As 2016 ends, here are my selections for Minnesota soccer fans’ top seven soccer stories of the year.
7. The Gophers women’s soccer team wins the Big Ten regular-season and playoff titles. For the first time since 1995, the Gophers swept conference season individual honors. Simone Kolander was named forward of the year, Rashida Beal the defender of the year and Stefanie Golan coach of the year.
6. Dallas wins the Major League Soccer regular season, but Seattle claims the playoff title. It was a breakout season for FC Dallas, which won both the league title and the U.S. Open Cup. Injuries and transfers killed its momentum, though. The Sounders, near the bottom of the league at midseason, fired coach Sigi Schmid and acquired playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro in the same week. Those moves kick-started the team’s push to its first MLS Cup.
5. The ongoing saga of a possible collapse of the North American Soccer League. When the New York Cosmos, the NASL’s marquee team, announced they were folding at the end of the season, the league’s future was thrown into doubt. While the NASL’s fate remains unclear heading into 2017, the league’s ill-conceived dream of promoting itself as an independently run first-division alternative to the franchise-based MLS model is dead.
4. Leicester City wins the Premier League title. The further we get from May, the more impossible it seems that Leicester — perennially in danger of being relegated, when not actually toiling in a lower division — actually climbed to the top of the Premier League, eventually winning the league by 10 points.
3. The U.S. women’s national team crashes out of the Olympics in the quarterfinals. The Americans’ loss to Sweden, on penalties, was their only loss of 2016. But the team’s high standards mean that ending the tournament without a medal counts as a failure. It will go down as the team’s worst performance at a major tournament.
2. The U.S. Soccer Federation finally fires Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. men’s national team coach. With Klinsmann, the team was locked in a perpetual cycle of “one step forward, one step back.” When the team lost its first two fall World Cup qualifiers, U.S. Soccer finally took the opportunity to replace him with former national team coach Bruce Arena, a safer pair of hands for the rest of the World Cup qualifying campaign.
1. Minnesota United moves to MLS after an underwhelming 2016 on the field. One year after MLS announced an expansion franchise for Minnesota’s pro soccer team, the league officially confirmed that 2017 would be the team’s first season in MLS. On the field, inconsistency marred the team’s final NASL season. The Loons, with a lineup of second-division standouts and former MLS stalwarts, missed the playoffs entirely.
• Minnesota United’s signing of defender Francisco Calvo is an excellent sign for the Loons. Calvo played almost every game for Deportivo Saprissa, the Costa Rican champion, which is consistently one of CONCACAF’s best club teams. Saprissa might not have much in the way of name recognition, but this is an excellent move.
• Swansea City fired Bob Bradley this week, just 11 games after making him the first American to manage a Premier League team. It’s clear to everyone but Swansea ownership that the Swans simply aren’t good enough to compete right now. Firing Bradley, before he had the chance to bring in other players in January, is an overreaction.
• Liga MX games all seem to have an operatic quality, but the second leg of this year’s fall season final might have taken the dramatic cake. Both teams had two players sent off and finished the game with nine players. A brawl between the teams broke out at the end of the first half of extra time. Club América took the lead early in extra time, but Tigres scored with two minutes to go in the extra session and won the league title on penalties.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Scottish Premiership: Celtic at Rangers, 6:15 a.m. Saturday, foxsoccer2go.com. You’ll need an online subscription to see it, but there’s something nice about having the Rangers back in the top division of Scottish soccer. This is one of the great British rivalries of all time, and only Rangers bankruptcy in 2012 put a pause in the series. This year the cross-Glasgow battles have resumed.
Premier League: Middlesbrough at Manchester United, 9 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. Manchester United has languished at the tail end of the title contenders all season, but four consecutive victories have put the Red Devils in striking distance of the top four. With Middlesbrough trying to fight off relegation, it will probably play for the draw. It will be up to United to create enough to win.
Premier League: Manchester City at Liverpool, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Not everyone would have predicted Liverpool to be above Manchester City in the standings at Christmastime. But the home side is one point ahead and might be the only team that has a chance of catching Chelsea. Jurgen Klopp and company need all three points to keep pace and dent Man City’s title challenge.
Premier League: Tottenham at Watford, 7:30 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Three consecutive victories for Tottenham, especially an impressive 4-1 road victory vs. Southampton on Wednesday, have Spurs fans starting to forget about the team’s Champions League exit. If results go Tottenham’s way, the team could be back in the top four by the end of the day, right where it wants to be.