The fast-approaching New Year tends to bring a bit of nostalgia -- and indeed, soccer fans in the U.S. had a lot to commemorate in 2009. Whether you're a follower of the U.S. national team, Major League Soccer, the UEFA Champions League or all of the above, this past year provided a collection of drama that proved more boards are surfing the soccer wave than ever before.
Here are 10 moments, in no particular order:
1. On-loan drama. Was David Beckham a prisoner of fortune to the Los Angeles Galaxy, unable to leave MLS while he longed to stay with AC Milan? Everyone had an opinion. Fans of Serie A suddenly found themselves in heated arguments with MLS followers about what was best for the English midfielder.
At first, the joke was on MLS for signing a player who wanted to leave to join another team. But Tim Leiweke, acting as Galaxy owner Phil Anschutz's right-hand man, stood his ground on Beckham's contract and suddenly MLS became the little American league that wouldn't get pushed around, no matter how much history AC Milan had.
Beckham's image took a hit as that of a selfish deal-breaker, but when he helped the Galaxy make the playoffs, he won back quite a few of the supporters he had alienated. His play in Italy and the aid he offered his team there won him a host of new fans.
2. Seattle stuns the skeptics. The expansion Sounders smashed expectations by breaking nearly every attendance record in MLS. Their fans were so fervent that old notions many had about Americans who yawned their way through a soccer match and left early were shattered forever. Even when celebrated clubs like Chelsea and Barcelona stopped by on preseason tours, the soccer-savvy Seattle fans weren't over-awed. They kept on cheering for their hometown players. Perhaps inspired by the outpouring of love and affection, Seattle Sounders FC had a sterling first season, making the playoffs.
3. Lionel Messi's header in the Champions League final. The year was dominated by the little Argentine as he and his Barcelona teammates won an unprecedented triple of awards. Sure, fans in the U.S. were thousands of miles away from Rome's Olympic Stadium, but when Messi sealed the win over Manchester United in May, they still raised their glasses in tribute.
4. Diego Maradona does it again. The original little Argentine hogged the spotlight, even as Messi reached transcendence, but Maradona was the bloated cloud on that parade time and again. Everyone had an opinion on Maradona as a national-team coach, and even those who professed not to care about Argentina's fate found themselves tuning into games to see whether Maradona could actually bungle things enough to keep the squad out of the World Cup. He couldn't, but his effort came pretty close, racking up some embarrassing losses, like the six goals the team surrendered to Bolivia in one particularly horrid match.
5. Henry's hand ball. No, it's not about to eclipse Zinedine Zidane's infamous head-butt, but Thierry Henry's hand ball to push Ireland out of a World Cup spot made the Frenchman a worldwide villain to many and a key manipulator of a flawed system to others. Fans everywhere debated the possibilities of extra referees, video replay and banning players with a new fervor after Henry's action.
6. The royal flush. Real Madrid stocked the larder with some of the world's best and most expensive players, spitting in the face of the worldwide recession with grabby transfers of superstars Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo. The stay-or-go saga of both players took some time and alternately enthralled or disgusted the observers. Yet even naysayers tuned in to watch such dynamic players share the field.
7. Landon Donovan's Confederations Cup goal vs. Brazil. Yes, the historic win over Spain was more momentous, given that it was actually a victory. But given the way the U.S. players performed earlier in the competition, it was easy to believe that win was just a fluke. Even Clint Dempsey's opening goal against the South American giants was easily construed by many as a fortunate strike. But when Ricardo Clark hit an outlet pass to Donovan, and the all-time U.S. leading scorer worked a stunning give-and-go sequence with speedy forward Charlie Davies, the quality of the entire buildup was far too high to be dismissed as mere coincidence.
Brazil woke up, got mad and restored the natural order of things before the final whistle, but that didn't change what happened after Donovan struck. Simply put, there was a new look of respect on the faces of the Brazil players (some of the world's very best in the sport) as they contemplated how much work it would take to defeat the U.S. Sure, they got their Confederations Cup title, but the Brazilians had to claw their way back from two goals down. They'd be the first to say the Americans made them earn it.
8. Time to say goodbye. For many fans of Mexican soccer (and the U.S. is home to a sizable number), the year was the best and worst of times, with the national team losing to the U.S. in February in qualifying and then struggling in other matches. Then Javier Aguirre returned, replacing Sven-Göran Eriksson, and righted the El Tri ship, leaving supporters relieved and daring to hope for more.
Another departure was harder to take. The shock of Antonio de Nigris' early death welled new emotion to the league championships in Mexico as little brother Aldo and his Monterrey teammates claimed the Mexican Apertura title in memory of the older brother, whole life was cut short by a heart attack.
9. No. 9, No. 9, No. 9... Thousands of fans held "9" signs up at RFK Stadium in October to send goodwill and encouragement to striker Davies, whose untimely injury in a car accident has probably cost him a World Cup spot. Fans everywhere threw out their mock starting XI list and began all over again. Still, Davies can only be encouraged at the impressive amount of support he has received from those hoping to keep the faith for the U.S. through the World Cup.
10. Jonathan Bornstein's goal vs. Costa Rica. Too, little, too late, it seemed of the U.S.' frantic effort to get an equalizer on los Ticos in their final qualifying match in Washington. Yet even while a man down due to Oguchi Onyewu's injury, the Americans found a way to score, leaving scores of thrilled Honduran fans celebrating their return to the World Cup tournament.