Climbing the Ladder: First Kick under the microscope

It’s time once again for another Major League Soccer season. As usual, there are so many unanswered questions. How good are all these unseen foreign signings? Can Colorado’s Omar Cummings score for a fifth consecutive opener? Which teams will be there on Dec. 1 when the MLS Cup champion is crowned? And this year, it’s also appropriate to ask where will that be?

These questions will be answered throughout the season, but for now, here are a few facts and figures that are known, in regards to the moment we’ve all been waiting for: First Kick 2012.

1) New York with another new face in net

NY's Opening Day Starting Goalkeepers since 2003
Year Starter
2003 Tim Howard
2004 Jonny Walker
2005 Zach Wells
2006 Tony Meola
2007 Ronald Waterreus
2008 Jon Conway
2009 Danny Cepero
2010 Bouna Coundoul
2011 Greg Sutton
2012 Meara/Vuolo

After the retirement of Frank Rost, the New York Red Bulls will be going into the season opener with either rookie Ryan Meara or second-year pro Jeremy Vuolo as their starting goalkeeper. Comments from head coach Hans Backe suggest that Meara is more likely to begin the season as first choice, but regardless of who takes the field against FC Dallas on Sunday, it’s going to be another new face in a long line of opening day goalkeepers for the team.

Sticking someone new between the posts has become an annual tradition for the Red Bulls; Meara or Vuolu will be the 10th different starting goalkeeper for New York on opening day in the past 10 seasons. Tim Howard provided quality at the position for three years at the turn of the century, but it’s become quite unsettled since his transfer to Manchester United nine years ago this summer.

Of the 263 games since Howard’s farewell on July 12, 2003, when the team memorably came back from three goals down to steal a point at New England, no goalkeeper has started more than Jon Conway’s 61. They’ve been unable to find consistency. Will 2012 change that?

The second-longest run of different opening day keepers is only five years, which happened in LA from 2006-2010 (Kevin Hartman, Joe Cannon, Steve Cronin, Josh Saunders, Donovan Ricketts). D.C. United will match that this season, having used four different opening day keepers since 2008 (Zach Wells, Josh Wicks, Troy Perkins, Pat Onstad), though that’s mostly due to Bill Hamid’s injury a year ago.

2) Which players haven’t started on opening day, ever?

Most Games Played without Starting on Opening Day
Rank Player App.
1 Duncan Oughton 136
2 Alan Gordon 118
3 Fred 114
3 Khano Smith 109
3 Patrick Ianni 93
6 Calen Carr 91
7 Dasan Robinson 86
8 Paul Keegan 86
9 Paul Keegan 84
10 Alan Prampin 74
10 Seth Trembly 74

Calen Carr, Alan Gordon and Patrick Ianni have seen their fair share of action in the top flight. Each has spent at least six years in Major League Soccer, and all have been a part of teams that have reached MLS Cup. Gordon and Ianni have championship rings, while Carr’s Houston Dynamo fell at the final hurdle last November.

Despite that experience, none of the three have ever been in a starting lineup for their team’s opening day. Sure, all have come on as subs, but they haven’t been on the field for the opening whistle to kick off a new season. It looks as though this year all three are unlikely to break through once again, with Carr being especially unfortunate as he continues to recover from offseason knee surgery after gaining a starting role late last year.

Duncan Oughton is the all time leader with 136 games played and no opening day starts, though he too has made substitute appearances. Among the top 10, Paul Keegan and Seth Trembly are the only two to never make a single appearance on opening day, whether starting or off the bench. Among active players, that title is held by Bobby Burling at 71 games. His status with Montreal is currently in limbo, so he may eventually surpass Keegan, the former New England player, to take that title.

3) The seven players who only started on opening day

Starting on opening day may be a good sign for a newcomer, but it’s certainly not a guarantee of success. Seven former MLS players were in the starting lineup for their team’s season opener, but would never play another regular season game.

The first two were Danny Barber and Ken Hesse, who were a part of the first New York (MetroStars) team in 1996, at least until they were waived immediately afterwards. The Philadelphia Union would match that in 2010, when David Myrie and Toni Stahl made their only regular season appearances in the expansion team’s first game. At least Stahl, who was sent off in the first half against Seattle, went on to make a US Open Cup qualifying appearance. The other six weren’t so lucky.

There’s also Cesar Delgado, an emergency goalkeeper signed by Kansas City in 1999 who only experienced a 4-0 thrashing in Dallas. The saddest story may belong to Martín Morales, who played for Colorado in 2005. He reportedly missed his own wedding in Uruguay to join the team in preseason, started the opener (a 3-2 loss to Kansas City) and then was waived two weeks later. That was back in the days when there were only four precious “senior international” roster spots per team.

It’s not all bad, though. Alberto “Albertin” Montoya only started the first game of the 1998 season for the San Jose Clash, but he’s since moved on to coaching and now is in charge of the US Under-17 women’s national team.

4) Champions almost always start victorious

Finally, it’s worth noting once again that future MLS Cup champions have quite the opening day track record: 12-3-1 in the past 16 years, including one shootout win. That’s despite 10 of those 16 games being on the road, including LA’s 1-0 victory last year in Seattle to kick off 2011.

Only three future champions have lost their opener: 1996 D.C. United, 2005 LA Galaxy and the 2009 Real Salt Lake squad.

GET TICKETS to FC Dallas vs. New York Red Bulls, Sunday, March 11, 2012, 3 pm ET at FC Dallas Stadium. Watch it on NBC Sports.