Looking back at a wild 2009

With 2009 almost in the bag, it’s time for our annual look back at the year that was.

As a prelude to 2010 and the upcoming World Cup, this past year was certainly eventful.

It was also predictable — many of the things American soccer fans have come to assume will happen, did indeed come to pass. And the things that continue to bedevil not only American but global soccer, remained nearly immovable.

Not one of the big issues confronting the global game — the growth of organized crime and match-fixing, the escalating referee imbroglios, and the financial hardships facing soccer leagues and clubs around the globe — were directly addressed by the game’s governors.

But from an on-field point of view, there was also plenty to delight even the most jaded soccer fan.

The spectacular play of Spain’s Barcelona, the thrilling, if flukey, win by the United States over Spain, and the unlikely success of Seattle in its inaugural season in MLS all stand as reminders that the game is, at its heart, a source of surprise and wonder on any given day.

THE USA

Let’s review the USA first. The United States reached its first FIFA final ever. And yet, they also lost their regional hegemony. They finished the year qualified for the World Cup — and yet remain a deeply troubled team. How can this be?

By defeating Spain in the FIFA Confederations Cup semifinal, the Americans reached the championship game that gained them an unexpected level of national attention. The timing couldn’t have been better, falling in mid-June when the rest of the U.S. sports scene is relatively quiet.

Suddenly, folks who rarely pay attention to U.S. soccer were scrambling to talk about players they didn’t know from Adam, in a sport they only grudgingly acknowledge. Sports radio had a lot of long pauses that week as folks tried to explain exactly who was about to challenge mighty Brazil for a major prize.

Sadly, the U.S. ultimately faltered on the big stage. Had they merely lost, no one would have been shocked, but by taking a 2-0 halftime lead, then collapsing completely in the final 45 minutes, the Americans managed to both succeed and fail at the same time.

Unfortunately, that was to be the theme of the year.

On the one hand, the USA played tough opponents on the road. That’s a major plus, and the USSF is to be applauded for scheduling them. But, by losing those matches — as was the case much of the time — fans were merely reminded that the national team is far from a winning product outside the comforts of home.

Adding insult to injury, two of the biggest losses came right here in CONCACAF. Qualifying for the World Cup was never really in question but the team’s failure to win in Costa Rica and Mexico continued.

And then there was the 5-0 hammering in the Gold Cup final at Giants Stadium, which allowed Mexico to reclaim control of a region that the Americans had dominated for nearly a decade.

Some cheerleaders would like to excuse away that loss, putting the blame for it on a ‘B’ team (ignoring the fact that Mexico didn’t field a full-strength side either). But in one of the biggest events this year, much of the media, and an increasing number of fans, didn’t buy that line.

That is one of the biggest changes that U.S. Soccer and the national team will have to confront. For the first time ever, people are paying attention to the team. Manager Bob Bradley has been criticized from all corners for his team’s standard of play.

Players were singled out by reporters, ex-national team players — and even some normally friendly TV partners in public. This is standard practice in every other major sport — but it’s a brave new world for a soccer team and a sport that has been coddled for a generation.

On the field, 2009 revealed a U.S. team still lacking in depth, tactical awareness and too often without a prevailing style of play. When injuries and the MLS playoffs devastated the roster late in the year, the absence of legitimate replacements for Charlie Davies, Jay DeMerit, Oghuchi Oneywu and Landon Donovan exposed a fragile side that lost in Slovakia and Denmark.

Will 2010 be any better? It’s hard to say. The Americans got one of the best draws in their history, but much seems to depend on the recovery of DeMerit and Oneywu, and the health of Donovan, the must-have man in midfield.

REFEREEING AND REPLAY

FIFA got absolute hard and fast evidence that it must introduce television replay into the highest level of the game … and still managed to pretend that world is flat.

FIFA’s failure to come to grips with two major errors by referees exposed the game to ridicule and threatens the integrity of the sport.

No, we’re not talking about the latest spate of match-fixing in Europe – it was Brazil vs. Egypt in the Confed Cup and France vs. Ireland in WC qualifying that left Sepp Blatter and his buddies with egg on their faces.

You recall both incidents …

Brazil got a game-winning penalty kick after replays (seen in the stadium by the fourth official) caught the Egyptian defender’s handball on the line. FIFA claimed that didn’t happen, that the referee simply corrected his mistake with help from his aides. Right.

The proof is in the fact that FIFA took the TV monitor off the 4th official’s table so such a ‘correction’ couldn’t happen again.

In France, the whole world saw Thierry Henry handle the ball to set up the goal that qualified the French and eliminated the Irish. The only folks who missed it were officiating the match.

The Irish bleated, the media had a field day, FIFA called an extraordinary meeting and – guess what! – announced that TV replay would not be used in South Africa.

Premier League fans can point to a host of other blunders — the infamous ‘beach ball goal’ that sunk Liverpool, the offside calls that routinely rob teams of perfectly good goals, such as last week’s howler for Burnley against Arsenal — and yet little changes.

