New York Red Bulls -- group during anthem -- 2019-04-06 -- RBNY v MIN
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The 10 most surprising narratives of the 2019 MLS season (so far)

Every new season writes its own story with a healthy helping of twists that catch fans and observers of all stripes off guard — that's part of the fun or the misery, depending on the quality of your local surprise.

We're nearly 20 percent of the way through the 2019 slate, which makes it a fine time to take stock of all the things that are making us go "hmmmm" so far, in both the pleasant and unpleasant senses. As is appropriate for this type of list, you might find yourself surprised at some of the omissions.

It's not by design, it's just that I'm honestly not at all startled by Seattle's burst out of the season blocks (their attack actually began the schedule fit and intact), Toronto FC's resurgence (a fit Jozy Altidore and a new playmaking star does wonders), NYCFC's early struggles (still no center forward for the team to tactically coalesce around) or Colorado's poor start (for all the positive pick-ups, the center back duo-defensive midfield triangle remains a total mess).

And now, let's move on to the players and teams that genuinely have me scratching at my stubble seven weeks into the season.

 

Toronto FC has welcomed an even-better-than-advertised Alejandro Pozuelo | USA Today Sports Images

No. 10: Best new artists

Don't get me wrong. I'm not actually stunned that the likes of Paxton Pomykal and Alejandro Pozuelo are shining on their way to MLS stardom. I am a bit taken aback that these guys and others like them wearing new shirts have been so good so quickly.  

Frankly, Pomykal has been better and more widely influential than originally advertised. His toughness, efficiency in guiding play forward and especially his defensive impact are winning new fans by the week, and not just in Dallas. All Pozuelo has done is walk into a strange league "fresh" off 42 Genk matches to make strong back lines and 'keepers look utterly silly.

They're not the only ones providing instant excellence. Many wondered how much high-mileage Orlando City catch Nani had left in the tank, but he is already up to three goals and four helpers in only 477 minutes. Another veteran newcomer, Romain Metanire, has helped Minnesota United improve by adding some sorely needed push up the flank and long overdue defensive bite at right back.

Turning back to FC Dallas, teen ace Jesus Ferreira is giving them the end product from center forward that often went missing last year. And it's not just MLS newbies and rookies turning heads early. Waylon Francis moved back to Columbus after a forgettable season with Seattle, and he's been invaluable in covering for the injury loss of left back ace Milton Valenzuela. The Crew SC defense hasn't conceded a goal with him on the field in 534 minutes.

No. 9: Royal disappointment

Thanks to their late-2018 surge, added midfield muscle next to the aging Kyle Beckerman and the acquisition of a proper striker to front the formation, much was expected of Real Salt Lake this year. They may still make good on that promise, to be sure, but thus far the results have been a major letdown.

Perhaps it's the tough early schedule, perhaps it's because of some curious tactical alterations made by Mike Petke. Whatever the problem(s), most fans at Rio Tinto are justifiably annoyed that their boys have only two wins through seven games and are allowing as many goals per game.

No. 8: Woes city

Others might be more shocked at how MLS Cup runners-up Portland have limped out of the gate this term, but there are obvious reasons for the early struggles. They're on the road until June due to Providence Park construction, the back line has also undergone major renovations and their key players are another year past 30.

Still ... one measly point from seven games and the most generous defense in the league? Woof.

No. 7: An Impactful return from the road

Not all teams saddled with long early road swings are disappointing. With the exception of a nightmare outing at Sporting KC, Montreal have managed matches and the supposedly debilitating March loss of injured star man Ignacio Piatti well enough to stand third in the East through seven rounds.

The Impact have done it with organization, scrappiness and defense, posting three straight shutouts against conference foes NYCFC, D.C. United and Columbus since the debacle at Children's Mercy Park.

Mark-Anthony Kaye and Latif Blessing have been key for high-flying LAFC | USA Today Sports Images

No. 6: Emerging at LAFC

Maybe others hold differing views, but I'm not surprised that LAFC are the early kings of the Western hill. I'm certainly not jarred by their league-leading attack. However, I am a bit amazed at the growing contributions of a few of their lesser-celebrated cogs.

Eduard Atuesta has impressively morphed into a real difference maker in midfield next to Mark-Anthony Kaye, who's been even better than he was before an injury stole the back half of his 2018 season. Speedy winger Latif Blessing has made a shockingly smooth transition to central midfield, making it so that Bob Bradley's boys haven't been slowed by the absence of Lee Nguyen or the continued pains of Andre Horta. And let's not forget Eddie Segura, a seemingly under-sized center back who has quickly proven an excellent partner for tall boy Walker Zimmerman.

