Posted: Tuesday March 13, 2012 12:57PM ; Updated: Tuesday March 13, 2012 12:57PM
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Week 1 Power Rankings: Real Salt Lake shines; Columbus sputters

Story Highlights

The West asserted its dominance by winning five of six games against the East

Real Salt Lake, and Sebastian Velasquez, made a statement beating the Galaxy

NBC Sports Network's first coverage of the MLS was professional and insightful

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Newcomer Sebastian Velasquez made a strong first impression in Real Salt Lake's 3-1 victory over the Galaxy.
Newcomer Sebastian Velasquez made a strong first impression in Real Salt Lake's 3-1 victory over the Galaxy.
Michael Janosz/isiphotos.com

The MLS season is back in full force. Here are five thoughts and Power Rankings after MLS' 2012 First Kick.

1. The West is best

It's not a breaking development that the bulk of the league's upper echelon resides in the Western Conference, but that was pronounced quite evidently on the field. West teams took five of the six West-vs.-East matchups in the opening week of the season.

San Jose topped New England, Vancouver bested Montreal, FC Dallas held off the New York Red Bulls, Colorado blanked Columbus and Portland capped the week with a come-from-behind victory over Philadelphia. Only East-based Houston was able to take points from a Western Conference foe, escaping with a last-gasp goal in its match against Chivas USA.

It should be noted that all of those matchups took place at Western Conference stadiums, and winning on the road, no matter who the opponent is, is no easy feat in MLS. After all, only two teams -- Los Angeles and Seattle -- posted winning road records last season, and that was with a balanced schedule.

With the schedule now unbalanced and each conference granted five playoff spots, winning conference games carries more significance -- but winning out-of-conference ones could ultimately lead to the final distinction in the table. For the West's contenders, who figure to duke it out all season, it is of the utmost importance that they hold serve at home against Eastern foes. In the opening week, that happened for the most part.

At least there was semblance of a definitive divide in Week 1, with no draws among the eight matches. Last season was flush with ties, as there was at least one in every match-week until the final month of action.

2. In game of stars, Velasquez shines

For all of the new international signings and rookies expected to make an MLS impact, perhaps no one came with less fanfare than Real Salt Lake's Sebastian Velasquez.

And in a game featuring two of the league's finest teams and a handful of its biggest names, no one figured to have less of an impact on the final outcome than the unheralded rookie.

But there stood the multicolor-rat-tailed Velasquez, all 5-foot-7 of him, making key passes, taking brash-but-confident looks at goal and sending in the ball that led to the turning point in Real Salt Lake's 3-1 statement victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center.

A little-known commodity out of South Carolina's Spartanburg Methodist College, Velasquez posted gaudy numbers on the junior college level (a nation-best 35 goals and 16 assists last year), something that is far from an indicator of MLS success. But the 21-year-old sparkplug looked right at home in the RSL midfield, earning the start after an injury kept Will Johnson sidelined and giving more credence to RSL's staunch scouting team.

In his 89 minutes, Velasquez displayed accurate passing technique, drew a few fouls and rarely lost the ball in a game during in which RSL maintained the possession edge over the defending champions and mounted a late comeback to deliver L.A. its first home loss in 15 months. His cross that Sean Franklin inadvertently swiped into his own net turned the game on its head and turned the heads of viewers everywhere.

While he is not expected to play a prominent role once Johnson and talisman Javier Morales regain full health, his emergence is a boon for RSL, whose midfield depth was depleted after the offseason departures of Collen Warner and Arturo Alvarez and the retirement of Andy Williams. RSL was the big winner in the first round of matches, and Velasquez, who told the Deseret News that "I never thought I'd get any minutes throughout the season," has proven himself as another option for a team that will look to its depth once the 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League begins this summer.

3. Olympic qualifying takes toll on league lineups

Members of the U.S. Under-23 national team were littered across MLS starting lineups this weekend, with a strong American youth movement playing a major factor in the fortunes of MLS clubs. Now teams will have to prepare for a few weeks without those key parts while the United States' favored side tries to secure a place at the London Olympics.

Following Monday's roster announcement, 13 MLS players will embark on international duty from when camp commences on Tuesday until the CONCACAF qualifying tournament ends on April 2, and doesn't even take into account other nations in the region who are relying on MLS youth (such as Honduras, which has called in D.C. United winger Andy Najar).

In addition to Najar, D.C. loses Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid, two integral parts of the club's lineup. While second-year goalkeeper Joe Willis proved to be a reliable backup to Hamid last season, replacing Kitchen at defensive midfield won't be easy. The club signed veteran Marcelo Saragosa to provide depth behind Kitchen, but the Brazilian's best days are behind him. As for replacing Najar, the club has former Houston Dynamo winger Danny Cruz and rookie Nick DeLeon waiting in the wings.

The Philadelphia Union will suffer from the exodus as well, as they'll be without midfield cogs Freddy Adu and Amobi Okugo. But there's depth at both positions for the club to stem the tide. The Union was spared a bit considering that goalkeeper Zac MacMath, right back Sheanon Williams and forward Jack McInerney weren't selected after previously spending time in U-23 camp.

