Posted: Thu December 20, 2012 11:12AM; Updated: Thu December 20, 2012 11:48AM
Grant Wahl
Grant Wahl>PLANET FUTBOL

My favorite soccer stories of 2012

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To mark the passing of another eventful year of championships, triumphs and memorable moments, SI.com's writers are remembering the stories they connected to most across the sports landscape in 2012.

1. U.S.-Canada women's Olympic semifinal. Let's be clear: This wasn't just one of the best women's soccer games of all time, it was one of the best soccer games ever, period. Three times the U.S. fell behind Canada at Old Trafford in Manchester, and three times the Americans came back before finally winning 4-3 on Alex Morgan's header in the dying moments of extra time. There were more hard-to-believe plot lines than a season's worth of Homeland: the hat trick by Canadian all-everything Christine Sinclair; the two strikes by U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe (one directly off a corner kick and the other an absolute screamer from distance); the calls that were made (an almost-never-seen time-wasting whistle on Canada, which led to the last U.S. equalizer) and the calls that weren't (Canadian Melissa Tancredi's head stomp on the U.S.' Carli Lloyd); Morgan's dramatic game-winner; and the Canadian recriminations afterward, which included Sinclair earning a four-game FIFA suspension for saying the game was fixed. The U.S.-Canada rivalry has quickly become the most compelling drama in women's soccer.

2. Lionel Messi. Even though Barcelona didn't win the Champions League or the Spanish league, the 25-year-old Messi still did plenty to win his unprecedented fourth straight FIFA Ballon d'Or as the world player of the year. (That formality will become a reality on Jan. 7.) With an astonishing 90 goals for club and country during the calendar year through Thursday, Messi continued making the case that he may already be the greatest player of all time, his zero World Cup titles with Argentina be damned. So many things make Messi special, but his ability to avoid serious injury and to keep producing at record levels despite being the focus of every foe's defensive game plan are right at the top. He's part of the magic of Barça, which I addressed in a lengthy SI magazine story in October.

3. The Era of Spain. One of the greatest national teams in soccer history bagged another major trophy in Kiev on July 1 when Spain blasted Italy 4-0 in the Euro 2012 final to become the first team ever to hold the World Cup and two European Championship trophies at the same time. Spain didn't lay waste to all its opponents during Euro 2012, causing some critics to question its preeminence and even call the team "boring," but La Roja's destruction of Italy removed any doubts about the greatness of coach Vicente del Bosque's outfit. Yes, some of the stars are getting older, but anyone who picks against Spain at World Cup 2014 will do so at his or her own risk.

4. Clint Dempsey's historic season. No U.S. national team player has ever enjoyed a better club season than the one Dempsey had for Fulham in 2011-12, scoring 23 goals in all competitions and eventually earning a transfer to Tottenham Hotspur. Dempsey isn't the fastest or strongest player out there, but his intuitive and creative exploits have made him a Premier League mainstay. ("He tries s---," former U.S. coach Bruce Arena famously said.) Dempsey has also become the unquestioned top threat on the U.S. national team, scoring five goals during a tougher-than-expected semifinal round of World Cup qualifying and adding the game-winner in a friendly at Italy.

5. U.S. TV's soccer splurge. Hundreds of millions of dollars continued to be spent by U.S. TV companies in 2012 to buy soccer rights in a country where you can now see up to 90 live games a week -- more than in England and other countries. The big news this year was NBC's $250 million purchase for three seasons of the English Premier League starting in 2013-14. That outlay joins the $1.1 billion spent on U.S. rights for the 2018 and '22 World Cups ($500 million by FOX for English-language, $600 million by Telemundo for Spanish-language), which will likely make the U.S. the biggest-spending country in the world again for World Cup rights. Al Jazeera also entered the U.S. market with beIN Sport, taking over the broadcasts of the top leagues in Spain, Italy and France (and most U.S. road World Cup qualifiers). While beIN Sport had yet to be adopted by all U.S. providers, causing frustration, the news in the big picture for soccer in America is positive. Greater investment is good for soccer fans, obviously, but it should also be good for producing more top U.S. players who now are able to grow up watching the game's highest levels here.

6. The Premier League's loco last day. Few observers gave Manchester City much of a chance to win the Premier League title after it fell eight points behind Manchester United late in the season, but a City rally and a United collapse set the stage for a crazy final day of the season that doesn't disappoint. With all 10 league games kicking off at the same time and being shown on different FOX and ESPN outlets in the U.S., two hours of insanity ensued, topped off by City's two miraculous goals in added time to beat Queens Park Rangers 3-2 and snatch the title away from crosstown rival United. It doesn't get much better than this.

7. Didier Drogba's fitting Chelsea finale. I've already put forth my nomination for SI Sportsman of the Year: Didier Drogba, the superstar forward from Ivory Coast who was the main figure in Chelsea's Champions League final win over Bayern Munich and whose humanitarian work in his native country has been remarkable.

8. Bruce Arena's Los Angeles revival. The Los Angeles Galaxy are the unquestioned king of MLS after winning its second straight MLS Cup final, but the person most responsible isn't David Beckham or Landon Donovan or Robbie Keane. It's Arena, the man who took over a complete mess in August 2008 and turned L.A. into the class of the league. (Beckham, to his credit, acknowledged Arena's leading role as he left the league on a high note in early December.) Arena's star had dimmed somewhat after the U.S.' discouraging showing in World Cup 2006, and his subsequent lack of real success with the New York Red Bulls, but he has now regained his unquestioned stature as the best U.S. soccer coach ever.

9. The Bradleys break new ground. Both Bob Bradley, the coach, and his son, Michael Bradley, the player, have dared to go to unlikely soccer cultures for Americans, and both have been succeeding. Bob took over as the national team coach of Egypt, and so far he has done an admirable job in a nation that is changing by the hour and a soccer culture that has been shaken to its core by the Port Said stadium disaster last February that killed at least 79 people. Most foreign coaches would have left their jobs by now, but Bradley has continued living in Cairo and has yet to put a foot wrong in earning the respect of his players. If he can lead Egypt to qualification for its first World Cup since 1990, he will be a national hero. Meanwhile, what more can you say about Michael Bradley, who moved to AS Roma and has started making a case for himself as the top U.S. player in Europe.

10. Chris Wondolowski's big adventure. The record had stood since the first season of MLS in 1996, but San Jose's Chris Wondolowski finally became the first to equal Roy Lassiter's all-time mark for goals in a season when he hit No. 27 in Portland in the last game of the regular season. Wondo is one of the great stories in the history of MLS, a U.S.-born player who did little in the league for his first five seasons but has exploded from anonymity to league MVP in three short, amazing years. No player in league history can touch his 61 regular-season goals over a three-year period, a remarkable stretch that proves he's no flash in the pan. What's more, the 29-year-old has the ability to keep up this pace in the years to come.

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