The year in American soccer was bracketed by bitter cold, which brought out the best in those who rose to the occasion and helped shape the sport in 2013.
Way back in January, Jozy Altidore exuded dignity and determination during a Dutch Eredivisie game that featured snowballs and racial abuse cascading from the stands. In March, a beleaguered U.S. national team began its dramatic climb to the top of CONCACAF in a fearsome Colorado blizzard. And in early December, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake contested an unforgettable MLS Cup final that was hampered, yet somehow heightened, by a frozen field and record-low temperatures.
The past 12 months were full of moments and men that seemed to transcend the game. There was courage (see Bob Bradley and Robbie Rogers), redemption (see Jurgen Klinsmann and Landon Donovan), speculation about the future of a league and pandemonium at the end of World Cup qualifying. It was a most memorable year.
Here are SI Soccer's top 13 stories of 2013:
1. Dos a Cero Dominance
Crew Stadium’s 2-0 hex over the Mexican national team never gets old for U.S. soccer supporters, but this year’s World Cup qualifying win -- the fourth straight by that mystical scoreline over an El Tri team in Ohio -- was uniquely satisfying and significant.
The three points earned on Sept. 10 not only sealed a spot in Brazil for the U.S., they cemented an unexpected but unmistakable shift in the regional balance of power. Two years prior, Mexico seized control of CONCACAF with an emphatic Gold Cup triumph. It served further notice in 2012 with an Olympic gold medal. But years of anticipated dominance were reduced to months as El Tri sputtered and Klinsmann's squad finally found its groove. The U.S. stormed to the '13 Gold Cup title and up the Hexagonal standings before brushing aside Mexico in Columbus with a performance that highlighted the Americans' depth and resolve.
Absent the injured Michael Bradley and the suspended Altidore, the U.S. got second-half goals from Donovan and Eddie Johnson and rock-solid defensive performances from Kyle Beckerman, Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson. Mexico carried the play early, but the visitors' lack of enterprise and belief was evident as they floundered in the second half. Meanwhile, the U.S. was cohesive, confident and well on its way to a first-place finish in the Hex. On that memorable night in Columbus, CONCACAF's new king was crowned.
2. Expansion Excitement and New York City FC
It often seemed this year as if more people cared about MLS clubs that don't exist than the ones which take the field each weekend, and that isn't too surprising. MLS isn't yet 20 years old. Conjecture and conversation about what the league could -- or should -- be is going to be as much a part of the narrative as the games and goals. Where MLS is now isn't as intriguing as where it's going.
That's why the year's biggest MLS story took place not on the pitch, but at a podium at a school in East Harlem, where Manchester City and the New York Yankees unveiled their mammoth commitment to American soccer. Their joint venture, New York City FC, came with a $100 million price tag and will take the field in 2015 under the leadership of former Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis. Within a few years, the club is expected to move into a stadium (likely in the Bronx) that MLS commissioner Don Garber said would be the "largest investment in a soccer stadium of any team in Major League Soccer."
At this summer's All-Star Game in Kansas City, Garber ensured that expansion would continue to occupy the headlines as he announced the 19-team league's intention to field 24 clubs by 2020. Orlando City's entry was confirmed last month (read more about the clubs plan's here), while Miami (with David Beckham leading the way) and Atlanta (the effort is led by Falcons owner Arthur Blank) appear to be the frontrunners for clubs No. 22 and 23. While some indicators -- especially TV ratings and CONCACAF Champions League results -- remain troubling, the race to join the league and the interest in its outcome are promising signs.
3. A Wild Night in the Hex
It may have been the most riveting made-for-TV moment in American soccer history. In Panama City, the U.S. -- having already qualified for the World Cup and clinched first in the Hexagonal standings -- had nothing on the line as it trailed the hosts, 2-1, with seven minutes and change remaining. In San José, Mexico was losing to Costa Rica by the same score. At that moment, El Tri was out of the World Cup.
Four days earlier, Raúl Jiménez scored an astonishing goal that kept Mexico in contention.
But now, they'd need one more miracle.
Knowing that a loss would eliminate Mexico, the U.S. nevertheless pushed for the equalizer. An inexperienced Panamanian team opened the door, and the Americans put a heated rivalry aside and barged through. Graham Zusi headed home a stoppage-time cross from Brad Davis to draw the visitors level, then Aron Johannsson sealed Panama's gut-wrenching fate a few seconds later.
The following day, the Mexican press was more than willing to put El Tri in its place. Under Miguel Herrera, its fourth coach of 2013, Mexico eventually eased past New Zealand in November's intercontinental playoff and booked its barely-deserved place in Brazil. Would Mexico have gone for the win if circumstances were reversed? Will the U.S. effort lead to greater respect south of the border? How would elimination have impacted Mexican soccer? Why was Panama so overwhelmed? Such questions ensure that the improbable events of Oct. 15 echo for years.
4. Ambassador Bob Bradley
No one would have blamed Bradley if he'd packed his bags and left following the horrifying riot at an Egyptian Premier League match in February that left nearly 80 people dead. But he stayed, and then did even more than that, marching with protesters in Cairo, visiting hospitals with his wife and understanding with a deep and courageous conviction that the national team he managed could be a unifying force in a fractured nation.
