As much as teams love to get off to great starts to the season and dread stumbling out of the blocks, several MLS teams have proven that you can be too quick to judge how a season will go based on the first few weeks.
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The Portland Timbers, Houston Dynamo, Chivas USA, Seattle Sounders and Columbus Crew endured disappointing beginnings in March, combining for an 0-7-3 record in the season’s first two weeks and were outscored 16-5 in those matches. The stumbles had contenders like the Sounders, Dynamo and Crew looking set for down seasons, and the Timbers and Chivas USA looked destined for nightmare campaigns.
All that changed in April, as all five teams rebounded and put together a 15-1-9 record in a month that saw all five clubs climb the standings and see their playoff prospects rise.
The most surprising members of the Turnaround Club are the Timbers and Chivas USA, which came into the season looking destined to struggle. The Timbers capped a strong April with a convincing 1-0 victory against a Real Salt Lake team that hadn’t dropped a point this season. Yes, RSL was resting several starters and still reeling from its CONCACAF Champions League disappointment, but Portland still showed toughness and improvement in moving to 3-0 at home.
Chivas USA’s turnaround isn’t quite as surprising, not with highly-regarded rookie head coach Robin Fraser at the helm. He focused on rebuilding the Rojiblancos back-line. There were struggles early on, but after Fraser slid Heath Pearce to centerback and found some solid fullback options in Michael Lahoud and rookie Zarek Valentin, Chivas USA has allowed just one goal in four matches and now boasts a 3-3-1 record.
The other three April powerhouses came into the season with playoff hopes, but there were question marks galore with Columbus. The Crew’s off-season overhaul left questions about where the team’s offense would come from, and while Columbus isn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard (just seven goals scored in seven matches), the team’s defense has been strong, with Chad Marshall anchoring a defense that has allowed just two goals in the six matches since its season-opening 3-1 loss D.C. United.
Houston and Seattle’s slow starts were a bit more misleading than those of the other teams mentioned. The Sounders faced a rough opening schedule against Los Angeles and New York but rode the stellar play of Steve Zakuani and the impressive inclusion of Mauro Rosales to rattle off a five match unbeaten streak capped this past weekend by a 3-0 thumping of Toronto FC in its first match since losing Zakuani for the season.
The Dynamo has been arguably the most impressive of the bunch. Houston was arguably the better team in a 1-0 season-opening loss to Philadelphia and then escaped New York with a road draw, but the Dynamo really turned it on in April despite missing striker Brian Ching to injury. Behind the stellar service of winger Brad Davis, the strong form of rookie Will Bruin, and the steady quality of a defense that allowed just four goals in five April matches, Houston finds itself standing, along with Columbus, just two points behind first-place New York in the East.
The results of teams that struggled weren’t the only misleading ones in MLS. Vancouver opened the season with a stunning 4-2 victory against TFC but hasn’t won a match since, and the same applies for Sporting Kansas City, which hasn’t tasted victory since its 3-2 road triumph against Chivas USA.
Given the schedule that awaits in May, it is a safe bet that Houston, Columbus, Chivas USA, Portland and Seattle won’t all keep up the success they enjoyed in April, but the upcoming month should go a long way in painting a clearer picture which of them are legitimate contenders and which are destined to revert back to the struggling form of the season’s opening month.
MLS Player of the Week
There were several worthy candidates for this week’s honor, but Seattle’s Brad Evans gets the nod for leading a severely short-handed Sounders attack to a 3-0 win against Toronto FC. The Sounders played their first match without Steve Zakuani and were also missing O’Brian White and Mauro Rosales, but Evans’ energy and nose for goal helped the Sounders push their unbeaten streak to six matches.
MLS Rookie of the Week
Houston rookie striker Will Bruin could have very easily been the pick for MLS Player of the Week, and he was selected as such by MLS, but we’ll give him the nod as top rookie for the third time this season for his best performance to date. The Indiana University product is blossoming into an ideal target striker for Houston’s attack, and he could enjoy even more success going forward as Brian Ching makes his return from injury.
MLS Team of the Week
Houston and Seattle posted convincing blowout victories, but our pick for this week’s top MLS team performance goes to Chivas USA, for shutting out and blowing out New England, 3-0. Led by Alejandro Moreno’s goal and two assists, and another shutout performance from a suddenly stingy Rojiblancos defense, Chivas USA improved to 3-3-1 and looks every bit like a team ready to challenge for a playoff berth in Robin Fraser’s first season as head coach.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.