If you ask me, one of the most enjoyable things about the beginning of a new Major League Soccer season is marveling at the clubs who startle our soccer bubble by unexpectedly bursting out of the starting blocks.
Several teams fit that description this term, each with positive indicators and questions marks to weigh as we head into round four of the season. Which of these teams are on course to become season darlings and which are riding bubbles apt to be popped?
Let's take a closer look at each of the surprise fast starters.
Plenty of observers opined that the expansion side should enjoy a decent start to MLS life, but they've been better than just alright, alright, alright. Austin FC have been very impressive so far, and not just because their 2-1 start has come entirely on the road against a trio of 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoff teams. No, there's actually a lot to like here.
Head coach Josh Wolff has a well-balanced roster and a shrewd plan for them to execute. The Greens are showing far more quick chemistry on the field than anyone should have expected. The midfield is an absolute chore to deal with and the attackers have instantly become a high pressure nightmare for foes. Diego Fagundez and Matt Besler have been rejuvenated in Austin. Both Designated Player signings are coming correct right away.
One might normally temper early expectations because spanking new clubs often have depth issues, but Austin FC have already shown that they run more than 11 deep. One might normally also shy away from predicting success for a club with no scary striker in the squad, but then Claudio Reyna does still have one big money shot left in the holster. And while I'm not ready to proclaim them a playoff team in what is shaping up to be a rock 'em sock 'em Western Conference, it's not to soon to say that nobody should be surprised if they are. In fact, they might be the team on this list I have the most faith in right now.
While the Galaxy were taught a lesson in Seattle (join the club, right?), they're still one of only seven clubs sitting on two wins through three rounds. The banner headline is that Chicharito is back to poaching more than a Sunday brunch cook, but that's not the whole story. The ingenuity of Victor Vazquez is a very welcome addition. New netminder Jonathan Bond is making big and timely saves. The vets are leading the way, while some young legs have brought speed back to the transition game. Team spirit and togetherness have returned to Carson
The Galaxy's start certainly hasn't been flawless (only two teams in the West and four across all of MLS have a worse expected goals differential), but it has been fairly effective. This team no longer hangs its collective head when something goes wrong. They pick themselves up, huddle together and skip frustration to come out fighting, a trait that had been missing at Dignity Health Sports Park for a couple of years.
The scary part for the rest of the league is head coach Greg Vanney has only just begun to figure this team out. With loads of prime talent at his disposal, the Galaxy once again have the look of a team capable of reaching the postseason. That's definitely not to say they should be already considered among the title favorites, but if they can get central defense sorted this may be a side capable of taking most anyone on their day.
On the face of it, soccer fans in the 514 seem to be enjoying something resembling a dream start to 2021. Mason Toye has rediscovered his golazo dance boots. Montréal's team speed is punishing mistakes left and right. They lead the league in pass completion percentage. New boss Wilfried Nancy has turned the club's compete level up to 11. All of this has resulted in derby joy against arch nemesis Toronto FC, a scrappy draw away to blossoming Nashville SC and a clean sheet point pocketed against Columbus. Pretty good, right?
Montréal fans may not like it, but these strong results coming out of the gate may be papering over a couple of cracks. The team defense has been leaky in their two outings against rested first choice lineups, and there's no telling at this time when top center back Luis Binks will be fit. The roster remains unbalanced, with loads of capable forwards and wingers, but no dyed-in-the-wool playmaker to consistently break down set defenses. In a brutally tough conference, these are concerns.
I remain skeptical that this team can sustain their strong start. Toye isn't going to bag tasty crackers in every game he plays. Teams aren't always going to gift Zachary Brault-Guillard and Romell Quioto chances to run free like they did the first two weeks. Opponents won't keep squandering so many of the great chances Montréal's often poor lane coverage grants. Making the playoffs remains a tall order.
Still, Nancy has done a great job so far, defying some of the preseason predictions about the club, even if his work at Stade Saputo is only just beginning.
Let's get one thing straight off the bat. The Rio Tinto bunch have been notoriously tough to peg for a good seven seasons now. Just when you think they're dangerous, they face plant. Just when you think they're in over their heads, they do something like boot LAFC out of the postseason in their own house or, ya know, open 2021 with strong victories over Minnesota United and Sporting KC.
So what do we know about this team going forward? The additions of Anderson Julio and Rubio Rubin have aimed this side straight at the opponent's goal to great effect, and the counter should be even deadlier once they incorporate Bobby Wood. On the other hand, Albert Rusnak's continued struggles must be worrying, as, but maybe not as much, as Real Salt Lake's lack of proven depth on the back line and in midfield.
Look ... I'm not going to pretend to know how this season will turn out for Real Salt Lake, because we have seen how that's the definition of a fool's game. But, aside from the top two or perhaps three teams (where ya at, Portland?), the wild West looks wide open this year. The Royals have as good as a shot as anyone in the chasing pack to finish above the playoff line.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. - Albert Einstein[
If he's right, then the Earthquakes are positively gorgeous. Remember a few paragraphs back when we discussed the inscrutable nature of RSL? Amateurs! San Jose are a club that basically strutted to the MLS Is Back quarters last year, and then spiraled into an eight-game winless run that included four defeats by at least four goals, and then snapped out of it by winning at LAFC to ignite a 7-2-1 closing kick that included four clean sheets.
This season, San Jose began by losing to 2020's Western cellar dweller (Houston) before smacking around FC Dallas and D.C. United by a combined 7-2 count to soar up to fourth in the overall MLS table. They currently stand joint-best with eight goals, but as three were silly bangers from distance, two were clean breakaways and one was a spot kick, it's hard to ay if their scoring pace is sustainable.
The Earthquakes still give up a lot of shots, but Matías Almeyda has pulled way back on the "pressure everywhere" ethos (at least for now), so they aren't getting ripped apart as easy and they're mostly giving up lower percentage shots (at least for now). And they rely on a fair amount of youth (including scintillating 17-year-old Cade Cowell), which only makes them harder to pin down
And I'm supposed to figure out which way this team is headed from here? Hilarious. The best part of all: they face Real Salt Lake Friday (9:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+), because of course they do. Gun to my head, I'd say this is not quite a playoff team — which naturally means they'll go on to win the Supporters Shield.
It seems like nobody's really paying attention to the Whitecaps, which makes sense because they've finished below the playoff line in four of the last five seasons. Folks probably should keep closer watch, though, as Vancouver have very quietly found a formula for causing some "more than the sum of their parts" type trouble this year.
Vancouver were one comically unfortunate late Jonathan Osorio tally from a 2-0-0 start, and arguably deserved better than a 1-0 home loss to Colorado this past weekend. It's hardly a new method they're using, but Marc dos Santos has his team on the right track after two seasons largely filled with struggle. The Whitecaps like to stay compact, keep opponents to the outside in an effort to reduce prime looks, patiently wait for their own run-of-play chances and terrify all on set pieces.
With a hard midfield to play against and more speed on the flanks, Vancouver are keeping games tight and winnable. They're among the younger squads in the league, so the potential for improvement is high even before you factor in their ongoing search for a genuine No. 10 who can keep an underrated crew of runners and star man striker Lucas Cavallini in strong supply. Though it's far from a safe bet, the Whitecaps could be a sneaky threat to reach the postseason in a Western Conference loaded with teams still trying to find themselves.