Bradley guided the Pharaohs to a 6-0-0 record during the group stage of Africa's World Cup qualifying competition without the benefit of a domestic league (which had been suspended) or a home crowd. The ending wasn't a happy one -- a playoff matchup with Ghana marked the end of Bradley's World Cup road -- but it was satisfying. He left with his own dignity, and that of his team's, intact. His conduct and commitment exemplified the highest ideals of soccer statesmanship and reflected well on his homeland, and the record wasn't too shabby either. Bradley was a source of significant U.S. soccer pride this year and hopes to continue carrying the flag for American coaches in Europe in 2014.
5. The Year of Jozy
Altidore's place on Klinsmann's depth chart was in question as 2013 began, but his maturity certainly wasn't. The then 23-year-old's classy response to racist chanting during a January league match in the Netherlands was a sure sign that the striker had come of age. It set the stage for a year to remember.
Altidore finished the 2012-13 season at AZ Alkmaar with 31 goals, a record for an American abroad. He scored the game-winner in the 2-1 Dutch Cup final win over PSV Eindhoven and earned a summer transfer to Sunderland of the English Premier League. Mired in an 18-month international scoring drought, Altidore joined up with the U.S. and finally broke through in June, scoring in a program-record five consecutive matches. He finished the year tied for the U.S. lead with eight goals and notched the winner in three of the national team's seven Hexagonal victories.
Last month, he was named U.S. Soccer's male athlete of the year.
6. The Snowclásico
The U.S. faced an uncomfortable crossroads in March. The Hex had started miserably in Honduras, and months of lackluster performances were taking their toll on a locker room that was questioning Klinsmann's methods. The squad needed a boost, a sign, a reason to believe again -- and found it in a blizzard outside Denver.
Perhaps no game in U.S. history has provided more surreal scenes, and perhaps no result was more welcome, than the 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Costa Rica at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Clint Dempsey's 16th-minute goal, which came off a deflected shot by Altidore, was all the Americans needed as the drifts grew deeper.
Four days later, the U.S. dodged multiple bullets and ground out a 0-0 draw with Mexico at the Estadio Azteca. Klinsmann's team managed just one shot on goal in the two games combined, but came away with four points. The intangibles were falling into place and fortunes (for both teams) started to reverse. It all began in the snow.
7. An Epic Final
The MLS Cup final between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake was far from a beautiful game. The Sporting Park air was freezing. The players were cold as well, thanks to a stop-and-start playoff schedule that sapped their momentum.
But the title game turned out to be exactly what the league needed. History and relevance are often built on individual dramatic moments, on twists of fate that alter outcomes and become lore, like the Immaculate Reception or the Shot Heard 'Round the World. The Cup final was full of them. There were hard fouls, scoring chances galore (including three RSL shots that hit the post), acrobatic saves and a pair of second-half goals. The atmosphere was frigid but electric and the inevitable penalty kick shootout went a nail-biting 10 rounds. Both teams had chances to claim the trophy. At one point, the visiting RSL fans seemed to will SKC's Lawrence Olum to miss as they sang "Believe," their club anthem. But in the end, Sporting captain Jimmy Nielsen, who saved two PKs despite broken ribs, lifted the trophy, capping SKC's remarkable rebirth and a final few will forget.
8. Clint Dempsey Returns
In a move that may be remembered as an MLS turning point, the league's owners agreed to collectively fund Dempsey's blockbuster August transfer to the Seattle Sounders. Dempsey's wages, plus the fee paid to Tottenham Hotspur, totaled some $33 million. That's more than 10 times each club's initial salary budget (minus allocation money, Designated Players, etc.).
Like other big-name DPs, Dempsey struggled to acclimate early. He dealt with chemistry and injury issues and wound up scoring only once in 12 MLS games. He'll likely find his form (perhaps back in the Premier League, during his loan to Fulham), but the deal should have far-reaching implications whether Dempsey delivers or not. Either the way will be paved for other Americans whose skills and marketability will enhance MLS on and off the field, or owners might conclude that only proven global superstars like David Beckham and Thierry Henry are worth that kind of investment.
There's a short-term impact as well. The MLS Players Union will see the Dempsey deal as a sign there's more money to spend. The collective bargaining agreement expires next winter. And fans and media already have used the acquisition's fuzzy details, not to mention the involvement of rival clubs in helping Seattle, to agitate for greater transparency and accountability from the league office.
9. Coming Out, Carrying On, Breaking Through
Robbie Rogers and Mike Magee both hungered for the comforts of home, and they found them this year in a manner -- and with results -- that made U.S. sports history
It began with Rogers, who revealed both his homosexuality and his intention to retire from pro soccer at 25 in a stunning but moving February blog post. A flood of support followed, which Rogers admitted was a surprise. He soon opted to return to the field, but only if he could suit up for his hometown L.A. Galaxy.
