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History puts 'expansion' label in perspective
by Ridge Mahoney, April 6th, 2009 7AM

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By beating Colorado, 2-1, Sunday at Home Depot Center, Chivas USA matched expansion Seattle atop the overall MLS standings at 3-0. The Sounders won their first away test Saturday, beating Toronto FC, 2-0, at BMO Field. They return home next week to play Kansas City and so perhaps only a road game on the grass - at Home Depot Center against Chivas USA April 18 as luck would have it - can expose the upstart.

More likely is the case that Seattle is an expansion team in name only, and will maintain its competitive edge all season regardless of what comes of accusations swirling about Fredy Montero, who did not travel to Toronto. Yet how does Seattle's charge out of the gate stack up with other MLS expansion teams?

Remember, four years ago, as one of two expansion teams for the 2005 season, Chivas USA won four games all season, and fellow newcomer Real Salt Lake did only slightly better, winning five. The 2007 addition, Toronto, edged all the way up to six wins, and in 2008, San Jose broke through by winning eight games.

Three games into their inaugural seasons, those teams were: Chivas USA 0-2-1, RSL 1-1-1, TFC 0-3-0, San Jose 1-2-0. (TFC gets a bit of a break because it opened the season with three road games). Not surprisingly, none of them made the playoffs, unlike the league's first two expansion teams.

Those 1998 expansion teams met early the season, and Chicago not only beat Miami, it won the road, 2-0. A week later it debuted at home in front of 36,444 fans (take that, Seattle!), and downed Tampa Bay, 2-0. It lost for the first time (in regulation, not a shootout) in its third game of the season, 1-0, at Kansas City.
Chicago hit a skid after that 2-1-0 start. It lost three of its next four and the only win came via the shootout following a wild 4-4 tie at Colorado. Soon enough it got on track, finished second in the Western Conference at 20-12, and rolled to the MLS Cup title, beating Colorado and Los Angeles - both by shootouts - in the playoffs prior to toppling D.C. United, 2-0, in the final.

Miami opened the 1998 season at 1-2-0. It beat Tampa Bay in a shootout after losing its debut to D.C. United and then falling to Chicago before capturing the first Florida derby, sort of. It reached the playoffs with a 15-17 record and went out in the first round.

After that dismal first season, Chivas USA put its house in order and has reached the playoffs the past three seasons. RSL fans had to wait until last year for their team to make it. Will the third year be a charm for TFC? How will San Jose fare in a tougher Western Conference already boasting two 3-0-0 teams?

Seattle operator-investor Joe Roth erred in the buildup to the season by proclaiming his goal to be the first MLS expansion team to make the playoffs in Year One. Obviously, that's been done. But the Sounders have already marked new ground by winning their first three games -- without conceding a goal, another first - and Roth and the organization have got just about everything else right so far. And Chicago isn't the first U.S. top-division expansion soccer team to win a title right out of the box. Three years in a row, expansion teams -- the Philadelphia Atoms in 1973, Los Angeles Aztecs in 1974 and Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1975 -- won NASL titles.

Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer, technical director Chris Henderson and head coach Sigi Schmid will keep anybody from getting too giddy too soon. Yet before the Sounders kicked a ball in MLS they were a big story in the Northwest. Three weeks later, they're the big story, period, and are making expansion look mighty good while MLS Cup finalists -- and league originals -- Columbus and New York, and Western Conference champion Houston, search for their first wins.



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