Minnesota United - crowd with loon flag waving
Courtesy of Minnesota United FC

View from Couch: As expansion squads face off, focus on the fun

Welp. The debuts are out of the way for Atlanta United and Minnesota United FC. They went, well … the way most expansion debuts tend to, given that teams without a competitive game often struggle to adjust to whatever cohesion exists across the center line.

Atlanta showed well, leading the New York Red Bulls – who finished atop the Eastern Conference both last year and in 2015 – before shipping a pair in the final 15 minutes. Minnesota stayed competitive, for a time, with the Portland Timbers; Fanendo Adi made sure that the scoreline left a bruise, even if there existed promise in the punch.

This week, one of the two squads – and possibly both – will exit the action on an upswing, since they're facing off in a nationally-televised Sunday matchup at TCF Bank Stadium (5pm ET | ESPN 2; MLS LIVE in Canada). Atlanta's fans got their first moment of shine in last week's wildly successful opener, and this one's going to be all about 40 years of Minnesota nice culminating in what's likely to be a euphoric, if frigid, debut.

The study in roster-construction contrasts has been stark, and well-worn: Atlanta splashing cash on high-talent, high-potential Young Designated Players and Minnesota spreading the Targeted Allocation Money wealth on hope-for-the-high-upside options across the roster. Neither has cut the ribbon on their ultimate home field, with Mercedes-Benz Stadium opening July 30 and MNUFC's privately financed St. Paul stadium following next year.

Though someone's coming away with points, it's important to remember not to read too deeply into results this early in the season, let alone a club's MLS development. These two franchises are going to be inextricably linked, and the seeds for a rivalry are sown simply in the fact of this inaugural season, but the scoreboard isn't going to tilt simply because Game One went one way or the other.

It's five years on from the NBA's Brooklyn Nets opening the Barclays Center (perhaps not an expansion, though it certainly felt like one) and despite a prime #viewfromcouch, it took a Google search for me to remember Hurricane Sandy scrapped the intended opener against the cross-river rival New York Knicks in what we then marketed as "The Clash of the Boroughs." The Nets won to open the building against Toronto and ultimately beat the Knicks a month later, dropping the next two before Joe Johnson sealed the season series draw in January.

With the Knicks going on to not only finish with a better record, but advancing further in the playoffs, the season ended up being much more memorable for Nets moments, like Avery Johnson's Christmas surprise (… of being fired), Joe Johnson's clutch shot-making, Brook and Blatche and C.J. Watson bricking a bunny that ended up costing Brooklyn a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Both teams sputtered the next season and ultimately fell into an inconsequential stasis.

When you look back at the previous round of MLS debutants, the Lions of Orlando City SC and the Bronx's New York City FC, nobody's checking that 1-1 draw as any indicator of where things were headed, but rather the individual moments of Mix Diskerud's opening salvo and the stoppage-time equalizer from Kaká. Two years on, Mix is headed to Sweden and you'd expect Cyle Larin to tie things up instead of the former Ballon d'Or winner.

And it wasn't until NYCFC took the first crack at adjusting to experience, swapping Jason Kreis for Patrick Vieira, that the Hudson River Derby began heating up, what with that team building out of the back all the way to a playoff appearance in Year Two. Orlando made their move midseason, punting Adrian Heath for … Jason Kreis, giving the MLS Cup-winning coach a crack at the second chance he never received from the other expansion outfit.

That is to say, Sunday is going to end up more memorable for Minnesota debuting as a home market than the result itself, and any positive – or cringe-worthy – on-field actions should prove the more immediate takeaways over big questions about where everyone's headed. Rivalries take time, and as the Nets, Knicks, NYCFC and the Red Bulls quickly found out, overlapping periods of success to provide a true challenge and the stakes to make the losses stick.

There's no way to tell how this year's going to go – especially in MLS, though the expansion track record is spotty – and definitely no way to know what vibe these clubs will rock two years from now, let alone 10. There are players, coaches and academy products to come, and others to go; successes to be had, and failures to be endured.

So savor Sunday. All the moments, from that first March to the Match on through the final whistle. You only get one home opener, and the lone variable you can't control is the outcome. Enjoy the adventure of it all – we've got a long way to go.

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