Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It feels like it is mentioned every yeararound this time, but the most recent edition of the MLS season was one of theleague's best.
Perhaps we are simply prisoners of the moment to feel this way year afteryear, but maybe the annual accolades being thrown in the direction of the MLSleague 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 adaily basis that could derail the entire operation and send American soccerinto a downward spiral circa 1984 when the NASL folded.
But the fact that MLS has garnered so much attention while capturing thehearts, and eyeballs, of many is a testament to the amount of care exhibitedby Commissioner Don Garber and the rest of the league's executives.
Part of what makes a sports league so enthralling are the storylines thatcaptivate 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 10most noteworthy:
10. Soccer-specific stadiums become even more prevalent
Coming into the season, 13 of the league's 19 teams competed in soccer-specificstadiums. That number increased by season's end after the expansion MontrealImpact moved in to the renovated Saputo Stadium and the Houston Dynamo openedthe doors to BBVA Compass Stadium. The San Jose Earthquakes will add to thattotal after the club broke ground on its new soccer stadium, which is slated toopen in 2014. What was once a race to see which clubs can open soccer-specificstadiums quickest has become a race to see which club can avoid becoming thelast.
9. Red Bulls flounder again
The disappointment continues for one of the league's most high-profilefranchises. Red Bull New York crashed out of the postseason despite hostingD.C. United in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal, leavingsupporters with a sour but familiar taste in their mouths. New York is one ofjust three clubs (along with the New England Revolution and FC Dallas) stilloperating from MLS's inaugural season without an MLS Cup title. The club hasmade one appearance in the title match, but with the substantial investmentmade in player personnel, it's safe to say that expectations have not beenmet. Not even close.
8. Timbers clinch Cascadia Cup
The Portland Timbers did not have a great deal to celebrate this term, but theclub picked up its first piece of silverware since joining MLS in 2011.Portland pipped local rivals Seattle Sounders FC and Vancouver WhitecapsFC 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 11points from those six games to finish two points ahead of the Sounders in theCascadia Cup table. The triumph is all the more impressive given Portland'seighth-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 andcircumstance, 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 MarcoDi Vaio, Patrice Bernier and Davy Arnaud while adding the high-profile signingof Alessandro Nesta midseason, but it did not always equal a strong showing onthe pitch. Montreal had the fourth-worst defense during the regular season andfell 11 points shy of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, butthe club's debut season in the league will serve as a stepping-stone with theindication 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 beganwith a bang shortly after the conclusion of MLS Cup. Teams have begun to shakeup their rosters and front offices with the hopes of climbing up the table in2013. New York continues to look for a new coach after deciding not to bringHans Backe back to the fold. The Swede's replacement will be manning a muchdifferent roster after the Red Bulls acquired Fabian Espindola and JamisonOlave from Real Salt Lake and released Designated Player Rafa Marquez.Portland, in an attempt to appease new head coach Caleb Porter, has beenactive in the transfer market as well, bringing in Ryan Johnson and MilosKocic from Toronto FC as well as Will Johnson from Salt Lake. The PhiladelphiaUnion hope to return to the playoffs next season by bringing back fan-favoriteSebastien Le Toux and acquiring Jeff Parke, but they will have to go throughSporting Kansas City, the club that may have won the offseason with itssignings of Ike Opara and Benny Feilhaber. Next season is already shaping upto mouth-watering.
5. Designated Player growth
Clubs in the biggest markets hold a big edge in terms of signing high-profileDesignated Players, being able to land the likes of Thierry Henry and RobbieKeane. But several clubs from smaller markets did extremely well this seasonto identify DP-level talents who have flown under the radar. The New EnglandRevolution signed striker Jerry Bengston to a DP contract, a move that wasvalidated when the Honduran produced the goods at the Olympics this summer.Sherjill MacDonald helped provide a spark that eventually saw the Chicago Firesecure a postseason berth. But perhaps the pick of the lot was Boniek Garciajoining the Houston Dynamo. Garcia became the club's second-ever DesignatedPlayer, and he proved to be the missing piece that Houston needed to reach MLSCup 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 sometime. Despite the four MLS Cup titles in its trophy cabinet, D.C. had notreached the postseason since 2007. But under the guidance of Ben Olsen, Unitedenjoyed a superb season reminiscent of the early days of the league when theclub 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 thirdplace overall. The club ousted the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conferencesemifinals before crashing out to the Dynamo, but the return to prominencecertainly 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 himrecord a staggering 27 goals in 30 regular-season games to tie Roy Lassiter'ssingle-season scoring record. Add that total to the 16 goals he scored in 2011and the 18 he nabbed in 2010 and you have the makings of one the prolificscorer in MLS history. Wondolowski's goals lifted him to the MVP award as wellas a second MLS Golden Boot and third straight appearance on the MLS Best XIteam. Simply remarkable.
2. Galaxy repeat as champions
The Los Angeles Galaxy invested everything in winning MLS Cup in 2011, but the2012 title was far more up for grabs. The league instituted a change to allowthe team in MLS Cup with the superior regular-season record to host the titlematch, meaning that the Galaxy would be able to bid to host the event as theyhad last season. It made no difference as the club, despite an agonizing startto the season, defied the odds, peaked at the right time and advance to thechampionship. The Houston Dynamo advanced as well, setting up a carbon copy oflast year's final at The Home Depot Center. The outcome was similar with theGalaxy leaving the match 3-1 winners, marking just the third time that an MLSclub 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 fieldof expertise. His star power attracts the non-soccer fan as much as the casualobserver and hardcore follower. This is why his initial arrival in MLS in 2007was labeled as much of a publicity stunt as it was for an actual tacticaladdition for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Five years later, it's impossible toargue against the positive impact Becks has had on MLS. The Englishman dideverything he was asked of, and more. He raised the profile of MLS, encouragedother global stars to follow his example and sign with the league and broughta high level of professionalism to everything he did. All that was missing wason-field success to validate his tenure in America, which he achieved inspades with successive MLS Cup titles. He leaves a lasting footprint on MLS,one to which no one may ever measure up again.