2011's Interesting Times

Year-in-review articles are insanely hacky, but indulge me this one.  This was the year that marked a sea change in the fates of not just our national team, but that of our friendly rival to the immediate south, in ways that will reverberate for ten years.  And MLS still upstaged it. The single most important moment in American soccer this year was Steve Cherundolo hobbling off the field at the Rose Bowl. 

The turning point, sadly literal

If he stays on the field, the US wins the Gold Cup; if the US wins, Bob Bradley keeps his job, the Confederation Cup beckons, and Mexico goes through another crisis of confidence instead of inaugurating what looks to be another long stretch as the undisputed CONCACAF kings.

Mexico's perfectly capable of self-doubt anyway, so if we're all very, very lucky they'll replace Chepo with Ruud Gullit or whoever, and we can have another Hexagonal win.  (As if anyone even keeps track of those.)  But Mexico looks so hilariously deeper than everyone else in the region that it would take self-destructive determination even the FMF and Televisa don't seem capable of.  Although as we've been told a lot these past few years, impossible is nothing.

But Sunil Gulati took Yogi Berra's proverbial fork in the road, and stuck it in Bob Bradley.  I tend to wonder how much Bradley had lost the team - if he did at all.  Dempsey and Donovan going to weddings during the Gold Cup was just...bad.  Sorry for the vocabulary failure, but...bad.  Not good.  Bad.  David Beckham's wedding jaunt was at least high-profile, and oh, by the way, Beckham came back in time for his next game, Landon.  (Which was a stormy unpleasant trap game in Frisco, too, not a continental tournament.) 

On the other hand, the US did make the final, and Dempsey and Donovan played very well in said final.  So it's entirely possible that Clint and Landon's devotion to their respective families were exactly that, and to be taken precisely at face value.   I think we fans were straining at gnats, parsing every public statement for hints of anti-Bradley sentiment like the players were Vietnam-era POWs on television blinking in Morse code. 

I also think Sunil never got over being star-struck by Juergen Klinsmann, and badly needed some kind of success after bungling the 2022 World Cup bid last year around this time.  (Yes, I know.  Like it was against the law for us to bribe, too.  Oh.  Really?  Well, who would have caught us?)  Add a couple of very disappointing high-stakes defeats against Ghana in 2010 and Mexico this year, and what looked hugely unlikely in January became new era by July.

The actual games of the Klinsmann era so far have been, for the most part, uninspired fizzles, but nobody ever won a World Cup in an odd-numbered year anyway.  Sometime between Bora and Steve Sampson, American soccer fans became able to micromanage the national team coach friendly by friendly, callup by callup - I think some Defense Department tube contraption had something to do with it - and now we're parsing January camps with vastly more energy than ever before.  I think Klinsmann's high salary also gave an unwarranted sense of urgency to the whole thing, too.

We won't really know whether and how much Klinsmann's hiring changed the course of the national team, since we won't ever know what Bob Bradley was planning to do to phase out some of the guys who were getting old or drinking heavily from water bottled from the Sh*t Creek.  As Donald Rumsfeld said wrongly about war, but would have said rightly about soccer:  you go to the World Cup with the national team you have, not the national team you wish you had.  Klinsmann seems to have brought in a lot of new blood from the Old World, and I'm cautiously optimistic.  I was about David Wagner and Michael Mason, too.

Another thing to keep in mind is that whether or not Klinsmann has a short honeymoon will have no bearing on the length of the marriage.  Juergen Klinsmann will be the national team coach until we're out of the 2014 World Cup.  Hopefully that doesn't happen in the first round of qualifying, but anything that would happen to instill that kind of panic in the USSF is probably nothing we'd want to live through. 

We now have a completely different national team, with an archrival in its best form in well over a decade.  The decisions made this year will have repercussions that go well beyond 2014.  The success or failure of the national team means the careers of dozens of players are at stake, as well as the continued growth or sudden stop of the national team fanbase.

All because Cherundolo rolled his ankle. 