Maybe the International Board, which meets in March and is the arbiter of the laws, will offer a different view. At least the item is on the agenda. But don’t bet on it.

MLS AND SEATTLE

MLS had a wonderful success story in Seattle … and still finished another year as far off the mainstream sports radar as ever. If the management and players union screw up their contract negotiations, the future could be dimmer for the league.

It was however a very good year in Seattle, with full stands greeting a playoff-qualifying expansion team and a terrific MLS Cup final environment.

Elsewhere? Well, even Commissioner Don Garber had to admit some of his markets are troubled. How could they not be, considering the USA is still deep in the Great Recession?

So, MLS crowds were down, but that hardly unexpected in a summer when even baseball took a 6 percent attendance hit, and a fall when NFL stadiums often aren’t sold out.

The failure of television ratings to improve, however, remains a constant concern for MLS. While interest in soccer continued to grow on our shores, folks were not tuning in to see how the Colorado Rapids would fare against the New England Revolution. They tune in to see European clubs, and the competition MLS faces from abroad is only gaining in momentum.

The David Beckham saga – would he or wouldn’t he return? Would he or wouldn’t he play hard if he did come back to Los Angeles? – had a life of its own, especially when Grant Wahl’s controversial book, The Beckham Experiment, revealed how dysfunctional things really were.

Beckham, to his credit, put his head down, silenced the critics and helped the Galaxy to the MLS Cup final. Bruce Arena won coach of the year recognition for managing the soap opera and Donovan was league MVP.

Real Salt Lake, though, won an unexpected title on PK’s in the final, proof positive that MLS has parity if not excellence among its teams.

Philadelphia comes in next season, Portland and Vancouver after that and perhaps Montreal a year later. All in all, the business of soccer continues to evolve — even if the American player development system seems more threadbare than ever.

BARCELONA AND THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Lionel Messi and Barcelona won the European Cup with a dominant final performance over Manchester United as the UEFA Champions League proved once again that it is the world’s premier tournament.

Barcelona’s Champions League victory was not without merit or controversy. Pep Guardiola’s Spanish League and Spanish Cup champions completed their remarkable triple on a night when everything clicked for them.

But there will always be Chelsea supporters who believe that Barca never should have been in Rome and that the final should have been a repeat of the 2008 match won by United on penalties over the Stamford Bridge Blues.

At issue were the final minutes of the second leg of the semifinal in London when Chelsea claimed at least two penalties, got neither, then suffered the ultimate agony when Andres Iniesta scored the Barcelona goal in stoppage time that eliminated the Blues.

Didier Drogba protested so vigorously that UEFA suspended him for the start of this year’s Champions League.

The controversy aside, the Champions League again offered the highest level of the game – far more competitive than many of the World Cup qualifiers.

THE PREMIER LEAGUE

The Premier League, now showing regularly on all three of the big U.S. television sports networks, expanded its grip on the global club game, becoming must-see TV even in the early morning hours.

The Prem’s remarkable grip on American soccer fans was obvious this summer when touring Chelsea (amongst other top European sides) attracted huge crowds.

On the field back in England, not much has changed. Aston Villa made a strong run for a Champions League spot but faded down the stretch. Brad Friedel’s team is challenging again this season but nothing anybody does seems able to break the Chelsea-Manchester United hold on the title and most of the other honors, as well.

The jury remains out on the big money moves at Manchester City and the resurgence of Tottenham Hotspur bears watching. Arsenal and Liverpool, though, have not lost their positions in the top four as yet, however.

YET TO COME

As we mentioned, FIFA has not yet taken adequate steps to stanch the movement of Asian gambling syndicates into the world’s game. A major match-fixing scandal, with some 300 participants, involving 200 games — and 12 European Cup matches — broke in late November.

At press time, little has been done about the issues raised by this massive criminal case other than the tossing of a few small teams onto the fire.

The fact is, this is the third major match-fixing scandal in as many years, and even though the governors of the game profess outrage at each incident, their words and excuses are sounding increasingly hollow.

It is clear that match-fixing, like doping, is not the work of a few ‘bad apples,’ or ‘rogue’ players, but a systemic, wide-ranging problem which threatens to destroy the game itself.

Also unresolved are the many financial problems sinking teams at all levels. From the lower divisions of Italy and Germany, to so-called giants of the game like Glasgow Rangers and Liverpool, clubs are drowning in debt.

Despite what some might tell you, the problems are not solely caused by player salaries and the lack of a hard cap — though that certainly would help ease some of the pain.

Instead, much of the blame rests on club owners’ irresponsible lending strategies, which leveraged clubs to levels that are simply unsupportable.

Fixing these two issues will require deep and painful changes in soccer’s culture, and far more than the usual platitudes issued from Zurich.

Whether or not they can be made at all, is a question for next year.

Jamie Trecker is a senior soccer writer for FoxSoccer.com.