The long-promised look back at 2007 in U.S. soccer unfolds below. The talking points – 15 in all (what? you wanted a Top 10? I’m nothing like that disciplined; see, I slipped to 17) – come in, at best, half-random order; put another way, I ranked these things a certain way, but it has as much to do with themes intelligible only to me, as opposed to significance. They also came to me after only 15 minutes (or so) thought, so odds are I missed a thing or two; feel free to add any omissions in the comments.
Right. Here goes…
1. David Beckham. May as well start with the elephant in the room (propped up handsomely next to his wife with the weird tits). Beckham garnered (OK, sucked up) enough attention to transcend even the rule that bears his name – that will come in a separate section – which is perhaps why his arrival sits on our collective stoop like some kind of wet turd the neighborhood kids were too lazy to set on fire. He came, we obsessed, he went down injured, and, with an exception here or there, his team did better without him on the field. Sure, he made the Los Angeles Galaxy, and Major League Soccer (MLS) as a whole, a chunk of change, but the whiff of an injured, conceivably over-the-hill player that attached to him also revived the Ghosts of the NASL. Better luck next year, Tiger (with stuffed shorts).
2 . MLS Overview: My belief that, in 2007, MLS actually felt “Major League” for the first time in its existence doesn’t strike me as a lonely one. It’s not so much that the league has arrived in terms of media exposure, money, etc., and it’s not as if problems don’t exist (refereeing, gridlines, playoff format, small rosters, payment structure, the Colorado Rapids, etc.) than things seem to be headed in the right direction, complete with a “Big Mo” tailwind. On-field play looks better than ever, stadiums are popping up at a steady clip, the scouting system looks more established, and we have yet to see what kind of talent the league’s nascent youth academies will turn out. Hell, the league could even be making more money than ever…not that we’d ever know that given how firmly they hold shut the books. So, yeah, good trends, people. Let’s keep ’em up.
3. “Interim” No More…and yet: Two things strike me about the hiring of Bob Bradley to lead the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT or Yanquis) through qualifying to the 2010 World Cup. First, we, as in the U.S., remain sufficiently small-fry that the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) can’t yet hire the world’s stars to coach our teams; we couldn’t even bag a half-retired, if high-profile, German for the post. Second, we have enough talent that an American coach is probably good enough to see us through. The $64K Question remains as to whether Bradley can haul us up the next step…for the record, I remain dubious, but supportive.
4. Gold Cup v. Copa America: The Yanquis participated in two major international tournaments in 2007 – the CONCACAF Gold Cup and South America’s Copa America – and a mini-controversy attended one of Bradley’s first decisions as head coach, namely the decision to make the Gold Cup a priority. Bradley’s choice paid off (if only just; see Canada and phantom offside calls) to the tune of an invitation to the 2009 Confederations’ Cup in South Africa, but the decision to ship a “B/C team” to the Copa didn’t sit well with a lot of U.S. fans, who read “opportunity lost” into our early exit. But we also learned about a few players on the way: Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley on the good side and Oguchi Onyewu’s limitations on the bad side.
5. The Hope Solo “episode”: I don’t usually do Women’s soccer – even on the national level – but the Hope Solo situation reached such a level that it couldn’t be ignored…or, rather, it reached a point where it hit one of my myriad buttons on an individual’s right to speak freely and frankly that I had a definite opinion on this one (Solo got screwed; no, nothing could change my opinion on that). In a related bit of news, I’m really happy to see some very real tightening at the top of the women’s international game; the more competition, and the more equal, the better.
6. Welcome to the World, Boys: For the first time I can honestly recall, media paid decent attention to MLS’s forays onto the international club stage; and by “media,” I’m mainly thanking Fox Soccer Channel for airing some games; bloggers did most the heavy lifting otherwise. Fans were treated to both the CONCACAF Champions Cup (soon to be Champions League; awesome, in spite of scheduling problems) and the inaugural Superliga. MLS clubs fared well enough in both, even if the Champs’ Cup final was a Mexico-only affair and LA’s presence in the Superliga final may have come courtesy of Mexican clubs being in their off-season. But these tournaments are The Balls so far as I’m concerned; can’t wait to see more.
7. The End of Several Eras: Some very, very big names retired at the end of the 2007 (or did they?): Eddie Pope, Cobi Jones, and Chris Armas. If U.S. Soccer continues its steady climb out of obscurity – and it better, dammit! – we’ll quite probably credit those men as being the ones who started it all. All y’all – even Armas, who tripped too often at the last hurdle – have the respect and admiration of every soccer fan I’ve ever encountered.
8. The Year of the Bruce: C’mon. Admit it. When Red Bull New York went through the first weeks of 2007 without conceding a goal, you thought, “maybe Bruce Arena is a genius”; the impression only deepened when Juan Pablo Angel started looking like he’d take the scoring title at a walk. By season’s end, however, Arena had not only been canned, but he’d apparently alienated about half the team, including Claudio Reyna. As such, 2007 ends with the possibility that The Bruce, the most successful coach in U.S. soccer history, failed to keep up with the evolving U.S. game, an idea that would have seemed crazy when the 2007 started.
