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Sunday, December 26, 2010
2010: Big breakthroughs ... So Cal in South Africa

By Scott French

Our countdown of 2010's top 10 soccer stories and newsmakers -- from a Southern California slant -- continues.

One was a veteran goalkeeper dumped by the club he'd served admirably for three seasons. The other was a promising young striker who hadn't lived up to the acclaim and expectations.

Both delivered breakthrough campaigns in 2010.

Kevin Hartman (Palos Verdes/Peninsula HS and UCLA) had the finest year of his career -- the finest year any Major League Soccer netminder has posted -- to lead FC Dallas to its first MLS Cup title game.

Amy Rodriguez (Lake Forest/Santa Margarita Catholic HS and USC) asserted herself as one of the best forwards in the women's game, leading the expansion Philadelphia Independence to Women's Professional Soccer's championship game and making a real impact for the U.S. women's national team.

Hartman, 36, had been among MLS's top goalkeepers since the late 1990s, when he was a Galaxy fan favorite, but the Kansas City Wizards suggested he look for a new home as the start of last season neared. He found one in Dallas, soon won the starting job, then laid the foundation for a 19-game unbeaten streak that signaled the arrival of a new league power.

“El Gato” shut out nine foes and conceded just 12 goals in 20 games -- posting a league-record 0.62 goals-against average -- but numbers don't begin to illustrate how great Hartman was in 2010. He made spectacular saves look easy and repeatedly came up huge when FC Dallas most required him to. Four sensational first-half saves enabled the Hoops to beat the Galaxy in the Western Conference title game.

Rodriguez, 23, was destined to be a star by her mid-teens, when she played for top youth club Laguna Hills Eclipse and at Santa Margarita. She starred for U.S. youth national teams, led USC to an improbable NCAA title, then joined WPS as the first player selected in the league's first college draft.

But the speed and skill that had served her well in the amateur game wasn't enough to cover her weaknesses -- primarily tactical -- at the highest levels, and she struggled as a rookie with the Boston Breakers, scoring just one goal, and in becoming a consistent contributor for the U.S. women.

“A-Rod,” sent to the Independence in a September 2009 trade, took a huge step forward in 2010. She became a smarter forward, and the added maturity -- especially with that speed -- made her difficult to stop. She scored a dozen goals for Philly, added another in the 120th minute to beat Washington in the WPS playoffs, then set up the tying goal in the semifinal victory over Boston.

She also became a legitimate starter for the U.S. women, more than doubling her international output with seven goals in 17 games, closing the year with a strike to beat Italy in the decisive qualifier for next summer's Women's World Cup.

There has been a huge Southern California presence on U.S. World Cup teams since the Americans returned to sport's biggest stage after a 40-year absence in 1990. Some of the Yanks' biggest names -- Eric Wynalda, Paul Caligiuri, Marcelo Balboa, Cobi Jones, John O'Brien -- were bred on Southland fields.

So no surprise the side Manhattan Beach's Bob Bradley took to South Africa had a strong SoCal foundation.

In all, a dozen of 23 players had a Southern California connection -- some looser than others, to be sure -- and several played prominent roles in the Americans' run to the round of 16:

Galaxy forward Edson Buddle deserved more playing time than he got, and L.A.-born forward Herculez Gomez, a former Galaxy standout, saw action in three games.

Three more players with the slightest of L.A. connections also were involved. Former Galaxy forward Robbie Findley started three games; winger DaMarcus Beasley, who was the Galaxy's property for a short time (but never played for the club), made an appearance in his third World Cup; and former Chivas USA goalkeeper Brad Guzan was the No. 3 netminder, watching from the bench.

No. 7: Sol sets … and Chivas USA's boss
No. 8: Fantastic frosh … and the coach's son
No. 9: A royal visit … and Charlie Naimo's rough year
No. 10: College soccer's big stars … and expansion