The holidays are upon us and 2019 is almost here, and it’s shaping up to be quite the year for soccer, both locally and around the world.

The biggest event next year will be the women’s World Cup. The U.S. women’s national team enters the year as the favorite to retain its title from 2015, but the gap isn’t as large as the team’s undefeated 2018 season would indicate.

Tournament host France will be supremely confident. It hasn’t lost to the United States since 2016, including a win and a draw on American soil. The two teams will play a mid-January friendly in Le Havre. The winner will be feeling pretty good about its chances come June.

The year’s other big event will be the Gold Cup next summer for the U.S. men’s national team, including a U.S. match at Allianz Field in St. Paul. It’ll be the national team’s first chance in a major tournament under new coach Gregg Berhalter, and its first chance to start erasing the sting of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Hope is back, thanks to a promising young squad, but the team needs victories to match the promise.

Locally, the star of the year will be Allianz Field, which by all accounts is a jewel. At times, it felt like Minnesota United was playing two years’ worth of exhibition matches at TCF Bank Stadium and that the true jump to MLS hadn’t really happened yet. Walking into the team’s permanent soccer home will make the whole thing finally seem real, while serving as a pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming kind of moment for longtime Minnesota soccer fans.

For once, European soccer is shaping up to provide pre-summer excitement, too. The Premier League, for the first time in a few years, has a genuine title race with Liverpool and Manchester City dueling at the top. Should both slip up, Chelsea and Tottenham could be drawn into the fray as well. A four-team title race would be the perfect way to start the year.

Nor is England the only country with a race. Four Spanish teams are within five points of each other at the top of the league. With a victory Friday, Borussia Dortmund has raced nine points clear of Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. Usually Bayern and Barcelona have things wrapped up by Valentine’s Day. It’s genuinely pleasing that it won’t happen that way this year.

To wrap up 2018, here are a few haphazard predictions for next year. First, the women’s World Cup will once again remind fans that women’s soccer is high-quality and fun to watch, and NWSL attendances will spike. One team will still fold, but two other cities will start new teams for 2020.

Second, MLS will announce the league’s 28th team — probably Sacramento, possibly St. Louis. But it also will start actively hinting that the league will soon grow to 30 teams, occasioning the first serious discussions about some form of promotion and relegation within MLS.

Finally, FIFA will announce that the 2022 World Cup will be the first to include 48 teams, with games in countries besides Qatar and without a clear plan for how any of that will work.

2019 is almost here. In the soccer world, here’s hoping it lives up to its potential.

SOCCER SHORT TAKES

• MLS announced a significant change this week to the league’s playoff structure, moving to a single-elimination setup rather than the two-legged matches of the past few years. It’s an excellent change, for two reasons. First, it’ll allow the league to compress the playoffs into one month and end them in mid-November rather than in frozen December. Second, it should put more emphasis on the regular season, where it belongs.

• Manchester United finally dumped manager Jose Mourinho (above) after an ugly 3-1 loss to rival Liverpool. After the self-proclaimed “Special One’’ was fired midway through the season at both Chelsea and Manchester United in the past few years, it’s likely he won’t manage in England again. It could mean a return to Real Madrid or Inter Milan, two places he had success in the past.

• Twenty-year-old American striker Haji Wright scored his first goal for Schalke in the Bundesliga in just his second start. Fittingly, it came with an assist for Weston McKennie, Schalke’s other young American. McKennie got his head to a corner, deflecting it straight to Wright, who poked home his first tally. Despite the combo, Schalke lost 2-1 at home to Bayer Leverkeusen.

WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE

Premier League: Tottenham at Everton, 9:55 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. December has not been kind to Everton, which began the month with realistic thoughts of consolidating a spot in the top six. Two losses and two draws later, another Toffees loss could see them drop to the bottom half of the table. Tottenham, meanwhile, has won three consecutive matches and harbors dreams of staying in a race for the league title.

 

 

Online: startribune.com/soccer