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Dec 24, 2008

Women top the charts with effort in 2008

"Change" was the byword in this country's political arena in 2008, and it could certainly be applied to the U.S. soccer scene as well. Sure, there were some developments that had an air of familiarity about them. The U.S. women won yet another Olympic title and, as expected, the U.S. men safely navigated their way through the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying. But closer inspection reveals the paths taken by these and other teams weren't always conventional. The Columbus Crew experienced league championship glory for the first time, while the New York Red Bulls' run to the MLS Cup final saw them win two playoff rounds, or one more than they had in their entire history prior to this season.

So as the clock winds down on 2008, here are the year's most memorable stories, even if in some cases the changes were of the more subtle variety.

1. U.S. women win Olympic gold

After enduring World Cup humiliation in 2007, the U.S. women looked set for more of the same when they opened up their Olympic campaign with a 2-0 loss to Norway. But head coach Pia Sundhage's insistence on a more possession-based approach paid off as the Yanks reached the final, meeting World Cup nemesis Brazil. Despite being outplayed for long stretches by the Samba Queens, the U.S. defended resolutely, led by Christie Rampone and goalkeeper Hope Solo, eventually winning the match 1-0 on Carli Lloyd's extra time strike. Redemption never tasted so sweet.

2. The Crew make it a double -- and have the hangover to prove it

With league MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto at the controls, Columbus went from playoff spectators in 2007 to Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup winners a year later, becoming the first team to claim both prizes since the 2002 Los Angeles Galaxy. The Crew didn't have much time to celebrate their first MLS championship, however. No sooner had the champagne been consumed when head coach Sigi Schmid, irate at the drawn-out nature of his contract negotiations, bolted the newly minted champs for expansion Seattle.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Sweden
Jan. 24, 2009
Home Depot Center; Carson, Calif.
8:30 p.m. ET

3. The Red Bulls' improbable run

Say what you will about New York's mediocre regular season and woeful road form, the Red Bulls delivered when it counted, reversing more than a decade of playoff futility. Things didn't look good heading into the postseason, especially with defender Jeff Parke and goalkeeper Jon Conway suspended for taking performance enhancing drugs. But New York shocked defending league champion Houston 3-0 away to win their aggregate series 4-1, and then prevailed on the road again in the conference finals against Real Salt Lake 1-0. Alas, the MLS Cup final proved to be one game too many, as the Red Bulls fell to Columbus 3-1. But at least the run gave New York's long suffering fans something to finally cheer about.

4. U.S. men's Olympic flameout

The news wasn't all good from Beijing, as the U.S. men set a new standard for snatching elimination from the jaws of advancement. After dispatching Japan 1-0 in their opener, an inspired performance against the Netherlands had the Americans leading 2-1 deep into second-half stoppage time. But Gerald Sibon's free kick under a jumping U.S. wall allowed the Dutch to equalize, preventing the Americans from clinching a spot in the medal round. With both Michael Bradley and Freddy Adu suspended for the group finale against Nigeria, the U.S. was reduced to 10 men just three minutes into the match due to an ill-advised elbow from defender Michael Orozco. The Americans battled bravely, and trailed only 2-1 late in the match, but when Charlie Davies' header bounced off the bar, the Americans were eliminated, and left to wonder, "What if?"

5. The Galaxy crater

Landon Donovan had a season for the ages, scoring 20 goals and adding nine assists. Edson Buddle augmented the attack with 15 goals of his own. So where did that leave Los Angeles? In a tie for last place with expansion San Jose, and only its better head-to-head record allowed L.A. to officially escape the cellar. The defense was especially inept, conceding a league-worst 62 goals. Ruud Gullit's coaching tenure with L.A. lasted a paltry 19 league games. As for David Beckham, a sharp start to the season devolved into a mediocre campaign, after which he voted with his feet and struck up a loan deal with AC Milan. It's now up to Bruce Arena to clean up the mess.

6. U.S. men progress to the hex

Some will insist the Americans' 0-0 friendly draw with Argentina back in June merits inclusion, and Tim Howard's display in goal on that day was easily the performance of the year. But of far greater importance was reaching the last round of World Cup qualifying, a task in which the U.S. endured some rough moments. The key match was a 1-0 road win over Guatemala that was more street fight than soccer game, but the Yanks prevailed, putting them in control for the remainder of the round.

7. Jozy's fat fee

As if further proof were needed of the increasing demand for American players, erstwhile Red Bulls' forward Jozy Altidore secured a midseason transfer to Spanish side Villareal, landing an MLS-record $10 million fee in the process. While playing time hasn't come easily for the U.S. international, he appears to be making steady progress, and even notched his first La Liga goal on Nov. 1, in a 4-1 win over Athletic Bilbao. With the U.S. national team still struggling for goals from the run of play, Altidore's continued development could have a huge say in how the Americans' perform in 2009.

8. MLS lays an egg in the CONCACAF Champions League

The revamped CCL was supposed to give MLS teams a better chance of winning CONCACAF's club championship. With the group phase taking place in late summer instead of late winter, the league's primary excuse for not performing better -- namely that its teams were short of full fitness -- was removed. Instead, the small roster sizes, injuries, and the priority of securing spots in the MLS playoffs undermined their efforts. Both New England and Chivas USA were eliminated in the preliminary round, while D.C. United fell in the group stage. Only Houston -- easily the deepest team among the MLS participants -- managed to progress to the quarterfinals, along with two sides (Montreal and Puerto Rico) from the supposedly inferior USL-1.

9. Donovan's two milestones

Almost lost in the shuffle was the fact Donovan reached two international marks in 2008. Back on Jan. 19, Donovan's penalty kick in a 2-0 win over Sweden saw him surpass Eric Wynalda's U.S. record of 34 international goals. Later in the year, the L.A. Galaxy forward made his 100th international appearance in a friendly against Argentina, becoming the 11th U.S. player -- and the fourth-youngest in the world -- to reach that target.

10. U.S. women claim the U-20 World Cup

If you like the present state of the U.S. women's national team, its future looks even brighter after the U-20 side claimed the World Cup in December, defeating North Korea 2-1. Sydney Leroux claimed the Golden Shoe with five goals; she also took home the Golden Ball as the tournament's top player. Teammate Alex Morgan chipped in with four goals, including the game-winner in the final, and was named the winner of the Silver Ball as the competition's second-best player.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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