FC Dallas must learn to cope without Brek Shea, which will become doubly challenging if Fabian Castillo's injury, one that forced the club's other winger to exit in the first half of FCD's victory over New York, keeps him sidelined for an extended period of time.

Sporting Kansas City will be without Teal Bunbury, but the Eastern Conference favorites have a ready-made replacement in 2011 Rookie of the Year and Week 1 hero C.J. Sapong, who some would argue should be starting anyway.

New York finds itself in a similar position, with Juan Agudelo giving way to Kenny Cooper. The draft-day acquisition and veteran striker likely should have earned the starting nod against Dallas after meshing with Thierry Henry and emerging from the preseason in fine form, whereas Agudelo barely trained with the club given his U-23 commitments (and wouldn't you know it, Cooper's entry into the Red Bulls' match coincided with a turn in the club's fortunes).

Los Angeles will part with midfielder Michael Stephens, who provides depth for the Galaxy more than anything else, but could have been useful during a busy stretch in which the club has four meaningful games in a span of 12 days.

Columbus, meanwhile, was set to lose rising winger Dilly Duka, but his hamstring injury in the Crew's lifeless loss to Colorado prevented his inclusion with the U-23s. Either way, Columbus now must budget for his loss.

Four teams already accounted for their players to be out for the near future by not playing them at all in Week 1 (purposefully or not): Houston (Kofi Sarkodie), San Jose (Ike Opara), Montreal (Zarek Valentin) and Chivas USA (Jorge Villafana). Chicago, which boasts Hamid's U-23 backup Sean Johnson, was on a Week 1 bye.

This much is clear: After just one week of play, it's already adjustment time for more than half of the teams in the league.

4. NBC's debut draws passing grade

Of all the sterling debuts on the season's opening weekend -- and there were plenty -- none was holds as many ramifications as the debut of the league's coverage on the NBC Sports Network.

The new media platform is charged with providing a boost to MLS television ratings and captivating the existing audience along with potential new fans, and Sunday's broadcast of the FC Dallas-Red Bulls match marked a strong first impression.

The on-site pregame show that featured Russ Thaler and Robbie Earle was professional, slick and all business. Lineup graphics were clean, and most importantly, accurate. Production quality was would be expected of a network that has taken the lead in evolving the NHL's television coverage, and interviewing Henry on-field just before the game and a winded Shea just after the final whistle only added legitimacy to the broadcast.

The only real hiccup was the decision to show a replay of Blas Perez's saved volley while the ball was still in play, which nearly caused viewers to miss a turnover and an ensuing Shea shot. Finding the down time in a constantly active soccer match to show replays is an exercise in patience, but an easily rectifiable problem.

Lead broadcaster Arlo White and analyst Kyle Martino were all over the most unusual moment of the game, supplying quick analysis that Thierry Henry's quickly taken free kick, which would've leveled the score if not for hitting the post, was fully within the player's rights despite Dallas' wall not being granted time to set up. The ability to interpret key moments on the spot is critical, especially when trying to educate a new audience, and White and Martino succeeded in doing so.

All things considered, the league's newest TV partner has given early indications that the fan viewing experience will be an enjoyable one going forward.

5. Team of the Week

Goalkeeper: Bill Hamid (D.C. United)

Defenders: Young-Pyo Lee (Vancouver Whitecaps), Victor Bernardez (San Jose Earthquakes), Hernan Pertuz (FC Dallas), Drew Moor (Colorado Rapids)

Midfielders: Kalif Alhassan (Portland Timbers), Ricardo Villar (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), Colin Clark (Houston Dynamo)

Forwards: Fabian Espindola (Real Salt Lake), Sebastien Le Toux (Vancouver Whitecaps)

