Posted December 31, 2013

The top 13 stories from American soccer’s unforgettable 2013

2014 World Cup, Clint Dempsey, CONCACAF Champions League, Jozy Altidore, Jurgen Klinsmann, L.A. Galaxy, Landon Donovan, MLS Cup, MLS Expansion, U.S. men's national team, World Cup qualifying

7. An Epic Final

The MLS Cup final between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake was far from a beautiful game. The Sporting Park air was freezing. The players were cold as well, thanks to a stop-and-start playoff schedule that sapped their momentum.

But the title game turned out to be exactly what the league needed. History and relevance are often built on individual dramatic moments, on twists of fate that alter outcomes and become lore, like the Immaculate Reception or the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. The Cup final was full of them. There were hard fouls, scoring chances galore (including three RSL shots that hit the post), acrobatic saves and a pair of second-half goals. The atmosphere was frigid but electric and the inevitable penalty kick shootout went a nail-biting 10 rounds. Both teams had chances to claim the trophy. At one point, the visiting RSL fans seemed to will SKC’s Lawrence Olum to miss as they sang “Believe,” their club anthem. But in the end, Sporting captain Jimmy Nielsen, who saved two PKs despite broken ribs, lifted the trophy, capping SKC’s remarkable rebirth and a final few will forget.

8. Clint Dempsey Returns

In a move that may be remembered as an MLS turning point, the league’s owners agreed to collectively fund Dempsey’s blockbuster August transfer to the Seattle Sounders. Dempsey’s wages, plus the fee paid to Tottenham Hotspur, totaled some $33 million. That’s more than 10 times each club’s initial salary budget (minus allocation money, Designated Players, etc.).

Like other big-name DPs, Dempsey struggled to acclimate early. He dealt with chemistry and injury issues and wound up scoring only once in 12 MLS games. He’ll likely find his form (perhaps back in the Premier League, during his loan to Fulham), but the deal should have far-reaching implications whether Dempsey delivers or not. Either the way will be paved for other Americans whose skills and marketability will enhance MLS on and off the field, or owners might conclude that only proven global superstars like David Beckham and Thierry Henry are worth that kind of investment.

There’s a short-term impact as well. The MLS Players Union will see the Dempsey deal as a sign there’s more money to spend. The collective bargaining agreement expires next winter. And fans and media already have used the acquisition’s fuzzy details, not to mention the involvement of rival clubs in helping Seattle, to agitate for greater transparency and accountability from the league office.

9. Coming Out, Carrying On, Breaking Through

Robbie Rogers and Mike Magee both hungered for the comforts of home, and they found them this year in a manner — and with results — that made U.S. sports history

It began with Rogers, who revealed both his homosexuality and his intention to retire from pro soccer at 25 in a stunning but moving February blog post. A flood of support followed, which Rogers admitted was a surprise. He soon opted to return to the field, but only if he could suit up for his hometown L.A. Galaxy.

In L.A., Magee faced his own fork in the road. He was a valuable member of the two-time defending champs, but family was calling him home to Chicago after more than a dozen years away. The Galaxy and Fire arranged a trade in late May. Rogers, a recent U.S. international, would become the first active, openly gay male athlete in a major American team sport. Magee went on to win the MLS MVP award.

The best part of the story was its evolution. By autumn, Rogers’ sexuality wasn’t an issue. His production relative to Magee’s was. But each inspired in his own way. In Rogers, there’s hope (and ample evidence) that gay athletes will be regarded by teammates and fans as athletes first. In Magee, 29, there’s a sign that stardom remains within reach for those who persevere and grow as players and people.

10. Four More Years

It wasn’t just that the U.S. won both the Hexagonal and the Gold Cup and friendlies against Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina this year. It was the way they won.

“We’ve seen players with more confidence, and I think that’s in great measure due to the confidence Jurgen has instilled into the team and individual players, that we can be better than we’ve been,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. “We like what’s been happening with the program over the last couple of years. All of this doesn’t come down to one game or one missed shot or one save [at a World Cup]. Clearly, the World Cup is extremely important and it’s a measure of where we are, but it’s not the only way we measure ourselves.”

And so, on Dec. 12, the USSF made a massive and unprecedented commitment to its coach, signing Klinsmann to a contract extension that will leave him in charge through the 2018 World Cup and promote him to technical director, with oversight over the entire national team and player development pyramid. It’s an historic vote of confidence for a coach with big ideas, some of which clearly started to take root this year and some of which need more time.

