Five biggest surprises in MLS so far in 2018

Oh MLS, you have been missed. The 2018 MLS season has just wrapped up its second round of fixtures and oh boy have there been some surprises. The return of top-tier soccer in America was always going to bring fireworks, but it’s near-impossible to find anybody who would have predicted what happened in the first fortnight of the season. Here are Total MLS’s five surprises so far this season.

1. LAFC’s flying start

There’s only one place to start, and that’s with expansion team Los Angeles Football Club. Not many fans thought Bob Bradley’s team to start this well given their opening two games were on the road against the Western Conference champions Seattle and Real Salt Lake, but holy Mike Grella they have blown all expectations out of the water.

LAFC went to the Emerald City on the opening weekend of the season and came away with a 1-0 win against the Sounders, a team that lost only once at home all last season. Bradley’s side followed this up with a 5-1 demolition of Mike Petke’s Real Salk Lake in Utah.

Nobody expected LAFC to be this dangerous this early in the season, and a large part of their danger lies with 19-year-old DP Diego Rossi, who has either scored or assisted every LAFC goal so far this season. The Uruguayan’s link-up play with fellow DP Carlos Vela and veteran striker Marco Ureña allow the LAFC attack to bombard their opponents from multiple different angles and positions, and a sturdy midfield base and CB pairing mean the attacking trio have more freedom to cause havoc. The biggest question remaining is can LAFC sustain their hot start?

2. Sporting Kansas City’s defensive woes

It’s crazy what an offseason can do to a team. Last season Sporting Kansas City was THE defending team of MLS. Ike Opara and Matt Besler finally managed a full season together as CB partners, with Opara earning 2017 Defender of the Year honors. Oh, and they also played in front of Tim Melia, the 2017 Goalkeeper of the Year. Defense proved to be SKC’s base that earned them a playoff berth for the seventh straight season. Now, though, that solid defense looks like it may be a thing of the past.

Kansas City was swept aside 2-0 at home by New York City FC in a game that could have seen the visitors add more to the scoreboard had their finishing been more accurate. And in Sporting KC's second game against the Chicago Fire this past weekend, they threw away a 2-0 lead to allow the hosts to come back to 3-2 with eight minutes to go. Fortunately for SKC, two late goals from Jimmy Medranda and Felipe Gutierrez salvaged three points in one of the games of the week.

Could this just be pre-season rust? Possibly. But it’s still a worrying sign conceding five goals in the opening two games when last season Sporting KC conceded just 29 goals in the entire 34-game regular season.

3. The rebirth of Gyasi Zardes

“Look what a change of scenery can do to a player” has been a popular phrase when talking about Gyasi Zardes so far this season, but it’s so true to the point it’s understandable why it’s being rehashed all over the place. In Zardes’ first two MLS games for the Columbus Crew SC, the LA-born attacker already has three goals for the black and yellows, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Zardes was bagging in goals for fun in the Crew's preseason matches, an early sign that the former USMNT striker has found his feet again since leaving his local club. It’s evident that Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter has the 26-year-old loving life in Columbus. 

The striker is playing with a confidence that we haven’t seen in some years, with Zardes looking dangerous whenever an area of space is left open for the attacker to exploit. Add in his already calm composure in-front of goal, and we have a player who could easily find himself in the mix for the Golden Boot award at the end of the season should he keep this form throughout the year.

4. South American imports flourishing

The shift in MLS’s transfer policy over the last 18-months has been extraordinary. Gone (mostly) are the days of franchises signing ageing wonders from Europe on outrageously high contracts. Instead, clubs are being smart with their salary space and signing up-and-coming players from South America in the hope they can be shipped off for profit in the future.

It’s a strategy that is tried and tested in Europe, and now America has become a viable option for South American players looking for an alternative paths to the big European leagues. The 2017 winter transfer window saw a large number of players from the continent make the move to North America, and it’s proving to be a big success for both club and player.

Jesús Medina for New York City FC scored against SKC in the opening day of the season, and in NYCFC's home opener against the Galaxy the 20-year-old Paraguayan played a key role in both NYC goals. The aforementioned 19-year-old Uruguayan Diego Rossi of LAFC has been the best player in the league this season two games. 

Crew fullback Milton Valenzuela also deserves a shout-out for his performance against Toronto on opening day, where the 19-year-old Argentine defender put in a solid showing at the back and assisted Federico Higuain’s opener.

5. Portland Timbers’ in free fall

Two games, two defeats, six goals conceded, and one goal scored. No, this isn’t the record for Minnesota United FC, this is the record of the Portland Timbers, who have suffered a dreadful start to the 2018 season. The Timbers were many fans’ and pundit’s preseason picks for Western Conference winners, but early season form could see opinions be swayed.

You can excuse Portland for losing away to the Galaxy on opening day in a closely contested game in Carson, but the real stinger is when the Timbers played against the New York Red Bulls. Not only did Jesse Marsch field a literal second-string team filled with rotation players and youngsters, but this heavily weakened Red Bulls team absolutely destroyed the Timbers 4-0.

Yes, you can argue the Timbers capitulated in the final 15-minutes, as three of the four goals came from this period, but the real worry is that Giovanni Savarese’s side barely created anything in between the first and second Red Bulls goals. Reigning league MVP Diego Váleri went missing for large portions of the game, and Sebastián Blanco was unaspiring at best out on the left wing. New coaches take time to implement their tactics and philosophies, but Savarese needs to act fast if the Timbers have hope of grabbing the top spot in the West.