By Paul Gardner
As you'd expect, the seven games of the opening weekend of MLS had a bit of everything -- the good, the bad, the remarkable, the absurd and whatever else you can think of.
The best of the best came from Sigi Schmid's Seattle, with a combination of remarkable enthusiasm and atmosphere, and a superb individual performance from young Fredy Montero. In Montero, the Sounders are giving MLS exactly the sort of player it needs - a lively goal-scorer, one who can also make a defense-splitting pass, as he did for Brad Evans's goal.
We got a reminder, too, of just how good a player Landon Donovan is, with his wonderfully quick movement and uncanny anticipation; how could he get so open when he scored his second goal, and not be offside? Well, he could, and his move was timed to perfection. So perfect that it literally left everyone else - both teammates and opponents - standing and watching.
That Galaxy vs. D.C.United game was probably the best of the lot -- highly competitive, four goals, two penalty kicks (one of them of the mystery variety), a dramatic comeback by the Galaxy, and the result in the balance right up to the final whistle.
Donovan's goal was headed in from the edge of the six-yard box, a truly close-range effort. But we had long-range stuff, too. A couple of ferocious, unstoppable blasts from outside the penalty area by Davy Arnaud for Kansas City; and then one of the more remarkable goals you'll ever see - Dallas's Kenny Cooper thumping a shot from his own half of the field that sailed into Chicago keeper Jon Busch's net over 50 yards away.
And if you were looking for finesse, you got it later in that game when Cuauhtemoc Blanco stroked home a 20-yard free kick, a smoothly struck shot that sent the ball spinning up and over the wall and satisfyingly into the net. Effortless and a joy to watch.
But joyful watching is hardly a term that could be applied to the Chivas vs. Colorado game. This was pretty dire stuff. Chivas' Jesse Marsch has let it be known in the past that he thinks physical fouls are the necessary way to begin a game. Given that Gary Smith clearly wants his Rapids to play a no-frills physical game (despite his fanciful talk of "playing like Arsenal"), this was a game that was destined to be scrappy from the moment it began.
Marsch, whose team won this mess of a game, admitted that it was something of a "dogfight," but declared that "It's the first game of the year; all in all, not a bad start." Heavens help us.
Even so, the crudities of Chivas vs. Rapids did not mark the low point of MLS First Kick. That came from the ESPN announcers' booth, where John Harkes managed to ignore the Seattle Sounders' second goal as he droned on and on with some totally irrelevant drivel, only shutting up when the ball had actually entered the net! What was he talking about? Who knows - but it seemed he was so entranced with his own voice that he totally failed to notice what was going on down on the field.
This is utterly absurd. What kind of a commentary is it that overlooks one of the neatest plays of the game? Fact is, when the action gets near either goal, when the possibility of at least a shot on goal looms, Harkes should not be talking at all. That is when play-by-play guy JP Della Camera should be in charge, interrupting Harkes if necessary. I mean whennecessary.
But it will not be the verbally incontinent Harkes who sticks in the mind from that game. It will be Montero, and the freshness and liveliness and inventiveness of his soccer. He looked like a superstar -- but he has a way to go yet. This was his first MLS game. A thrilling performance that will have alerted opposing coaches that he spells trouble for them -- and he will be treated accordingly. Tougher times are on the way for Fredy, but the skill and self-assurance he showed last week strongly suggest he will flourish in MLS.