RSL's triumph the exclamation point on a memorable season
Major League Soccer's 14th season began with a flourish in Seattle as a packed house served up a teaser for great things ahead at the debuting franchise. The Sounders eventually set a single-season league attendance record, and then supplied a brilliant punctuation mark on 2009 as a grand and gracious MLS Cup host.
Here are a few of the memorable mile markers along the way, along with a peek ahead:
Players of intrigue in 2009: The emerging Stuart Holden held his own as Houston's offensive engine (but then demonstrated through splashy international performances that his best spot may be out wide). And speaking of Houston, what a center back find Geoff Cameron proved to be in emergency duty at Robertson Stadium.
Young winger Marco Pappa proved a promising talent in Chicago. Good thing, too, because he may be the only one left at Toyota Park, depending on what happens in an offseason of flux.
Jeff Cunningham found his finishing touch with an amazing second half of the season, claiming the league's Golden Boot. So many of his strikes, however, were simple finishes off the good work of David Ferreira, Dax McCarty and Dave van den Bergh, as Dallas' hell-bent sprint to the finish raised hopes around Pizza Hut Park. (The club still has a difficult choice to make with Ferreira, a loan player whose "buy" option comes at a handsome price.)
Shalrie Joseph had another great season at New England, this one approaching heroic standards -- then proved once again that holding midfielders can never gain real traction in MVP bids. Kasey Keller, Freddie Ljungberg, Fredy Montero and Osvaldo Alonso formed the backbone of the Sounders' ambush on MLS, as Sigi Schmid built a winner lickety-split.
Up the interstate, it will be great to see what Juan Pablo Angel can finally do when unhindered by that brutal turf at Giants Stadium, as Red Bull moves into its fabulous new arena in nearby Harrison, N.J.
Waving goodbye: Injuries forced two popular figures to retire, San Jose's Darren Huckerby and Toronto's Danny Dichio. Meanwhile, one player everyone thought had already retired, goalkeeper Zach Thornton, performed the most implausible of career resurrections.
Ben Olsen, alas, finally succumbed to bad ankles, stripping some heart and soul from D.C. United, which has hard choices after missing the playoffs a second consecutive year.
A rookie year like no other: Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez finished atop a stacked totem poll of first-year pros, but it could have been any of a dozen worthy candidates. So deep was the landmark 2009 MLS rookie class that you could put together an All-Rookie team without even mentioning promising players such as A.J. DeLaGarza from Los Angeles, or George John and Kyle Davies from Dallas. Here, with a few liberties on the positioning, were the best of 2009 in MLS newbies:
Goalkeeper: Stefan Frei (Toronto); Defenders: Kevin Alston (New England), Darrius Barnes (New England), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles), Matt Besler (Kansas City); Midfielders: Jeremy Hall (Red Bull New York), Michael Lahoud (Chivas USA), Rodney Wallace (D.C. United), Sam Cronin (Toronto), Steve Zakuani (Seattle); Forward: Chris Pontius (DC United).
Revolving door of managers: MLS managers were reminded anew that it's always better to rent than buy. Bosses at Toronto, Red Bull New York, Kansas City, D.C. United, Chivas USA and Chicago lost their jobs during or after the season.
Lesson from Real Salt Lake's championship: Designated Players may spin the wheels of exposure, but they don't necessarily win titles. Three championships have been decided in the day of the DP, but none has been claimed by a team that had one.
The Galaxy may have had the two best players on the field Sunday in David Beckham and Landon Donovan. But in the end, quality spread over the field was better than L.A.'s two-tiered caste system, which sputtered beneath the weight of too many B- and C-list players.
Real Salt Lake's triumph was also a win for soccer that's easier on the eyes. The Utah side was always among the league's best in 2009 in possession and moving the ball with something approaching elegance -- or as close as you can get to it in MLS. Other sides got there with defense and direct play, tactics facilitated by Major League Soccer's indulgent officiating. In the end, teams could get only so far through defense, delay and downright nastiness.
Stories for the offseason: As usual, player movement will be a focus, with some news also possible on a significant tweak in championship format.
Everyone will await news on Donovan's next move. He didn't win a title for Los Angeles in 2009, although he did claim a league MVP to add alongside three previous MLS crowns. The Galaxy captain is the top all-time MLS playoff scorer and he's more or less cornered the market on domestic soccer's buffet of awards. So, is it off to Europe once again for the man who has done all there is to do here?
Beckham reiterated his "commitment" to MLS -- such that it is, considering he's likely to miss half the season once again. On the other hand, he's still talking about future MLS ownership.
Holden and Ricardo Clark have big decisions ahead about remaining in Houston or moving abroad. This being a World Cup year, which makes spring playing time so critical, adds an extra consideration.
Columbus won a Supporters Shield but went tumbling immediately from the playoffs. Now, there's a big decision ahead on 36-year-old playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto and his high salary. Chicago's Chris Rolfe and Real Salt Lake's Yura Movsisyan are already set to move overseas in the winter transfer window.
Meanwhile, significant momentum has built on a new proposal to stage the MLS Cup final at the site of the highest-ranked participant. The teeming scene in Seattle surely helped push this notion. No, the Sounders didn't play Sunday. But Seattle wasn't the typical, lethargic neutral site either; MLS Cups usually come and go without the acclaim and community engagement attached to this one.
Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts is bullish on the idea. "If this [match] were being held at Rio Tinto, you'd be trying to find seats online, on eBay, StubHub, and I'd think they'd be very expensive," Checketts said before Sunday's match at Qwest Field.
Elsewhere, everyone is peeking over the fence at Red Bull New York, eager to see who lands as manager at that franchise's most exciting time, and at New England, eager to see if ownership will finally provide wily manager Steve Nicol a little more to work with. Chivas USA, D.C. United and Chicago are also looking for managers while Philadelphia Union boss Peter Nowak begins stocking his roster with Wednesday's expansion draft.
What to expect in 2010: Seattle was smart to cherry-pick the best ideas from Toronto's spectacular franchise launch. Now, expect Philadelphia to nibble off the plates of Toronto and Seattle, as clubs continue to determine which strategies can prevail in attracting and retaining supporters and sponsors. Philadelphia will open at Lincoln Financial Field, then move at some point into its new waterfront stadium in nearby Chester.
Meanwhile, Red Bull New York will finally (finally!) remove the Giants Stadium anchor. The ill-fitting venue was a beatdown financially and an awful drag on presentation. Red Bull Arena -- which looks simply swell -- a new ground in Philadelphia set to open in 2010 and urban-centric franchises prepping for 2011 launch in Vancouver and Portland all will serve to continue to apply pressure on D.C. United and New England to improve their own stadium situations.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.