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Old 12-31-2011, 11:33 AM   #163
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Sporting News - Best of 2011 American Soccer

In the short term, the past year in American soccer will be remembered largely for the on-field failures, starting with the blown leads in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final and the Women’s World Cup final.

The MLS campaign started off in frustrating fashion as well, with a glut of ties and several horrific injuries dominating conversation. Meanwhile, Real Salt Lake’s agonizing home loss in the CONCACAF Champions League decider was downright depressing.

But there were plenty of positives. Some actually happened on the field as the MLS season was redeemed with a compelling stretch run, some excellent playoff games and a deserving champion in the L.A. Galaxy. But it’s going to be the off-the-field news that marks 2011’s place in U.S. soccer history. From the arrival of Jurgen Klinsmann and the three-way Cascadia rivalry to the historic broadcast deal between MLS and NBC, many of the year’s highlights were about positioning the sport for greater growth in the long term.

With a newsworthy year drawing to a close, Sporting News looks back at the best and brightest of American soccer’s 2011:

Player of the year: Clint Dempsey

This one’s no contest. Dempsey was outstanding for both club and country, combining skill, will and results in a way that none of his countrymen can touch. He led the U.S. national team with five goals in 14 games (no one else scored more than three) and scored the winner in the 1-0 Gold Cup semifinal triumph over Panama, while proving to be a game-changer as an outside midfielder, a playmaker and a forward.

He also has been brilliant for Fulham, which is fighting to stay relevant in the English Premier League. Dempsey has nine goals for the club in all competitions since the start of the 2011-12 season and he had seven in the second half of the 2010-11 campaign, giving him 16 for the calendar year.

No American field player has starred at one of Europe’s big clubs. Dempsey has the tools if the opportunity comes along.

Story of the year: Klinsmann replaces Bob Bradley

In late July, more than a month after the U.S. lost to Mexico in the Gold Cup final, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati finally landed the coach he’d been chasing since 2006.

Promised full control and paid $2.5 million per year, Klinsmann launched an ambitious quest to take American soccer toward the big time with a new outlook and philosophy that ran the gamut from youth development to jersey numbers. After 16 years, the U.S. once again had a foreign coach and in Klinsmann it had a World Cup winner whose unorthodox approach invited both hope and scrutiny.

“We talked 20 minutes before the (introductory) press conference (in Manhattan)," Gulati recalled. “I said, you understand there are a number of people, not necessarily in the room but out there, that believe right after the press conference you’re going to be walking across the Hudson River. He got it.”

Game of the year: Women’s World Cup quarterfinal

Abby Wambach’s last-gasp equalizer was just one of a host of “did that just happen?” moments over the course of more than 120 nail-biting minutes. From Rachel Buehler’s red card to Marta’s sublime overtime finish and from Megan Rapinoe’s unforgettable cross to Hope Solo’s shootout save, the quarterfinal in Dresden—which the U.S. won on penalty kicks after a 2-2 draw—offered gripping theater that captured the country’s attention and transcended the sport.

Game of the year involving an MLS team: CONCACAF Champions League finals, first leg

Real Salt Lake went to Monterrey in mid-April and played the sort of skillful, mature game we’ve been hoping to see from an MLS team at the highest level, coming from behind twice to forge a 2-2 draw on an eventful night at the Estadio Tecnológico.

Defender Nat Borchers tied the match just before halftime and RSL bent but didn’t break in the face of a Monterrey onslaught after falling behind again in the 63rd minute. In the 89th, RSL’s Javier Morales scored on a brilliant individual effort to put the MLS side in excellent position to claim the title.

VIDEO: Morales' goal

Best 15-20 minutes of the MLS season: Portland Timbers at D.C. United

Two clubs that ultimately would miss the MLS playoffs played a frenzied few minutes of desperate soccer Oct. 19 that included about a season’s worth of scoring chances and close calls that left the RFK Stadium crowd breathless.

“It felt like a schoolyard game,” D.C. midfielder Santino Quaranta told The Washington Post.

Playing to save their seasons, United had a goal disallowed and a penalty kick appeal turned down, the Timbers hit the crossbar and both goalkeepers made spectacular saves. Somehow, the game ended 1-1.

