The path trod by Major League Soccer in 2014, which began in March and culminated with MLS Cup on Sunday, took many unforeseen twists and turns. However, despite the twists and turns and the shocks and surprises, it still ended in a familiar place.
The L.A. Galaxy are champions ... again
Three titles in four seasons? This is MLS -- that sort dominance isn't supposed to happen.
To hear coach Bruce Arena and star Landon Donovan tell the story, the Galaxy are an American soccer dynasty if only because the very nature of the league is meant to prevent one team from rising above everyone else on such a remarkable scale. Dynasties and parity aren't supposed to mix.
Yet L.A. certainly earned this championship, just as in 2011 and 2012. The organization, led by Arena (with special mention for president Chris Klein), has hacked the league.
There are still enough variables at play to make it wrong to say that everyone else is playing for second place (2013 is evidence of that), but until proven otherwise, each new season begins with the Galaxy as the first choice to lift MLS Cup come December.
While the champion gets the plaudits, the 2014 season wasn't just about the five-time champion Galaxy (it was only mostly about the Galaxy). The 19th campaign in league history provided a plethora of storylines worth remembering.
From worst to first
Perhaps no team in league history executed a season-to-season turnaround as successfully as D.C. United in 2014.
Last year's United team set new standards for ineptitude, casting a distressing shadow over a club that was once the leading light of MLS. Ben Olsen's future as a head coach was up for debate, and there was real reason to wonder if United had permanently fallen behind the rest of MLS.
The subsequent first-place finish in the Eastern Conference showed that it's still possible to win by cobbling together an effective team with players unwanted elsewhere, smart draft picks and a few foreign signings.
D.C. wasn't good enough to carry that regular-season success into the playoffs, but this shouldn't take too much away from the stunning turnaround. Olsen won Coach of the Year for a reason.
Goodbye, Chivas USA
Though mostly an off-the-field story, 2014 will always be remembered for the shuttering of the experiment that was Chivas USA.
We always knew the end was coming, especially when the league purchased the Goats from Jorge Vergara and chose to operate the club this season. Chatter of an impending sale, and speculation over what that might mean in Los Angeles, overshadowed anything Chivas did on the field of play.
Even before the curtain came down, Chivas was a bad team struggling just to be competitive. When news broke that a consortium had purchased the rights to operate the second L.A. team, and that what they purchased did not involve continuing the Chivas legacy, the league faced difficult questions about competitive integrity and the natural postmortem related to the defunct franchise.
On the bright side, Chivas did allow Erick "Cubo" Torres to blossom into a star in 2014. At the very least, that's a legacy that might last.
Landon Donovan got his Hollywood ending, exiting as a champion on the stage where he starred for so long. However, the California kid wasn't the only notable name to hang up his cleats or end his time playing in Major League Soccer.
Thierry Henry ended his time with the Red Bulls after four and a half seasons, having helped the club earn its only major trophy to date, the 2013 Supporters' Shield. Henry brought class and quality to MLS, setting himself apart as one of the best designated players in league history.
2014 also marked the last MLS days for these players: Carlos Bocanegra, a former defender of the year and USMNT captain; Marco Di Vaio, a legend of Italian soccer who finished his career with the Montreal Impact; Logan Pause, a longtime fixture of the Chicago Fire; Marcus Hahnemann, Seattle's backup keeper and a former Yank in Europe; and perhaps a few others from whom we have yet to get official word.
The New England Revolution pushed the Galaxy to the brink in MLS Cup. It was a feat that won't give the MLS Cup runners-up any peace, but the extra-time loss to one of the best teams in league history is indicative of how far Jay Heaps' side came in 2014.
The central figure in the Revolution's run to the title game was Jermaine Jones, the do-everything midfielder who stands above every other 2014 newcomer.
But Jones didn't win Newcomer of the Year, largely due to his late-season arrival. That honor, in an excellent year for incoming players, belongs to Pedro Morales, Vancouver's Chilean midfielder.
There was a distinct American flavor to some of the other new arrivals, including the splashy arrival of Michael Bradley in Toronto (alongside former England international Jermain Defoe), DaMarcus Beasley in Houston, and Maurice Edu in Philadelphia.
Bring on 2015
2014 delivered so many fascinating moments and compelling stories that it stands out in the league's 19-year history.
L.A. won a title, but Supporters' Shield winner Seattle was historically great. New England lost in the final but got there after an incredible roller-coaster ride of a season. Toronto FC again provided more than their fair share of drama. A World Cup interrupted, and possibly impacted, the season's story.
It goes on and on, and it won't stop. The offseason is underway and preparations for 2015 have already begun. A new season promises to explode with its own unique stories, and the most recent campaign will remain in memory only.