Warshaw: All about the armband as captains need to make the call

The 2018 MLS regular season opened with Columbus Crew SC visiting Toronto FC – who were coming off the best season in league history – and dominantly claiming three points. From an immediate standpoint, Columbus should be ecstatic and Toronto should be concerned. But to get swept away by the immediate reaction would be a mistake.  

As TFC captain Michael Bradley said after the match:

“This is what a lot of days will be like. We [need to] put this behind us quickly.”

The first training after Week 1 represents one of the key moments for a captain. A lot of times, the armband is ceremonial, but this is one of those critical junctures when the captain needs to assert his role as locker-room leader and make a statement.

It's an emotional time. There’s so much build up after six weeks sitting at home during the offseason, then six weeks of double days and fitness tests during the preseason that finally playing the first game of the year often releases a psychological weight.

Joining Columbus in winning big games on the road were LAFC, who went to Seattle and picked up a nice early victory in front of 40,000-plus Seattle Sounders fans, and NYCFC, which came away with a win against Sporting Kansas City. On the home front, we all know what happened in Houston. Those each could be viewed as “statement” wins. It’d be easy for Houston, LAFC and Columbus to get overly excited, or for Toronto, Seattle or Atlanta United to get down on themselves.

But once that game is in the books, the captain needs to dissect whether the immediate emotion carries any actual weight. The hardest part of the first weekend of the season is … remembering it’s the first weekend of the season. It feels like that match means everything because it’s all you have, but it can create a trap: You can lose sight of what you’ve been trying to build.

For most leaders and teams around the league, the message will (and should) be to stay the course: We have a plan, let’s keep pushing forward on it. The result in Week 1 shouldn’t change how you think of yourself. If you won, then you’re making sure the guys don’t get too excited or complacent. If you lost, then you’re making sure people don’t get upset or panicky. The focus should rightly be about process and not results – even moreso on opening weekend, when no team is yet a final product.

Sometimes, though – and this is the tougher part – the first game means everything. Sometimes you go through preseason and something just isn’t right. Nobody on the outside can tell, but you, as the leader, can: The group isn’t focused, or a key player isn’t working hard, or the coach totally messed up the tactical plan; you’ve been around enough teams to understand the habits of a successful team and a bad one.

Before Saturday's game, Toronto FC presented the cups representing the club's 2017 treble. | USA TODAY Sports Images

After Toronto’s loss, Sebastian Giovinco told reporters, “We continued to show the trophies, to think about what happened last year. This is not good.” It’s Bradley’s job as captain to know if this means anything, or if it’s just Giovinco giving the reporter a quote. Do Toronto actually have a focus problem right now, or was this game an anomaly?

It’s tough to question too much during preseason - it's just preseason, after all. You hope the group will get energized once the games start to matter or the coach will come to his senses. When it doesn’t happen on opening weekend, then, the first game becomes a confirmation – your last chance to slam on the panic button with everything you have.

It doesn’t exclude winning teams, either. Sometimes a team can win based on a few fortunate moments. As fans, we miss them because we get caught up in the excitement. But when you’re on the field, you understand how the game felt and played out. You know what your game plan was and how you executed, and whether the victory was deserved or random. Atlanta certainly had chances to score, including a PK and a ball across the goalmouth that Almiron mishit with his off foot, and if the Five Stripes convert them, it would have been a different game. It’s not to say Houston didn’t deserve to win, but it would be wrong to narrowly assume winning the first game means you will win future games. As Dynamo head coach Wilmer Cabrera told reporters postgame, “Today was a good day, but it’s only one game out of 34.”

Most teams should walk into the locker room this week upbeat and optimistic. They shouldn’t put much stock in the score. They will be better served by staying rational and moving on quickly. But there are also teams out there who really need to look at themselves. It’s difficult to identify them from afar right now, but in a couple months, it’ll be clear as day (Like, say … Last year's Galaxy).

Fans are allowed to get emotional. A captain, though, earns the armband by being smart. Whether it’s Michael Bradley or Michael Parkhurst, Wil Trapp or DaMarcus Beasley, after Week 1, a decision rests with the leader of the team: do nothing or attempt everything. Only a season hinges in the balance.