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Dec 18, 2003

Plenty to see in 2003

What does Jerry Yeagley's going out as an NCAA champion, Preki's magical year as a 40-something, Chicago's Supporters Shield/U.S. Open Cup double under first-year coach Dave Sarachan, the U-17s up-and-down performances at the World Cup, L.A. Galaxy's fall from grace, the U.S. National Team's troubles at the Confederations Cup, and Major League Soccer's outstanding rookie class have in common?

All were great stories that transpired this past year in the world of American soccer ... that didn't happen to make our Top Ten for 2003.

It may have been a post-World Cup year, but there seemed to be more soccer to watch than ever before, whether it was the nine months of MLS, the two youth World Championships, an exhibition tour that featured many of the top clubs in the world and the two major tournaments for the U.S. National Team. It made it quite difficult to compile a top ten.

Yet, starting the list was easy. That's what happens when a young American goalkeeper takes the English Premier League by storm playing for the world's most revered club, which was, by far, the top story of 2003.

1. Tim Howard thrives with Manchester United -- There isn't a newcomer in the entire EPL that has added to his team the way the 24-year-old New Jersey native has since joining the Red Devils this past summer. In 21 games for Man. United that includes Champions League action, Howard has posted 12 shutouts, allowed an average of 0.57 goals per game, and has been one of the driving forces behind the side that now sits a point behind Arsenal at the top of the league table with a 12-3-1 record. With Frenchman Fabien Barthez hardly providing competition, Howard's biggest challenge appears to be starting for the National Team over fellow EPL standouts Brad Friedel (Blackburn) and Kasey Keller (Tottenham).

2. Freddy signs with MLS -- Non-soccer fans -- even non-sports fans -- were asking what's so special about a 14-year-old striker that would make him the object of every high-powered team in the world's desire? The answer: everything. From his burst of speed, to his incredible touch, to his razor-sharp cuts with the ball, to his blessed left foot, to his engaging personality and easy smile, Freddy Adu is the full package. And he happened to choose MLS over any other league in the world. Keep smiling, Don Garber.

3. L.A. Galaxy has a new home -- The Home Depot Center, that is. Since its June opening, the sparkling 27,000-seat HDC has already seen a Women's World Cup, an MLS Cup, and training camps by most every youth National Team grace its pristine grounds. And for good reason. No other stadium in the country offers such an intimate feel, a European flavor and a unique environment like the HDC. May it be copied for years to come.

4. The U.S. Women settle for bronze -- The hardest part to swallow concerning Germany's stunning 3-0 victory over the U.S. back on October 5 was that it was no fluke. Led by the play of Maren Meinert (how did she not win FIFA Player of the Year, by the way?), Birgit Prinz and goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg, the Germans were technically and tactically superior, and were a fitting World Cup champion. A Gold Medal in the 2004 Olympics is now an absolute must for coach April Heinrichs' side to return to its post as the most-feared team in the world, and to send veterans such as Mia Hamm and Joy Fawcett out as winners.

5. ChampionsWorld comes through -- You've got to hand it to Charlie Stillitano. He got fans all over the country to fill-up stadiums for exhibition games by bringing in only the crème de le crème clubs to play matches in July and August. Of the eight games staged, Manchester United played in four of them, never losing a match against Scotland's Celtic, Mexico's Club America, Italy's Juventus and FC Barcelona of Spain. Not only were the games entertaining and a financial success, ChampionsWorld captured the all-important buzz among soccer people in this country, who seemingly came out of the woodwork to watch such a quality product.

6. Brian McBride lights up the nets for Everton -- Four goals and two assists in his first six matches for the Blues over the winter. Think this Yank was worshipped around Liverpool? The 31-year-old striker made even more surprising news by returning to his beloved Columbus Crew in March a few weeks short of his three-month loan, proving his loyalty and commitment to his longtime club as much as he proved his goal-scoring prowess while in the English Premier League.

7. Here comes Chivas -- Cleveland will be playing in Major League Soccer as an expansion franchise in 2005, as well, but Chivas USA is a much bigger story. Jorge Vergara, owner of the famed Mexican team, will expand his empire to the U.S., thus providing a link between the Mexican and U.S. leagues, and hopefully its respective fans. Thus far, Chivas hasn't decided on a location, but it's expected to be either in San Diego or Houston, which will undoubtedly be an instant hit. Vergara, and his wallet, is exactly the type of owner MLS needs to diversify itself, bring in new fans, and provide new ideas for a group of owners that once consisted of mainly three different men.

8. The demise of the WUSA -- We hardly knew ye. And just as we were discovering fresh young players that capture the imagination such as Abby Wambach, Aly Wagner and Cat Reddick, who would have been the top choice in the draft this winter. Forget this barnstorming deal for next summer. How about you take a year to completely re-organize, generate interest and secure the necessary funds to make this a viable league for longer than three years.

9. U-20s success at the World Championships -- The U.S. was robbed by a bad penalty kick call in overtime of the quarterfinals, but a 2-1 loss to pre-tournament favorite Argentina is still quite an achievement. Thomas Rongen's side played as well as any of the 24 teams that qualified for the World Youth Championships at the United Arab Emirates, and demonstrated a style and multi-dimensional attack that speaks well for the future. Standouts such as captain Bobby Convey, lightning fast Eddie Johnson and, yes, Freddy Adu gave scouts from all over the world an eyeful, and nearly lifted the U.S. into the semifinals for the first time since 1989.

10. Two out of three ain't bad for San Jose -- The Chicago Fire may have posted the best regular-season record in Major League Soccer and had a much easier time reaching the final, but the Earthquakes were up to the challenge when everything was on the line to win its second MLS Cup in three years. Though he should have been the league's MVP for the entire season, Landon Donovan once again hoisted the trophy that counts the most, and took home game MVP honors for his two goals in yet another "big players come to play in big games" performance for the 21-year-old striker. Much credit goes out to Frank Yallop, who used this game as a fitting way to ride off into the MLS sunset -- make that snow -- as he heads north to manage the Canadian National Team. Whether his successor is Dominic Kinnear or not, whoever leads San Jose next season will have huge Nike cleats to fill.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.