As the Best of 2012 series continues on MLSsoccer.com, we’re counting down the 12 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. We’ll take a look at one story per day from Dec. 19 until Dec. 30, when we unveil what our panel of 20 editors, writers, videographers and statistics specialists voted as the Story of the Year in MLS in 2012.
Managing editor Jonah Freedman recaps the LA Galaxy’s somewhat unlikely run to a second consecutive MLS Cup, which comes in at No. 4 on our list. Despite an incredibly slow start coupled with a damning injury to Omar Gonzalez, the Galaxy rebounded in late summer and began their push. The rest, as they say, was history.
When people talk about legends in sports, it’s about the lasting impression you leave. Those singular moments of glory make for nice photo-op moments, but they’re never recounted as much as your legacy and how people tell your tale in the years to come.
So when the LA Galaxy started the 2012 season with an astonishingly bad 3-8-2 record, many were wondering if they had any pride in their accomplishments of 2011, a wire-to-wire show of dominance in which they won a second straight Supporters’ Shield and, at last, put a crowning achievement on the David Beckham Era with an MLS Cup title.
Steve Zakuani vs. the LA Galaxy
My moment of the year came in the final game of the season for us against the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference Championship. Steve Zakuani (above) played an incredible game that night. His play in that game showed everybody that he was back and he was as dangerous as he was before he was injured.
That was truly the first time, he will tell you himself, that he was back. That really stands out in my mind on a team level because everybody was invested in his full comeback. It also helped show us how we are going to improve for next year.
I think everybody seeing Steve playing the way he did in that game was humongous for our team and also for him.
This past spring, they were anything but that dominating team. Beckham and Landon Donovan looked tired and often disinterested. The defense looked overwhelmed, unable to cope with the preseason loss of Omar Gonzalez to a torn ACL. Robbie Keane and Edson Buddle literally couldn’t get out of each other’s way. They were dumped out the CONCACAF Champions League by Toronto FC, for crying out loud.
It was the MLS version of The Hangover, and not even Mike Tyson could have provided enough comic relief.
But as the calendar turned to summer, and the situation began to look dire, the champs decided they’d had enough. Bruce Arena challenged the big names on the roster to take some accountability. And they did, big time.
Beckham, especially, told the locker room it needed to be better. And he led by example, putting up one of the best seasons statistically of his six-year run in MLS.
Donovan, fighting exhaustion, chipped in nine goals and 14 assists. Keane returned from the Euros like a man possessed, scoring 13 goals in 19 games.
Gonzalez returned to the fold faster than anyone expected, and the Galaxy back line came together, with five clean sheets in the team’s final 10 games.
The Galaxy rebounded stunningly from their horrid start and became the best team in MLS from summer on, going 13-4-4 to close the season.
Still, that slow start doomed LA to the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, relegating them to an extra game in the Knockout Round against Vancouver. What happened next was one of the most stunning runs in recent playoff memory.
After rallying past the Whitecaps, they flattened the Supporters’ Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes in the Western Semifinals with a three-goal performance in the second leg in Northern California. Then they plastered the Seattle Sounders 3-0 in the first leg of the Western Conference Championship, giving them a healthy cushion on their way to their third MLS Cup appearance in four years.
They finished the job 10 days later, on the same pitch, against the same opponent whom they vanquished for their 2011 title. There was Beckham again kissing the Cup, leaving MLS a winner. Donovan, who hinted at an extended break, lifted his fifth career championship.
But perhaps the most telling image was that of Gonzalez grinning ear to ear after being named MVP of the match for his timely equalizing goal and crack defending. Eleven months ago, he admitted, it seemed like an accomplishment that was physically impossible.
Many Galaxy fans would say the same thing about their team winning a consecutive title. No one’s debating their legacy anymore.