A Cup Half Full: The Decade's Best in US Soccer
In the 2000s, soccer mattered in the United States and the United States mattered in soccer. The national team advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup and defeated top-ranked Spain last summer. MLS survived and grew. The world's most famous player, David Beckham, signed with the league in 2007. He sold some jerseys, posed for photos and eventually played a little ball. Americans joined European clubs in increasing numbers, and fans in English stadiums sang the names of Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Brad Friedel and Clint Dempsey with fervor while new facilities were built back home.
On Wednesday, FanHouse listed the things we'd like to forget from the past 10 years in American soccer. Today, we'll celebrate the best of a historic decade.
PLAYER OF THE DECADE: Landon Donovan. Let the Manning/Brady and Shaq/Kobe/Duncan debates rage well into the 2010s--the choice in American soccer is a slam dunk. The 27-year-old Californian simply is the most consistent offensive threat this country has ever produced. He overcame some early adversity and now is the national team's all-time leader in both goals and assists. Donovan was as instrumental during the 2002 World Cup (at which FIFA named him the best young player) as he was in this summer's run to the Confederations Cup final. His personal honors list includes three MLS Cups, three CONCACAF Gold Cups, three U.S. Soccer athlete of the year awards and the 2009 MLS MVP trophy, with more sure to come.
TEAM OF THE DECADE: Los Angeles Galaxy. In a league engineered for parity, L.A. has emerged as the flagship club. While the old San Jose Earthquakes/Houston Dynamo won a combined four MLS championships, the league's (correct) decision to leave the first two trophies in Northern California, plus L.A.'s significant success in other areas, makes this a relatively easy choice. They won league titles in 2002 and 2005, two U.S. Open Cups and a CONCACAF Champions Cup and lost in five additional finals (twice on penalties). The club built Home Depot Center, the country's nicest soccer-specific stadium for at least a few more months, and currently employs the most important American and foreign players ever to play in MLS. Like it or not, when people think of American soccer, they think of the Galaxy.
BEST GOAL: Benny Feilhaber. There are plenty of worthy candidates, but thanks to its combination of importance and thunderous awesomeness, as well as its Mexico-defeating qualities, Feilhaber's game-winner in the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup final at Soldier Field takes the prize.
(Honorable mentions: Clint Mathis' tidy finish against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup, or his run through the entire city of Dallas in 2001; Christian Gomez' beautiful turn and volley against L.A.; Marcelo Balboa's bike; John Wolyniec's impossible overtime strike; Donovan's counterrattack against Brazil in the Confederations Cup.)
BEST NATIONAL TEAM GOALKEEPER: Brad Friedel. The U.S. apparently is a country that prefers to use its hands when playing sports, which explains why we haven't won a World Cup and why we can't stop producing world-class goalkeepers. Kasey Keller, Tim Howard and Friedel each has distinguished himself for club and country. So we'll pick the one who saved two penalty kicks at a World Cup.
BEST MLS GOALKEEPER: Pat Onstad. The quietly consistent Canadian won three MLS Cups, two goalkeeper of the year awards and is still going strong in his early 40s.
BEST NATIONAL TEAM DEFENDER: Carlos Bocanegra. A two-time MLS defender of the year before heading abroad, Bocanegra now captains the U.S. in large part because of plays like the one below (it's not a defensive play, but you'll get the idea). He is all will. Bocanegra spent five successful seasons with Fulham and now plays for Rennes.
BEST MLS DEFENDER: Jimmy Conrad. The 2005 MLS defender of the year was one of the select few players to emerge from the 2006 World Cup with any credit. He has remained committed to the Kansas City Wizards despite the club's low profile, while boosting his own with three appearances on the league's Best XI, a radio show and a column for ESPN.
BEST NATIONAL TEAM MIDFIELDER: Claudio Reyna. The consummate professional, Reyna wasn't flashy but did all the important things right. He was the heartbeat of a young 2002 World Cup team and arguably is the most accomplished American field player ever to play in Europe. He deserved a better exit than that turnover against Ghana and an injury-riddled year-and-a-half with the Red Bulls.
