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Chasing the game through 2011

If journalism is the first rough draft of history, then I'm trying to figure out what to call my "3 Thoughts" reaction piece that I file to SI.com at the final whistle of every important U.S. national team game. How about tempting fate? I start writing around the 75th minute, and inevitably something happens that turns my lead note into a DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN artifact. Sometimes that's good for U.S. soccer fans: You should see what I wrote about the U.S. men failing to get out of their World Cup 2010 group -- at least until Landon Donovan scored in injury time against Algeria and the Yanks won the group ahead of England.

But sometimes getting rewrite isn't a good sign for U.S. fans. On July 17, 2011, in a sold-out soccer stadium in Frankfurt, Germany, I had already written my "3 Thoughts" on the U.S. women's impending victory in the World Cup final. They were three minutes away from a 2-1 victory over Japan, three minutes away from providing the ultimate follow-up to Abby Wambach's miraculous quarterfinal goal against Brazil, one of the greatest sports finishes of this or any year.

Three minutes away.

I'll remember two soccer events more than any other from 2011. One is Wambach's Brazil goal, as pure an adrenaline rush as you'll ever get in sports. So much about it was unlikely: the U.S. playing short-handed against one of the world's top teams; the final seconds ticking away; the booming, inch-perfect cross from Megan Rapinoe, who hit the ball with her weaker left foot; and, of course, Wambach's dead solid perfect header. Then all the U.S. did was convert all five penalties to win. (Wouldn't you know I had written a U.S. epitaph on that game too?)

That night in Dresden I wrote one story, and then another, and then one more for Sports Illustrated. There was no way to sleep after a game like that anyway. (Nor was I alone. I e-mailed U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati at 4 a.m. and got an instant reply. He couldn't sleep either.) Only two days earlier there had been just three U.S. print reporters covering the team. By the final there would be dozens of U.S. media.

And a few days later, we would all be witnesses to my other indelible soccer memory of 2011. Three minutes from World Cup glory, the U.S. allowed a corner kick. Homare Sawa got to it first. Her delicate little punch didn't seem like much, but it was like one of those sneaky body blows that can drop a boxer in an instant. Tie game. The U.S. blew its penalties (get me rewrite!) and the World Cup was gone, just like that, a few minutes of career-altering madness, not just for the Americans but for the Japanese and their own inspiring run to victory.

There are other soccer moments that stand out from the year now ending. Here are some of my memories of chasing the game in 2011:

PASADENA, Calif., June 25 -- Finals of international tournaments rarely live up to the hype. There's too much pressure, the kind that makes a free-wheeling game nearly impossible. But as painful as the U.S.'s 4-2 loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup final may be for Yanks fans, you have to admit: This is one of the most open finals you'll ever encounter. The U.S. goes up 2-0 early on goals by Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan, but Mexico roars back to tie the game by halftime. El Tri earns this trophy, sealing the 4-2 win on Giovanni Dos Santos's mind-bending second-half strike. The win, combined with Mexico's Under-17 World Cup triumph and runner-up U-20 finish, may be the start of a new Mexican era in soccer. Can the U.S. close the gap?

RAMALLAH, West Bank, July 28 -- How global is soccer? One minute I'm interviewing Omar Jarun, a Polish-based Palestinian-American defender from Atlanta with a southern drawl who's just played in a World Cup qualifier for the Palestine national team. The next minute I'm in an informal van taxi with a half-dozen Palestinian strangers when my Twitter feed tells me that U.S. coach Bob Bradley has been fired. Usually my biggest challenge with far-flung taxi vans is convincing my SI expense overlords that it's a legit charge. ("It's not like they give receipts, you know.")

This is different. Now I'm on the phone to sources in Los Angeles, Seattle and Rio de Janeiro (where the World Cup preliminary draw is taking place), learning that Bradley was blindsided (his staff had been contacting players for the next U.S. game) and that "you're not going to be surprised" by the identity of the new coach. All signs point to Jurgen Klinsmann, and the next day U.S. Soccer makes it official. It may well be the start of a new era in U.S. soccer.

SEATTLE and PORTLAND, Ore., May 10-14 -- Are you sure this is the United States? 2011 is the year of Cascadia and the Pacific Northwest in MLS, and over five glorious days I learn why. In advance of the first MLS showdown between decades-old rivals Portland and Seattle, I spend time with the hardcore fans of the Timbers and Sounders, pleasant folks who love the game but can't stand each other. Over craft beers with the Timbers Army and Golazoritas (a cocktail with El Jimador blanco tequila, triple sec and Golazo energy drink) with the Emerald City Supporters, they give me the lowdown on America's greatest club soccer rivalry for a Sports Illustrated story. Then they show how committed they are, braving a driving rainstorm to turn Seattle's stadium into Glasgow or Buenos Aires for a few hours in a memorable 1-1 tie.

PARIS, March 21 -- Three people have announced their candidacy for the FIFA presidency: Switzerland's Sepp Blatter (the incumbent), Qatar's Mohammed bin Hammam and, in a bit of a longshot campaign, me. The idea was to get out my message that FIFA has to clean up its reputation for corruption, and that has already happened, but now I'm at the UEFA Congress in Paris trying to convince an FA to nominate me by the April 1 deadline. One leader of a World Cup-winning FA tells me he'd consider voting for me in the election (a secret ballot) but can't nominate me (a public act). Meanwhile, I try to convince Bin Hammam that it's in his interest to have one of his supporting countries nominate me, if only because my proposals (a Wikileaks for FIFA!) can make him look like more of a moderate. Bin Hammam smiles but passes, and in the end I get no nominations but at least a useful bit of journalism, including a clichéd meeting with a shadowy operative on a Champs-Élysées park bench.