9. The “Osorio Scandal”: For the second time in each team’s short history, MLS’s New York team pinched the Chicago Fire’s head coach. While that’s bad enough, the fact that many credit Juan Carlos Osorio with hauling Chicago out of the fire and into the playoffs, only makes this doubly painful for Chicago fans. Osorio might want to call in sick for New York’s 2008 visits to the Windy City.
10. The Designated Player and Its Discontents: I touched on 2007’s biggest off-season signing above, but it’s well-worth noting the mixed-blessing nature of this rule. Sure, MLS got clearly successful signings like Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Juan Pablo Angel, but they also got “Iron Knees” Claudio Reyna and a “has been or never was?” named Denilson. The arrival of players like Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Juan Toja, and Luciano Emilio* – all of whom were, 1) not signed as designated players (DPs), and 2) all of whom produced at least as well as, and often better than, the DP signings – only further dilutes the value of the rule. I say scrap the thing (and have recently elaborated on the reasons). You want another one? It gets good players, like DC’s Christian Gomez, arguing they deserved DP money. More trouble than it’s worth, I tell you.
*10a. Yes, a Man Can Score 20+: Seeing as I mentioned him, let the record show that DC United’s Luciano Emilio finally reminded MLS goal-scorers that they can score 20 goals in a season. I don’t feel like fighting MLSnet.com’s archives to see the last time that’s been done, but it had been a few.
11. Colorado, the Asterisk on the Overview: One additional and more specific caveat belongs among the caveats against the happy vibes surrounding MLS and the domestic soccer scene (see #2): the Colorado Rapids flatly pathetic, penurious year. The same year that saw the team move into their new digs at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park – lovingly called The Dick – saw the Colorado franchise do everything else wrong, above the reserve level anyway. The on-field play did enough to chase away fans, but the decision by the Rapids front office to retain the coaching services of the plainly incompetent Fernando Clavijo amounts to spitting in their faces as they head for the exits. If one team in MLS doesn’t grok the meaning of “major league,” it’s gotta be the Stupids…er, Rapids.
12. Waldo’s “Moments”: Even as bitching about on-air commentators amounts to a long-standing tradition among American fans, one of MLS/ESPN commentator had what must be considered a banner year: Eric “Waldo” Wynalda. His annus memorabilia started with him forgetting the Web’s capacity for spreading unguarded comments (and abjectly, if insincerely, apologizing for said comments) and ended with a slightly murky incident involving the California wildfires and a cut mike. Neither comment bothered me – Jim Rome is a twit on his best days and it takes a hell of a joke to offend me – but both put Waldo in some weird, and as yet unexplored, level as a soccer commentator.
13. “Dynamo-asty”?: So, the bastards* repeated as champs. The question is, do the four championships won since 2001 by the San Jose Earthquakes/Houston Dynamo make them a dynasty? For what it’s worth, I’m in the “yes” camp. In the marathon that is the MLS season (e.g. both regular and the MLS Cup post-season) the “Quakes-o-mos” have been rock-steady – ridiculously so where defense is concerned – and among the best since 2001. If consistent quality isn’t what dynasties are made of, I don’t know what is. (*I refer to the Dynamo as “the bastards,” but actually don’t mind this team to the point of liking them. I reliably root against only two MLS teams and they’re named in the comments here; see #25.)
14. The New England Bills: No offense to him – and that’s because I generally like his work – but Jeff Bradley (I think) made the silliest comment about the New England Revolution in one of his pre-season First XI columns. He told them to remember they’re a good team and to enter the season without thinking of themselves as the “Buffalo Bills of MLS.” Something about the shoe fitting springs to mind. If you can’t not be what you are – e.g. if you lose, say, on your fourth crack at the title – well, that’s what you are. New England are the Buffalo Bills of MLS; the best they can hope for is a quicker chance at redemption.
15. La Plus Ca Change: Speaking of conditions that seem fixed, the bulbs on some of MLS’s lesser lights remained dim in 2007. Real Salt Lake and the Columbus Crew provided evidence that parity can’t cure everything when each missed their third consecutive post-season. And Toronto FC set some records in ’07 that suggest they might join the other two as permanent residence in MLS’s cellar.
16. Expansion, ho!: With the return of a San Jose franchise, we’ll have a 14 team league in 2007. I almost forgot and this is a big one.
OK. All done. Looking forward to 2008. You’ll hear from me.
Filed under: 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, David Beckham, Fernando Clavijo, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Luciano Emilio, Major League Soccer, New England Revolution, Red Bull New York, U.S. Men's National Team | Tagged: Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena, Denilson, Juan Carlos Osorio, Juan Pablo Angel, Juan Toja |