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.

source: Getty Images
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.

WATCH: Fort Lauderdale striker scores screamer from half

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Every goalkeeper could use a reminder to be wary of adventuring too far from his box, and USL League One provides us our latest lesson for backstops.

Ricky Lopez-Espin scored a terrific insurance goal for Fort Lauderdale CF on Saturday night, a marker which would stand as the difference in 2-1 defeat of Georgian outfit South Tormenta FC.

[ MORE: Atletico Madrid confirms positive COVID tests ]

The win pulls FLCF, first called Inter Miami II, off the bottom of the League One table early in this restarted season.

It was quite a hit, a turnover near midfield allowing Lopez-Espin the chance to spy the keeper off his line and rip a rocket out of reach.

Miami-born Lopez-Espin played college soccer at Creighton and was a Real Salt Lake draft pick. The 24-year-old played twice for RSL and later suited up for Real Monarchs and Lansing Ignite.

Two positive COVID tests for Atletico Madrid ahead of Champions League

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Atletico Madrid announced two positive coronavirus tests from its crew set to travel to Portugal for this week’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against RB Leipzig.

[ MORE: JPW’s European predictions ]

The team says it will test all of its players and staff again to assure that there are no positive COVID-19 cases affecting the tournament.

Atleti asked for extreme privacy regarding the individuals who tested positive.

The match with RB Leipzig is Thursday in Lisbon, the second of four quarterfinals on the docket.

The positive tests are a stark reminder that while the top leagues in European soccer have done a very good job at isolating and keeping tests down, an incredibly contagious virus like COVID-19 can wreak havoc on the competition at any time.

From Atleti’s web site, via Sky Sports:

“Today, two positives appeared among the known results, which are now isolated in their respective homes and were reported immediately to the Spanish and Portuguese health authorities, UEFA, the Royal Spanish Football Federation, the Portuguese Federation and the Superior Council of Sports.

“As such, a corresponding protocol planned for these circumstances has been activated, which requires new tests to be undertaken to first team players, members of the Lisbon travelling party and those who are in close contact with the positive cases, and which will result in changes in the timings of training sessions, in the structure and development of the journey and the accommodation in the Portuguese capital.”

Atalanta plays PSG on Wednesday, while Barcelona and Bayern Munich meet Friday, and Man City battles Lyon on Saturday.

It will feel like smooth sailing once the tournament begins and players hit the proverbial bubble. Until then, though, this proves that there are no guarantees.

USWNT star Kelley O’Hara on NWSL restart, launching podcast

Kelley O'Hara
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When USWNT star Kelley O’Hara launched her own podcast, she didn’t mess around with the star power of her guests.

Launched in July, the “Just Women’s Sports” podcast has hosted three incredible guests including the first post-pregnancy interview with USWNT teammate Alex Morgan as well as talks with Olympic star Chloe Kim and WNBA hero Candace Parker.

A Stanford connection with fellow alum Haley Rosen put the two-time World Cup winner on the path to hosting the show, and O’Hara admits that she was driven by the chance to lift the lid on athletes’ true feelings beyond the shield that comes up while talking to reporters.

[ MORE: Champions League favorites ranked ]

“Even as an athlete I know that I have a little of my guard up when I’m talking to a reporter because sometimes they’ll take it and use it for their own narrative or agenda,” she said in a conversation with ProSoccerTalk. “There’s an ability to be vulnerable and be safe because you’re talking to someone who has a general idea of what it feels like to be an athlete. Nothing about it is trying to catch them.”

Part of that comes with O’Hara realizing she has a massive stage on account of her accomplishments. The USWNT is one of the most-watched teams in the world, on-and-off the pitch.

While she felt more like someone achieving a life goal when she first became a pro, the simultaneous life under a microscope and on a platform has inspired her to take advantage of her role model status.

“You come to realize that with the success that we have had, individually and with the national team, you do influence people,” O’Hara said. “You have an impact. You have this ability to be a role model and do good things in the world. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do this podcast; I have the ability to lend my platform to other athletes and give people a voice and a space.”

O’Hara was speaking as the National Women’s Soccer League put a bow on its return to the pitch with the NWSL Challenge Cup.

O’Hara’s Utah Royals fell to eventual champions Houston Dash in the quarterfinals, but the completion of the tournament in itself was a bright spot to a dark summer.

“I’m really proud about what the NWSL was able to create there,” O’Hara said. “There was a lot of uncertainty around the Challenge Cup because of COVID, but the fact that the NWSL was able to create an environment to get back on the field has been fantastic. Obviously you have Orlando that wasn’t able to come but since every team has arrived, not one player has tested positive so the NWSL deserves a lot of credit for designing this whole set-up.”

PST asked the 32-year-old how much credit should go to the players, considering how many other leagues have been thwarted by the negligence of athletes or staffers around COVID-19.

“When the NWSL was proposing everything, they told us it was built on trust. If players weren’t going to be responsible, it wasn’t going to work. It’s great that we all want to be competing, I feel we’re very lucky to be able to compete, but that’s contributed to people following the rules. You didn’t want to be the one person who ruins it.”