Top Hollywood moment not involving David Beckham: Charlie Davies’ debut

Davies’ D.C. United sojourn didn’t end well, but what a beginning he had. Returning to the city where his career (and life) nearly ended in a horrific 2009 car accident, Davies entered the March 19 season-opener against the Columbus Crew in the 52nd minute, converted a penalty kick in the 63rd and then scored a second on a fine run in the 77th.

“This has been like a storybook tonight,” Davies said. “I don’t think you could write this stuff. You can’t make this up.”

VIDEO: Davies' goal

Gutsiest decision: MLS fines Davies $1,000 for diving

As a league bridging sporting cultures, MLS is in a unique position to impact both. In late June, it accepted that responsibility and launched an effort to change soccer for the better by sanctioning Davies for his tumble against Real Salt Lake. The damage to Davies’ reputation far exceeded the damage to his bank account.

A month later, MLS fined and suspended RSL’s Alvaro Saborío for similar shenanigans.

“If you’re a general sports fan tuning into soccer or you’re a traditional fan of the sport, this is the one piece of behavior both sides agree that they hate,” MLS executive vice president Nelson Rodriguez told Sporting News.

Tweet of the year: Landon Donovan

Davies' dive that led to the June fine wasn’t Davies’ first of the year. In an April game against the L.A. Galaxy, Davies earned an 89th-minute, game-tying penalty kick after falling far too easily for Donovan’s liking.

In response, the U.S. star tweeted: "I got @CharlieDavies9 some gear in case he decides to dive again. Couldn't find a scuba mask though."

Attached to Donovan's tweet was a picture of a red beach towel and a swimsuit.

Most fitting conclusion: Three designated players combine for MLS Cup-winning goal

It really was the only way a team named for a collection of stars could finish off a spectacular season. With the MLS Cup final between the L.A. Galaxy and Houston Dynamo deadlocked, designated players Beckham (header), Robbie Keane (dribbling run and pass) and Donovan (finish) combined for the 72nd-minute clincher. The Galaxy got what they paid for.

VIDEO: Donovan’s goal

Best teammate: L.A. Galaxy MF/GK Mike Magee

The Galaxy’s championship wasn’t only about the big names. Their airtight defense featured a starting back four who’ve represented the U.S. a combined five times, and its roster was filled with players whose hard work gave the stars room to shine.

No one embodied that ethos like Magee, whose effort and diligence in left midfield led to eight MLS goals and whose selfless and improbably successful 47 minutes in goal against the San Jose Earthquakes in June typified his willingness to do whatever the situation required.

Naturally, he credited Donovan and Beckham with establishing the tone in the Galaxy locker room, but Magee’s willingness to be led while setting his own example represents the sort of behavior that builds championship teams.

“You know by our locker room and our atmosphere every day there are guys you want to fight for,” Magee told Sporting News.

He’s one of them.

Top showman: Vancouver Whitecaps F Eric Hassli

The Frenchman provided plenty of fireworks in an otherwise dour debut season for the Whitecaps. His 10 goals and league-leading three red cards were testament to the skill and passion with which he played. One of the ejections came after he earned a second yellow card for tossing his jersey into the stands while wearing another one underneath.

And, of course, Hassli scored the real MLS goal of the year, no matter what the voters say. His incredible chip and almost no-look volley from across the penalty area against the Seattle Sounders was world-class and arguably the most astonishing strike in MLS history.

Several notable players, including retired national team forwards Taylor Twellman and Alecko Eskandarian, agreed. The latter called it “one in a million.”

VIDEO: Hassli's goal

Best feel-good goal: Jozy Altidore

Sure, it came against Guadeloupe. But Altidore’s ninth-minute piledriver in the Gold Cup’s group stage finale sent an emphatic message that the beleaguered 21-year-old (now 22) would have his say as the national team continued its maddening pursuit of a striker who can score consistently.

Altidore missed the tournament’s climax with an injury but began the 2011-12 season with AZ Alkmaar with seven goals in under two months. When in form, Altidore remains the best hope the U.S. has up top.

VIDEO: Altidore's goal

Most historic result: FC Dallas wins at UNAM Pumas

In 25 competitive matches in Mexico, MLS clubs were 0-21-4. The U.S. national team was 0-23-1 all-time on Mexican soil. Then on Aug. 17, midfielder Marvin Chávez’s 66th-minute goal stood up against UNAM Pumas and FC Dallas broke the most infuriating curse in American soccer.

