MLS roundup: Houston, Vancouver sit on top of their conferences after day one

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The 2014 Major League Soccer season didn’t start with a bang as much as it recovered with one; at least, on opening day. When Seattle and Sporting Kansas City, the day’s first game, went into second half stoppage time scoreless, the season’s first day seemed destined to stay cagey and congested. What followed throughout the rest of the day was a five stoppage time goals, three two-goal performances, and two clubs who exploded for four on their guests. By day’s end, the combative play that defined most of the season’s first game had faded into a distant memory, with Saturday’s seven games providing us with 21 goals.

When the dust settled, Houston sat on top of the Eastern Conference, with a strong opener from Will Bruin (two goals, one assist) leading the Dynamo to a four-goal win over New England. In the West, the Vancouver Whitecaps sit atop the conference, with two goals from Kenny Miller helping former Red Bull Carl Robinson rout New York in his head coaching debut.

Here’s how the rest of Major League Soccer’s opening day played out.

Seattle Sounders 1-0 Sporting Kansas City

A game short on chances saw the Sounders convert on their best one, with a stoppage time cross from Home Grown attacker Sean Okoli eventually producing Chad Barrett’s game-winning goal. With a CONCACAF Champions League from Liga MX’s Cruz Azul on the horizon, Peter Vermes was cautious with four of his starters, a decision that may have cost him Saturday at CenturyLink.

(MORE: Sporting Kansas City at Seattle: Takeaways from the opening game of MLS’s 2014 season)

D.C. United 0-3 Columbus Crew

Two goals from Federico Higuaín sullied the unveiling of a new-look D.C. United, with eight new starters producing little change from 2013’s record-setting results. With only 13,840 in attendance at RFK Stadium, United managed one shot on target – a disappointing omen for a team that scored 22 goals last season.

Vancouver Whitecaps 4-1 New York Red Bulls

A frighteningly dangerous performance from a deep and talented Whitecaps attack left the 2013 Supporters’ Shield winners embarrassed. Without Thierry Henry and Jámison Olave (both held out because of BC Place’s turf), Mike Petke’s team found itself down four before a late Bradley Wright Phillips goal provided consolation.

(MORE: Atlantic crushed: D.C. United, New York open the season with three-goal losses)

Houston Dynamo 4-0 New England Revolution

By the 23rd minute, Houston was up 3-0, with Will Bruin scoring the first two before assisting on Boniek Garcia’s contribution. Late in the second half, Omar Cummings came off the bench to cap Houston’s scoring, sending the Revolution home shocked by their opening day loss.

(MORE: Sixteen minutes, two goals: Houston’s Will Bruin has already put 2013 behind him)

FC Dallas 3-2 Montréal Impact

Argentine playmaker Mauro Díaz drew an early penalty and provided the game winning goal after halftime, though an Impact team missing the suspended Marco Di Vaio stayed close with Andrew Wenger’s second half goal. With scores from Fabian Castillo and Blas Pérez complementing Díaz’s contribution, Dallas delivered the first win of the Óscar Pareja era.

(MORE: Rob Friend, Mauro Díaz give Oscar-worthy performances to earn Saturday penalties)

LA Galaxy 0-1 Real Salt Lake

A slew of early chances for the Galaxy evoked memories of last year’s conference semifinals, with Real Salt Lake able to get to halftime scoreless despite two close calls for Robbie Keane (and a few tries on Jaime Penedo of their own). In the second half, Joao Plata’s goal 10 minutes from full-time delivered three points for Real Salt Lake, with a late penalty kick saved by Nick Rimando denying Los Angeles’s best chance to claim a result.

(MORE: Rare bad night from Robbie Keane costs LA Galaxy against Real Salt Lake)

Portland Timbers 1-1 Philadelphia Union

A strong return performance from former Toronto FC midfielder Maurice Edu helped the Union carry a 1-0 lead deep into second half stoppage time, with the Philadelphia Designated Player assisting on the team’s only goal. In the 94th minute, Gastón Fernández’s conversion of a Will Johnson corner (by way of Brian Carroll) gave Portland their 16th draw in 35 regular season games under Caleb Porter.

(MORE: Gastón Fernández pays immediate dividends for Portland, but don’t overlook a strong night from Philadelphia)

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80