In L.A., Magee faced his own fork in the road. He was a valuable member of the two-time defending champs, but family was calling him home to Chicago after more than a dozen years away. The Galaxy and Fire arranged a trade in late May. Rogers, a recent U.S. international, would become the first active, openly gay male athlete in a major American team sport. Magee went on to win the MLS MVP award.
The best part of the story was its evolution. By autumn, Rogers' sexuality wasn't an issue. His production relative to Magee's was. But each inspired in his own way. In Rogers, there's hope (and ample evidence) that gay athletes will be regarded by teammates and fans as athletes first. In Magee, 29, there's a sign that stardom remains within reach for those who persevere and grow as players and people.
10. Four More Years
It wasn't just that the U.S. won both the Hexagonal and the Gold Cup and friendlies against Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina this year. It was the way they won.
"We’ve seen players with more confidence, and I think that’s in great measure due to the confidence Jurgen has instilled into the team and individual players, that we can be better than we’ve been," U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. "We like what’s been happening with the program over the last couple of years. All of this doesn’t come down to one game or one missed shot or one save [at a World Cup]. Clearly, the World Cup is extremely important and it’s a measure of where we are, but it’s not the only way we measure ourselves.”
And so, on Dec. 12, the USSF made a massive and unprecedented commitment to its coach, signing Klinsmann to a contract extension that will leave him in charge through the 2018 World Cup and promote him to technical director, with oversight over the entire national team and player development pyramid. It's an historic vote of confidence for a coach with big ideas, some of which clearly started to take root this year and some of which need more time.
Re-signing a coach prior to a World Cup is unconventional. But the confident and charismatic Klinsmann, who wanted an extension before next summer's tournament, is also unconventional. Gulati called him a "a unique coach with a unique opportunity" and Klinsmann promised that he's not "looking for any kind of comfort zone." He was hired not only to advance in Brazil, but to alter the way Americans play, coach and approach the game. The new contract ensures his impact will be felt for years to come.
11. The Saga of Landon
Ultimately, Donovan wound up where he started -- as a vital contributor to the U.S. national team and a star with the L.A. Galaxy. But the circular journey taken by American soccer's most important player captivated just about everyone for the first two thirds of 2013, starting with his odd three-month sabbatical and concluding with a new long-term contract.
Along the way, Donovan lost his club captaincy to Robbie Keane and the benefit of the doubt from Klinsmann, who forced the national team's all-time leading scorer to earn his way back into the squad. Donovan did so with a rampant performance at the Gold Cup. He led the U.S. to a 6-0-0 record, tallied five goals and won the competition's Golden Ball trophy. In August he inked a long-term deal with L.A. that will pay him more than $4 million per season, and then the following month he started and scored as the U.S. beat Mexico and qualified for the World Cup.
"At the end of last year, something inside me was saying I needed a break. I don't know exactly why or what the reasoning was, but it was very strong. I did what was right for me. It's a good lesson for myself, that you need to do what makes you happy," Donovan told SI.com this summer.
Once again, playing soccer fills the bill.
12. Champions League Frustration
The Seattle Sounders defeated UANL Tigres, 3-2, on aggregate in the 2013 CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals in March, becoming the first MLS team to eliminate a Mexican rival since the competition expanded in 2008.
And that was it. That was this year's small step forward.
MLS is improving on the international stage, but not nearly as quickly as clubs and officials would like. The CCL record is a bit better each season and there are milestones (or quarter-mile stones, really) like RSL's run to the 2011 finals or FC Dallas' historic win on Mexican soil later that year. But success still must be measured in tiny increments and a trophy remains elusive. Seattle and the Galaxy were knocked out in the semis last spring. L.A., Sporting and the San Jose Earthquakes each survived the 2013-14 tournament's group stage, but all face Liga MX opposition in the quarterfinals.
Meanwhile, Mexico continues to dominate. Monterrey won another CCL title in May, becoming just the eighth club on the planet to claim three consecutive continental crowns. The U.S. national team may have surpassed Mexico's, but Mexico's league remains peerless. Liga MX clubs will be playing for a ninth straight championship next spring.
13. Deadly Draw
Klinsmann and the U.S. were "rewarded" for a record-breaking year with a World Cup group rife with story lines but fraught with peril.
“Well, it couldn’t have gone any more difficult,” Klinsmann said after his team was placed in the World Cup's toughest quartet alongside Germany, Ghana and Portugal. But he added, "It’s a huge opportunity."
Indeed, it is. The Americans won't be favored to advance. But they've developed more of a comfort playing against elite sides and can take the field in Brazil highly motivated and under reduced pressure. Each game will be a headliner. In Germany, they get a powerhouse three-time world champion and their coach's former team. Portugal features Cristiano Ronaldo, who many believe is the planet's top player. And the Ghana match offers the Americans another crack at the nemesis that knocked them out in 2006 and 2010.
“There’s gonna be so many story lines that you guys can write about, and we’ll be able to go and play it and hopefully rock the boat and see if we can do something special. It’s great,” Beckerman said moments after the Dec. 6 draw. “We think this is going to be the most watched, most talked about World Cup ever. Doing something special in this World Cup would be great.”