 

David Accam's return to form has helped the Union get off to a solid start | USA Today Sports Images

No. 5: Greatly exaggerated demises

There have been a handful of players who have seemingly come back from the metaphorical dead to be early-season standouts on solid or better teams.

There were plenty of questions over whether Krisztian Nemeth could do the center forward job for Sporting KC, and not just because he'd managed only two goals in 31 total MLS appearances since his fine 2015 season. Nevertheless, he's bagged eight goals in 11 competitive matches and helped that attack function well.

Although even less might have been expected from David Accam following an empty 2018 season, the Union speedster looks back to his best suddenly, racking up three goals and two assists in his three starts. Tesho Akindele returns had been diminishing ever since his 2014 Rookie of the Year campaign, but he seems renewed after moving to Orlando City, where he's provided two goals and an assist (all important to positive results) in 244 minutes.

It's not all about the attackers, mind you. In addition to Francis, Columbus has gotten great early mileage out of Gaston Sauro. After losing nearly two years to knee woes, the resurrected center back has already chalked up two goals, 36 total defensive stops and two Team of the Week nods in four games. Now if they can just keep him out of sick bay.

No. 4: Cincy not so cinch-y

When expansion side FC Cincinnati came out in their first-ever MLS game with just two proper attackers on the field and were thoroughly ripped apart by Seattle, I thought to myself, "Oi vey, this is going to be a loooong season in the Queen City."

There's still plenty of work for Alan Koch and his charges to do there, but they have definitely not been such an easy assignment since opening day. The Orange-and-Blue have already taken four points against last year's MLS Cup participants, posted a gutsy draw against Sporting KC and picked up their first road win. Not bad at all for their first seven league games.   

 

Chris Wondolowski, on the cusp of an all-time record, has yet to score in 2019 | USA Today Sports Images

No. 3: Sputtering starts

What has two thumbs and never would have guessed that record-setting Atlanta box monster Josef Martinez and stalwart Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips would each have just one goal midway into April? This guy.

Also stuck on one goal at this time: Sebastian Blanco, Danny Hoesen, Fredy Montero, Yordy Reyna, Diego Rubio and (gulp!) Diego Valeri. Meanwhile, Chris Wondolowski has yet to ring the bell and Sacha Kljestan has yet to notch an assist.

They certainly aren't the only attack stars looking rather dim in the early going. New England wing ace Cristian Penilla has been both unproductive and benched, while veteran NYCFC string puller Maxi Moralez is struggling almost as mightily for end product.

High profile newcomers are not immune to the lethargy. Moralez running mate Alexandru Mitrita has just one goal despite standing second in the league in shots, and that tally came a month ago. Over in Atlanta, part of Martinez's slow start can be attributed to the transition troubles (double meaning, y'all) and subsequent injury nag suffered by record signing Pity Martinez.

And while we're at it, just think of how scary the LA Galaxy would be if Romain Alessandrini started producing again. In his first season in Carson, the wily Frenchman averaged 3.2 shots and 2.3 key passes per game. This season, those numbers are down to 2 and 1.5, respectively, and he's put up only a lone assist in four starts.

No. 2: ZZZ in the ATL

It's hard to determine which is more shocking: that reigning champs Atlanta United have gone just 1-2-2 in their first five games of the season or that they've been a major snooze in doing it.

While Caleb Porter has refrained from busting up a winning system in Columbus and that non-move has paid off thus far, Five Stripes boss Frank de Boer took a sledgehammer to his Atlanta's title-winning methods. He's paid a heavy early price for that, while the local fans wonder where their foe-stifling excellence went.

De Boer has reverted to a much more familiar plan recently and this produced their first win of the season at New England last weekend, but the mojo reclamation is far from over. The team has tough games ahead against FC Dallas, Sporting KC and Toronto FC, so we'll soon find out if the new coach has truly figured out how to drive his fancy new vehicle.

No. 1: Red Blahs

As stunning as Atlanta's strife has been, the real flabbergast in the early going has been the New York Red Bulls abject distress. Sure, it was always going to be tricky to replace what Tyler Adams did for the team (and is now doing for one of the top clubs in the Bundesliga). Fair enough.

Even so, Chris Armas needs to pull a full 180 on a group currently steaming in the wrong direction. Typically among the coolest customers in the MLS game, the Red Bulls have somehow managed to start 1-3-2 with an even goal differential. The Red Bulls have already lost at home to Orlando City and Minnesota United, two teams that combined for just three wins with an appalling -53 goal differential on the road last year. They've been shut out by both the Purple Lions and Chicago, who "boast" two of the most porous back lines in the league.

And it's not just that they're posting bad results. They've also lost their identity. They're easily the worst passing team in MLS, they aren't getting fat off the press anymore and they aren't defending cleanly anymore. Who are they this year? Hell if I know.


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