Philadelphia, PA – It feels like it is mentioned every year around this time, but the most recent edition of the MLS season was one of the league's best.
Perhaps we are simply prisoners of the moment to feel this way year after year, but maybe the annual accolades being thrown in the direction of the MLS league office in New York displays a bigger picture.
Major League Soccer remains a teenager in the grand scheme of things, completing just its 17th season in 2012. The league faces many challenges on a daily basis that could derail the entire operation and send American soccer into a downward spiral circa 1984 when the NASL folded.
But the fact that MLS has garnered so much attention while capturing the hearts, and eyeballs, of many is a testament to the amount of care exhibited by Commissioner Don Garber and the rest of the league's executives.
Part of what makes a sports league so enthralling are the storylines that captivate spectators from one week to the next, bringing us back for more.
The 2012 MLS season had no shortage of memorable stories, but here are the 10 most noteworthy:
10. Soccer-specific stadiums become even more prevalent
Coming into the season, 13 of the league's 19 teams competed in soccer-specific stadiums. That number increased by season's end after the expansion Montreal Impact moved in to the renovated Saputo Stadium and the Houston Dynamo opened the doors to BBVA Compass Stadium. The San Jose Earthquakes will add to that total after the club broke ground on its new soccer stadium, which is slated to open in 2014. What was once a race to see which clubs can open soccer-specific stadiums quickest has become a race to see which club can avoid becoming the last.
9. Red Bulls flounder again
The disappointment continues for one of the league's most high-profile franchises. Red Bull New York crashed out of the postseason despite hosting D.C. United in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal, leaving supporters with a sour but familiar taste in their mouths. New York is one of just three clubs (along with the New England Revolution and FC Dallas) still operating from MLS's inaugural season without an MLS Cup title. The club has made one appearance in the title match, but with the substantial investment made in player personnel, it's safe to say that expectations have not been met. Not even close.
8. Timbers clinch Cascadia Cup
The Portland Timbers did not have a great deal to celebrate this term, but the club picked up its first piece of silverware since joining MLS in 2011. Portland pipped local rivals Seattle Sounders FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC for the Cascadia Cup, awarded to the best team in the Pacific Northwest. The Timbers went 3-1-2 against Seattle in Vancouver this season, taking 11 points from those six games to finish two points ahead of the Sounders in the Cascadia Cup table. The triumph is all the more impressive given Portland's eighth-place finish in the Western Conference this term.
7. Impact nearly debut with playoff appearance
The Montreal Impact became the 19th MLS franchise with great pomp and circumstance, but a playoff appearance would have been the icing on the cake. The Impact assembled a team of great individual talent with the likes of Marco Di Vaio, Patrice Bernier and Davy Arnaud while adding the high-profile signing of Alessandro Nesta midseason, but it did not always equal a strong showing on the pitch. Montreal had the fourth-worst defense during the regular season and fell 11 points shy of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but the club's debut season in the league will serve as a stepping-stone with the indication that it is not far away from making it to the dance.
6. 'Silly Season' already in full effect
Proving that the action never really stops in MLS, the transfer season began with a bang shortly after the conclusion of MLS Cup. Teams have begun to shake up their rosters and front offices with the hopes of climbing up the table in 2013. New York continues to look for a new coach after deciding not to bring Hans Backe back to the fold. The Swede's replacement will be manning a much different roster after the Red Bulls acquired Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave from Real Salt Lake and released Designated Player Rafa Marquez. Portland, in an attempt to appease new head coach Caleb Porter, has been active in the transfer market as well, bringing in Ryan Johnson and Milos Kocic from Toronto FC as well as Will Johnson from Salt Lake. The Philadelphia Union hope to return to the playoffs next season by bringing back fan-favorite Sebastien Le Toux and acquiring Jeff Parke, but they will have to go through Sporting Kansas City, the club that may have won the offseason with its signings of Ike Opara and Benny Feilhaber. Next season is already shaping up to mouth-watering.
5. Designated Player growth
Clubs in the biggest markets hold a big edge in terms of signing high-profile Designated Players, being able to land the likes of Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane. But several clubs from smaller markets did extremely well this season to identify DP-level talents who have flown under the radar. The New England Revolution signed striker Jerry Bengston to a DP contract, a move that was validated when the Honduran produced the goods at the Olympics this summer. Sherjill MacDonald helped provide a spark that eventually saw the Chicago Fire secure a postseason berth. But perhaps the pick of the lot was Boniek Garcia joining the Houston Dynamo. Garcia became the club's second-ever Designated Player, and he proved to be the missing piece that Houston needed to reach MLS Cup for a second straight season.
4. D.C. United ends playoff drought
D.C. United has not felt like the most decorated club in MLS for quite some time. Despite the four MLS Cup titles in its trophy cabinet, D.C. had not reached the postseason since 2007. But under the guidance of Ben Olsen, United enjoyed a superb season reminiscent of the early days of the league when the club won three of the first four MLS Cups. Olsen led his squad to a second- place finish in the Eastern Conference with 58 points, good enough for third place overall. The club ousted the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals before crashing out to the Dynamo, but the return to prominence certainly signals a bright future for United.
3. Wondolowski's dominance continues
No player has dominated the last few seasons of MLS like Chris Wondolowski. The San Jose Earthquakes striker completed a sensational season that saw him record a staggering 27 goals in 30 regular-season games to tie Roy Lassiter's single-season scoring record. Add that total to the 16 goals he scored in 2011 and the 18 he nabbed in 2010 and you have the makings of one the prolific scorer in MLS history. Wondolowski's goals lifted him to the MVP award as well as a second MLS Golden Boot and third straight appearance on the MLS Best XI team. Simply remarkable.
2. Galaxy repeat as champions
The Los Angeles Galaxy invested everything in winning MLS Cup in 2011, but the 2012 title was far more up for grabs. The league instituted a change to allow the team in MLS Cup with the superior regular-season record to host the title match, meaning that the Galaxy would be able to bid to host the event as they had last season. It made no difference as the club, despite an agonizing start to the season, defied the odds, peaked at the right time and advance to the championship. The Houston Dynamo advanced as well, setting up a carbon copy of last year's final at The Home Depot Center. The outcome was similar with the Galaxy leaving the match 3-1 winners, marking just the third time that an MLS club has earned back-to-back championships.
1. Beckham leaves an unprecedented legacy
David Beckham is one of the few people in the world who transcends his field of expertise. His star power attracts the non-soccer fan as much as the casual observer and hardcore follower. This is why his initial arrival in MLS in 2007 was labeled as much of a publicity stunt as it was for an actual tactical addition for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Five years later, it's impossible to argue against the positive impact Becks has had on MLS. The Englishman did everything he was asked of, and more. He raised the profile of MLS, encouraged other global stars to follow his example and sign with the league and brought a high level of professionalism to everything he did. All that was missing was on-field success to validate his tenure in America, which he achieved in spades with successive MLS Cup titles. He leaves a lasting footprint on MLS, one to which no one may ever measure up again.