despite Columbus Crew only sending three men into the penalty area, and Dominic Oduro scampered unopposed for 80 yards to seal the Crew’s 3-0 win at Home Depot Center. Magnificent play? Not likely.
Games will improve as players shake off the pre-season rust and new teammates develop an understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Optimal performance is not to be expected in Week One.
Let us save the exaltations for when something truly noteworthy occurs.