Pat Martin, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Look out sports world, it seems Major League Soccer is on the rise. A slow and steady rise, but a rise nonetheless.
MLS built a lot of momentum this offseason with the implementation of the designated player rule and the subsequent signing of international superstar David Beckham. That was followed by the signings of former U.S. National Team star Claudio Reyna and Mexican legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco, among others.
"We clearly had more excitement and anticipation leading up to this season than any other time in the history of our league," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "We came into the season with some momentum and had a lot of exciting things happen in a lot of markets.
"We had 14 or 15 new players, many of them international players, which is a great way for us to introduce the hardcore soccer fans to Major League Soccer."
Now that the season is a month old, the play on the field seems to be carrying that momentum forward. There have been a number of surprises, what was up is now down, what was bad is now good and vice versa. Who knows if the topsy- turvy start to the season is a preview of what is to come over the next seven- plus months, but it has been fun to watch so far.
"The play has been terrific," Garber said. "I think you are going to continue to see that improve as more and more players come later in the year and with more players coming in years to come. Games are just very intense early in the season. Our game (Thursday) night (between D.C. and New England in D.C.) had the feel of a playoff game. We are feeling great about the quality of play."
"We clearly had more excitement and anticipation leading up to this season than any other time in the history of our league," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said.
D.C. United, usually one of the class teams in the Eastern Conference and the defending Supporter's Shield winners, are off to a horrible start - one point in their first four games. Red Bull New York, usually one of the East's doormats, are off to the best start in franchise history - tied with Chicago for the best record in the league at 3-0-1 heading into week five.
"The Red Bulls are arguably one of the hotter teams and they haven't had success on the field to speak of over the last several years," Garber said.
In the West, defending champion Houston was in second-to-last heading into week five, only in front of Real Salt Lake, who named a new head coach Thursday after an 0-2-2 start.
Speaking of RSL, 17-year-old Freddie Adu, touted for years as America's soccer savior, has been anything but in Utah. He was supposed to revive his professional career after being traded from D.C. to RSL to play for head coach John Ellinger, who coached him as a member of the U-17 National Team in 2002. But Adu's slow start undoubtedly led to Ellinger's demise. Adu's lackluster play has done little to prevent opposing teams from focusing all of their defensive strategies toward striker Jeff Cunningham, and as a result, the team was shutout three consecutive games before Ellinger's dismissal as head coach.
On the other hand, 17-year-old Jozmer Altidore, who flew under the radar for much of his youth career, looks like the dominant striker of the future for New York (and possibly the U.S. National Team), assuming he stays in MLS during his prime. He already has two goals this season - both game-winners - after scoring three in seven games a year ago.
"A lot of the young players are emerging. Altidore is obviously having a great season so far," Garber said.
Kansas City is also off to a strong start, with a huge contribution from April's MLS Player of the Month, Eddie Johnson. Johnson has been a one-man wrecking crew up top for the Wizards. His three goals - all game-winners - in April surpasses his goal total from all of 2006. On the other side, 2006 MLS MVP Christian Gomez and MLS Cup MVP Brian Ching have only one goal each this season heading into week five. To add to Houston's problems, 2006 MLS MVP finalist Dwayne De Rosario had no goals or assists despite firing a team-high 11 shots in the Dynamo's first four games.
The Columbus Crew, the league's worst team in '06, are undefeated in four games to start the season - three of which were draws - while FC Dallas, the top team in the West a year ago, is off to a disappointing 2-3-1 start in head coach Steve Morrow's first year.
"We are a league similar to the NFL. We are structured on the basis of parity and having every team, and their fans, have the opportunity to go and compete for the cup at the beginning of the year," Garber said. "It is interesting to see that some of the teams that had the greatest level of anticipation - D.C. United being one of them - have not been as successful the first couple weeks as perhaps the Red Bulls are. I don't think there was an expectation that they would be in first place after the first month, but it is a very long season.
"So many different things can happen, it is still so early to even look at where you are in the standings as it relates to what might happen eight months from now."
And it is still too early to say Major League Soccer has arrived in the North American sports landscape - especially while the league still awaits the arrivals of Beckham and Blanco, among others.
"We came out of the blocks with some momentum and we are feeling good about where our season is," Garber said. "We are hoping and working hard to continue the momentum that we built up in the offseason. We remind ourselves and the public that this is a marathon and not a sprint, unfortunately."