Major League Soccer is entering into the best patch of the league's history. Attendance is up. New teams are thriving. And the quality of play on the field continues to improve. Here are the 10 more surprising storylines so far this year in MLS.
1. The continued growth of MLS
There was already an established fan base in Montreal before the Impact's home opener, which had the largest crowd for a home opener for an expansion team in MLS history. The Impact, like Vancouver and Seattle before it, was a professional team playing in the lower division of North American soccer. There was no way to know the kind of reception the team would get upon entry to the MLS. Montreal became the 19th team in MLS only 10 years after the league was on the brink of extinction.
2. The improved style of play
There have been complaints abound about the poor quality of play and players in MLS, but that is starting to change. The names on the back of jerseys may not be the most recognizable, but the players wearing those jerseys are certainly more talented than those in the past. MLS has grown, and the style of play has evolved from kick and chase to more organized and more fluid styles of play. With every passing year, MLS gets better, and more fans come on board.
3. Sporting Kansas City's red hot start
Sporting Kansas City ended last season on a hot streak before the playoffs, where it lost to the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference finals of the MLS Cup, but no one expected the team to start the season with seven straight wins. In the first half of last season, Kansas City played only road games because Livestrong Park was under construction, and unsurprisingly, the team struggled. Hopefully for Sporting fans, the team doesn't do the opposite and tank the second half.
4. Los Angeles Galaxy's slow start
The defending champs—regular season and MLS Cup—have looked sluggish out of the gate. Landon Donovan can't seem to stay on the field. David Beckham seems to be struggling. And the absence of Omar Gonzalez in the center of the Galaxy defense has the team on edge. Losing at home to a New England Revolution team in the midst of a complete revamping was almost unimaginable at the beginning of the season. But it happened.
5. Young coaches continue to succeed
In 2007, Real Salt Lake took a chance. The Royals fired head coach John Ellinger and hired a recently retired Jason Kreis, the first player the team signed, to take over. At the time, Kreis was 34-years-old and had no experience coaching. It was a bold move. But it has paid off. RSL has become the staple franchise in MLS under Kreis.
Since then, D.C. United hired the team's former midfielder and captain Ben Olsen, who has been successful in turning the team around. The New England Revolution hired former defender and color analyst Jay Heaps after a disappointing 2011 season, making him the second youngest coach in league history, behind Olsen. Just like Kreis, Heaps and Olsen have, in their short time leading their teams, found success in turning things around at their clubs.
Le Toux was the Philadelphia Union's best player in the team's two seasons in MLS. But that didn't stop Peter Nowak from shipping his leading goalscorer and locker room leader to Vancouver in the hopes of building a brighter future for Philadelphia, instead of focusing on the present. Le Toux wasn't happy about the move. Fans weren't happy about the trade. And Peter Nowak still has a lot of questions to answer as the team he's built hasn't performed thus far.
7. San Jose Earthquakes rolling
For the first time in the team's history since being refounded in 2008, the Quakes sit in first place in the Western Conference. Thanks to Chris Wondolowski's goal scoring and a stingy defense, San Jose has upset the balance in the West.
8. Young blood stepping up
Darlington Nagbe has talent. He has a lot of it. And everyone knew it when the Portland Timbers selected him with the No. 2 pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. But he has shown only small glimpses of that talent. Now, he looks like he's getting his chance, is showing what he can do and how he will light up the league in a few years, if he can get his head on straight and work hard.
Kelyn Rowe had his doubters when the New England Revolution selected him with the third pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft. But the midfielder from UCLA has fit in nicely with the New England Revolution and made an impact on the league already.
The number of youngsters like Rowe and Nagbe in MLS is abundant right now. There is plenty of talent coming through the league right now. Hopefully the players all develop like they should and help MLS grow.
9. New York's Defense, again
The New York Red Bulls have allowed 14 goals so far this season, second most in the league, one less than the Montreal Impact. New York's attacking power has not been in question for a few years now, but it's defense has been a different story. It doesn't look like things are getting any better either for Hans Backe's team.
All-Star Games are an American pastime. People watch them for one reason or another. The MLS All-Star game pits the best players in the league against an elite team from Europe so those best XI can either show off what they're made of or get embarrassed by second-tier players on elite European teams. It's a terrible format and should be done away with (more on that at another time). This year, though, MLS will play Chelsea at PPL Park in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It should be an interesting affair. Just don't look into it too much.
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