Climbing the Ladder: Champs usually start hot

New weekly series delves deep into the numbers behind MLS

The 2011 Major League Soccer season kicks off next Tuesday when the Seattle Sounders host the Los Angeles Galaxy at Qwest Field. By the weekend's conclusion, all eighteen teams will have played their opening match. With the action only a week away, now is the perfect time to take a look back at past opening day records and statistics.

1) Champions start well.

It's only one game in a long, hard season. However, it certainly doesn't hurt to get off on the right foot, as the fifteen previous MLS Cup champions have shown. In the opening matches of their title winning seasons, they've sported a combined 11-3-1 record (includes 1 shootout win). This success has come despite the fact that only six of those matches were at home.

The only future champions to lose were 1996 DC United, 2005 Los Angeles and 2009 Real Salt Lake.

Team Opener Result
1996 D.C. United at SJ L, 0-1
1997 D.C. United at LA W, 0-0#
1998 Chicago Fire at MIA W, 2-0
1999 D.C. United at TB W, 5-2
2000 Kansas City Wizards vs CHI W, 4-3
2001 San Jose Earthquakes at LA W, 3-2
2002 LA Galaxy vs DC W, 2-1
2003 San Jose Earthquakes at COL W, 2-1
2004 D.C. United vs SJ W, 2-1
2005 LA Galaxy at CLB L, 0-3
2006 Houston Dynamo vs COL W, 5-2
2007 Houston Dynamo vs LA D, 0-0
2008 Columbus Crew vs TOR W, 2-0
2009 Real Salt Lake at SEA L, 0-2
2010 Colorado Rapids at CHV W, 1-0

# - Indicates that the match went to a shootout.

2) Team records and home/away disparities.

If Sporting Kansas City leave the Home Depot Center victorious over Chivas USA on March 19, KC fans shouldn't be surprised. With an opening match record of 9-4-2 (1 shootout win), they've been the most successful MLS team to start the season. This includes a four-year streak of winning the opener from 2005-2008, a league record. Avoiding the all-too-common mid/late-season swoon? That's another story.

On the flip side, the defending champion Colorado Rapids have the league's poorest opening day record at 3-10-2 (3 shootout losses). They've actually done quite well in recent years, winning in three of the last four. They just happened to go without an opening day win for their first 11 years, a streak that was broken in the inaugural match at Dick's Sporting Goods Park (April 7, 2007: Colorado 2-1 DC).

This season, they have a chance to continue their good run with what appears to be a winnable match against the expansion Portland Timbers. Unusually for the Rapids, they'll be playing their first game at home. Previously, they've only played three openers at home in fifteen seasons.

The home/away disparity in hosting openers, brought about by the cold weather in many MLS cities early in the season, means that some teams have continually faced an easier or harder start year in and year out. In addition to the Rapids, other opening day road warriors include Chicago (2 home games out of 13 years), DC United (4 of 15), and New England (1 of 15). Meanwhile, several teams have hosted openers the majority of the time, including Columbus (10 of 15), Dallas (14 of 15), Kansas City (11 of 15), and Los Angeles (11 of 15).

Those disparities certainly have much (but not all) to do with the records of Kansas City and Colorado mentioned above. Here’s a list of each team’s opening day record, with the number of home and away games.

Win Loss Draw Pct. Home Away
Chicago 5 4 4 0.538 2 11
Chivas USA 3 2 1 0.583 5 1
Colorado 3 10 2 0.267 3 12
Columbus 6 5 4 0.533 10 5
Dallas 6 4 5 0.567 14 1
D.C. United 6 7 2 0.467 4 11
Houston 1 1 3 0.500 3 2
Kansas City 9 4 2 0.667 11 4
Los Angeles 7 5 3 0.567 11 4
New England 4 8 3 0.367 1 14
New York 6 6 3 0.500 6 9
Philadelphia 0 1 0 0.000 0 1
Salt Lake 1 2 3 0.417 2 4
San Jose 5 7 1 0.423 6 7
Seattle 2 0 0 1.000 2 0
Toronto 1 3 0 0.250 0 4
Miami 1 2 1 0.375 4 0
Tampa Bay 4 2 0 0.667 5 1

3) Goal scoring feats and milestones.

The all-time leading goalscorer on opening day is Brian Ching (7 goals), propelled by his four in the Dynamo's debut (April 2, 2006: Houston 5-2 Colorado). He's followed by Ante Razov (6), Edson Buddle (5) and Carlos Ruiz (5). Ching’s four goals are one of only two opener hat tricks; the other was Jason Kreis to kick off his 1999 MVP-winning season (March 20, 1999: Dallas 4-0 Kansas City).

But in 2011, Colorado's Omar Cummings has a chance to do something none of them have ever done: become the first MLS player to score a goal in four consecutive openers. He's tallied in three straight, which has only been matched by Razov (2005-2007), Ruiz (2002-2004) and Eddie Johnson (2005-2007).

Also, Seattle's Brad Evans and Fredy Montero have scored in both Sounders openers and could join the three-straight club.

Finally, MLS is on the verge of a scoring milestone: 8,000 regular season goals. A total of 7,997 have been scored through 2010, which means that if three goals are scored next Tuesday by Seattle and Los Angeles, the 8,000 goal mark will be reached. If not, then it'll have to wait until Saturday where a number of games could be in the running. If that's the case, then Vancouver versus Toronto is the next most likely destination as they have an hour head start on the rest of the Saturday schedule.

The 7,000th goal occurred on May 17, 2009, when Chris Wondolowski scored for the Dynamo at New York.

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