2012 was an exciting year of growth for MLS and soccer in the United States.
From the launch of Major League Soccer’s 19th team Montreal Impact, to the Houston Dynamo’s new BBVA Compass Stadium, to Chris Wondolowski’s prolific goalscoring, to the U.S. Women’s National Team’s Olympic Gold Medal, it was a good year to be a soccer fan in the U.S.
The top 10 soccer stories in the USA in 2012
1. CONCACAF to develop competition with CONMEBOL
New CONCACAF General Secretary Enrique Sanz plans to raise the level of soccer in this part of the world by developing competition between the CONCACAF and CONMEBOL nations. The immediate goal is a unified 2016 Copa America hosted by the U.S. The prospect of the USA competing against South American powerhouses such as Brazil and Argentina is attractive to broadcasters and sponsors, who would like to tap into high profile competition of such potential. The strengthened relationships between these national federations could also lead to better internationals coming to MLS and more interest in the U.S. market from South American clubs, as well as a higher profile globally.
2. End of an era: Beckham plays last game for LA Galaxy
December 1, David Beckham played his final game for the Los Angeles Galaxy at the team’s second consecutive MLS Cup Championship, but the former England captain has reaffirmed his ongoing involvement with MLS. The original designated player seeks to play at least one more season elsewhere before settling in as an MLS team owner, per the option written in his contract.
3. USA win Olympic Gold Medal
August 9, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) won the gold medal at the 2011 London Summer Olympics by defeating reigning World Cup Champion Japan at Wembley Stadium. It was the United States’ third consecutive gold medal and fourth gold medal from the five Olympic competitions featuring women’s soccer. Japan won the silver and Canada won the bronze medal, their first-ever medal in women’s soccer.
Beginning in January, new head coach Tom Sermanni takes the reins from interim coach Jill Ellis, who filled in after former head coach Pia Sundhage departed. Abby Wambach scored 27 goals this season, 152 overall, and Alex Morgan scored 28. With 55 goals together, the pair tied the USWNT record for most combined goals in calendar year, set by Michelle Akers and Carin Jennins in 1991.
4. USMNT record historic wins in Mexico, Italy
On February 29, the U.S. Men’s National Team marked a new era under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann when they defeated four-time World Cup Champion Italy 1-0 in a major upset at Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa. The USA have never defeated four-time Italy in their 82-year history dating back to 1934. Italy had never lost in 20 matches against all opponents at Stadio Luigi Ferraris until the USA broke that streak.
August 15, the USMNT recorded another historic victory by defeating Mexico on Mexican soil for the first time in 75 years over 25 attempts. The 1-0 win at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City will reverberate for a long time to come.
5. Chris Wondolowski’s prolific goalscoring
San Jose Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski won 2012 MLS MVP and the Golden Boot for scoring 27 goals, which tied Roy Lassiter’s single-season goal record set in 1996. “Wondo” also became the only player in MLS history to score the most regular season goals in three consecutive seasons. His consistency throughout the 2012 season kept the Quakes at the top of the table almost all season and earned Wondolowski four MLS Player of the Month awards, a feat unrivaled through the 16 MLS seasons.
6. Sporting KC win U.S. Open Cup
Sporting Kansas City defeated defending three-time Champion Seattle Sounders in overtime to be crowned 2012 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Champion. Sporting KC put on a clinic all season with their tight, flowing play while allowing the fewest goals (27) in MLS. For their outstanding play, goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and central defender Matt Besler, 25, won MLS Defender of the Year. Already this offseason, SKC signed a new designated player, forward Claudio Bieler, setting up Sporting KC as a team to watch in 2013.
7. New York Cosmos join NASL
The New York Cosmos signed on with the second division North American Soccer League (NASL) and will begin play in the second-half of the 2013 season. Following suit, the NASL Puerto Rico Islanders then also announced that they’ll start their season in the second-half also, which sets up a rather disorganized season for NASL, now entering its third season. At this point, seven teams will participate in the first half of the season and nine teams will compete in the second half. Nevertheless, NASL CEO Aaron Davidson told me that the NY Cosmos, under the current ownership group led by Seamus O’Brien, will “lead the League through the second stage of evolution.”
NASL continues to grow in reach, evidenced by Toyota acquiring the naming rights for the San Antonio Scorpions’ new stadium as part of a major sponsorship deal.
8. NWSL, yet another women’s league
Yet another women’s soccer league will begin play in 2013, replacing 2012 WPSL-Elite, which replaced WPS (2009-2011), which replaced WUSA. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) will be administered by U.S. Soccer, which will also pay the salaries of 24 USWNT players. Mexico and Canada will each fund 16 of their national team players. The eight teams in NWSL are: Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, FC Kansas City, Portland Thorns FC, Sky Blue FC, Washington Spirit, Western New York Flash and Seattle Reign.
9. Landon Donovan takes a break from the game
U.S. Men’s National Team leading striker Landon Donovan, 30, announced that he’s taking time off from the professional game – both the LA Galaxy and the USMNT – and that MLS Cup 2012 was his last game for a while, if not forever. The pressure from the media and the corporate side of the game took a toll on Donovan, who always danced to a different drummer and still heeds that call. This season, Donovan set an MLS record with his 146th goal and now also leads MLS players in championship titles, tied with Jeff Agoos.
It was hard to see Donovan struggle to smile after winning MLS Cup – the game seems to have lost its enchantment for him. Donovan is an American miracle, a one-of-a-kind player, and to see him lose confidence in the beauty of the game is disheartening. But the individuality that made Donovan who he is – to chart a wildly successful course apart in American sports regardless of the prospects – that quality is still integral to whom he is and he still follows his heart. Continual growth and staying in the moment has always been part of Donovan’s greatness.
10. AEG for Sale
In September, Anshutz Entertainment Group (AEG), the parent company of the LA Galaxy, announced that the entertainment empire is up for sale. The deal could be the biggest sports transaction in history, as the property is valued at $8 billion.
AEG comprises 120 properties around the globe, including the Home Depot Center, Staples Center, O2 Center in London, LA Lakers, Los Angeles Kings, AEG Live (19-venue music division), Coachella Music Festival and a proposed NFL stadium in Los Angeles.
Anschutz, 72, is a longtime supporter of MLS and since 2008, the MLS Cup has been engraved with his name – the Philip F. Anschutz MLS Cup. The LA Galaxy has the second highest payroll in MLS and this year won their fourth MLS Cup (2002, 2005, 2011, 2012), now tied with D.C. United. In March, the Galaxy clinched a record-high MLS sponsorship deal with Herbalife, worth over $44 million over the next 10 years through 2022. Herbalife began its sponsorship of the Galaxy in 2005. MLS will watch the AEG transaction closely to see the future direction of the landmark franchise.
Read more: LE Eisenmenger interviews: MLS and soccer in the USA