Unless you think a healthy Tab Ramos guides the US to victory over Brazil on Independence Day in 1994 (hint: nope!), then Cherundolo's injury is the biggest single injury in US soccer history.  The only on-field turning points to compare would be if Caligiuri's shot skies over the bar in Port of Spain, or if Hugh Dallas red-cards Frings in Ulsan.  (Which reminds me, and I'll keep pointing this out as long as it takes - if John O'Brien had been called for a penalty in Jeonju?  Friedel woulda saved it.  Mexico was doomed that day, doomed I tells ya.)

While 2011 was a fateful year in US men's national team soccer, it was kind of a sucky one.  The year ends for us with Jermaine Jones caught on camera trying to injure an opponent.  Good thing for Jones that Klinsmann doesn't follow the Bundesliga that closely.

The year 2011 for the women looked like it was going to be unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.  Then, all of a sudden, the US decided to play a couple of the most exciting games ever. 

You can't really call the revelation of the USWNT's ongoing casual fanbase a turning point.  It's just that few people suspected, in what was assumed to be a post-Mia wilderness, that millions were willing to pay attention.  One minute, the US women were going about their slightly better than mediocre business, then blammo.  The US and their stupid uniforms were being celebrated from sea to shining.

Some of those who hadn' t been paying attention in class thought the US then committed an unforgivable choke job against Japan, but most either knew better or were willing to forgive. 

Although the odds that the nation will suddenly embrace WPS are comfortably numb, the real follow-up was always going to be the Olympics.  Pia's adorers might not agree, but the US is still neither the best nor the second best team in the world.  On the bright side, the US women own the Olympics.  2011 was a vastly better year for women's soccer than we had a right to expect.  If 2012 is similarly pleasant, then the women's game might earn its place on the sports landscape years ahead of schedule - Borislow or no.

But it was MLS that really had the banner year.  It would be easy for me to yammer on about the Galaxy, and I think everyone by now has noticed the positive feedback loop up in the Pacific Northwest.  If I had to pick a sign of how good a year MLS had, though, I'd drift my eyes over to Kansas City, Kansas - so nice they named it one and a half times.  (Stop me if I've told you that one.)

MLS now has a two touchdown lead over the old NASL in stadiums built (with San Jose to provide the extra point).  Fine, Don Garber told me - and the world, but mostly me - that stadiums weren't necessarily a guarantee of profitability for MLS teams.  So Columbus and Colorado and Dallas have some work to do. 

But Kansas City - first of all, I look forward to visiting that stadium someday...difficult though it might be to sell to the family a vacation to KCKS instead of, say, Hawaii.  (Is Worlds of Fun still open?  Maybe I can sell the kids on going there.  After all, where in Southern California can you find a decent amusement park?)  Because that place looks just gorgeous.  It also sounds great on TV.  For our younger readers, Kansas City was routinely, continually, invariably volunteered to be relocated by well- or not-so-well-meaning observers. 

Well, perhaps Sporting Rochester would have been the jewel of Major League Counterfactual Soccer.  But today Kansas City is a permanent MLS citadel.  Seattle, Portland and Vancouver are wonderful, but Kansas City proved that any MLS team - any of them - can build a fan base, build a stadium, and make soccer a community fixture. 

Eric Wynalda tweeted the other week - I may have to join Twitter at some point, but I'm putting that off as long as I can - that without Mexico national team friendlies, SUM (and MLS) would sink.  I think that was true (well, Mexico and the World Cup TV rights), but now I believe/hope MLS has become self-sustaining.  Besides, if SUM were that important, they'd have updated their website sometime in the past YEAR.

Hey, for all I know, MLS is the biggest house of cards since Enron, will collapse at a moment's notice, and I'm going to look as funny as those "Soccer - the Sport of the 80's!" people back in what I believe is referred to as the day.  It's possible.  I'll call the league office and ask if they're running a Ponzi scheme.

Good news.  They said no.  If they're fooling us, well, they also fooled people like Paul Allen and Merritt Paulson, so I won't feel that bad.

In other words, Houston fans should have been far, far more pissed off at the slew of articles saying how important it was that the Galaxy to win MLS Cup "for the good of American soccer."  It will be interesting to see what the Galaxy and MLS do after Beckham signs with Ballymena Comrades or whoever.  But where the old NASL could not survive the downgrade from Pele to Chinaglia, MLS has a far stronger foundation. 

As a special bonus - the year in Canadian soccer: