- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2008

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, Major League Soccer deserves a little gratitude for closing out its 13th season with a fairly entertaining MLS Cup on Sunday.

Still a work in progress, the league appears to have a stable future compared with past experiments with the game in this country.

The North American Soccer League - America’s longest-running pro league - lasted 17 years, but there’s a big difference between the eclectic NASL and the self-disciplined MLS. NASL never sank deep roots, but the future of MLS is being laid in actual concrete.

MLS soccer teams are constructing their own stadiums - venues that are not too big, not too small, but just right to fit American soccer’s footprint.

Last season, Real Salt Lake moved into its own 20,000-seat stadium in Sandy, Utah. Next season, the New York Red Bulls will open Red Bull Arena, a 25,000-seat facility in Harrison, N.J., that will bring the number of soccer-specific venues in MLS to eight.

The more soccer-specific stadiums that exist, the more the league will flourish as each team works to cultivate and solidify its fan base.

A Philadelphia expansion team will open an 18,500-seat venue in Chester, Pa., in 2010. The Kansas City Wizards finally will have a decent place to play when their own home opens in 2011.

Sadly, there is no news to report on D.C. United’s efforts to get a stadium for its 17,000-plus dedicated fans. It’s looking more likely that a United venue will end up in Prince George’s County, but don’t hold your breath.

The 2008 MLS Cup, meanwhile, turned out to be better than a number of past finals. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the Columbus Crew’s Argentine midfielder, set up three goals to doom the Red Bulls 3-1. As runners-up, the underachieving Red Bulls finally got a slight whiff of glory after years in the wilderness.

The bad news: The 0.7 rating for the game on ABC showed MLS still has work to do.

I’m sure a number of so-called “Euro snobs” at times found themselves tempted to hit the remote for a quick peek over at Fox Soccer Channel. There, the rich cream of AC Milan - Ronaldinho, Kaka, Alexandre Pato, Clarence Seedorf, Andrea Pirlo and Co. - were battling to a 2-2 tie at Torino in Italy’s Serie A.

It was good to see two new teams in the MLS Cup, and it proves that parity reigns in the league.

Now if only a fresh face, not the predictable three - Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea - could win the English Premier League for the first time in 14 seasons. Maybe this is Liverpool’s year.

In handing out the thank-yous for 2008, the accomplishment of the U.S. women’s Olympic team must be noted. The squad, which despite missing key players rebounded from a poor start to win gold in Beijing, downed a talented Brazilian team.

The next big thing on the horizon for the women’s game is the newly formed Women’s Professional Soccer league, which kicks off in April. Thanks must go to Abby Wambach, who despite living a block from the beach in California, decided to return to play for the newest incarnation of the Washington Freedom.

How could Italian coach Fabio Capello not be thanked for resurrecting the English national team, which was down in the dumps after failing to make Euro 2008? England has gone 8-1-1 under Capello, including 4-0 in World Cup qualifying games.

And lastly, a special thanks to the brave men and women working to bring peace in Iraq. The Iraqi national team recently began training on its home soil for the first time since the outbreak of war in 2003. It’s been 20 years since Iraq last played a home game. The team stunned the world by winning the Asian Cup in 2007 and earned a berth in the 2009 Confederations Cup along with the U.S. team.

Notes - Midfielder Brad Evans, who started and helped Columbus win the MLS Cup this week, was picked by the Seattle Sounders in the expansion draft. … Former D.C. United defender Mike Petke, who was waived by the Colorado Rapids, has rejoined the Red Bulls.

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