As the Best of 2011 series continues on MLSsoccer.com, we're counting down the 11 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. We'll take a look at one story per day from Dec. 21 until Dec. 31, when we unveil what our editors voted as the Story of the Year in MLS in 2011.
New media editor Fidencio Enriquez takes the countdown to No. 3, where he looks back at the serious injuries that felled three MLS superstars in just over two weeks of action this spring.
The 2011 season was supposed to be the year of the playmaker.
David Ferreira, FC Dallas’ diminutive puppet master, both gracefully and aggressively pulled the strings for his team in 2010 en route to an MLS Cup final appearance and the MLS MVP award. Undoubtedly a breakout season for the Colombian, he was poised for bigger and better things the following season.
by John Strong
Portland vs. Seattle at JELD-WEN Field
I arrived at the stadium early to an amazing buzz, crowds of people milling around for city blocks on either side. There was a huge line that nearly curved its way around the whole park of people waiting to get in. Even before warm-ups started, there was a tremendous noise, a sense of occasion, a feeling that this was the most important sporting event anyone had ever been to.
Here was a game that featured a legitimate rivalry, a packed stadium, a frenetic energy, meaning for not just two sets of fans but two cities. It was on national television, it held relevance for fans across the country, and provided an entertaining and emotionally gut wrenching afternoon, whether for neutral or partisan.
Here we are, in Portland, Oregon, USA - amongst other cities, on other days, for other games - able to marvel at what a packed soccer atmosphere can be. That, for me, was indicative of the leap MLS took in 2011, and will be the image that lasts with me into the future.
Over in nearby Salt Lake City, RSL had a mastermind of their own. Argentine import Javier Morales took control of his team’s midfield last year, orchestrating the attack as Real Salt Lake finished second in the league in 2010. With Morales on their side, it seemed as though RSL would do even better in 2011.
And in the Pacific Northwest, Steve Zakuani, in his sophomore campaign in 2010, lit up the left side of the field for the Seattle Sounders. Ranked No. 4 in MLSsoccer.com’s 24 Under 24 of 2010, the Congolese winger scored 10 goals – roughly 25 percent of the team’s total of 39 – and added six assists that year. 2011 was supposed to be his time to shine.
But as it turned out, 2011 was the year without the playmaker.
On April 22, in his seventh match of 2011, Zakuani became the first major casualty of the season. He was stretchered off the pitch after just nine minutes of play, a victim of a vicious tackle from Colorado Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan that left the Sounders attacker with a broken leg.
MLS suspended Mullan a record 10 games and issued a $5,000 fine. But while the Rapids midfielder was able to step on the pitch once he served his sentence, Zakuani sat out the rest of the season while rehabbing the broken leg. The Sounders carried on more than admirably with newcomer Mauro Rosales leading the way, while Zakuani is still recovering with an eye on the 2012 campaign.
A day after Zakuani’s horrific injury, with the league and its fans still reeling, FC Dallas lost their own midfield magician. With FCD down 1-0 to Vancouver in the second half on April 23, Ferreira exploded along the left sideline in an attempt to create an equalizer. A challenge from defender Jonathan Leathers trapped Ferreira’s foot against the turf and Ferreira was forced to abandon the game.
Hours later, the club revealed he had suffered a broken ankle. He’ll return next year.
"Houston Dynamo's Biggest Fan"
The story unfolded in a very similar way for Morales, though its ending was just a bit happier.
The RSL midfielder helped his team reach the CONCACAF Champions League final and had two goals and one assist to his name in league play until he suffered a fate similar to Ferreira and Zakuani. In his fifth game of the season, a May 7 matchup against Chivas USA, Morales sped by Marcos Mondaini and to the edge of the box when the Goats midfielder slid in from behind, breaking Morales’ left ankle.
As RSL plugged away without their playmaker – and eventually to a top-three overall finish in MLS – Morales went to work off the pitch. His efforts paid off on Sept. 28, when he returned as a second-half sub against the Chicago Fire. Morales started the final four regular-season games and helped the team overcome Seattle in the Western Conference Semifinals before losing to the Galaxy in the Western Conference Championship.
Just around the corner a new year beckons for all three stars, each with a different fate that stunted their season in 2011. And with the new year, a new storyline: Who, from this trio, can stake their claim for Comeback Player of the Year?
WATCH: Javier Morales: Back on the Pitch