As we look back on the year 2015 in American soccer the spotlight shines brightest on the World Cup winning U.S. WNT and most harshly on their male counterparts.
The women’s national team added a third star to its jersey, with Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and company finally taking their place alongside the legendary 99ers led by Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Michelle Akers as World Champions.
The men were always going to come in a poor second to the women’s nats, and while Jill Ellis and her squad set an unreachable bar for Jurgen Klinsmann’s crew, the men fell far below even Klinsmann’s own targets.
Coming off of a Round of 16 exit at the 2014 World Cup that was considered a success by most, if a step forward by only some, the U.S. MNT failed dismally as the host nation at this summer’s Gold Cup.
As defending CONCACAF Champions, the Yanks would have advanced to the 2017 Confederations Cup if they could match 2013’s Gold Cup victory.
Klinsmann had repeatedly spoken of how important it was to qualify for the World Cup walkthrough in Russia and had named winning the Gold Cup alongside Olympic qualification as his program’s top priorities for 2015.
But the U.S. played like a team that hadn’t gotten the memo, advancing from Group play without impressing before hammering a weak Cuban side 6-0 in a match that inspired false hope that all was well.
That all was not well was made abundantly clear when Jamaica eliminated the U.S. 2-1 in the semifinal. That loss was then compounded when a disinterested home team dropped the third place game on penalty kicks to Panama.
At the time, U.S. coach and Technical Director Klinsmann made much of Jamaica’s improvement, of the region’s improvement, but we must go back to 2000 when the U.S. were eliminated by guest competitor Colombia to find a worse finish in the Gold Cup for the Americans.
Klinsmann’s job security was called into question by many in the media, but USSoccer President Sunil Gulati stood by his man, claiming, “there are no parallels at all,” to Bob Bradley who was fired to make way for Klinsmann after losing the 2011 Gold Cup final to Mexico.
Never mind that Klinsmann’s World Cup ended at the exact same stage as Bradley’s had, in extra time in the round of 16, Gulati was right. Elimination in the semifinals to Jamaica, followed by a poor performance versus Panama was not a parallel performance to elimination by Mexico in the 2011 final, it was clearly worse.
Regardless, the coach was safe, and the U.S. had one remaining route to Russia 2017, a showdown with Mexico in the first ever CONCACAF Cup.
The U.S. showed heart in losing in front of huge, mostly pro-Mexico crowd at the Rose Bowl but despite forcing overtime the Americans were badly outplayed before falling 3-2 and missing out on the Confederations Cup.
So how are things looking for that other U.S. MNT goal, qualifying for the Olympics? Not great, frankly. A 2-0 loss to Honduras on the same day the senior side lost the CONCACAF Cup to Mexico makes October 10, 2015, a day to forget in U.S. MNT soccer, and it leaves the Americans facing a two-game set in March versus Colombia for one last shot to make it to Rio.
Should the U23 team fail to get past Colombia, and the Americans will be underdogs, they would join the 2012 team, that missed out on the London Olympics as the second group on Klinsmann’s watch to fail to qualify for the Olympic games.
Klinsmann labelled that group “a lost generation.” Will this generation be lost too?
The U17 side offered little encouragement when it was unable to get out of group play in the U17 World Cup in Chile. That result, coupled with a failure to even qualify in 2013, saw coach Richie William replaced by former Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth.
The one ray of light in the youth set up on the men’s side came from a talented U20 squad. The Young Yanks were eliminated on pk’s by eventual champions Serbia, but the talent at this age group appears abundant and several of the U20’s will be in the reckoning for the March showdown with Colombia.
Then there was the U.S. WNT. With the World Cup memories so vivid for U.S. soccer fans it might surprise some to remember the struggles the team endured in the run-up to World Cup glory.
Although English born, Jill Ellis has long been a servant of the U.S. Women’s soccer program and so it was no huge surprise when Ellis moved up from assistant to interim to full-fledged head coach after Tom Sermanni’s dismissal in 2014.
It was not all smooth sailing for Ellis and a loss and drw to Brazil in December. followed by a distressing 2-0 loss to France in February, caused alarm in many quarters.
Ellis seemed unsure of her best formation and players as Alex Morgan struggled to regain fitness and then form and age and a certain staleness began to set in.
The U.S. were still the U.S. but teams like Germany and France seemed more likely champions when the Women’s 2015 World Cup kicked off in Canada last June.
Lineup problems persisted as Morgan never quite hit stride and all-time leading international goal scorer Abby Wambach seemed to age before our very eyes.
Group play proved a chore for the Americans who advanced with two unimpressive wins and a draw. A scrappy 2-0 win over Colombia saw the Yanks move on to the quarterfinals with Morgan and Lloyd providing the goals.
That Lloyd scored from a penalty hardly mattered, the midfield marksman was on the scoresheet and she was just getting started. Lloyd had been shackled with a defensive midfield role early in the Cup, and the U.S. attack suffered.
While the U.S. defense in front of Hope Solo had been rock solid it had been left to winger Megan Rapinoe to provide what little spark and creativity the Americans could muster in the early going.
Now Lloyd approached Ellis and asked for the freedom to do her thing and to Ellis’ everlasting credit she turned Lloyd loose.
The effect was immediate and the 99ers, and the 91 team too, were about to get some company. Lloyd would score six goals in the final four matches including a brilliant hat-trick that finished off Japan before they ever got started in the World Cup Final.
Lloyd had plenty of help as Ellis finally hit on the right combination, a combination that saw off China and Germany before felling Japan.
Things were fairly quiet on the Women’s side of the youth competitions, although we did get a glimpse of the future when Mallory Pugh led the way as the U.S. advanced to the U20 Women’s World Cup by winning the CONCACAF U20 Championship.
Pugh was brilliant and will be worth watching when she goes up against the best at the U20 WWC in November and December in the somewhat unlikely locale of Papua New Guinea.
The U17 Women’s World Cup will also be up for grabs in 2016, with CONCACAF Qualification this March in Grenada.
So there it is, 2015. The WNT started in turmoil and went on to win the ultimate prize, the Word Cup. The Olympics are next and the U.S. will be expected to at least finish among the medals, as it seeks to defend the title it won four years ago in London.
And the men. 2015 was a bad year but the soccer calendar always seems to provide another chance at redemption and 2016 is no exception.
World Cup Qualification got underway early this year with a facile 6-1 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines followed by a 0-0 tie at Trinidad and Tobago.
After the draw with T&T, we were greeted with the by now expected justifications. We were told how good Trinidad and Tobago is, how tough it is to qualify from CONCACAF, etc, etc.
Clint Dempsey’s bewildering omission was explained away and four points happily collected. We move on.
2016 also brings Copa America Centenario to our shores. The United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Panama will compete alongside the giants of South America in the 100th year of the CONMEBOL Championship all across the U.S.A.
It is a historic moment for soccer in the United States and a good showing offers Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. MNT a chance at redemption. Can they take it?