Monday, January 2, 2012

Grand Year For Soccer Here & Abroad | MIKE JACOBS COLUMN

Courtesy of the Evansville Courier Press, January 2, 2012

As we put a close on the Year in Soccer for 2011, here are some lasting impressions for fans at the local, national and international levels.

FIFA Women's World Cup: The American women were defeated in dramatic fashion in the final, but not before topping Brazil on June 12 in a stunning World Cup quarterfinal match. Abby Wambach's amazing header in extra time tied the score 2-2 and catapulted the U.S. on to win the penalty shootout. Wambach's goal became the shot heard 'round the world and sparked a soccer frenzy back home.

Japan defeated the U.S. women in a penalty-kick shootout in the final, and the win helped some of the suffering in Japan after the terrible earthquake and tsunami earlier in the year.

VIT and Evansville Soccer Club continue to grow: The Veterans Invitational Tournament, now in its 10th year, is one of the largest revenue generators for the city, bringing in around $5 million.

The tournament, which is hosted by the Evansville Soccer Club, encompassed nearly 250 teams from eight states, consisting of more than 5,000 players.

Major League Soccer set new standards for average attendance: MLS saw its average attendance rise 7.2 percent to 17,872 per game, beating the previous best of 17,406 in its inaugural season of 1996. The strong showing at the gate brought MLS' average above recent seasons for both the NHL (17,132) and NBA (17,323).

That could have a major impact on sports sponsorship and advertising, as well as increasing competition between sports for sponsor opportunities, such as adidas' $200 million pact with MLS.

MLS also fares well on the international stage, ranking 10th among professional leagues in attendance. It is not up there with the English Premier League, but attendance was higher than Brazil's Serie A or the Scottish Premier League — not bad for a league only 16 years old.

'The Beckham Experiment' pays off: Not only was that the title of Grant Wahl's controversial book about MLS bringing the deft passing-marketing machine to the U.S., but it also came to fruition as Becks and Landon Donovan led the Los Angeles Galaxy to the 2011 title.

Beckham is still a commodity as a player and marketing icon, and has been rumored to be leaving MLS to play for Paris Saint-Germain in France. Only time will tell if Beckham will re-sign with the defending MLS champs.

The Manchester derby: Pronounced "DAR-bee," it is the phrase used in Europe to describe two rival teams in proximity. No English derby is stronger than in Manchester, which pits defending English Premier League titleholders Manchester United and crosstown rivals Manchester City. The 2010-11 season heightened the rivalry with matchups that saw Wayne Rooney score on a bicycle kick to defeat City during the regular season in February, and then for City to defeat United in the FA Cup semifinals en route to their FA Cup title in May.

The rivalry has amped up in 2011-12. After United defeated City in the preseason Community Shield exhibition, City smacked United 6-1 in the regular season. With a return leg to Manchester City remaining for the teams tied atop the standings, this could be as exciting an EPL season as we've ever seen.

'El Classico': Where the Manchester derby has grown in popularity, the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona is possibly the greatest in sports.

The nastiness intensified in 2011. Due to the final of the Copa Del Rey and two meetings in the UEFA Champions League, Barcelona and Real Madrid played each other four times in 18 days. The games were closely contended and marred by unsportsmanlike behavior. Madrid coach Jose Mourinho grabbed and twisted the ear of a Barcelona assistant coach, and was red-carded in the UEFA Champions League. Barcelona went on to win the Champions games series, while Madrid won the Copa Del Rey. In league games, the teams tied 1-1 in April but Barcelona won 3-1 in December.

With arguably the two greatest players on the planet represented — Lionel Messi for Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo for Real Madrid — "El Classico" always commands the world's stage.

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