My favorite MLS stories of 2012
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.
• The Los Angeles Galaxy repeat. Hand it to coach Bruce Arena and the Galaxy for a masterful job of team management that culminated with a second straight MLS Cup. It seemed like the sky was falling after a 3-8-2 start, but Arena stayed the course all the way through a 3-1 MLS Cup final triumph over the Houston Dynamo. Arena pushed all the right buttons, from sacrificing early mistakes by rookies in the name of gaining experience to swallowing a late loss in order to rest his stars. L.A.'s big-money players stepped up when needed the most, none more so than Robbie Keane.
• Chris Wondolowski ties the single-season scoring record. What more is there to say about Wondolowski that hasn't already been said? He matched Roy Lassiter's mark of 27 goals in one year, a number that had stood unmatched since the league's debut season. Such a simply magical campaign is still mind-boggling to me. Though Wondolowski will never be an international star for the U.S., there is something very special to be said about a player who works extremely hard to put himself in the right positions to score goals. I won't be surprised to see him make another run at the single-season record before his career is over. There is no question he will go down as one of the most consistent goal scorers in MLS history.
• Goodbye, Rafa Marquez. Though there have been bigger names who failed to live up to expectations (Lothar Matthaus, Denilson, etc.), I'm not sure any of them were under the microscope quite as prominently as Marquez was in New York. Of course, he mostly brought this on himself. Any chance of fans forgetting the red card he received for trying to take Cobi Jones' head off in the 2002 World Cup quickly vanished, as Marquez seemed to relish playing the villain. That ended with his release from the Red Bulls in December after two forgettable seasons and change.
• Steve Zakuani returns to action. The most touching moment of this MLS season came when the Seattle Sounders winger returned 15 months after suffering a broken leg on a tackle by Brian Mullan of the Colorado Rapids. Zakuani's return fittingly came against Colorado, where an emotional Mullan applauded as Zakuani entered. Zakuani and Mullan then exchanged jerseys after the match. The two seemed to have put both the injury and tackle behind them. Both put together solid 2012 campaigns with Zakuani finally looking a bit like his old self late in the season.
• Houston gets a new home. This year saw the opening of another new soccer-specific stadium, the Dynamo's BBVA Compass Stadium. Houston joined a growing list of clubs investing in the future of the league. The fans were rewarded with a run to the MLS Cup final for a second straight season. And not only do new stadiums attract greater players, but they also raise the standard for supporter groups to establish an identity. Though the MLS atmosphere isn't on par with the top leagues around the world, the growth in passion, knowledge and tifo's is growing, something that's only enhanced by these new venues.
• Rivalries continue to grow. Since Day 1, MLS has prided itself on creating crosstown rivalries that stir up territorial interest between fans. Credit the fans this year for taking those rivalries to a never-before-seen level. The Cascadia Cup between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver took top billing in a season that saw record MLS attendance. Honorable mentions go out to D.C.-New York-Philadelphia, San Jose-L.A., Salt Lake-Colorado and Kansas City-anybody.
• Snowgate. Oh, what could have been. If Hans Backe and the Red Bulls would have simply agreed to take the field against D.C. United on that snowy October day, it would have been the most memorable playoff game in league history. Instead, MLS missed a huge opportunity to add a chapter to one of the league's biggest rivalries on its biggest stage. The true colors of both teams' managers were revealed: Ben Olsen was elevated to a cult hero in D.C., which later eliminated New York. That spelled doom for Backe, who was shown the door a few weeks later.
• MLS All-Stars defeat Chelsea. This means an MLS All-Star team can win the Champions League, right? Not quite. Still, the 3-2 exhibition win -- the All-Stars first over a European club since 2008 -- was a statement for a league trying to justify its global worth (even in the U.S., sadly). It is tough to understand, or even explain, exactly how difficult it is to play in MLS until you actually play in MLS. Though the quality, style of play and tactics are not always a work of art, that's due in large part to the unbelievable work rate and physical demands required. The latter two traits have always been a staple of American soccer. In time, the quality and skill of the league will catch up.
• Goodbye, David Beckham. The most famous/popular/important figure in MLS history ended his stint in the league as a champion. What will life after David Beckham be like for MLS? No one knows, but he absolutely is leaving this league in a much better state than he found it. It was an absolute pleasure for me to call him a teammate, and I will always appreciate his class both on and off the field. I can only hope his world-class technique spilled over to the youth in America. However, his most understated qualities were his ability to read the game, to pressure when it made sense and to create space to make the players around him better. Beckham is truly an icon to the sport, and, thanks to him, MLS is in better shape. I hope he stays true to his word and returns as an owner.
• MLS helps the USMNT in World Cup qualifying. With its back against the wall in World Cup Qualifying, the heavily European-based U.S. roster called on a little help from MLS to advance to the final round of qualifying for 2014. Players like Graham Zusi (Sporting KC), Eddie Johnson (Seattle) and Alan Gordon (San Jose) stepped up this fall to keep the dream alive on the road to Brazil. Johnson scored both goals in a 2-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda in his first U.S. match since 2010, while Zusi's two-way play and work rate made him valuable, especially with Landon Donovan injured. Gordon was the unlikeliest hero of all, as his surprise call-up, first cap and game-winning assist in the win over Antigua and Barbuda capped off a storybook year for the 31-year-old journeyman.