FOXBORO, Mass., April 7 -- This wouldn't be the place you'd expect to sit down for two days of interviews with Real Salt Lake, which has just qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League final, but the team has some time to kill before a league game against New England. MLS is on the cusp of having its first qualifier for the FIFA Club World Cup, and I learn firsthand just how intense coach Jason Kreis really is; how RSL has put this team together on a small budget; and how important players like Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Nick Rimando are to the team. Ultimately, Salt Lake comes up just short to Monterrey, yet another excruciating near-miss in U.S. soccer.

VENTURA BEACH, Calif., Feb. 23 -- More than a year after the auto accident that killed one person and seriously injured him, Charlie Davies sits at a table overlooking the Pacific and tells his remarkable comeback story. He's not the player he was before the accident, and yet his return with D.C. United has a storybook start when Davies scores twice in the season opener against Columbus. He'll tail off as the season progresses and earn some criticism with his diving, but Davies still finishes tied for ninth in MLS goals (11) and gets his career going again after an inspiring road back.

KANSAS CITY, Kan., June 14 -- Who could have predicted that the soccer dead zone of Kansas City would build a $200 million fútbol stadium that would turn into one of the best atmospheres in U.S. soccer? Not me. Which is why I have to pick my jaw up off the ground as I get a tour of Livestrong Sporting Park from Robb Heineman, the K.C. boss who's one of an exciting new breed of young and ambitious MLS owners. On this night there's a raucous pro-U.S. crowd even though the Gold Cup opponent is lowly Guadeloupe -- a sign that this stadium will be landing important U.S. Soccer events from now on.

CARSON, Calif., Nov. 20 -- Beckham to Keane to Donovan. It's the most expensive threesome in MLS history, and it's also the passing sequence that created the decisive goal in the Los Angeles Galaxy's MLS Cup final victory over Houston. More and more, parts of MLS have a major league feel to them, and this occasion was no different, not least in the game itself (where scalpers were getting well into triple-digits) but also in the events around the game. (Questlove deejayed one big Galaxy-hosted party, for example.) If this was David Beckham's last game in MLS, he went out in style -- and even let loose with his teammates in the postgame celebration.

Bobby Rhine -- The former 10-year Dallas vet and rising broadcast star died from a heart attack at 35.

Sócrates -- The Brazilian great, who was also a doctor and political writer, died from septic shock at 57.

Gary Speed -- The Wales coach who starred as a Premier League player and Welsh national-teamer, committed suicide at 42.

Catê -- The Brazilian forward, who led New England in scoring in 2001, died at 38 in an auto accident.

Dennis Marshall -- A car accident claimed the life of Marshall, 25, who had scored a Gold Cup goal for Costa Rica just a few days earlier.

Uche Okafor -- The former Kansas City defender and member of two Nigerian World Cup teams died at 43 near Dallas from what police ruled a suicide.

Nat Lofthouse -- The former Bolton Wanderers and England star died at 85 in a nursing home.

One of the continuing stories in soccer media consumption is taking place on Twitter, which has affected all sports but especially soccer. No tool provides a better way to make the giant world of soccer seem smaller. Here are some other recs from 2011:

BOOKS

A Life Too Short, by Ronald Reng -- A close look at the life and suicide death of German goalkeeper Robert Enke, a former teammates of U.S. defender Steve Cherundolo at Hanover.

Soccer Men, by Simon Kuper -- An entertaining collection from one of the best.

Distant Corners, by David Wangerin -- An engaging chronicle of the fits and starts of soccer in America.

Soccer Made in St. Louis, By Dave Lange -- The city that has produced so much U.S. soccer talent gets its due.

The Very Best of Pitch Invasion -- A collection from one of the finest U.S. soccer blogs.

An Illustrated Guide to Soccer and Spanish, by Elliott Turner -- A useful e-book from the man known on Twitter as @Futfanatico.

PODCASTS

I regularly listen to nine soccer podcasts on my daily runs. Here they are:

SI Soccer Podcast -- Gotta stump for our own, right? Weekly pods discussing U.S. soccer and the Premier League with me, Steve Davis, Jen Chang, Ben Lyttleton, Richard Deitsch and others.

ExtraTime Radio -- MLS's in-house show brings the quality twice weekly.

The Game -- My favorite Euro-based podcast featuring host Gabriele Marcotti and ace writers from The Times of London. (Plus, it's the only content from The Times that doesn't have a paywall.)

Beyond the Pitch -- Star guests and the best global breadth of any pod out there.

The Shot With Alexi Lalas -- A two-minute daily jolt of soccer and music from the grand showman of U.S. soccer.

The Best Soccer Show -- Solid U.S. soccer talk from hosts Jason Davis and Jared DuBois.

Soccer Today -- Enjoyable Dallas-based show featuring Marc Stein, Steve Davis and Luis Pérez.

Grantland Network's Men In Blazers -- The funniest podcast I listen to, MIB is hosted by Michael Davies and Roger Bennett.

Football Weekly -- Quality stuff from our friends at the Guardian.

MOVIES

Rise and Shine -- Jay DeMerit's journey from MLS reject to playing in the World Cup is as inspiring as it is unlikely.

Cuando Fuimos Campeones -- A well-done tale of Spain's World Cup 2010 title run.

Thanks for reading in 2011, and best wishes for 2012!

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