Cynics immediately pointed to the second-string team Pumas fielded that night in Mexico City, but that shouldn’t matter. It always seemed there were forces much larger than a coach’s lineup choices at work when any U.S. team headed south of the border. FC Dallas proved that winning was possible, and everyone associated with American soccer benefits from that confidence boost.

Cameo of the year: Freddy Adu

Adu was named to the Gold Cup team because Bradley wanted to see if he would stay quiet, work hard and behave like a pro. Playing time would be a bonus.

He got off the bench in the semifinal and helped set up Dempsey’s winning goal. On June 25, he was awarded a start the final against Mexico and was the Americans’ best player for significant stretches of the first hour, when it looked the U.S. had a chance.

Adu was confident, creative and full of the promise he showed as a teenager.

He hasn’t played for the U.S. since.

Most impressive work ethic: Wambach

The amount of sweat, effort and commitment the U.S. women’s national team star puts into a given game is evident not only in the grass and mud stains covering her when she leaves the field, but in the results.

That 122nd-minute goal against Brazil was no accident—she ran the length of the Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion field (while battling tendinitis in her right Achilles tendon) to get in position, and her late goals in both the semifinal and final are testament to her relentlessness.

It’s a shame that several teammates were unable to rise to the occasion against Japan—Wambach deserves a world championship.

Most welcome epiphany: MLS realizes the playoffs should be longer

Random results, questionable champions and complaints about an apparently meaningless regular season were the result of MLS’ stubborn insistence on a playoff format that required only four games to win the title.

In 2011, the league added two wild-card games that forced the winners to face each conference’s top seed on a short turnaround, giving the rested team a deserved advantage. Starting next year, the conference finals will be two games instead of one.

In 2012 and beyond, championship hopefuls will have to negotiate five or six games rather than four. It’s a significant difference that should produce worthy winners far more frequently.

Most welcome announcement: MLS signs TV deal with NBC

MLS has been on TV since Day 1 but few have noticed. Fox Soccer is a niche network, and ESPN habitually shies away from promoting the league or showing highlights on SportsCenter.

In August, MLS announced a new three-year, $30 million deal with NBC, which will broadcast both league and U.S. national team games over the air and on NBC Sports Network (the re-branded Versus network).

NBC's reach is tantalizing, and its promotion proved so attractive to the MLS officials that they reportedly turned down a more lucrative offer from Fox (ESPN remains a broadcast partner).

Best TV moment: Timbers Army's leads singing of the national anthem

The stirring scene at Jeld-Wen Field as the Timbers kicked off their home MLS schedule in April embodied the most attractive difference between attending a soccer game and going to any see any other major American sporting event: The atmosphere is loud, colorful and fan generated rather than marketer or scoreboard generated. The video of nearly 19,000 Timbers fans and their a cappella rendition of the national anthem went viral, and the idea was copied by the NBA’s Miami Heat a couple of weeks later.

VIDEO: The anthem

Best new brand: Portland Timbers

The Timbers got a lot right in their inaugural season, including the uniform. Instead of sticking to the lazy and tired trend of monochrome kits that could be worn by just about any team in the world, Portland wore a distinctive dark green-and-white primary uniform and a punchy red-and-white alternate that played on its “Rose City” nickname. They are classy, colorful, unique and a model for what MLS teams should look like.

Best MLS owners: Sporting Kansas City

OnGoal LLC, fronted by CEO Robb Heineman, bought the Kansas City Wizards in 2006. This year was their coming-out party. A new name, a stunning new stadium featuring a fan-friendly environment emphasizing social and technological innovations, a creative membership scheme and a commitment to on-field performance have transformed a formerly woebegone organization into a model franchise. Kansas City matters in American soccer, and the message sent to other struggling MLS originals is clear: There are no excuses. It can be done.

Most underreported story: Bradley coaches Egypt

An American getting hired to coach the national team of a country where soccer is the most popular sport is a significant indication of the increasing respect the world has for the American game.

An American coaching the national soccer team of the Arab world’s most populous nation (by far) is historic and transcends sport. Yet Bradley’s move to Egypt has been almost entirely ignored by the American media, which is unfortunate considering the symbolism and potential ramifications of the move.

Bradley’s charge: Qualify Egypt for the World Cup for the first time since 1990. If he does, perhaps the appreciation and respect for Bradley finally will match his achievements.

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