American Soccer - the Decade in Review

Bill pointed this out today, but the end-of-decade review should be a year from now. There was no Year Zero, the new millennium begain on 1/1/01, and therefore this decade still has a year to run.

Except, the Nineties ended on 12/31/99, and while there wasn't a Year Zero there was a Year 2000. Oops. And if Bill is going to do his next year, I should do mine now. Turns out I have two days to sum up the decade, and not three hundred and sixty-seven. Nerts.
_________________

BEST DECADE EVER!

The sport is more popular in this country (or, these countries, if you insist on recognizing Canada's independence) than ever before. Even ITTET, the league isn't slowing down, much. I think we have to say that the professional soccer scene is as best as it's ever been. Who would argue?

Oh, okay, right, I'm not saying-

Fine, so the 1970's were still the peak for Florida, but -

...well, no, I think if you average out the peaks and valleys in San Jose, it still ends up being the best of times overall. The original Earthquakes were kinda crummy, and no one paid any attention to the Blackhawks.

Oh, come on, so you only won one title. And you had to deal with the Exexpos. And Adumania sure looks embarrassing in retrospect, but that's a leaguewide issue, not just a Washington issue.

Well, hey, you guys survived Dragon Stadium. You won the division once, made it to the Open Cup final, and had a scoring champ. And your logo is now generic instead of bizarre. And Pizza Hut Park is neat, even if the novelty of watching your least favorite team win MLS Cup sort of wore off after a while. It could easily be worse.

You only existed for two years in the 90's! So you didn't win another MLS Cup. You guys are just whining.

You got your own stadium built, at least! Although that may belong on a list ten years from now. And...yeah, okay, this was a lost ten years for you. Did you guys hear Zambrano is back in the league?

Ah, okay, well, it would have been hard for you guys to live up to where you were in 1999, that's true, but-

...well, hey, now we have TWICE as many second division leagues!

...or maybe none. I realize that forcing a mediation is probably the best idea out there, but we still have a situation where the economy doesn't support a continent-plus wide second division run by people who detest each other.

But other than that, it was a great decade.

Seriously. I keep making this comparison, because I only have about three clever things I've ever said in my life and I want to keep hammering at them, but in this decade, Major League Soccer ended up being a better investment than California real estate. In the words of Xander Crews, "Boosh!" It's not a question of whether Don Garber makes the Soccer Hall of Fame as a Builder, it's a question of what color socks he will wear to the induction. And where the induction will be. And if the Hall will exist in physical form.

Okay, again, I'm not saying it was a great decade for EVERYONE. In general, though. Big picture. MLS has buried two gridiron football leagues, and is on its way to torching a third.

The table is set for even greater accomplishments. Within the scheduled life of Landon Donovan's new contract, eight MLS teams will break the standing record for the longest continuously operating professional soccer franchise in the United States, and MLS will break the NASL's record for longest surviving professional soccer league in the US.

When it comes to the domestic professional game in America, this decade was very kind indeed to

...men's domestic professional soccer. Hey, at least there's another women's pro league right now. It's not going to fold in the next two days, after all. It's even expanding, which is something WUSA never managed.

Okay, for WOMEN's soccer, this decade was a cold echo of the 90's. Even with the two Olympic gold medals. Kristine Lilly is the last of the Golden Generation that retired with dignity, or otherwise, as the case may have been. The new generation hit a low point in 2007, but recovered nicely the past couple of years.

But even with the women's game failing, not unreasonably, to match the dizzying accomplishments of the 1990's...although going 0-for-World Cups during the turn of the millennium* wasn't what we were hoping for, the last couple of Olympics were pretty nice.

Even though a couple of Olympic golds would be something the men would kill for, it's still the men's game that really made this a great decade. Probably. It looks a lot worse in retrospect if next summer goes horribly wrong. Yeah, I can see why people want to make next year the final year of the decade, instead of the first year of a new decade, because the last three years or so make no sense without knowing what happens next summer in South Africa.

Why, it's almost as if arbitrarily dividing American soccer development by decade is misleading and unhelpful.

Heh.

But just to make it completely obvious, this was the decade that featured the 2002 World Cup and the 2009 Confederations Cup. Those were the events that showed the US men's national team was a permanent part of the sports culture.

"What about the 1994 World Cup? Didn't that really start it all?" Sure. After years of marketing preparation and millions of dollars and man-hours. The 2002 World Cup happened in the dead of night, four years after the 1998 trainwreck, less than a year after MLS contraction. And here all of a sudden were these great games, and also out of nowhere this huge audience. With Dave O'Brien as lead play-by-play guy, no less. (EDIT - oops, as was pointed out in comments, 2002 was Jack Edwards, the hockey guy I kinda liked, and not the baseball guy universally reviled.)

The 2009 Confederations Cup was even more of a watershed moment. There was zero indication that full-time soccer fans like you and me would even care much about it, let alone our fellow citizenry. Certainly on the strength of the team's performances around that time, you wouldn't have thought anyone would be paying attention if they didn't have to.

One miraculous outcome against Egypt later, and it turned out the nation was willing to drop everything and pay attention. One game against Spain later, and we realized that we were surrounded by soccer fans.

This is why blowing the final against Brazil wasn't a setback - if we do well next summer, it doesn't matter that we lost last summer. And if we don't do well next summer, it wouldn't have mattered if we had won last summer.

Right now, 2000-2009 was the best decade in American soccer history. Hopefully, by June 2010, it will be demoted to second-best.

For a sport that started the decade with an overconfident women's league, a national team program covered in Regis and Agoos, and a men's league that was a Phil Anschutz coin toss from joining the ASL in Valhalla, things are looking pretty darn good.
_________________

Well, here's one last bit of trivial business - the Golden Boot winner of the United States. Jeff Cunningham may have led Major League Soccer in goals, but he did not lead the nation. Counting games played in the league, playoffs, Open Cup (and, what the hell, the Nutrilite Canadian Championship), your number one goalscorer in the United States is Aaron Wheeler of what was until recently known as the Reading Rage. Wheeler, like Cunningham, scored 17 goals in the regular season, but Wheeler scored a goal in the Open Cup and a goal in the PDL playoffs. EDIT - wrong Wheeler. Oops.

Anyway, congratulations, Aaron, and better luck next year, Jeff!

I suppose from here on in I should include Canadian players in this award. Let me go back and see if I missed any Whitecaps, Impact or Lynx players from the past. .... Nope. Thanks, Dave Litterer's site.

*I guess we're going to call it the Aughties, as in "Naughty Aughties," but I for one prefer the dignity of "turn of the millennium." Probably I for the only one. Wasn't a particularly dignified decade in any case.