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Opening-day losses by Atlanta United, Minnesota United show perils for expansion teams

MLS is not easy.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, the 22nd MLS regular season kicked off, and that included two MLS expansion teams, Minnesota United and Atlanta United.

All of the talk in the offseason was on the differing approaches for the two teams entering their first season, with Minnesota United already an existing team, coming from the NASL, but taking a frugal approach to building an MLS roster, betting big on MLS experience and Scandinavian diamonds in the rough and eschewing any Designated Players to get started. Atlanta United, by contrast, began from scratch, and spent big, loading up on Latin American talent and getting the highest profile coach globally in league history with Gerardo Martino.

So, how did the teams do their first week in MLS? They both lost.

That’s not a surprise, of course, in looking back at the prior history. Only three expansion teams in MLS history have won their opener: Chicago Fire in 1998, Seattle Sounders in 2009, and the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2011. Perhaps coincidentally, two of those teams, the Fire and Sounders, are among the only three in MLS history to make the playoffs in their expansion season (the third is the Miami Fusion, which went out of business after the 2001 season).

Are Minnesota and Atlanta doomed to miss the playoffs as a result of losing out of the gate? Not based on this game alone. But the opening game surely provided a reality check for both teams.

Minnesota United had the tougher task, opening the entire season, on the road, in arguably the most atmospheric stadium in MLS, Providence Park. The final score, a 5-1 Portland Timbers win, makes it seem like the Loons were crushed. They were and they weren’t, paradoxically.

The Timbers took the lead in the first half and never relinquished it, so Minnesota did not really seem like they were going to make a push to grab points. But the game was 2-1 into the 80th minute, when a penalty and two stoppage-time goals were scored to run it up for the hosts and thoroughly humiliate the new guys. In that way, the Loons can take heart from sticking in the game to a pretty advanced point and probably being a bit hard done by the final score.

Arguably, Atlanta United had a more heartbreaking loss than their expansion brethren, even if it was just a 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls. Why more heartbreaking? They were playing at home, and carried a 1-0 lead into the 75th minute, before conceding an equalizer and then an own goal to overturn the result. On balance, Atlanta United did seem better prepared than Minnesota United to hang with their opponent, and put in a better performance overall. But the result was the same.

So, to tie this back to local happenings, what does this tell 2018 expansion side Los Angeles Football Club? Well, a sample size of one is impossible in drawing broad, concrete conclusions, but the fact that both 2017 expansion teams stumbled out of the gate is one more reminder that MLS is not easy. Neither Minnesota’s budget-conscious tack or Atlanta United’s “spend like there’s no tomorrow” approach worked in a one-off game. And it’s the latter that’s more instructive for LAFC. While they have not started publicly announcing signings or a head coach to signal a philosophy being used in building their team, all preliminary signs point to an approach more like Atlanta’s than Minnesota’s. And if Atlanta, playing at home against a team that just got knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League a few days earlier, couldn’t hang on for a win, then winning in MLS remains a difficult task, no matter the money or other resources thrown at the problem.

Again, it’s just one game, and surely LAFC will attempt a new innovation or two in order to bypass the opening week blues next year. But I don’t know about you, but I’ll be watching Minnesota United and Atlanta United a little closer this year, to see what LAFC can try to replicate — and what they should avoid.

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