No. 1: World Cup

Every four years, the sporting world stops for a month to focus on every pass, shot, and save of the World Cup. The difference with this year’s event in South Africa was the U.S. tuning in with unprecedented enthusiasm, thanks to a resilient group of soccer players who embodied the American spirit — and helped make the tournament the second-most popular online search.

Bob Bradley’s U.S. team took the nation on a remarkable roller-coaster ride that sparked a surge of interest back home, briefly turning a group of athletes who operate outside the spotlight into household names.

The first two American matches ended in ties — a much-anticipated clash with England (1-1), then a dramatic contest against Slovenia in which Bradley’s men were denied a comeback victory when referee Koman Coulibaly from Mali disallowed a late goal by Maurice Edu.

The top play of the Cup for the Americans, by far, came in the last seconds of the U.S.’s final group-play game. Landon Donovan’s dramatic injury-time winner against Algeria sent the team into the knockout stage and prompted scenes of joy back in the States. After that excitement, team USA’s loss to Ghana in the round of 16 was something of a letdown, yet there was still plenty of action for a fresh soccer audience to tune in to.

The crazy comments and madcap antics of Argentina coach Diego Maradona, the style and swagger of Brazil, a confident German side sparked by an injection of youth, and underdog efforts from plucky teams from Uruguay and Ghana all added sparkle to the latter stages of the tournament.

And the Cup ended with one deserved champion. Spain rebounded from a shocking loss to Switzerland in its group-play opener to defeat the Netherlands in the final, behind the technical brilliance of midfield maestros Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. The championship game was marred by the Netherlands’ wildly overaggressive approach, but Iniesta scored the only goal deep in extra time to give Spain its first-ever World Cup crown.

–Martin Rogers