The top 13 stories from American soccer’s unforgettable 2013
The year in American soccer was bracketed by bitter cold, which brought out the best in those who rose to the occasion and helped shape the sport in 2013.
Way back in January, Jozy Altidore exuded dignity and determination during a Dutch Eredivisie game that featured snowballs and racial abuse cascading from the stands. In March, a beleaguered U.S. national team began its dramatic climb to the top of CONCACAF in a fearsome Colorado blizzard. And in early December, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake contested an unforgettable MLS Cup final that was hampered, yet somehow heightened, by a frozen field and record-low temperatures.
The past 12 months were full of moments and men that seemed to transcend the game. There was courage (see Bob Bradley and Robbie Rogers), redemption (see Jurgen Klinsmann and Landon Donovan), speculation about the future of a league and pandemonium at the end of World Cup qualifying. It was a most memorable year.
Here are SI Soccer’s top 13 stories of 2013:
1. Dos a Cero Dominance
Crew Stadium’s 2-0 hex over the Mexican national team never gets old for U.S. soccer supporters, but this year’s World Cup qualifying win – the fourth straight by that mystical scoreline over an El Tri team in Ohio — was uniquely satisfying and significant.
The three points earned on Sept. 10 not only sealed a spot in Brazil for the U.S., they cemented an unexpected but unmistakable shift in the regional balance of power. Two years prior, Mexico seized control of CONCACAF with an emphatic Gold Cup triumph. It served further notice in 2012 with an Olympic gold medal. But years of anticipated dominance were reduced to months as El Tri sputtered and Klinsmann’s squad finally found its groove. The U.S. stormed to the ’13 Gold Cup title and up the Hexagonal standings before brushing aside Mexico in Columbus with a performance that highlighted the Americans’ depth and resolve.
Absent the injured Michael Bradley and the suspended Altidore, the U.S. got second-half goals from Donovan and Eddie Johnson and rock-solid defensive performances from Kyle Beckerman, Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson. Mexico carried the play early, but the visitors’ lack of enterprise and belief was evident as they floundered in the second half. Meanwhile, the U.S. was cohesive, confident and well on its way to a first-place finish in the Hex. On that memorable night in Columbus, CONCACAF’s new king was crowned.
2. Expansion Excitement and New York City FC
It often seemed this year as if more people cared about MLS clubs that don’t exist than the ones which take the field each weekend, and that isn’t too surprising. MLS isn’t yet 20 years old. Conjecture and conversation about what the league could — or should — be is going to be as much a part of the narrative as the games and goals. Where MLS is now isn’t as intriguing as where it’s going.
That’s why the year’s biggest MLS story took place not on the pitch, but at a podium at a school in East Harlem, where Manchester City and the New York Yankees unveiled their mammoth commitment to American soccer. Their joint venture, New York City FC, came with a $100 million price tag and will take the field in 2015 under the leadership of former Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis. Within a few years, the club is expected to move into a stadium (likely in the Bronx) that MLS commissioner Don Garber said would be the “largest investment in a soccer stadium of any team in Major League Soccer.”
At this summer’s All-Star Game in Kansas City, Garber ensured that expansion would continue to occupy the headlines as he announced the 19-team league’s intention to field 24 clubs by 2020. Orlando City’s entry was confirmed last month (read more about the clubs plan’s here), while Miami (with David Beckham leading the way) and Atlanta (the effort is led by Falcons owner Arthur Blank) appear to be the frontrunners for clubs No. 22 and 23. While some indicators — especially TV ratings and CONCACAF Champions League results — remain troubling, the race to join the league and the interest in its outcome are promising signs.
3. A Wild Night in the Hex
It may have been the most riveting made-for-TV moment in American soccer history. In Panama City, the U.S. — having already qualified for the World Cup and clinched first in the Hexagonal standings — had nothing on the line as it trailed the hosts, 2-1, with seven minutes and change remaining. In San José, Mexico was losing to Costa Rica by the same score. At that moment, El Tri was out of the World Cup.
Four days earlier, Raúl Jiménez scored an astonishing goal that kept Mexico in contention.
But now, they’d need one more miracle.
Knowing that a loss would eliminate Mexico, the U.S. nevertheless pushed for the equalizer. An inexperienced Panamanian team opened the door, and the Americans put a heated rivalry aside and barged through. Graham Zusi headed home a stoppage-time cross from Brad Davis to draw the visitors level, then Aron Johannsson sealed Panama’s gut-wrenching fate a few seconds later.
The following day, the Mexican press was more than willing to put El Tri in its place. Under Miguel Herrera, its fourth coach of 2013, Mexico eventually eased past New Zealand in November’s intercontinental playoff and booked its barely-deserved place in Brazil. Would Mexico have gone for the win if circumstances were reversed? Will the U.S. effort lead to greater respect south of the border? How would elimination have impacted Mexican soccer? Why was Panama so overwhelmed? Such questions ensure that the improbable events of Oct. 15 echo for years.
4. Ambassador Bob Bradley
No one would have blamed Bradley if he’d packed his bags and left following the horrifying riot at an Egyptian Premier League match in February that left nearly 80 people dead. But he stayed, and then did even more than that, marching with protesters in Cairo, visiting hospitals with his wife and understanding with a deep and courageous conviction that the national team he managed could be a unifying force in a fractured nation.
Bradley guided the Pharaohs to a 6-0-0 record during the group stage of Africa’s World Cup qualifying competition without the benefit of a domestic league (which had been suspended) or a home crowd. The ending wasn’t a happy one — a playoff matchup with Ghana marked the end of Bradley’s World Cup road — but it was satisfying. He left with his own dignity, and that of his team’s, intact. His conduct and commitment exemplified the highest ideals of soccer statesmanship and reflected well on his homeland, and the record wasn’t too shabby either. Bradley was a source of significant U.S. soccer pride this year and hopes to continue carrying the flag for American coaches in Europe in 2014.
5. The Year of Jozy
Altidore’s place on Klinsmann’s depth chart was in question as 2013 began, but his maturity certainly wasn’t. The then 23-year-old’s classy response to racist chanting during a January league match in the Netherlands was a sure sign that the striker had come of age. It set the stage for a year to remember.
Altidore finished the 2012-13 season at AZ Alkmaar with 31 goals, a record for an American abroad. He scored the game-winner in the 2-1 Dutch Cup final win over PSV Eindhoven and earned a summer transfer to Sunderland of the English Premier League. Mired in an 18-month international scoring drought, Altidore joined up with the U.S. and finally broke through in June, scoring in a program-record five consecutive matches. He finished the year tied for the U.S. lead with eight goals and notched the winner in three of the national team’s seven Hexagonal victories.
Last month, he was named U.S. Soccer’s male athlete of the year.
6. The Snowclásico
The U.S. faced an uncomfortable crossroads in March. The Hex had started miserably in Honduras, and months of lackluster performances were taking their toll on a locker room that was questioning Klinsmann’s methods. The squad needed a boost, a sign, a reason to believe again — and found it in a blizzard outside Denver.
Perhaps no game in U.S. history has provided more surreal scenes, and perhaps no result was more welcome, than the 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Costa Rica at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Clint Dempsey’s 16th-minute goal, which came off a deflected shot by Altidore, was all the Americans needed as the drifts grew deeper.
Four days later, the U.S. dodged multiple bullets and ground out a 0-0 draw with Mexico at the Estadio Azteca. Klinsmann’s team managed just one shot on goal in the two games combined, but came away with four points. The intangibles were falling into place and fortunes (for both teams) started to reverse. It all began in the snow.