Re-signing a coach prior to a World Cup is unconventional. But the confident and charismatic Klinsmann, who wanted an extension before next summer’s tournament, is also unconventional. Gulati called him a “a unique coach with a unique opportunity” and Klinsmann promised that he’s not “looking for any kind of comfort zone.” He was hired not only to advance in Brazil, but to alter the way Americans play, coach and approach the game. The new contract ensures his impact will be felt for years to come.

11. The Saga of Landon

Ultimately, Donovan wound up where he started — as a vital contributor to the U.S. national team and a star with the L.A. Galaxy. But the circular journey taken by American soccer’s most important player captivated just about everyone for the first two thirds of 2013, starting with his odd three-month sabbatical and concluding with a new long-term contract.

Along the way, Donovan lost his club captaincy to Robbie Keane and the benefit of the doubt from Klinsmann, who forced the national team’s all-time leading scorer to earn his way back into the squad. Donovan did so with a rampant performance at the Gold Cup. He led the U.S. to a 6-0-0 record, tallied five goals and won the competition’s Golden Ball trophy. In August he inked a long-term deal with L.A. that will pay him more than $4 million per season, and then the following month he started and scored as the U.S. beat Mexico and qualified for the World Cup.

“At the end of last year, something inside me was saying I needed a break. I don’t know exactly why or what the reasoning was, but it was very strong. I did what was right for me. It’s a good lesson for myself, that you need to do what makes you happy,” Donovan told SI.com this summer.

Once again, playing soccer fills the bill.

12. Champions League Frustration

The Seattle Sounders defeated UANL Tigres, 3-2, on aggregate in the 2013 CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals in March, becoming the first MLS team to eliminate a Mexican rival since the competition expanded in 2008.

And that was it. That was this year’s small step forward.

MLS is improving on the international stage, but not nearly as quickly as clubs and officials would like. The CCL record is a bit better each season and there are milestones (or quarter-mile stones, really) like RSL’s run to the 2011 finals or FC Dallas’ historic win on Mexican soil later that year. But success still must be measured in tiny increments and a trophy remains elusive. Seattle and the Galaxy were knocked out in the semis last spring. L.A., Sporting and the San Jose Earthquakes each survived the 2013-14 tournament’s group stage, but all face Liga MX opposition in the quarterfinals.

Meanwhile, Mexico continues to dominate. Monterrey won another CCL title in May, becoming just the eighth club on the planet to claim three consecutive continental crowns. The U.S. national team may have surpassed Mexico’s, but Mexico’s league remains peerless. Liga MX clubs will be playing for a ninth straight championship next spring.

13. Deadly Draw

Klinsmann and the U.S. were “rewarded” for a record-breaking year with a World Cup group rife with story lines but fraught with peril.

“Well, it couldn’t have gone any more difficult,” Klinsmann said after his team was placed in the World Cup’s toughest quartet alongside Germany, Ghana and Portugal. But he added, “It’s a huge opportunity.”

Indeed, it is. The Americans won’t be favored to advance. But they’ve developed more of a comfort playing against elite sides and can take the field in Brazil highly motivated and under reduced pressure. Each game will be a headliner. In Germany, they get a powerhouse three-time world champion and their coach’s former team. Portugal features Cristiano Ronaldo, who many believe is the planet’s top player. And the Ghana match offers the Americans another crack at the nemesis that knocked them out in 2006 and 2010.

“There’s gonna be so many story lines that you guys can write about, and we’ll be able to go and play it and hopefully rock the boat and see if we can do something special. It’s great,” Beckerman said moments after the Dec. 6 draw. “We think this is going to be the most watched, most talked about World Cup ever. Doing something special in this World Cup would be great.”

There’s plenty to look forward to in 2014.


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16 comments
shohanali298
shohanali298

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nugrohowidi
nugrohowidi

I followed MLS and mlssoccer.com closely. MLS is growing exponentially and is becoming rapidly to be one of the best league in this PLANET

MLS have built real fanatic fanbase in cities. Very interesting watching them. 

Deegley
Deegley

While these 13 stories are all admirable, I would include a few more... NEW LEAGUE: "Women's professional soccer launches NWSL" NEW SCORING LEADER: "USWNT's Abby Wambach set the new scoring record for both men and women" STELLAR YEAR: "USWNT goes undefeated in 2013 with 13-0-3 record". These are just my personal favorites, but let's stop ignoring that American soccer also has a women's side.

