Last year was rough for American soccer, as the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup and the women’s national team struggled to find its footing after an Olympic failure in 2016. With that in mind, here are five things American soccer can do to turn 2018 into a positive:
Win the CONCACAF Champions League. It’s long past time for an MLS team to take home the continental championship. Liga MX has won nine titles in the nine years of the competition — and in all but two of those years, the other finalist was from Mexico, too. American soccer might have to cheat a little bit this year and count Toronto FC, as the Reds have the best chance of any MLS team in history to take the title, but a win for MLS would be a win for America.
Win the SheBelieves Cup in March. With the World Cup coming up in 2019, 2018 is an important year. World Cup qualifying is in October, but the U.S. is so far ahead of everyone but Canada in the region that it’s virtually impossible that the team will fail to qualify. Instead, a good result in March against world powerhouses France, Germany and England would be a step in the right direction and would give fans hope that the U.S. can defend its World Cup title.
Hire well-respected visionaries at U.S. Soccer. U.S. Soccer hasn’t hired a new men’s national team coach yet, nor a technical director, nor a general manager to oversee the team (something the federation president shouldn’t be doing, as Sunil Gulati demonstrated). It’s absolutely imperative that U.S. Soccer hires well this year. It might be the only chance for a generation to turn this particular ship around. The new president, who will be elected next month, will be on the hook for these hires.
Kill the proposed ‘Soccer NIT.’ There are rumors that the U.S. could look into hosting a tournament for all of the soccer powerhouses that failed to qualify for the World Cup — Italy, Chile and Ghana chief among them. It’d be entirely meaningless. Most of the countries involved would rest players rather than send their best and the whole thing would be a lucrative insult to American soccer fans who are already furious over the team missing out on the World Cup. In short, it would be an embarrassment.
Give some experience to young players on the men’s national team. The U.S. is likely to play a number of friendlies this spring and summer against South American and European teams that are preparing for the World Cup. It’s time to start getting the squad ready for 2020 and beyond — and that means turning the keys over to such players as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie. Let youth be served, and it’ll give fans something to look forward to. After 2017, hope for the future is the most positive thing that U.S. soccer fans could receive.
• It’s hard to imagine three of the biggest stars in a league swapping teams in a single trade, but that’s precisely what happened in the NWSL this week. Top scorer Sam Kerr went from Sky Blue (New Jersey) to Chicago; all-everything striker Christen Press went from Chicago to Houston; and former World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd went from Houston to Sky Blue. “Blockbuster” seems to hardly do it justice.
• A Gallup poll found that more American adults list soccer as their favorite sport to watch than hockey, 7 percent to 4 percent. Among those under the age of 55, soccer is the favorite of more people than baseball is. Among the younger, under-35 crowd, soccer is tied for second place with basketball.
• U.S. Soccer officially granted the USL status as the country’s second-division league. For many years, the NASL was the second division and USL the third, but USL’s continuing growth — and the NASL’s continuing problems — have caused big changes. Given that MLS and USL currently have a good relationship, there are plenty of people who think that this could be a step toward an American soccer pyramid that would include promotion and relegation.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Manchester United at Burnley, 9 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. For most of the year, Burnley has been an interloper at the top of the table, the odd name out among the Premier League heavyweights. Now, though, Burnley has gone six matches without a win — and has to host a motivated Man United squad.
Liga MX: Leon at Cruz Azul, 5 p.m. Saturday, Univision Deportes. No one thought Landon Donovan would make another comeback; fewer thought it would be in Mexico. But there he was, taking in the adulation of the Leon fans last week, being announced as the team’s newest savior. Will he make an appearance this week?
Bundesliga: Cologne at Hamburg, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. Hamburg’s proud streak of seasons in the top division has been threatened year after year recently, and this year is no different — the giants are second-to-last in the standings. Hamburg simply cannot afford to drop points, at home, against last-place Cologne.
Liga MX: Club America at Pumas, 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Univision. Though Pumas is traditionally one of the biggest four teams in Mexico (like America), it finished last in last fall’s standings. Two wins in two games in the spring is a better start — and now a cross-Mexico City battle will test Pumas’ mettle.