Every MLS season is special and full of terrific moments, but 2016 seemed especially stocked with them. From an anniversary that may be bigger in part because it wasn’t heavily celebrated to a Legend returning to the league, to a prodigy hitting the field, a star fighting cancer and that doesn’t include the playoffs!
So let’s count down the Top 10 moments of the 2016 MLS season. In the event that your favorite moment didn’t make this list, feel free to add it in the comment section.
10. MLS reaches its 20th anniversary
Ok, this one is a tiny stretch for being considered a moment since 2016 was the 20th anniversary of the first MLS season. Yes, there was some commemoration, but it was rather muted. It’s still worth marking, as a start-up league and as a first-division pro soccer league that is still going strong probably stronger than ever 20 years in.
And here’s a stream of the first MLS game if you want to take a walk down memory lane.
9. Charlie Davies beats cancer
Most MLS fans are fully familiar with Charlie Davies‘ backstory: promising US national team striker, a survivor of a deadly car accident, and then a long road to reclaiming professional success. 2016 brought a whole new dimension to his story. After his twins were born three months premature in March, Davies was diagnosed with liposarcoma in April, and secretly battled the disease until revealing his story in July, announcing he was in remission and ready to return to the field.
Davies made his triumphant return July 31 for the New England Revolution, and while he was traded a week later to the Philadelphia Union, it’s safe to say all of MLS was glad to have him back on the field.
8. Lodeiro “phones” home
Nicolas Lodeiro took MLS by storm after joining the Seattle Sounders this summer, arguably one of the biggest reasons the Cascadia team went from the doldrums to MLS Cup. The Uruguayan was a study of quiet concentration most of the time, but there was a touching moment after he scored his first MLS goal on August 14. Lodeiro pulled off his boot and mimicked a phone call in celebration, saying after the game he was thinking of his father, whom he called when far from home.
7. Kljestan reaches 20 assists
Reaching 20 assists in a season has been a quixotic quest in MLS over the years. After Carlos Valderrama notched 26 in 1996 (and not to take away from the Colombian maestro, but it’s widely acknowledged assists were awarded rather generously prior to 2003) no player had broken the threshold until this year, when New York Red Bulls playmaker Sacha Kljestan notched his 20th helper of the season in the regular-season finale against Philadelphia. The next individual statistical frontier in MLS? Having a player surpass the 27-goal single season record, now shared by Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips.
6. Donovan returns, scores
Landon Donovan retired in 2014 on top of his game, winning MLS Cup and breaking the MLS all-time scoring mark that year, all while still relatively young. But the itch came back in 2016, and with the LA Galaxy beset by injuries late in the season, Donovan came out of retirement, and his return stretch was probably highlighted by his goal in a road draw against Sporting Kansas City in September. Sporting fans may have taunted Donovan with “AARP!” chants in that game, but who really got the last laugh?
5. Amarikwa’s strike
Listen, Shkelzen Gashi might have won Goal of the Year, and it was a good goal, no question. But San Jose Earthquakes forward Quincy Amarikwa had the most audacious, gravity-defying strike of the MLS season.
4. Jordan Morris signs to the Sounders
This year proved winning all around for one of the league’s most promising rookies — and not just because he capped it off with a Cup. The Seattle Sounders’ signing of Jordan Morris proved a watershed moment, marking both the most lucrative Homegrown contract in league history, and a turning point. Stanford star Morris drew serious interest abroad, including a trial period with the Bundesliga’s Werder Bremen. Even Jurgen Klinsmann, then the head coach of the US Men’s National Team, hinted he should head to Europe.
But Morris, a native of Mercer Island, Washington, instead decided to sign with his hometown team — to the Sounders’ benefit, proving a standout and notching a healthy number of goals in both the regular and post-season. His mettle even proved enough to continue to draw caps with the USMNT, something likely to continue after lifting that Cup. (But will he still live at home, as he said he would?)
We have to note here, too, the importance of the Whitecaps’ Alphonso Davies making his pro debut this season at 15 years old. Some observers — especially in Vancouver — claim that’s an even bigger deal than Morris. We’ll see in 2017.
3. Toronto-Montreal playoff game a match for the ages
Another game in which we stretch the definition of “moment” a bit, but it’s for a good reason. Was the Toronto FC-Montreal Impact Eastern Conference Championship Leg 2 match a perfect game? No. You can pick apart the lax defending here and there. But when a game ends 5-2, features numerous moments (mostly goals) to keep you on the edge of your seat, leaves viewers genuinely excited to watch 30 minutes of extra time, and then follows through on the promise of a thrilling extra-time period? Pure gold. The game was so full of maximized moments that it may be worth your time to go back and watch the whole thing again.
2. The Save
If you’re a Toronto FC fan, Stefan Frei’s late save on Jozy Altidore’s header in MLS Cup, which kept the game scoreless, will sting forever. If you’re a Sounders fan, you’ve probably already gotten a tattoo to commemorate the moment. No matter if you’re a partisan, Frei’s save was an iconic moment of the 2016 season and in the history of MLS Cup, a moment when a shot that seemed destined to break the deadlock was parried aside, when time seemed to slow down for a few brief seconds as Frei stretched to keep the ball out of the net. Looking back in 5, 10, 20 years, this will definitely be one of the most memorable moments from this season.
1. Orlando City tries to lift community after shooting
The Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando in June was an absolute tragedy, and understandably an occasion that shook the community to its core. While soccer wasn’t going to bring back the 49 who died in the shooting, Orlando City helped lead the local charge to offer commemoration of the victims and a measure of healing for Orlando, beginning with their first game following the tragedy. From the pregame events to the game stopping in the 49th minute for a moment of silence for the victims, the team handled a difficult situation with aplomb and showed the value of soccer in an unimaginable time.