The best and worst of Major League Soccer's opening month of March
With the opening month of the Major League Soccer season in the books, ESPN FC's Jason Davis takes a look back at the highs and lows from March.
Who won the month? Atlanta United's fun time attack
No club made more of its start to the season than Atlanta United FC. From the opening match of the campaign, the expansion club let it be known that this team, first year or not, would be playing some of the most entertaining soccer in the league. The collection of young, exciting South American designated players the club signed to play under head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino have set a high standard with their swashbuckling play. Through three matches, Atlanta United has scored 11 goals.
The team has established a fast-paced, technically proficient, ball-on-the-deck style that -- it's not an exaggeration to say -- is unlike anything MLS has seen in recent years. They haven't exactly been tested yet, but that first month was something special. Martino's team has six points from three matches and can justify some of those playoff expectations that followed them into the season.
One bit of bad news in the otherwise strong start was the loss of Josef Martinez, the league's leading scorer with five goals in those first three games, to injury while away on Venezuela national team duty. An injured left quad will sideline the 23-year-old for four to six weeks, which means he'll be back well before MLS even hits the dog days of summer.
Who lost the month? Minnesota United's porous defense
While Atlanta has set the standard for attacking play, its expansion cousin in the Midwest is wrestling with the disastrous state of its defense. News surrounding Minnesota United's arrival has mostly been about the 18 goals the team has conceded through the first month of the season.
Head coach Adrian Heath has used more than one combination in the back to try and fix the obvious problems, but it's already clear the solutions to Minnesota's issues aren't available in-house. Whether the club misjudged the league while building the roster or because it wanted to avoid paying premiums for top-quality defenders, MNUFC now finds itself paying the price.
Player of the Month: Diego Valeri
It would be simple to pick Martinez, the league's top scorer, but Diego Valeri's March was just too good to ignore. Valeri is second in the Golden Boot race with four goals and has dished out two assists in four matches. The Argentine's play is a big reason the Timbers are atop the Western Conference standings.
The chatter out of Oregon leading into the season was that Portland would have one of the more prolific attacks in the league in 2017. Caleb Porter's big words made sense, but it was always going to be up to the club's key attacking figures to prove him right. Sure, Darlington Nagbe, Fanendo Adi and Sebastian Blanco have been good, but without Valeri's influence, the Timbers couldn't have met their current standard.
Match of the Month: Minnesota United 1-6 Atlanta United
If throwing in the towel was part of soccer, someone on the Minnesota United sideline might have done so when Atlanta United eviscerated the Loons on a snowy day in Minneapolis in Week 2.
Somehow the wintry backdrop only heightened the feeling the match was simply unfair. Atlanta's South American stars had their way with a Minnesota team that just could not keep up. Whether that was the snow or the (quite obvious) shortcomings of the hosts' defending, we can't be certain. What is certain is that the match calcified the two respective prevailing narratives for the expansion teams in the early part of the season: Atlanta was built to attack, while Minnesota took a much more conservative approach.
Goal of the Month: Diego Chara vs. LA Galaxy
Diego Chara's tally for the Portland Timbers in Week 2 against the LA Galaxy walks away with Goal of the Month not because it was an example of individual brilliance (though Chara was brilliant on the sequence), but because it was a spectacular team goal and because of the sheer effort Chara put in to make it happen.
When Blanco latched onto a loose ball after a Galaxy corner kick, Chara and teammate Valeri immediately raced upfield to create the counter-attacking opportunity. Blanco's pinpoint 50-yard ball found Chara, who took the pass onto his head while at full sprint and played it into the path of Valeri. Valeri needed just two touches to bring the ball under control and fire it across the front of the net to Chara, who had continued his run and finished the move by tapping the ball into the net. Glorious.
A good month for: Changing head coaches
If you're Real Salt Lake, that is. The club maintains that the firing of Jeff Cassar was not a sudden decision, but something that had been percolating for some time. If true, that prompts the obvious question of why the club didn't replace him after a disappointing 2016 season that saw RSL struggle down the stretch and scrape into the playoffs.
Cassar was the earliest in-season firing in MLS history. Whatever the reasons (the lack of goals might have something to do with it) or the internal discussions that led to it, it's a remarkable happening in a league known for giving coaches plenty of time to sort things out. Next up in Salt Lake is Mike Petke, with the former New York Red Bulls manager taking the reins officially on Wednesday.
A bad month for: Goals in the capital
Preseason analysis of D.C. United focused on two presumed truths: One, the defense is shaky, and two, the attack is good. Only one of those things has proved true so far -- meaning that nothing good has happened for the Black and Red in 2017.
United hasn't scored, making it the only club without a goal. An injury to playmaker Luciano Acosta is partly to blame, but it doesn't excuse the goose egg the club has put up in its first three matches. There is a bit of luck at play -- the expected goals numbers show that United is playing better than the complete lack of attacking production would indicate.
What April needs to deliver: A respite from injuries
March took down more than a few of the league's top players, leading into a (hopefully) better April.
Kaka played 10 minutes of the season before going down but should be back soon. The same can't be said for Atlanta's Martinez or LA Galaxy's Sebastian Lletget, who has a four- to six-month layoff ahead after breaking a bone in his foot while with the USMNT. Romell Quioto of the Houston Dynamo was also injured in the same match and will need a month or more to heal a dislocated shoulder.
2016 Defender of the Year finalist Axel Sjoberg played the opening two games for the Colorado Rapids before going down with a hamstring problem that required a surgical fix. We can also add Ignacio Piatti to the March casualty list -- the Impact playmaker is dealing with hip and groin problems.
Be kind, April.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.