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Jan 3, 2010

O'Brien's goal highlights U.S. soccer's decade

What would have happened if Jurgen Klinsmann had finally stopped playing hard to get? What might have been if Torsten Frings hadn't gotten away with his naughty little handball in that U.S.-Germany quarterfinal in the 2002 World Cup? What might have been if Los Angeles Galaxy ownership had not aggressively driven forward on Major League Soccer's critical stadium initiative?

We'll never know. But we do know that those moments, when critical decisions were made or momentous deeds were done, were among the most influential in shaping the past decade in domestic soccer.

With apologies to the Hope Solo's tirade and a massive United States win over Spain in this past summer's Confederations Cup -- those were talkers, for sure, but perhaps not shape-shifters in the big picture -- here are the decade's most meaningful moments:

10. Claudio Reyna's crumple: Thanks to a heroic effort against Italy, the U.S. still had a chance to sneak into the second round of the 2006 World Cup through the opening-round finale against Ghana. But Reyna, who had been so great for the U.S. program for so long, had a bad moment at the worst possible time. He crumpled awkwardly, and down he went, giving away possession and leaving Kasey Keller exposed. Ghana scored and went on to a 2-1 win, a result with far-reaching consequences. The United States was eliminated after the loss, and Bruce Arena was dismissed as coach shortly thereafter.

9. MLS teams fold: Nobody wanted to see Major League Soccer's relatively small footprint shrink even more with the league just 6 years old. But in 2001, weak ownership in Miami and an underperforming league-run side in Tampa Bay were dragging down everything else. MLS officials took the short-term PR hit. Never mind the shrill cries of "Here we go again; we all knew pro soccer would fail." Ultimately, MLS had to shed the weak in order to grow stronger, and the decision in the winter of 2001-02 allowed that to happen. The league will compete with 16 sides this year, with two more set to join in 2011-- and every new club now is far stronger than Miami or Tampa Bay ever was.

8. WUSA launches: Yes, WUSA's life span was far too short after its ballyhooed launch in April 2001. Awash in red ink, it folded after just three seasons. But the moment was meaningful just the same: the creation of the world's first fully professional women's soccer league. Operations were suspended in September 2003, but enough had been learned that the WPS -- the next incarnation of women's pro soccer, which launched in the spring with far-more-humble ambitions -- now has a fighting chance.

7. Brian McBride scores against Mexico: We could mention so many important moments from that remarkable 2002 World Cup performance. Any of the other goals in the opening win over Portugal, for instance, or Clint Mathis' big strike in a draw against South Korea. But McBride's first-half blow on June 17 in Jeonju, South Korea, stunned Mexico and drove the United States into the second round. Landon Donovan added another goal later, but it was McBride's well-constructed goal, assisted ably by Reyna and Josh Wolff, that served as the catalyst for it all.

6. Home Depot Center opens: It seems so hard to believe now as an MLS season approaches in which 10 of MLS 16 teams will compete in stadiums built expressly for soccer. But as the calendar turned to 2003, just one team played in a soccer-specific venue; most of the rest were relegated to renter status in ill-fitting, often oversized parks. The Home Depot Center opened in June that year, and the $150 million facility was immediately so much more than the country's first soccer stadium built with splash and affluence. It was and still is a metaphor for pro soccer's permanence and staying power in a major U.S. market. The entertainment partnerships and diversity of events scheduled there helped demonstrate how revenue could be squeezed from these medium-sized venues. Soccer purists may bristle at the multiuse concept, but cash is cash, and the approach caught other owners' attention, speeding the pace of stadium development.

5. Klinsmann says no: It's impossible to say whether the men's national team program would be in better or worse shape if Germany's Klinsmann had finally said "yes" to Sunil Gulati back in 2006 as the U.S. Soccer president sought a replacement for Arena. Gulati made a grand run at hiring the quirky-but-highly regarded manager but finally had to sever the effort and move on to his next choice. Klinsmann simply wanted more control than U.S. Soccer was willing to concede. So Bob Bradley got the position instead, and plenty of fans here remain unimpressed, still muttering under their breath about what might have been.

4. Major League Soccer's contract with ESPN: TV and sports have long been inextricably linked in this country. Simply put, big-time pro leagues can't exist without TV money. So the league's stability increased dramatically on Aug. 4, 2006, when Major League Soccer confirmed that the league would receive rights fees for the first time. "The new relationship has a very significant and positive impact on the economics of soccer in this country," MLS commissioner Don Garber said at the time. "Like all major leagues in the U.S., we're out of the risk business."

3. Handball on the German line: It wasn't as globally momentous as Thierry Henry's recent, infamous handball moment, but Torsten Frings' unseen handball -- well, unseen by referee Hugh Dallas, at least -- was certainly consequential for U.S. Soccer fortunes. Down 1-0 in the World Cup 2002 quarterfinal against Germany, Gregg Berhalter struck a powerful volley off a corner kick. Frings, positioned at the back post, used his arm to see the ball safely away, ensuring that the Germans, rather than the Americans, marched on into the semifinal in Asia.

2. David Beckham signs with MLS: Did it work? Was it worth the money? Will history see it as a watershed moment that nudged soccer past a sticking point in cultural acceptance, or will it be seen as just a stunt that simply made the L.A. Galaxy some money in the short term? We'll have to wait and see about his addition and the entire designated-player gambit, but who could deny the dust storm of conversation the Beckham experiment has kicked up? It all began on a remarkable day in January 2007 with the shocking announcement that soccer's most illustrious, most iconic figure would be joining little ol' MLS.

1. John O'Brien scores against Portugal: How ironic that such a momentous occasion, just minutes into the U.S. opener of the 2002 World Cup, happened in the wee small hours when so many U.S. fans were either asleep or too sleepy to believe their eyes. And yet there he was, O'Brien, the American midfielder whose career would end soon thereafter, scoring implausibly from close range to launch an upset over the highly touted Portuguese. It also launched the incredible 2002 World Cup dash, which ended so tantalizingly close to a semifinal appearance.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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