Three games is not a huge sample set, no matter the sport. In Major League Soccer, it is just the beginning of a nine-month journey to the MLS Cup in November.
So, what do you make of a three-game win streak or a three-game winless stretch out of the gate in 2019? How do you react to two very different starts for our Northwest soccer teams? Do you book tickets to the finals if you are a Seattle Sounders fan, or do you throw in the towel if you are a Portland Timbers fan?
In Seattle, there is obvious excitement as the team has won all its games so far (3-0-0) for the first time since 2009 and leads the league with 10 goals scored. The Sounders didn’t reach that mark until game No. 10 last season. They have run over all their opponents thus far, overwhelming them with early goals, skillful possession soccer and stellar defense. They’ve put a player on each of the league’s Teams of the Week and have seen three different players score multiple goals.
However, if you’re the Portland Timbers, all of the lofty preseason expectations are tinged with anxiety after failing to win any of their first three games, losing two and drawing another. They’ve given up a league-worst 10 goals and have seen two players get ejected in each of their last two games. They are the first MLS team to concede three or more goals in each of their first three contests of a season.
I’m here to say one thing: It’s early. There are going to be emotional highs and lows to the season as there are every year. There is no need for Seattle to get too excited, nor Portland too low.
The Sounders spent all offseason talking about getting off to a strong start in 2019. Mission accomplished. Being healthy across the board for the first time in what seems like forever has launched the team out of the blocks just as they wrote it up. Jordan Morris appears to have regained the form he showed in 2016 when he scored 12 goals as Rookie of the Year. With his knee injury behind him, Morris has scored three times, which matches his total goals from 2017.
Playmakers Victor Rodriguez and Nicolas Lodeiro are tearing teams apart. Rodriguez has dished out two assists, and Lodeiro, with three on the year, is on pace to break or match the club-record 16 assists he had last season. Defensively, Stefan Frei has been stellar in goal, and the team has only given up three goals on the year. You know the season is going well when outside defender Kelvin Leerdam has scored twice.
But like I said, the season is young. The Sounders still have some work to do. They have steamrolled teams with first-half goals but have had trouble finishing games. They come out strong but seem to fade later in games as they struggle to maintain possession and protect leads. It also must be noted that, of the three teams they have played, Cincinnati is an expansion team and Colorado and Chicago are coming off disappointing seasons. Expectations are low for all three this year—not the strongest trio. How the Sounders will hold up as the level of play rises remains to be seen. But so far, so good.
Where do you find optimism if you are a Timbers fan? You need look no further than last season. After suffering consecutive defeats to start the season, it was in game number three that coach Giovanni Savarese found a successful formula with a new formation that would eventually springboard them to a 15-game unbeaten run between April and August.
Also look at what their rival Sounders did in 2018. Seattle could not have gotten off to a worse start with three shutout losses and found themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference standings at midseason. All hope looked lost.
But the team got healthy, added a few key pieces and put together a league-best 12 game win streak near the end of the season. They erased the panic from the bad start and found themselves with the No. 2 seed in the West and a first-round playoff bye.
As a Sounders fan and season-ticket holder, I will say it does give me a bit of pleasure to see the Timbers stumble. After all, they are Seattle’s biggest rival. But something tells me Portland won’t be down for long. They are forced to play their first 12 games on the road as their home field at Providence Park undergoes a $75 million upgrade.
Read that again.
Twelve consecutive games on the road.
But Savarese is a solid coach, and the team will be rewarded for that brutal road trip by having 11 of their final 12 games at home. It could very well spark a late-season run to the playoffs. Getting through these early away matches with a couple wins will be crucial. Portland has too many great players to play poorly for any extended time. Playing in front of an additional 4,000 fans when they return home won’t hurt either.
Even though the Sounders find themselves at the top of the table and Portland near the bottom, things tend to balance out during a 34-game season. It’s a roller coaster, my friends, and the start of the 2019 MLS season only reinforces that for Seattle and Portland soccer fans. Hold on.