NucLear
NucLear

Is this a joke? In the United States, everything about soccer is forgettable. Soccer is the most boring sport on the planet, and Americans know so - that's why we don't watch it or pay any attention to it. We watch REAL sports, like football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. Soon the Olympics will be coming up - we'll be watching that! But the "World Cup?" LOL, you have to be joking that anyone in this country (outside of immigrants and that fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the American sports audience that are soccer snobs) could give a flying F about what happens there. Soccer? Give me a break. The 500 or so of you soccer-loving losers nationwide can go on and keep watching your boring, coma-inducing game. The rest of the United States will be caught up in the drama of the Olympics, the NBA and NHL playoffs, the NCAA Div. I College Basketball Tournament, the Super Bowl, the BCS, the start of the 2014 MLB season - that's what we'll be watching. We've never watched soccer, we don't watch soccer, and we never WILL watch soccer. Good riddance to this boring, racist game! The audacity of proclaiming "soccer moments" in the U.S. that no one's ever heard of - lol, how ridiculous!

CZeroMusic
CZeroMusic

No love for winning the Gold Cup.

godfather361
godfather361

@Deegley While they're all admirable, the only one that should be mentioned is Wambach setting the record.  Other than that, the USWNT doesn't play in a world cup until 2015 and will dominate headlines then.  The new woman's soccer league is just another attempt of many.  There have been a good amount of leagues that have come and go and I suspect this new league will become defunct within a matter of a decade like the rest.  People don't ignore the woman's side of soccer, but this is the down portion of the cycle for them, hence the domination of the men's headlines.  Let's not make this more than it has to be here

RomarioDelLago
RomarioDelLago

@NucLearAnd yet you felt the need to come in here and whine. Sounds like you're running scared because the world's best and most popular sport is growing like crazy here and you're afraid of being left out.  Cry some more, baby boy.

RickPotts
RickPotts

@NucLear Nucular, hell,  I'm surprised you could figger out that there inter-web.  You forgot to include NASCAR and WWF in your list of real American sports in your short sited, narrow minded rant.  Do me a favor.  Get up off your stained couch, brush the potato chip crumbs off your extended gut, go change your dirty white wife beater t-shirt, turn off FOX News and go read a book. Please don't travel outside of this country.  Ignorant Americans like you give the rest of us a bad name.   

godfather361
godfather361

@NucLear Are you being satirical?  We can't tell if you have sarcasm or not.  If you don't, then you really don't understand that basketball is dropping in popularity drastically.  All fans do is just look at the quality in the Eastern conference coupled with the quality of drafts in the past decade combined with the mismanagement of the league and realize that it's not going to get any better any time soon.  Soccer, on the other hand, has never been developed and advertised enough for it to be popular, but don't mistake MLS for the World Cup.  That's extremely popular in the US when it comes to that time of the year

SomeguywithnosensE
SomeguywithnosensE

Oh! Now I get it! This guy is named "United States", goes by "Americans" or "American", keeps on referring to himself as "we", and probably has some voices in his head that make him believe he speaks for millions, so of course he can take his opinion as fact, I would if it was me. Well, trolls will be trolls.

ll316
ll316

@NucLear How is it that places like Seattle have a higher average attendance than many teams in Europe if nobody in the States cares?


Racist?  Please explain.  If you think it's the only sport that racists follow, try playing pickup basketball sometime.  

Ryan19
Ryan19

@NucLear Wow, you must be really scared of soccer's growth in this country.  I can't think of any other reason for you to whine so much other than fear.  The sports you mentioned are the boring ones.  They aren't even sports really.  They are 3-4 hour long commercials with the occasional break to watch guys stand around doing nothing.  But if you like that stuff, good for you.  Why don't you go to those boards and annoy the folks there?  It must be exhausting to be filled with so much ignorance, fear and hate.  Good luck with that.  

drudge
drudge

@NucLear ah yes, who can resist the total non effort of nba'ers in a january midweek game, or watching one man go one v one while the other 4 stand around.  Oh, and the 4plus hour MLB games, - put a stop watch on any player other than a pitcher or catcher during those 4 hours - they probably do something other than stand around for maybe 1-2 minutes.  don't even need to wash their uni's.  NHL - is that like on ESPN 986 on your cable box?  NFL - don't even recognize that sport anymore - can't hit anyone anymore.   Will give you college football, and only march madness, regular season no one cares.