Tuesday was early for the MLS opening game, a week early, but the league still opens in Seattle, as it has for the past three years. The LA Galaxy, the league commissioner, ESPN hotshots of all dialect, and a row of limos joined a record 36,0000 Sounder fans to get this eight-month season started. March was not done with its ill humor — it rained in four varieties, only one of them lyrical — and the Sounders, for their first time, lost a season opener. The Galaxy scored one goal in the 58th minute and that was it.
Starting in March is an ugly prospect. Baseball waits as long as possible; its natural season is the sun. Soccer in Europe is just winding up a regular season. MLS has fitted itself around U.S. baseball and football — it starts alone and ends with playoffs in November, crossing three full seasons and nicking a fourth.
Unless you, or your children, are playing soccer, you are likely a rusty viewer. You can get in some rhythm watching English Premier League or Series A games on television but that is only practice for the passion and agony of watching your team compete. Soccer is its own tune, its own anticipation, its own integrity, and you get better at it, you get more of it, as you watch. In one sense, and at its best, soccer is a ballet: the more that you watch, then the more that you will see and the more remarkable it becomes.
But this was not a remarkable game, more a workable one, made at times ugly by conditions of weather or early season. LA are the Yankees of MLS soccer, the best team money can purchase. Like the Yankees, it is no task to desperately want to beat them and even less to want to pound them. But like the Yankees, the Galaxy have fine players, stars from other places, Donovan, Beckham, Juninho, and in this early season, it is the veterans that keep the order and often make the difference.
For a couple years, Seattle had Ljungberg, who he loved games like this. He would head straight in the front door without asking, looking to fall, foul, or score. As the season progressed, the game complicates and the barging is less useful. The Sounders are a better, and subtler, club after Ljungberg but this was not a very subtle evening for soccer.
The Galaxy nearly scored in the first 15 seconds and should have. Their new forward Barrett was open in front, the Sounder defenders Jeff Parke and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado are still working out the yours/mine details that will soon be automatic. They have not played together, with Parke taking Hurtado's place last year after a knee injury. They are both remarkable defenders but on this night, in these conditions and time, they were not seamless.
No one is more veteran than David Beckham. He did not score nor assist but he is a born oppressor. You tell your team before, do not let Beckham get free kicks, and on this night, you watch him give a free kick clinic, one at the very last second of the first half, a bender to the upper right corner that missed for no human reason. Beckham looked long after at Sounder keeper Keller and licked his lips and looked again. It could have been 2-0 LA by then.
Or 1-0 Seattle, for perhaps the best shot in the first half went to Sounders young star Fredy Montero. It took 22 minutes for the Sounders to push back the Galaxy and bring their own force to the game. In the 31st minute, Montero found a moment. In a month, he will score or terrify from this chance but on this night, he could only hit the keeper.
Seattle has two wonderful new players, O'Brian White, a Jamaican forward, and Erik Friberg, a Swedish midfielder, and they both might have scored in the first half and then there would be no talk of an LA hex. White's shot was brilliantly saved by Galaxy keeper Saunders and Friberg had Saunders at mercy but missed inches to the right.
By the half, Seattle had five shots on goal, LA had none.
Fifteen seconds into the second half, the Galaxy had again contrived a corner shot, again Beckham, again the detail of pressure. In the 58th minute, Juninho, the 22-year-old Brazilian midfielder with LA, took his version of Montero's shot and drove it just inside the left post, off Keller's mitt. Goal LA, and now all 36,000 knew it would be hard.
LA loves to be in the lead but in the 72nd minute, the Sounders nearly scored to even the match. Zakuani sent his defender on three errands and skipped a cross to O'Brian, his back to the goal, he heeled a lovely shot to the left post. Saunders was fooled but the shot skipped inches wide. As they say, unlucky, for O'Brian had played well in his debut and Seattle would have loved a hero for this game.
There were other, later, Sounder chances, but this O'Brian shot was the best. To be fair, the Galaxy can play as heavy as any in the league. Donovan missed his own chance to kill the game when his breakaway shot blasted off the iron minutes later. By game's end, the teams were exactly even in all statistics, all but saves — LA had six and Seattle had one. There has not been a better Sounder team than this one, but they are young yet. As they smooth their details and delivery, the goals will come.
Seattle will fly this weekend to play the New York Red Bulls, a team picked to finish first in the Eastern division. It is a hard way to start the season, playing two contenders, but this is a Seattle club built to contend. The next home game is March 25 against the Houston Dynamos, a heavyweight as well. Look for Spring and let us get this eight-month march started.