This is my final column of 2021. I figured it best to end on a positive note. It’s been a year (again), and the ball hasn’t dropped just yet.
I hope you’re reading this while spending time with family and friends. For those of you who can’t, for whatever reason, you are not alone. It may not feel like it now, but we have plenty to be thankful for this holiday season.
Most of all, we ought to be thankful we got through 2021 together. That we got a full season of Major League Soccer to thrill/infuriate/astound us every single week is something I will never take for granted ever again. Here’s something I’m thankful for from all 27 clubs as we wait for the calendar to turn…
Rob Valentino. Some people just seem to bring out the best in others. My experience is that those people don’t have to fake caring about the well-being and success of the people surrounding them. Valentino isn’t faking anything, and just as Atlanta United appeared to be on the brink of organizational failure, he assumed the interim tag and helped drag the Five Stripes back from the brink by trusting the players and putting respect and belief first.
I’m not Verde, but I have a ton of respect for the supporters in Austin. Not every expansion season is a dream. They had some nightmares this year, but Q2 Stadium was always a sight to behold.
Gaga Slonina. Who doesn’t love a goalkeeping prodigy? The kid can really play, and it feels like the Fire have no choice but to give a 17-year-old the No. 1 spot after what Slonina did this fall as the youngest starting goalkeeper in MLS history. Plus, his nickname is elite, and he knows it.
“I want Gaga to be like the nickname that goes around and when people hear ‘Gaga’ they think about this unstoppable monster in goal instead of Lady Gaga,” Slonina told NBC Chicago.
You are the only Gaga in my heart, Gabriel.
The revival of Luciano Acosta. It seemed like we might never again see the Acosta who formed half of LuchaRoo after his Paris Saint-Germain transfer fell through and Acosta spent a mostly disappointing year with Atlas. There’s no Roo-type player in Cincinnati – not yet, anyway – but Lucho was back to being his best self in 2021. He’s only 27 and Cincy can only go up from here as the Pat Noonan/Chris Albright era begins.
Winners come in many different packages. You don’t have to spend big on transfer fees and game the international market to win in MLS. The Rapids were down in the dumps a couple of years back, but they found inefficiencies in the domestic market, signed an all-league manager in Robin Fraser and finished atop the Western Conference against all odds/expectations. It’s the sort of story that makes MLS great.
Miguel Berry. It’s hard not to love a reserve forward who comes out of (relatively) nowhere to put up damn near a goal per 90. That’s the stuff cult heroes are made of!
Ricardo Pepi. Need I say more?
Career revivals. Andy Najar is back from what could have been career-ending injuries, and he’s here to absolutely embarrass you if you try to step to him with the ball at his feet. Ola Kamara had a weird 2019 in China, then didn’t show much during a pandemic-shortened 2020 season with D.C. United. Boom, 19 goals in 2021. Julian Gressel was not Julian Gressel last year. He’s back to being his best-crosser-in-MLS/double-digit assist self.
The ambition of new owner Ted Sigal, who is saying all the right things and hiring the right people to return the Dynamo to the heights of 2006-12 (four MLS Cup finals in seven seasons).
Chicharito. The goals. The tears. The humanity. Some people might roll their eyes, but I love the story and the protagonist behind it.
A slow and steady rebuild. In Chris Henderson, I trust. Things are going to change in Miami, but it’s going to take time. I’m not sure 2022 is that time, but I believe in the long-term viability of any project with Henderson at the helm.
Robin Lod. I just like watching Lod play. There’s beauty in the simplicity with which his movement and skill on the ball create opportunities for himself and others.
Djordje Mihailovic and Wilfried Nancy. Both just needed a chance to show what they could do, huh?
Sustained excellence makes history. History isn’t forgotten, even if the Revs came up short with MLS Cup on the line. They made the crayon flag proud with a first-ever Supporters’ Shield and record-setting single-season points total (73).
Might as well just copy and paste what I wrote about the Rapids. Same concept, different conference. That the Union sold two Best XI players and accomplished what they did is something every Philly supporter ought to be thankful for (while fervently wishing for reinforcements this offseason to get them over the hump).
If you believe, then just stand up on your feet. RSL didn’t have an owner. Their head coach dipped mid-season. They still believed, and they didn’t even need to shoot to beat you.
Wondo’s goodbye and Chofis heater games. Chris Wondolowski went out in a way that perfectly represented why so many of us MLS lifers adore him. Meanwhile, Chofis’ Sept. 15 hat trick was a microcosm of the Quakes way. Three incredible goals … in a chaotic loss. You gotta watch San Jose to believe the results sometimes.
Joao Paulo. From the first minute he played for Seattle in the Concacaf Champions League back in February 2020, it was clear the Brazilian was a straight-up baller. He out-thought, out-played and out-everything’d every central midfielder in MLS this year. If you don’t enjoy watching him play this game, you don’t like soccer.
Justin Morrow. What a career that just ended and is just beginning.