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.

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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.

La Liga Roundup: Messi, Barcelona stunned by inspired Granada (video)

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Granada’s shocking 2-0 win over Barcelona and subsequent rise to the top of the table headlines Saturday’s La Liga action.

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Granada 2-0 Barcelona

Not even Lionel Messi, who made his season debut on Saturday, was able to save Barcelona against a red-hot Granada.

Granada, who are off to their best start in their 88 years of existence, had a perfect night in front of their supporters, convincingly getting past a Barcelona that dominated possession, but lacked the offensive ingenuity needed to score.

Barcelona’s defense wasn’t noteworthily robust, either.

Two minutes in, the newly promoted side scored through a headed goal from Ramon Azeez, following a defensive turnover from Junior Firpo.

Unable to record a shot on target in the first half and looking to wakeup a dormant attack, Barcelona brought on wonderkid Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi at halftime. Despite the duo connecting on several occasion and generating a shot on target, it wasn’t enough to get past Rui Silva.

In the 66th minute, following video review, substitute Alvaro Badillo converted from the spot, handing Granada their third win of the season.

Atop of La Liga, Granada set their sights on Real Valladolid, while Barcelona, who are off to their worst league start in 25 years, host Villarreal at Camp Nou.

Atletico Madrid  0-0 Celta Vigo

For a second consecutive week, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid dropped points, drawing with Celta Vigo 0-0 at Wanda Metropolitano.

Tied with league leaders Granada and Sevilla with 10 points, the alarm bells are far from going off in Madrid. However, as Saturday’s performance showed, los Colchoneros are having trouble finishing chances this season, despite fielding an attack with the likes of Joao Felix, Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata.

In five games, Atletico have managed to score only five goals, six fewer than leaders Granada. Against Celta, Atletico registered 20 shots, five on target, but were unable to crack a stellar Ruben Blanco, who registered five saves.

Leveled with Granada and Sevilla, Atletico Madrid look to get back into winning ways as they take on RCD Mallorca. Elsewhere, Celta Vigo, who have won win after five games, host Espanyol next.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Villarreal 2-0 Real Valladolid

Levante 0-0 Eibar

Almeyda, Wondolowski sent off in Quakes’ fall against Atlanta (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): Melodrama took center stage in Atlanta United’s 3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, as Matias Almeyda, Chris Wondolowski and Cristian Espinoza were all sent off on Saturday. Josef Martinez, six games away from tying Lionel Messi’s world record for most consecutive goals, left the field in 79th minute following an injury, ending his MLS-record run at 15 games. Playing with 10 players from the 34th minute onwards, the Quakes held on to the draw up until the 90th minute. Unmarked inside the box, Emerson Hyndman rocketed the ball past Daniel Vega, who recorded nine saves throughout the night. In stoppage time, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez was rewarded for his stellar performance with a goal of his own. With a game at hand, Eastern Conference leaders, NYCFC, are three points ahead Frank De Boer‘s side. The Quakes, on the other hand, have internal fires to put out as they have lost six of their last eight, and are only a point above the red line with three games to play.

Three moments that mattered

27′ — Great run by Espinoza, greater ball by Vega  — Daniel Vega and Cristian Espinoza were players that San Jose were desperately missing last season. This sequence says it all.

 

90′ — Emerson Hyndman wins it for the Five Stripes   — Hyndman, with no one near him, seals three points for the home side.

 

90′ + 2 — Martinez takes advantage of broken San Jose  — Martinez’s goal was only salt in San Jose’s fresh wound.

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Man of the match: Gonzalo “Pity”  Martinez

Goalscorers: Meram (4′), Guzan (27′ – OG), Hyndman (90′), Martinez (90′ + 2)

FIFA sees no obstacles for women to attend games in Iran

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ZURICH — Soccer’s governing body FIFA says an inspection visit to Iran has shown “no noteworthy operational obstacles” to lifting the country’s 40-year ban and letting women attend a World Cup qualifying game next month.

After meeting government and soccer officials in Tehran this week, FIFA says it will work with Iran’s soccer body to also open domestic league games to female fans.

FIFA wants Iran to end its ban on women entering stadiums which breaches international soccer statutes prohibiting discrimination.

Global attention on the ban followed the death this month of a 29-year-old activist, Sahar Khodayari, who set herself on fire outside a courthouse. She had been detained for dressing as a man to enter a soccer stadium in Tehran and faced six months in prison.

Ahead of Iran hosting Cambodia at the 78,000-capacity Azadi Stadium on Oct. 10, FIFA says the visit on Thursday focused on “international relations, security and ticketing matters.”

Iranian officials were told of FIFA’s “firm and clear position that women need to be allowed to enter football matches freely” with tickets sold to as many who wanted to attend.

FOLLOW LIVE: Atlanta v. Quakes, Galaxy v. Impact on a busy MLS Saturday

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Eight games in seven hours, now that’s a jam-packed MLS Saturday.

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Things kickoff with Matias Almeyda’s San Jose Earthquakes visiting red-hot Josef Martinez’s Atlanta United, and comes to a close in Los Angeles, where league leaders LAFC host Toronto FC and LA Galaxy, who look to continue moving up in the Western Conference standings, host Montreal Impact.

In between, the New England Revolution look to remain in the Eastern Conference playoff picture as they welcome Kyle Beckerman and Real Salt Lake, while the Chicago Fire hope to jump level with the Revs in the standings as they take on FC Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium.

Saturday’s full MLS schedule

Atlanta United v. San Jose Earthquakes — 3:30 p.m. ET

Vancouver Whitecaps v. Columbus Crew — 5 p.m. ET

New England Revolution v. Real Salt Lake — 7:30 p.m. ET

FC Cincinnati v. Chicago Fire — 7:30 p.m. ET

Sporting Kansas City v. Colorado Rapids — 8:30 p.m. ET

Houston Dynamo v. Orlando City — 8:30 p.m. ET

LAFC v. Toronto FC — 10:30 p.m. ET

LA Galaxy v. Montreal Impact — 10:30 p.m. ET