Toni Nhleko

First XI: Starting blocks

to be teams that look to win week in and week out. This week's First XI is all about the teams that are out of the gates quickly.

11. Miracle in Denver? I, for one, loved Eric Wynalda's analogy between Tim Hankinson and Herb Brooks last week. I vividly recall a team in Tampa Bay that hated Hankinson's guts, and a forward named Mamadou Diallo who didn't think he could play as a lone striker (and a GM who ended up firing Hankinson only to watch the Mutiny bottom out a year later under Alfonso Mondelo). No, I've never played for Hankinson and, yes, a few players have told me that they cannot stand the way he coaches. Fine. Since I'm not in the locker room, I can only judge the coach on how his teams play. And since Hankinson has been a coach in the league, I've always been impressed with the soccer his teams play. Perhaps it's because he's gone out and found good players like Diallo and John Spencer and gets out of their way. I do know that there were periods last season when the Rapids played some of the best attacking soccer in the league. This past weekend, ageless wonders Chris Henderson and Mark Chung looked as good as ever. And Haitian striker Jean-Philippe Peguero looks like he could be a handful.

10. MetroStars fans shuddered a few times when they heard the announcers say that the club was off to its first 2-0 start since 1999. Of course, you recall what happened to the '99 Metros, right? Here's a few names to throw at you. Bora and Sasa. That's Milutinovic and Curcic. The '99 MetroStars won a grand total of four games (OK, seven if you count their three shootout wins) and remain, despite a nice run by Dallas a year ago, the worst team in the history of MLS. Maybe it was memories of that 2-0 start in '99 that kept the fans away Sunday afternoon.

9. Five goals in four games for Carlos Ruiz is reason enough to think the Galaxy are back to 2002 form. Did anyone but Ruiz score for the Galaxy team that won it all? Seriously, this team has made upgrades all over the field and considering they won't have to play the first third of the season on the road this year, you've got to like their chances to win the West. Also, there's nothing like the sting of a bitter defeat (and they do not get any more bitter than the Galaxy's ouster a year ago) to motivate a team. But getting back to Ruiz. I saw that Greg Andrulis said of Ruiz, "He finds a way every game," and that is just the truth. Question: Can we now refer to this guy as the greatest striker ever in MLS?

8. Speaking of strikers, the Dallas Burn Track Club is something to watch. Eddie Johnson and Toni Nhleko are going to make MLS back lines timid about stepping up. If you're a fan of possession soccer, the Burn may not be your cup of tea. But if it's brute force and speed that thrills you, don't miss any of their games. Fast and furious.

7. If it's true that Defense Wins Championships, watch out for Chicago. If not for a superb individual effort from Damani Ralph, the Fire would still be searching for their first goal of the season. Still, getting one past their back line -- not to mention 'keeper Henry Ring, who was stellar on national cable Saturday -- has been impossible for all but the aforementioned Burn. We spoke about that bitter pill L.A. had to swallow last year. Perhaps the four-spot hung on the Fire in MLS Cup 2003 has inspired the defenders just a bit.

6. MetroStars learned a lesson Sunday. Always fear the team that's banged up and desperate for a point. The Revolution not only came to the Meadowlands missing playmaker Jose Cancela. They had also surrendered three goals in back-to-back losses to the Galaxy and Earthquakes. Steve Nicol's squad talked about being "solid" and that's just what they were, keeping numbers back most of the afternoon and making it hard for the MetroStars to make plays in the attacking third. MetroStars will certainly have to improve in these types of games as other clubs will certainly imitate what the Revs did to slow down a team that had scored six goals in its first two games.

5. Dallas' Ronnie O'Brien, who had his season cut short last season in an awful tackle by Dema Kovalenko, is going to be an MLS All-Star this season if not an MLS First XI player. He is hard-working, creative, fast -- a simply fun player to watch. I know there's a faction out there who thinks the league has not adequately replaced the first wave of big foreign signings, but when I look at players like O'Brien, Ruiz, Cancela and Amado Guevara, I see some men in their 20s who can bring it. I also like what I see so far out of Peguero, Nhleko, Fabian Taylor and Joseph Ngwenya. Time will tell just how good they are.

4. The home teams in this weekend's games, San Jose, Columbus, New England, Chicago and Kansas City are all going to be playing at playoff intensity. All five home teams stand in a position where they are dissatisfied with their point totals, especially the pointless Crew. All five will be taking a "must take three" attitude into the matches. Good weekend to try and convince the wife we need that TiVo.

3. Just a quick memo to San Jose sports fans. If you're buying tickets to this weekend's game because you want to see Freddy Adu, you might want to watch this guy on your hometown team, Landon Donovan. He wears No. 10 and he's pretty good.

2. Is Ralph going to stick with the Don King look now that he got a goal? The word used to be that Carlos Valderrama's wife did the touch-up work on El Pibe's mane; maybe she can pay Damani a visit. I'll say this, somewhere in Germany, Clint Mathis saw that 'do and thought, "Now I've got something to shoot for."

If it's not clear that I'm out of topics, on to this week's Lock of the Week: San Jose over D.C.

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or

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