For all of the drama swirling around MLS stars in 2012, the primary talking points from this year arose from more mundane occurrences.
This isn't David Beckham's league any more. Thierry Henry isn't required to pick up the slack next year, either. Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane may have spurred Los Angeles to a second consecutive title, but MLS isn't their property. And Rafa Márquez never even entered this discussion before he decamped for Club Leon to repair his battered reputation.
Stars matter. They always do. But, as this year showed, it's collective strength that continues to carry the league as a whole. Stars draw eyeballs, but it was the grinders who created MLS' signature teams during the regular season.
No club embodied that theme quite like the San Jose Earthquakes . The Supporters' Shield winners missed the postseason a year ago. They returned in style after proceeding through the regular season with an aggressive, robust approach and a potent attack spearheaded by Chris Wondolowski. The former reserve team player continued his three-year tear through MLS by tying Roy Lassister's single-season goal scoring record (26 goals) and winning his first MVP award.
Or how about Sporting Kansas City ? Their star midfielder Graham Zusi came in third in the MVP balloting, but his team landed atop the Eastern Conference by once again relying on its 4-3-3 setup to unsettle opponents. SKC's fundamental tenets - a reliance on pace, power and pressure - embody the strengths usually associated with the league. Its primary operators - including defender of the year Matt Besler, emerging U.S. national team midfielder Zusi and new Wigan recruit Roger Espinoza chief among them - deserved all the praise.
One knock on the league, and it's a fair one, is that the winning teams tend to all use this same, dogged approach. Do credit some MLS teams with trying to experiment, and for beating the reeds in the Americas. Some of these arrivals - including newcomer of the year Federico Higuaín in Columbus and Houston midfielder Boniek Garcia - enjoyed immediate success. Other signings failed to meet initial expectations and watched as veterans acquired from more traditional outposts - former Anderlecht center back Victor Bernárdez, ex-Wolfsburg defender Arne Friedrich and former South Korea fullback Young-Pyo Lee - eclipsed their contributions.
But MLS has the latitude to develop along a measured course and it has and will continue to make a few errors along the way. The standard of play must continue to increase as the years progress and the players' wages must accommodate that growth. But the league is no longer fighting just to stay alive - a triumph given its not-too-distant past. MLS' challenge now involves finding a way to sustain current upward trajectory while riding through any temporary setbacks - homophobic epithets uttered by its players, petulant displays toward the beleaguered and derided referee crews and rugged tackles on the handful of truly skilled players in the league, for example - to the cause.
Consistency and competence in New York and Toronto would help matters significantly, but other positive developments off the field ensured the growth continued this season. Attendance climbed for the third consecutive season and surpassed six million for the first time with Portland, Seattle and Vancouver driving interest from the Pacific Northwest. Houston moved from the aging Robertson Stadium to the gleaming, soccer-specific BBVA Compass Stadium. Montreal joined as the league's 19th team and succeeded in its inaugural season by combining Canadian, Italian and Quebecois influences. A deal to place the 20th team in Queens appears likely at some point in 2013.
And with all of those developments on and off the field, the stars still created the buzz and determined the fate of MLS Cup yet again. Beckham capped his tumultuous MLS career with a second consecutive title with Donovan and Keane forming a particularly potent duo up front. Donovan dropped hints that he may step away from the game for a period after displaying his credentials yet again. (He also stoked the ridiculous debates about his place in the American game yet again - which may have been the point.) Henry dazzled for much of the regular season and then joined Keane to comprise the primary components of the standard off-season loan rumor mill.
The funny thing is that even in this new world, MLS' big stars still divert attention away from the rank and file occurrences deserving of more adulation. MLS isn't really a star's league any more - except here on the sports pages.