Week 1 MLS Power Rankings
 
New Rank Previous Rank Team
1 3 Real Salt Lake (W/L/T: 1-0-0)
RSL came up with the statement victory of the opening weekend, scoring three goals in a 12-minute span to plant a flag at the Home Depot Center. After sputtering following last year's CCL disappointment and failing to find a consistent groove, veteran-laden RSL announced its 2012 intentions with authority.
2 1 Los Angeles Galaxy (0-1-0)
Beckham-to-Buddle provided one of the tidier moments of the weekend, but the back line was anything but tidy, allowing itself to be stretched late to remain an area of doubt. Even so, if the crossbar is about an inch higher, L.A. might have walked away from opening weekend with three points and a completely different outlook.
3 2 Seattle Sounders (0-0-0)
Seattle got to sit out of First Kick, but if last week's impressive CCL display against Santos Laguna is any indication, the race out West is going to be fast and furious from the get-go. Super Cyan, indeed.
4 4 Sporting Kansas City (1-0-0)
SKC executed a pretty ideal game plan for a road team, limiting D.C. United's offensive chances and coming on strong late in search of the game-winner. Graham Zusi's dead-ball service picked up right where it left off last year -- as one of the best in the league.
5 5 Houston Dynamo (1-0-0)
Houston officially turned the page to this season where its 2011 campaign came to a disappointing end, albeit against the other L.A. team. As big as those three points are for the Dynamo, something still seemed lacking in the attack, and Brian Ching looked a step too slow on a couple of golden chances. Still, for a team that didn't win on the road until late September last years, things got started on the right foot.
6 6 FC Dallas (1-0-0)
New-look FCD took it to the Red Bulls before holding on for the three points, and when David Ferreira is fully fit, this club should have plenty of influence on the Western Conference standings. But losing Shea to the U-23s and suffering an apparent injury to Castillo puts pressure on newcomer Carlos Rodriguez to supply attacking prowess from the flanks.
7 8 Portland Timbers (1-0-0)
After falling behind in the second half, Portland gave the Timbers Army plenty to sing about. The midfield absolutely bossed Philadelphia throughout, and newcomer DP Kris Boyd made the most of his chance. And keep in mind, this was all with two first-choice center backs unavailable -- quite the inspiring performance for the Year Two Timbers.
8 12 Colorado Rapids (1-0-0)
First-year coach Oscar Pareja passed his first test with flying colors, as did new playmaker Jaime Castrillon, as a transformed Colorado side added an element of flair to its stout defending. An oft-injured Omar Cummings wasn't up to par in 2011, and even though he didn't score against Columbus, the Jamaican certainly resembled his dangerous old self in victory.
9 13 San Jose Earthquakes (1-0-0)
The formula for the new-look Quakes remains the same: get Chris Wondolowski the ball in dangerous spots. New winger Shea Salinas did just that, and new center back Victor Bernardez looks like quite the find. The Earthquakes coasted past the Revolution with relative ease.
10 7 New York Red Bulls (0-1-0)
Henry's upset. The defense is in shambles. The midfield lacks a creator. Set-piece defending remains an issue. Ladies and gentlemen, the supremely talented, ultimately flawed 2012 New York Red Bulls! This team needs Rafa Marquez the DP -- not the agitator -- to show up once his two-game suspension concludes.
11 9 Philadelphia Union (0-1-0)
The Union just never looked in sync at Portland, and numerous defensive breakdowns and a lack of organization in the midfield prompted the club's demise. Incorporating a number of new faces will be a work in progress, but Philly fans' patience won't last if things don't straighten out quickly, especially after the unpopular offseason move to deal fan-favorite Le Toux.
12 11 Chicago Fire (0-0-0)
After a bye-week that yielded the signing of German international center back Arne Friedrich, the Fire have the rough distinction of being the away club at an expansion side's first home game, which hasn't boded well for visitors in recent years. Chicago knows that better than anyone after falling at the hand of the Timbers' ax last year at Jeld-Wen Field.
13 16 Vancouver Whitecaps (1-0-0)
The Whitecaps are indeed new and improved. It's easy to read more than necessary into the club's victory -- remember, Vancouver's attack looked ruthless in the 2011 opener against TFC, too -- but there's reason to believe in these Whitecaps considering the newfound stability showcased across the back line.
14 10 D.C. United (0-1-0)
All things considered, walking away with a point from a game against SKC would have been a solid way to open the season, but the last-second concession brought back bad memories of a year ago, and the team's vaunted attack simply never got going. It will take some time for the new pieces to mesh before D.C. reaches its full potential.
15 14 Toronto FC (0-0-0)
Off for the weekend, TFC faces the daunting task of getting a CCL result at the Home Depot Center followed by opening its MLS campaign in Seattle three days later against an equally taxed Sounders side. Torsten Frings carried the load in the first leg against L.A., supplying pinpoint distribution while covering for a shaky back line, but he'll need the defense to settle behind him if TFC is to be a serious contender.
16 15 Columbus Crew (0-1-0)
No team put forth a more disappointing opening match than Columbus, which continued its stretch of futility in Colorado. Duka's early injury changed the complexion of the game rapidly, but nobody else was able to pick up the slack. Put simply: There is plenty of room for improvement for the men in yellow.
17 17 Montreal Impact (0-1-0)
Over the course of the 90 minutes, the Impact proved themselves to be rugged, physical and disruptive. However, it's going to take more than that to establish a rhythm and find a scoring punch. After a rough introduction to MLS, the club will hope to follow the trend set by its expansion predecessors and open their home campaign with a momentum-turning victory.
18 18 Chivas USA (0-1-0)
The Goats probably deserved at least a point off the Dynamo, and Juan Pablo Angel would have had one of the goals of the week had his spinning half-volley not bounced off the goalpost, but alas, Chivas was left with nothing. Considering the competition in the West and the unbalanced schedule, getting as many points as possible off Eastern Conference foes is going to be paramount for Robin Fraser's side moving forward.
19 19 New England Revolution (0-1-0)
After a stellar preseason, reality hit the Revs hard. Things will be a bit different when expected starters Saer Sene and Pepe Moreno can lead the front line, but it's on New England's midfield to dictate results, and the unit failed to get much going against the Earthquakes.
 

 
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