Best of MLS 2013: Top 5 storylines

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The past season has certainly been one of the most memorable years in Major League Soccer history, with drama on and off the field, spectacular races for the Conference titles, top individual performances and a magnificent MLS Cup to round it all off.

Over the next few days at PST we’re putting a nice bow on an incredible 2013 MLS season, to mark the end of a landmark year for soccer in North America.

On and off the pitch there were so many talking points across MLS, but let’s focus on the things that actually happened on the field as we take a gander at our top five storylines to come out of 2013.

Here we go…

1. Sporting KC win MLS Cup on home soil

Where better to start than the moment that capped the entire season off? This game had it all, subzero temperatures in front of a packed out house at Sporting Park who cheered on their side to victory… eventually. After the game had been locked at 1-1 and extra-time couldn’t separate Real Salt Lake or SKC, the dreaded penalty shootout (for just the third time in MLS Cup history) would decide the champion.

Cue Jimmy Nielsen’s mystic piece of paper, a mixture of superbly taken and utterly awful penalties and both sides having the chance to win the Cup… then blowing it, before the tenth round of PKs proved decisive. Lovell Palmer smashed the ball against the crossbar and over to hand SKC the win, after Aurelien Collin had calmly dispatched his spot kick, and Sporting Kansas City could celebrate their second MLS Cup in franchise history and first since their re-branding.

2. Landon Donovan returns, ties MLS scoring record

As Steve Davis mentioned in the ‘top MLS moments of 2013’ Landon Donovan’s return saw a wonderfully rejuvenated figure burst back onto the scene and tie Jeff Cunningham’s all-time MLS scoring record.

source: Getty Images
Donovan went from the verge of quitting soccer, to leading the USMNT to the World Cup and tying MLS’ all-time goalscoring record

Following his self-imposed sabbatical during the 2013 offseason, when many believed the then 30-year-old forward would walk away from soccer entirely, Donovan looked fit and ready to make up for lost time and soon found his feet in MLS despite some rusty performances to start with. Donovan missed the first three games of the season before coming off the bench away at Toronto FC to much fanfare. The U.S. attacker scored 10 goals and added nine assists in 21 starts in MLS for LA, and his big moment came when he scored twice against Chivas USA in October as he now has 155 MLS goals to his name. Remarkable, and it won’t take long for Donovan to break that record in 2014. Also, it’s worth noting that a rejuvenated Donovan won his place back in Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT squad as he won player of tournament at the Gold Cup and grabbed a goal and an assist in the USA’s 2-0 win over Mexico that sealed World Cup qualification to Brazil 2014.

Donovan is back with a bang alright.

3. Caleb Porter’s rookie season a huge success in Portland

After leaving Akron University and making the step up to the professional game, Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter made the transition look easy. He had everything he needed to succeed in PDX (tremendous support from the Timbers Army an owner who was willing to spend and talented players) but he just had to mesh it all together. Porter did that wonderfully well. Dubbed “Porterball” for his insistence to play 4-3-3 and using expensive imports with former collegiate stars, an exciting brand of attacking soccer blossomed in the Rose City as Portland won the Western Conference title.

Argentine playmaker Diego Valeri pulled the strings in midfield, while Will Johnson marshaled his side superbly as they beat Cascadia rivals Seattle in the playoffs, but came up short against RSL in the Conference Final. You get the feeling this is just the start for Porter’s young team in MLS, what a terrific season for the 2013 MLS Coach of the Year and his squad.

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A Supporters’ Shield trophy finally arrived at Red Bull Arena, thanks to local hero Mike Petke

4. New York Red Bulls finally win silverware

For many years the Big Apple’s obsession with soccer has seen their side flounder at the final moment. During MLS Cup 2008 New York didn’t show up and were beaten by Columbus, and that’s just one example of a long list of failures over the years. But this season, with former Red Bull and New York native Mike Petke in charge, things would be different as after a rocky start New York rallied to win the franchises first-ever piece of silverware as they clinched the Supporters’ Shield trophy.

Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill were sublime as the DPs led the way, but the gritty determination of Petke’s side reflected the New York natives mentality. Eventually the Red Bulls beat SKC to the Shield by just one point with a win over Chicago in the final game of the season, but once more failure in the postseason left a nasty taste in the mouth. But who cares, the trophy cabinet at Red Bull Arena is no longer bare. An emotional Petke had tears in his eyes as the loyal RBNY fans finally had something tangible to celebrate on home soil.

5. Clint Dempsey returns to MLS, signs for Seattle

Among those landmarks moments in MLS history, Clint Dempsey’s return to the league that made him goes down as one of the best. As #DempseyWatch cranked up on social media after he was spotted at airports then rumors of him heading to the West Coast circulated, MLS was at the center of its biggest ever transfer saga. Dempsey, of course, joined the Seattle Sounders from Tottenham Hotspur as the USMNT captain arrived back in MLS at the age of 30, still in his prime and hoping to bring a first-ever MLS cup to the Emerald City. Of course, we all know it didn’t work out like that as Dempsey was hampered by injuries and managed just one goal from six starts and nine total appearances.

However, having Deuce back on the U.S. domestic soccer scene sent a message out to the rest of global soccer: MLS can compete with the big boys.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.