In many ways, 2017 was a forgettable year for American soccer fans. The men’s national team endured the embarrassment of failing to qualify for next summer’s World Cup. The women’s national team lost three home games in a year, the first time it had lost more than one home game in a calendar year since 2000. Even the MLS Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup landed in Canada, with Toronto FC.
As 2018 dawns in the soccer world, here’s a (somewhat pessimistic) look at and a few predictions for the upcoming year.
The World Cup in Russia will, like the 2014 Sochi Olympics, be marred by poor planning and infrastructure problems. But those ills will seem almost quaint given the status of the 2022 World Cup. Migrant workers in host country Qatar have died while building stadiums in a country that is remarkably ill-suited to host soccer in the first place. Argentina will finally overcome Lionel Messi’s big-tournament jinx and take home its first title since 1986, defeating a resurgent France in the final.
Both domestic American leagues will struggle to continue growing. Despite a glitzy new franchise in Los Angeles, the Major League Soccer season will be overshadowed by the lack of American participation in the World Cup, traditionally an entry point for a legion of new American soccer fans. The impending move of the Columbus Crew to Austin, Texas, will also serve as a black eye for the league. The National Women’s Soccer League, meanwhile, has already seen one team (FC Kansas City) fold. Despite the presence of a new team in Salt Lake City, other franchises also will search in vain for long-term viability.
The U.S. Soccer presidential elections in February will see the governing body opt for safety rather than an opportunity for reinvention. The new leader will be either current vice president Carlos Cordeiro or Kathy Carter, current president of Soccer United Marketing, the money behind all of American soccer.
Before he turns 20 in September, American wunderkind Christian Pulisic will leave Borussia Dortmund in Germany for a Premier League destination, after Dortmund’s inconsistent season convinces the youngster that his European future lies elsewhere. Liverpool, with its commitment to attacking soccer, will be the front-runner. That is, as long as the Reds finish in the top four in England and can promise Pulisic a chance to make his mark in the Champions League.
Overall, there are two predictions that are likely to come true every year. The first is that financial concerns, not on-field concerns, will be far too prevalent all over the world. From complaints about TV broadcasters and corruption at FIFA to the unreal amounts of money that uber-rich owners use to buy success, fans will bemoan the power of the almighty pound, dollar and euro.
The second, though, is just as true: Despite the complaints, few of those fans will actually give up on the game they love.
• The Christmastime standings were not kind to fans of title races, as the championships are all but decided in four of Europe’s big five leagues. Manchester City has won 18 consecutive games and will cruise to the English title. Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain all have leads of nine points or more and should do the same in their respective countries. Only Italy, where one point separates Napoli and Juventus at the top, has a title race.
• Russian World Cup organizing committee chairman Vitaly Mutko has stepped down after the IOC banned him from the Olympics in connection with a doping scandal. FIFA had originally announced that Mutko would continue in his position, but he departed as both the overseer of the Russian soccer governing body and as the head of the World Cup committee, apparently to spare FIFA and Russia further criticism.
• Two South American soccer officials were convicted of racketeering charges in New York in connection with the FIFA bribery scandal. Jose Maria Marin, former president of Brazil’s governing body, and Juan Angel Napout, former president of Paraguay’s, were both convicted of racketeering and wire fraud. The fate of a third defendant, former Peru soccer President Manuel Burga, is yet to be decided.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Serie A: Sassuolo at Roma, 8 a.m. Saturday, beIN. Roma can’t score right now, with just three goals in its past five matches, and Sassuolo is on a winning streak, culminating last week in a 1-0 victory over formerly league-leading Inter. Expect Roma to depend on its league-best defense, and hope for Edin Dzeko to steal a goal and the victory.
Premier League: Leicester City at Liverpool, 9 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. Liverpool hasn’t lost a league match since the week before Halloween, but the chase for the top four in England is tight enough that this has barely provided an advantage. Liverpool has scored 12 times in three games and will be tough for Leicester to stop.
Serie A: Lazio at Inter, 11 a.m. Saturday, beIN. Three consecutive losses — two in the league, one in the cup — have Inter searching for something to stop the slide. It’s starting to look like the Serie A title might be out of reach. Now Lazio, four points behind, is gaining on Inter in the race for the Champions League.
Premier League: Southampton at Manchester United, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Don’t look now, but Southampton is sliding down toward the relegation zone. It looks more likely that more players will leave in the January transfer window than will arrive. A trip to Old Trafford is never good for a struggling side.