As the Best of 2011 series comes to a close on MLSsoccer.com on Jan. 2, we've reached the Story of the Year, as voted on by our editorial staff.
New media editor Matthew Doyle looks back at a captivating and cathartic season for the LA Galaxy, which culminated in a long-awaited MLS Cup win for David Beckham and a lasting image for the MLS history books.
It took four-and-a-half years, but David Beckham and the LA Galaxy finally got the perfect, Hollywood ending that had seemed like it would never come.
Our No. 1 Story of the Year is, of course, the Galaxy’s blitz through the playoffs that culminated with Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Bruce Arena et al hoisting the MLS Cup in front of 30,000 wild fans at the Home Depot Center on a cold and wet Southern California night.
“The biggest pressure-cooker was having the championship in LA, because all year we’re reminded by our owners that it better be us, it better be us here,” a champagne-drenched Mike Magee said after the game. “Having that in the back of your heads … we knew we had to be in this game and we knew we had to win it. It’s surreal.”
1. Klinsmann takes over USMNT - Fans waiting for the end of Bob Bradley’s mercurial reign as head coach of the US men’s national team got their wish on Aug. 1, but the verdict is still out on what exactly what they have now. Klinsmann certainly has brought in new talent, but the results have thus far been less than impressive for the US' increasingly soccer-savvy fan base. All eyes are now on 2012.
2. US women reach World Cup final - Abby Wambach absolutely owned the most dramatic goal of the year, thumping home a header off a pitch-perfect Megan Rapinoe cross in the 122nd minute in a World Cup quarterfinal dogfight against Brazil. The Americans went on to lose to mighty-mite Japan in the final, but they seized the national conversation in early July.
3. Mexico win CONCACAF Gold Cup - El Tri were simply unstoppable at the Rose Bowl on June 25, especially after they fell behind 2-0 to the US in the first half. When Giovani dos Santos juked the US defense and chipped a shot just over defender Eric Lichaj’s head for the capper of a 4-2 win, it was clear the Americans have some work to do to keep pace with their hated rivals.
All the angst, all the frustration, all the criticism they’d faced since Beckham’s move in 2007 was answered emphatically. LA posted a clinical 3-1 aggregate win over New York in the Western Conference Semis; they followed that with an equally dominant 3-1 win over RSL in the Western Conference Championship the next weekend.
And after a two-week break that seemed to take forever, they put on a defensive master class in the final, shutting down the Houston Dynamo and riding Donovan’s a goal – assisted, appropriately, by Keane and Beckham – to a 1-0 victory for the franchise’s third MLS Cup title.
“They have [come up big] all year,” Magee said. “They’re insanely good at coming up insanely clutch. Robbie got that ball, you kind of knew he was going to play a ridiculous ball, and once Landon gets in those spots, he’s clutch as hell and you know he’s going to put that away.”
And then the celebration began. Beckham and Donovan, who’d begun their time together in Carson as uneasy allies, provided the lasting image when they embraced at the final whistle. These two veterans, each the face of the game in his respective nation, had given the league a signature moment to put the cap on a signature season.
It was sweet retribution for both, especially after a stunning loss at MLS Cup 2009 to Real Salt Lake. But for Beckham, it was perhaps something more, and something personal.
“Being successful always feels good, proving people wrong feels even [better]” Beckham said. “I think people doubted us. We’re the Galaxy, we’re the biggest club in this country and this league, and we’re proud tonight, we’re proud to be a part of this.”
Whether they’re the biggest or not, there’s no question in 2011 that they were the best. The Galaxy won their second consecutive Supporters’ Shield, averaging nearly two points per game in the process. They won their CONCACAF Champions League group despite landing on the wrong end of two horrific calls in Mexico.
They did so with Beckham, Donovan and Keane leading the way, but also with the likes of Magee, Omar Gonzalez, A.J. DeLaGarza, Todd Dunivant, Sean Franklin, Chad Barrett and Josh Saunders reminding everyone that the LA are not merely a collection of high-priced talent. Since his arrival at the end of the 2008 season, Arena has added a long list of young, hungry American talent to the foundation of Donovan and Beckham.
He’d built a team that proved they knew how to win in the regular season, but were still smarting from the MLS Cup loss to RSL and the flame-out against FC Dallas a year later.
There was no flame-out this time; just dominance. And for Beckham, validation.
"It’s been an amazing five years, amazing to be part of a team that Bruce has coached,” he said. “It’s been the most enjoyable time of my career here in America the last few years, and this [MLS Cup win] has just topped it off tonight.”