BEST MLS MIDFIELDER: Dwayne De Rosario. Possesses an unsurpassed ability to master the moment. Four MLS Cup titles and four appearances on the league's Best XI tell only part of the story. He scores big goals (two Cup winners) and spectacular goals (he's won the goal of the year award twice) and he punctuated his return home to Toronto FC with a hat trick in last June's incredible 6-1 Canadian Championship-clinching win in Montreal. He should have won an MVP award by now.
BEST NATIONAL TEAM FORWARD: Brian McBride. The only American to score in two World Cups and a legend at Fulham, where he twice was named the club's player of the year. A bar at Craven Cottage was renamed in his honor when he returned to MLS in 2008. Fulham cited Mcbride's "unquestionable commitment and bravery," which has resulted in loads of goals and broken facial bones for the former Columbus Crew and current Chicago Fire target man.
BEST MLS FORWARD: Jaime Moreno. The offensive genius is MLS's all-time leading goal scorer and most people would agree that from Day 1 until now, the Bolivian has the been the league's best player.
BEST FOREIGN SIGNING OTHER THAN BECKHAM OR BLANCO: Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The Argentine revitalized the Columbus Crew with his skill and attacking intelligence, leading them to two Supporters Shields and the 2008 MLS Cup title. A four-time Copa Libertadores winner with Boca Juniors, Schelotto brings an almost tangible class to the field. He remains underappreciated here, but he's still a hero in Buenos Aires.
MOST UNSUNG HERO: Brian Carroll. The only stat you can attach to the Crew's 28-year-old holding midfielder is wins. Lots of them. He's tireless, unselfish and does all the anonymous little things you need during the course of a game. The results speak for themselves. D.C. United won an MLS Cup and two Supporters Shields during Carroll's four years in the lineup. D.C. let him go in late 2007 and he joined Columbus. Since then, United's missed the playoffs twice and Columbus has won the Cup and two Shields. Carroll has been capped seven times.
BEST MLS PLAYER WHO FAILED TO MAKE A MARK WITH THE U.S. NATIONAL TEAM: Taylor Twellman. Something about the striker's game just fails to click at international level -- he's more of a poacher than someone who creates -- but he's been lethal in MLS. Despite missing significant chunks of the past two seasons through injury, Twellman has 111 league goals and is still just 28 (By comparison, Moreno has 143 and turns 36 in January). Twellman has had his chances with the national team but hasn't been able to replicate his MLS form, scoring six in 30 games.
BEST WOMEN'S PLAYER: Abby Wambach. A marriage of Michelle Akers' strength and stamina and Mia Hamm's nose for goal, Wambach carried the Washington Freedom to the final WUSA championship in 2003 then emerged as a force for the women's national team, scoring 101 goals in 131 appearances. That's 0.77 goals per game, compared to Hamm's strike rate of 0.57.
BEST COACH: Bruce Arena. If there was any doubt following the 2006 World Cup failure, it was obliterated by Arena's masterful handling of Donovan, Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy this year. He is the best coach in both MLS and national team history. Nobody understands team chemistry better. Honorable mention in this category needs to be made for Bob Bradley, who continues to prove his critics wrong, and Steve Nicol, whose uncanny eye for talent keeps the Revolution competitive despite their less-than-ambitious ownership.
BEST CAPTAIN: Christie Rampone. Four months into its inaugural season, New Jersey's Sky Blue FC seemed more likely to be the first Women's Professional Soccer club to fold than to be the new league's first champion. When Kelly Lindsey, the team's second coach, quit last July, captain Rampone took over. While pregnant with her second child, the defender steered Sky Blue to four victories in the final five regular season games, then three road playoff upsets that clinched the title.
BEST NATIONAL TEAM GAME: United States 3, Portugal 2. Was there a better feeling over the past 10 years than that delirious early morning collision of ecstasy and disbelief during the first half of the 2002 World Cup opener in Suwon? Portugal was the trendy pick to win the whole thing, but they withered under a stunning onslaught that began with John O'Brien's 4th-minute goal and ended with McBride's diving header a little more than half-an-hour later. Sure, there was a Jeff Agoos own goal. But no matter. The U.S. had arrived.
BEST MLS GAME: D.C. United 3, New England 3 (D.C. wins on PKs, 4-3). The 2004 Eastern Conference final was an epic, back-and-forth slugfest that ended when rookie Clint Dempsey's penalty was saved by Nick Rimando (who else?). Everything that preceded that moment was classic. Before 21,000 fans at RFK Stadium, Alecko Eskandarian, Taylor Twellman, Jaime Moreno and Steve Ralston traded first-half goals. Christian Gomez blasted D.C. in front for the third time midway through the second, but Pat Noonan tied it up on a header with five minutes remaining. The game featured an impressive 18 shots on goal and a host of MLS's biggest names, including the aforementioned players plus Earnie Stewart, Matt Reis, Ben Olsen, Shalrie Joseph, Brian Carroll, Freddy Adu and Jay Heaps. It was genuine theater.
BIGGEST NATIONAL TEAM UPSET: United States 2, Spain 0. In hindsight, that 2002 Portugal team wasn't as good as we thought they were. Spain in 2008--09, however, was the real deal, and the Americans' win in last summer's Confederations Cup semifinal ended a 35-game unbeaten streak and shocked the world. Spain is 8-0-0 since and has outscored those opponents 28-9.
BIGGEST MLS UPSET: New York 3, Houston 0. That is why they play the games. The Dynamo were two-time defending MLS Cup champions and were 4-0-0 in home playoff games all-time. The Red Bulls were the Red Bulls and were in the 2008 playoffs only because MLS insists that eight teams qualify. Yet New York ran the Dynamo out of Robertson stadium with goals by Dane Richards, Juan Pablo Angel and John Wolyniec, clinching the two-leg conference semifinal 4-1 on aggregate. More than a year later, it's still hard to figure out how this happened.
BEST FEUD: Hope Solo vs. Everybody. The spat between Landon Donovan and David Beckham was compelling, but it came to light thanks to Grant Wahl's book rather than some sort of public throwdown or meltdown and ended rather happily just a few months later. However, Solo's dispute with coach Greg Ryan, veteran goalie Briana Scurry and a chunk of the women's national team played out in real time at the 2007 Women's World Cup.
The image of the "I'll have two fillings" sisterhood forged eight years before was shattered by Solo's postgame reaction to Ryan's incredible decision to start Scurry in the semifinal against Brazil. Solo was ostracized by the team after the loss, but the fact that she was more interested in winning than making friends earned her legions of fans. One year later Ryan was gone and the outspoken but honest Solo was in net as the U.S. won Olympic gold. Women's soccer had taken an entertaining and necessary step away from the cliques that defined the past and toward bottom-line professionalism.
BEST SIGN: Stadiums. Ten years ago there was just one soccer specific stadium in the United States, the facility built for the Columbus Crew by visionary owner Lamar Hunt. Today there are arenas in or near Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Dallas, Toronto and Denver. Each one that goes up is yet another anchor, an indication that pro soccer isn't going anywhere. Red Bull Arena and Union Field open in 2010 and buildings in Portland, Houston, San Jose and Kansas City are on the horizon. Infrastructure is life, and football lines soon will be a bad memory.
BEST INNOVATION: The MLS All-Star Game. Rather than put on a boring intramural dog and pony show that winds up just being eclipsed by a contrived skills contest, MLS came up with a format that inspires actual effort and interest. The all-star games against Chelsea, Fulham, Everton, West Ham, Celtic and Chivas Guadalajara were competitive and certainly were more entertaining than anything we see in the four major US sports.
BEST TREND: Marketing to adults. At some point, likely in Washington and Chicago to start, soccer people finally realized that suburbanites in minivans weren't reliable customers. Maybe they'd round up the brood for a trip to the stadium two or three times a year, but that was hardly the linchpin of a reliable business plan. It doesn't make for much atmosphere either (with no disrespect intended for an enthusiastic under-11 team and their cotton candy-coated thundersticks.) But forging working relationships with supporters clubs does, and branding yourself as something more than a moonbounce with a soccer game nearby creates an image and a setting that people from all kinds of demographics want to be a part of. The supporters culture has taken off over the past few years, and the perfect storms in Seattle and Toronto reveal just what MLS can be when it's presented the right way.
AND FINALLY, THE BEST STORY YOU NEVER HEARD: Chris Cleary. In October 2004, this Washington D.C.-born and Massachusetts-raised Boston College product became the first American to score a hat trick in the FA Cup. His three goals led Worksop Town, which currently plays at the 7th level of the English football pyramid, to a 3-2 win over Droylesden. It was one more noteworthy step, or three, on American soccer's climb over the past 10 years.