By Clemente Lisi – KANSAS CITY, KS (Dec 7, 2013) US Soccer Players – Winter doesn’t officially start for another two weeks, but you’d never know it from Saturday’s MLS Cup Final at Sporting Park. In a game where Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake were vying to be champions, Mother Nature appeared to be the protagonist.
Despite 20-degree temperatures at kickoff (with a wind chill factor that made it feel like the teens), the weather did little to stop two hot teams during an epic final on an icy turf. In a match that felt like it was played closer to the Arctic circle rather than America’s Heartland, it was Sporting Kansas City who rode the Polar Express to a thrilling victory – defeating Real Salt Lake 7-6 on penalties after the game ended in a 1-1 draw.
For coach Peter Vermes, it was his second title. His first came as a Wizards player in 2000.
“Both are memorable, but this one is special,” Vermes told me after the game. “This club went through a rebrand and I think this title completes it for us. It’s something great for the management of the club, the players and the fans.”
Sporting KC and RSL were so evenly matched that it took 120 minutes and a marathon, 10 penalty-kick rounds – the most ever in an MLS Cup Final – to finally determine a winner. The game was a true emotional rollercoaster that lasted nearly three hours and included RSL striking the post twice in the second half.
With a memorable MLS Cup Final in the books, it’s time to assess what kind of season 2013 was for MLS? Instead on dwelling on the negatives (Chivas USA, Toronto FC, New York failing to win MLS Cup, poor scheduling/TV ratings and the gap in the playoff schedule), it's best to focus on the positives in a season where there were so many. Long after the frostbite in my toes subsides, this season will be forever remembered as one of the best.
Here are my five thoughts on the 2013 Major League Soccer season:
This is not at all a bad thing for MLS. As an avid observer of Europe's top leagues, it is depressing to see a club take a huge lead midway through the season only to win the title in the Spring. That takes the fun out of watching. In Europe, richer clubs get richer (and win more titles), leaving a sea of have-nots in their wake. If not for Champions League spots and relegation battles scattered across the table, I would have given up on Serie A and the Premiership years ago.
MLS is a refreshing alternative. There is no relegation/promotion as some would like, but there are playoffs. After 34 regular-season games this year, the top 13 of the League's 19 clubs were separated by a mere 11 points. The Supporters' Shield was decided on the season’s final weekend. Parity even ensured we had a riveting final game. MLS parity is more closely aligned to other American sports leagues, such as the NFL and NHL, rather than soccer leagues around the world. That is not necessarily a bad thing.
David Beckham may be long gone, but the “Beckham Rule” has been revolutionary despite its single-entity structure. This was a particularly good year for DPs. The two that stand out most – Montreal Impact's Marco Di Vaio and L.A.'s Robbie Keane – led the pack. These guys may be over-the-hill, but are still playing like they're in their prime. Reminiscent of the old North American Soccer League, these experienced stars draw fans to games, serve as mentors to young American players and add international flavor to the League. Di Vaio ended the season with 20 goals (third overall), while Keane tallied 16 (for fourth on the list). No surprise then that both players made MLS's Best XI and either could have won MVP honors.
There are now 33 DPs and for the first time this season every team had at least one. Although not all of them shined, it is worth the investment for most clubs. Expect more DPs in the coming years, especially with MLS adding two franchises (New York City and Orlando) in 2015. The rumor mill is already swirling with names like Kaka and Ashley Cole. Whether either travels across the pond remains to be seen. For now, let's enjoy the DPs we do have – and keep our fingers crossed that new ones come.
Players Under 24
A steady flow of rookies and players under 24 years old continue to make MLS a breeding ground for talent. Despite issues with the structure of the college game (not at all perfect as commissioner Don Garber pointed out this past week) and the still-nascent academy system and Homegrown Players, MLS can boast a growing number of young standout players. Not only do they make the League better, but they also ensure that the National Team has players it can rely on. That’s especially crucial during World Cup Qualifying cycles.
The top-three young stars this season, according to a ranking compiled by OPTA, were Darlington Nagbe of the Portland Timbers, Luis Gil of Real Salt Lake, and DeAndre Yedlin of the Seattle Sounders. That makes for an interesting mix. Nagbe and Yedlin both played in college (with Akron), while Gil is a product of the IMG Soccer Academy. In addition, this year's Rookie of the Year, midfielder Dillon Powers of the Colorado Rapids, finished 16th on the OPTA list – proof of how deep the youth talent pool is at the moment. Powers, who was chosen 11th overall in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, played for Notre Dame and has appeared for the National Team on the youth level.
Coaching Stability = Success
MLS success can be measured in a number of ways. One way, is through consistency and how often teams win MLS Cup, reach the final or qualify for the playoffs. Under that scenario, the best teams of the past few years have been the Los Angeles Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City.
These four teams have all employed the same coach for at least the past two seasons, if not longer. All are coached by Americans and all rely on a core of veterans. All this has translated into results. Expect this quartet to continue dominating for years to come.
Games are no longer played in half-empty NFL venues with canned fan chants played over loud PA systems. Soccer-specific stadiums have made going to games a wonderful experience. Sporting Park sold out every game this season, turning a place like Kansas City into an unlikely hotbed for soccer. Of course, places like Seattle and Portland continue to get all the attention for its attendance and tifo, but there really isn’t a team that doesn’t create a wonderful atmosphere. Places like Houston and Columbus come to mind. The concept of "the 12th man" has never been stronger.
As we’ve seen this season, Sporting Park may be the most passionate. They have to be to sit for the past two games (Eastern Conference Final and MLS Cup Final) in the freezing cold. They hosted the All-Star Game over the summer, a US World Cup Qualifier against Jamaica, and the National Soccer Hall of Fame ceremony. Indeed, it was a great year for the Midwestern venue. When Columbus Crew Stadium opened in 1999, it was an anomaly. Now, it's one of the most influential venues in international soccer and the National Team's go-to stadium for important World Cup Qualifiers against Mexico. That's because of MLS and its fans. We are all grateful.
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