- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

American soccer continued to make strides in 2003.

Major League Soccer opened a soccer-specific stadium in Carson, Calif., signed its first homegrown “superstar” and traded an American goalie for $4 million to the biggest club on the planet.

While it still bleeds money and desperately needs to expand, the 8-year old American league is fast becoming a respected soccer entity on the world scene.

In June, the 27,000-seat Home Depot Center was inaugurated as the home of the Los Angles Galaxy and is expected to be the model for future soccer stadiums in America.

“We now have our own Wembley Stadium,” Eric Wynalda said.

On the player front, MLS pulled off a stunning coup in November by signing 14-year-old Freddy Adu, who has been heralded as the next Pele or Maradona. It was no secret some of the most prominent teams in Europe had been monitoring Adu, who lives in Potomac and came to America when he was 9 through an immigration lottery.

“A blind man on a galloping horse can see his talent,” former D.C. United coach Ray Hudson said.

The media buzz generated by the multimillion dollar signing was phenomenal. The youngster played his part to perfection and pulled off a fine performance on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” Adu was assigned to D.C. United and no doubt will sell some tickets for the struggling franchise.

While it didn’t create the same media attention as the Adu show, perhaps MLS’ biggest achievement was trading MetroStars goalie Tim Howard to mighty Manchester United, the biggest sports franchise in the world. The $4.1 million trade seemed to come out of nowhere.

The New Jersey goalie certainly was known as a quality player, but he hardly had played at the national level. Then, in a matter of weeks over the summer, the 24-year-old suddenly was part of the most famous club in the world, replacing French World Cup star Fabien Barthez in the Red Devils’ starting lineup.

“Tim Howard has been the star of the show this season,” Manchester coach Alex Ferguson told the Independent yesterday. “He is quick, alert, agile, courageous and has speed.”

On the local front, D.C. United made the playoffs for the first time in four years, but after a disastrous postseason, two-year coach Ray Hudson was let go. Hudson struggled to mold an eclectic bunch of players, including a number of combustible personalities who needed some serious counseling.

The British-born coach was hampered by major injuries to key players and never got to field the team he really wanted. It also seemed like he was forced to play Marco Etcheverry, a player who maybe should have moved on a season or two back. United soon will name a new coach who will be under pressure to build a team around the league’s highest-paid player, Adu.

The MLS playoffs were spectacular this season, with the San Jose Earthquakes and Chicago Fire saving their best form for last. The Earthquakes beat the Fire 4-2 for the title, with Landon Donovan scoring twice in one of the best MLS title games.

In the women’s game, the Washington Freedom won the Women’s United Soccer Association title 2-1 over the Atlanta Beat on an Abby Wambach goal. Sadly the 3-year-old WUSA folded days before the Women’s World Cup kicked off in America.

An amazing German team won the Women’s World Cup, beating Sweden 2-1 after extra time in a fantastic final at the Home Depot Center. The defending champion Americans, looking a little older and a little slower, beat Canada 3-1 to take third place. Overall, the Women’s World Cup was a soccer treat with some excellent games and fine sportsmanship.

Ultimately, the biggest soccer story of the year was David Beckham’s transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid for $43 million. The England captain’s move was blockbuster news worldwide.

Beckham’s arrival at Real Madrid coincided with the signing of coach Carlos Queiroz, who coached the MetroStars in 1996. Queiroz replaced the unfortunate Vicente Del Bosche, who was fired after winning two Champions League and two Spanish League titles in four years at Madrid.

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