Philadelphia, PA – European giants dominated the summer months in America with preseason friendlies, a player managed to claim the Most Valuable Player award despite being traded twice in the same season, and the man with the highest profile in the league solidified his Major League Soccer tenure with a championship in the final year of his contract.
The 16th MLS season was enthralling and had no shortage of talking points. There were ups and downs complete with stories of triumph and despair from coast to coast.
With the 2012 season approaching, here is a look back at the top 10 stories that defined one of the most memorable MLS seasons to date:
10. Notable departures
The final months of the year marked the end of an era for two men. Steve Nicol parted ways with the New England Revolution after 10 years as head coach, while Kasey Keller, arguably the greatest American goalkeeper ever, retired from soccer at the age of 42. Nicol guided the Revs to four MLS Cup appearances (2002, 2005-2007), and picked up an MLS Coach of the Year award in 2002. Keller closed out his illustrious career with three seasons as a member of Seattle Sounders FC. In his final regular season home game, 64,140 people packed CenturyLink Field to see Keller off with the third-largest attendance figure in league history.
9. Philadelphia avoids sophomore slump
The Philadelphia Union had a forgettable debut season as an MLS expansion team in 2010, finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference with 31 points. But under the guidance of head coach Peter Nowak, the Union bounced back in 2011 to climb all the way up to third in the East with 48 points. Philadelphia made waves with the in-season signing of Freddy Adu, but it was Sebastien Le Toux who led the front line all year with 11 goals and nine assists in league action. The consistent play of goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon also helped the Union avoid a slump in their sophomore season.
8. The loss of Bobby Rhine
Major League Soccer was rocked by the loss of an endearing personality in September. Bobby Rhine, while vacationing with his family in Florida, died as a result of a sudden heart attack at the age of 35. Rhine was a longtime servant to the FC Dallas organization, making 212 appearances as a player prior to his retirement at the end of the 2008 season. He then joined the front office as the manager of community development in addition to providing his services as the color commentator for FC Dallas matches. Rhine's work ethic and leadership abilities afforded him the chance to slip into a front office role, but it was his upbeat and positive attitude that made him such an asset to the organization and to the league. He will be missed.
7. Horrific injuries
Three exceptional playmakers experienced major setbacks this season through no fault of their own. Steve Zakuani, David Ferreira, and Javier Morales all sustained horrific injuries that would not only keep them sidelined for an extended period of time, but were also quite gruesome to look at. On April 22, Zakuani suffered a broken leg after a challenge from Brian Mullan, for which he earned a 10-game suspension and $5,000 fine. A day later, Ferreira sustained a broken ankle when a tackle from Jonathan Leathers trapped the midfielder's foot against the turf. Morales also broke his ankle, picking up the injury in a May 7 matchup against Chivas USA, but he was able to return later in the season to help guide Real Salt Lake to the Western Conference finals. If any of these players can recapture the kind of form that made them some of the most exciting talents in MLS, a Comeback Player of the Year award may be in the cards for the 2012 season.
6. Foreign invasion
Whether it was Manchester United dismantling its summer opposition by a combined score of 20-2, Cristiano Ronaldo producing some scintillating moments against the Los Angeles Galaxy at the L.A. Coliseum, or Mario Balotelli's failed backheel attempt with only the goalkeeper to beat, there was plenty of entertainment on hand as the top European sides spent their preseason tours in North America. The showcase series culminated in the star-studded MLS All-Star Game at Red Bull Arena. Manchester United dominated the All-Stars in a 4-0 win, but the size and scope of the event held in the New York metropolitan area made it one for the ages.
5. Pacific Northwest rivalries
The three clubs in the Pacific Northwest are setting the bar in terms of MLS atmosphere. Seattle Sounders FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and the Portland Timbers not only compete for MLS Cup glory, but also for the distinction of the best club in the region with the Cascadia Cup. The fans have certainly caught on. The Sounders held the highest average attendance in the league with 38,496 fans per game, while the Timbers preserve the long-standing tradition associated with the club by sawing off part of a tree for every goal scored by the home team at Jeld-Wen Field and giving the slab to the scorer. These types of rivalries could be the recipe for long-term success in Major League Soccer.
4. New York's underachievement
There is no denying that Red Bull New York massively underachieved this season. A lineup that boasts the likes of Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo, and Dane Richards should not be squeaking into the playoffs. But that's what happened in 2011, as the Red Bulls did not clinch a playoff spot until the final game of the season, a 1-0 win over Philadelphia at home. Red Bulls fans certainly have a lot to be frustrated with, whether it was a plethora of draws, Ream's regression after a stellar breakout season in 2010, or Marquez's petulant attitude. Still without a trophy after its 16th season and often in the shadow of the uber-successful New York Cosmos from the NASL days, could it be said that there is something of a Cosmos Curse hanging over this franchise?
3. Sporting's resurgence
Sporting Kansas City looked dead in the water a couple months into the season. It opened the 2011 campaign with a 10-game road trip while the finishing touches were placed on the club's new soccer specific stadium, Livestrong Sporting Park. Sporting managed just six points over that stretch, posting a 1-6-3 record and sitting toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference. But once Livestrong Sporting Park opened, K.C. turned its season around and climbed all the way to the summit of the East. It finished in first place in its conference with 51 points and a 9-2-6 home record. With home field advantage throughout the postseason, Sporting looked destined to reach the MLS Cup Final, but it was instead knocked out by a red-hot Houston Dynamo club. If Sporting can transfer some of its home form to its road encounters in 2012, the sky is the limit.
2. DeRosario's remarkable year
Dwayne DeRosario made history in 2011, nabbing an MVP award while managing to play for three different teams. After beginning the season with Toronto FC, the Canadian international made his way to Harrison, NJ to suit up with Red Bull New York. But the Red Bulls did not get the type of return they had hoped for when they signed DeRosario, and they quickly shipped him to rivals D.C. United in exchange for Dax McCarty. DeRosario caught fire, notching 13 goals and seven assists in his 18 games with United. In total, he finished with 16 goals and 12 assists en route to securing the MLS Golden Boot award and MVP trophy. His vast experience in MLS and form down the stretch in 2011 begs the question: Why did TWO teams feel the need to unload this guy in the same season?
1. Beckham's Hollywood ending
David Beckham joined the Los Angeles Galaxy and Major League Soccer in 2007, a signing that was labeled more of a public relations move than one motivated by play on the pitch. The coup was a monumental success off the field as it helped raise the global profile of MLS, but it took four-and-a-half seasons for it to finally pay dividends on the field for the Galaxy. Los Angeles edged the Houston Dynamo in 2011's MLS Cup final as Beckham secured his first, and maybe last, league title in America. The 36-year-old's contract has expired and the world is waiting on edge to see where Beckham will sign next. But whether he re-signs with the league or not, it is now safe to call his stint in Major League Soccer a success.