Learn more about the Just Women’s Sports crew, which includes Olympic heroes Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Hilary Knight, and Maggie Steffens as well as former WNBA No. 1 overall pick Nneka Ogwumike, at their official web site.

Champions League favorites ranked from eight to one

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Eight teams remain in the UEFA Champions League’s rapid-fire return, with one-legged ties promising high drama in Portugal.

The quarterfinals begin Wednesday, the bracket distinctly split into one deadly half and another with upset potential.

Because of this set-up, there’s a massive challenge in divining the true favorites to win the Aug. 23 in Lisbon.

[ MORE: JPW’s European predictions ]

If you were assembling a bottom-up power rankings in terms of the talent and toughness assembled by the eight remaining clubs, it might look something like this:

Longshots: Atalanta, Lyon
Puncher’s chance: Atletico Madrid, RB Leipzig
History-weighted powers: Man City, Paris Saint-Germain
Favorites: Barcelona, Bayern Munich

Here’s the rub: Three of the four biggest favorites will have to get through each other to get to the final, including the two top dogs. Barcelona and Bayern Munich will scrap Friday, and Man City’s slight advantage in facing Lyon is mitigated by one day’s less rest for a Bayern-Barca winner.

[ MORE: Man Utd – Copenhagen preview ]

Man City is the bookies’ favorites to win the whole thing. Do we see it that way? Spoiler alert: Nope.

And, by the way, despite changes to both outfits this is a Lyon that took four of six points from City in the 2018-19 UCL group stage. We don’t see an upset at that stage but it’s a way to note that anything is, indeed, possible.


8. Lyon

Seventh-place in Ligue 1 this season, Rudi Garcia’s men already have the beating of Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus on their resume. Moussa Dembele, Houssem Aouar, and Memphis Depay are all exciting attacking talents, but the bracket’s demands to take down Man City, then either Bayern and Barcelona just to get to the final sinks them to eighth.

7. RB Leipzig

Julian Nagelsmann is building a reputation as a man who can outwit anyone in a one-off — see two draws with Bayern in Bundesliga play this season — so it’s fitting that he’ll go tete-a-tete with Simeone in the next round. The absence of Timo Werner, who’s off to Chelsea, is a huge problem given the occasion(s). Asking three wins seems a lot, though there will be plenty of Americans pulling for Tyler Adams’ team.

Bayern Munich v. RB Leipzig recap and video highlights
09 February 2020, Bavaria, Munich: American midfielder Tyler Adams duels with Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski. (Photo by Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images)

6. Atalanta

The Bergamo-based side will have the support of many neutrals. For one thing, Atalanta is on a historic run for their club before taking into account their city’s status as one of the early epicenters of the coronavirus. For another, they are super fun. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men scored 98 goals in Serie A, 19 more than next-best Lazio, and lost the second-fewest games in Italy. They’ve lost once since January 25, a final day defeat to Inter Milan. Five players have scored double-digit goals in all comps this season.

5. Atletico Madrid

Ask Liverpool: Diego Simeone and Jan Oblak in knockout round football is reason to doubt anyone. Still, there’s an argument to be made that Atleti has punched well above its weight this season, even relative to El Cholo’s standards.

4. Barcelona

Lionel Messi means the club should be even higher on this list, and Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez are plenty battle-hardened in this spot. But Barca has made a mess of their last few ventures into the latter rounds of this tournament, and those ghosts combined with having to beat Bayern and perhaps Man City in consecutive weeks is brutal with several u’s.

Messi new contract
SEVILLA, SPAIN – JUNE 19: He’s good (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

3. Paris Saint-Germain

There’s a good argument to be made that PSG might hold the top spot on this list. Thomas Tuchel’s men are better rested and have a more straight-forward path to Lisbon, plus the Ligue 1 champs have played and won two Cup finals in the past three weeks. There are two reasons we’re keeping them below Man City and Bayern. One is the UCL-challenged history that has us as well as surely them seeing ghosts, and the other is the uncertain status of Kylian Mbappe. He’s in the squad, but at what percent?

2. Manchester City

The reason to consider putting City above Bayern is the men in charge. Hansi Flick has done oh-so-well at Bayern but is certainly not Pep Guardiola in terms of big-game acumen or reputation. But City’s defense has proven suspect, with John Stones falling off a cliff and Nicolas Otamendi not at the levels of previous seasons. Relying on Fernandinho, Aymeric Laporte, and Eric Garcia to shut down three top attacks in two weeks is a big ask, and left back is also a huge concern with the talented wingers set to test City.

1. Bayern Munich

No weaknesses aside from potentially having to beat Barcelona and Man City inside of six days. Boasting one of the only double-double men in Europe’s top leagues in Serge Gnabry, a played who doesn’t get mentioned as often as history-chasing Robert Lewandowski and history-making Thomas Muller. A midfield duo of Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich which is just plain stupid. Speed and composure to spare with Manuel Neuer at the back. The German keeper may no longer be the undoubted 1 or 2 in the world, but he’s still a monster.