By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 28, 2012) US Soccer Players — At this point in American soccer’s evolution, twenty plus years on from its renaissance, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how far we’ve come. By any reasonable measure, the domestic league is thriving. The National Team hasn’t missed a World Cup since 1986 and is firmly entrenched as one of two regional giants. American players are succeeding abroad in impressive numbers.
It’s not that everything is rosy or perfect. The passage of time changes perspective. It prompts new questions and reconfigures expectations. At the dawn of a new year two decades ago, America had not yet hosted a World Cup (though preparations were underway). When 1993 arrived, there was no topflight league in the United States, and the death of the NASL was still a fresh wound, hardly even scabbed over. The future looked bright, but only in the most relative of ways, as a contrast to a dark period when American players needed US Soccer’s help to stay professional, and the flavor of the sport in the country had the tang of “grand experiment.”
Twenty years on, and we wonder if the progress made was the right amount. It’s not enough, and probably hasn’t been since the early days of Major League Soccer, to merely check the boxes. America has soccer, in all of the various forms that exist in every reasonably engaged soccer nation, but has not yet reached the level to which it aspires. Does that mean we can’t stop for a moment and appreciate the journey?
So while MLS hibernates (briefly) and the National Team prepares to release a list of call-ups for its annual January camp, there is a brief window of time to give a nod in the direction of the past year without the pressing weight of what-must-come-next skewing everything. 2013 looms, but 2012 deserves its share of recognition. Over the past year, we saw significant collective and individual achievements. Here are my picks for the best American soccer moments of 2012.
1. It’s the Attendance
In 2012, MLS set a record for average attendance and hit a total attendance milestone for the third consecutive year by going over 6 million. The League’s average of 18,807 represented the second consecutive season that MLS exceeded the record of the debut year in 1996, the previous high-water mark. Rising attendance, a product of both the League’s growing popularity and the number of teams, is a major success.
2. Wondolowski’s Record
Chris Wondolowski scored 27 goals, tying the MLS single-season record set by Roy Lassiter in 1996, and did it in just 30 League appearances. It’s difficult to put Wondolowski’s achievement in the proper context, in part because “quality of play” is not (yet) objectively measurable. MLS was certainly a better League in 2012 than it was in 1996, but it’s difficult to pin down just how much better. Regardless, Wondolowski’s season was the stuff of legend, a truly transcendent campaign made that much more impressive by the style of his game. Wondolowski isn’t a big, bruising forward or a striker who relies on speed. He’s an adept exploiter of guile and space, belying a League slowly moving towards rewarding those attributes on a wider scale.
3. At Azteca
The US Men’s National Team won in Mexico for the first time in its soccer history. And at Estadio Azteca to boot. It was “only” a friendly, and neither side was at full strength, but the USA victory on Michael Orozco’s 80th minute goal brought to an end a period of futility south of the border that remained the one strike against the United States in the region’s biggest rivalry. While being careful not to discount the American success against El Tri over the course of the last two decades, it might be fair to say that with the victory in Mexico, the Americans took the final step towards real equality with their neighbors to the south.
4. Dempsey Switches Clubs
An American made headlines during a classic Premier League transfer saga. Whatever you make of Clint Dempsey’s move to Tottenham from Fulham (and who can fault him for desiring a move up the Premier League ladder), that his will-he-or-won’t-he minute-by-minute was so closely watched and hotly debated represented the shattering of yet another glass ceiling for American players. Dempsey’s star is one made of both his obvious talent and the work he’s done to prove his worth over six years in England. American soccer fans are endlessly hand wringing over the day a US-born player is among the best in the world on sheer ability alone. While we wait, Dempsey’s example proves there are many paths to getting an American’s name on the soccer marquee.
So where does that leave us as New Year’s approaches? A vibrant League. A National Team of importance regionally and an improving profile abroad. American players all over the world, with a growing number in the big leagues of Europe. As we head into 2013, another year in the era of America’s soccer revival in the books, the challenge is producing more of the same.
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