Bob Bradley’s brief, tumultuous stint as Swansea manager has dominated the closing days of 2016 in American soccer but the Bradley saga was not the only big news in the U.S. soccer this year, so let’s take a look at some of the other stories that rocked our soccer world over the past 12 months.
And just to show that chivalry is not dead just yet, we’ll start with the women’s game.
The first big item to emerge in 2016 was really a 2015 story as Carli Lloyd completed her long journey to the top when she was acknowledged as the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year.
The honor was well deserved and came in no small part for Lloyd’s heroics in bringing the World Cup title back to the U.S. for the first time since 1999.
It was no surprise then that U.S. boss Jill Ellis was rewarded by FIFA as the Women’s Coach of the Year for the job she did in the leading the Americans to that triumph.
It was a nice way to begin the year for the U.S. but if those early highlights indicated that all is well, 2016 had other ideas.
Both on and off the playing field the year gone by has been a trying one for the women’s game in the United States. Let’s begin with the oddity that U.S. WNT finished the year ranked first in the world, did not lose a game, and still managed to disappoint.
How is that possible? Simple, the Olympics. In an Olympic year, all that precedes the Olympics is preamble, all that follows postscript. And so, for the U.S. WNT, 2016 must go down as a failure.
Coming in as the defending World Cup Champions and the three-time defending Olympic Gold Medalists the Americans left Brazil after a quarterfinal pk loss to Sweden. (A match that ends in a tie is recorded as such, even though one team advances after penalty kicks).
The Olympic Games has featured Women’s soccer since 1996 and the Americans had won Gold four times and Silver once before finishing out of the medals in Brazil and no amount of SheBelieves Cups and 10-0 wins over Puerto Rico can make up for a quarterfinal exit at the 2016 Games in Brazil.
To make matters worse the Hope Solo affair further tarnished the Olympic experience for the Americans as the U.S. WNT slinked out of Brazil without a medal.
But back to the field of play, where the struggles continued for the U.S. women in the youth ranks. Failure at both the U17 and the U20 World Cup was far from encouraging perhaps, even more worrying for America’s soccer future was the style of play exhibited by the next generation of U.S. WNT stars.
With the U17 side led by Ashley Sanchez and the U20’s spearheaded by Mallory Pugh both teams had talent, both teams had stars, but neither squad looked cohesive and if either group had a plan beyond boot it up to Sanchez/Pugh, it was difficult to discern.
In league matters, the NWSL finished the season on a high note after a campaign disrupted by the Olympics, with a thrilling playoffs and Championship match. The Western New York Flash topped the Washington Spirit in the final but as good a match as that one was, WNY’s extra time win over the Portland Thorns was better still.
Played in front of a boisterous crowd of more than 20,000 at Portland’s Providence Park the game set a benchmark for the league to look to.
Unfortunately, we cannot talk for long about the NWSL without getting into some very troubling off the field issues that are dogging the Women’s game in the United States.
A contract impasse between U.S. Soccer and the players of the U.S. WNT led the federation to sue the players and the players to counter with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint.
The agreement between employer and employee expires at the end of the year and negotiations appear set to go down to the wire. On Wednesday afternoon word broke that the players had fired representative Rich Nichols. Nichols has been credited with/ blamed for the players new, aggressive approach and one reading of the situation is that the players are about to cave to the federation by signing a contract that Nichols does not approve of.
Interestingly Hope Solo was said to be a prime booster of signing Nichols to rep the players and the exiled goalkeeper blamed her banishment from the national team and the NWSL on her role as a loud voice in the team’s battle with U.S. Soccer.
The Nichols news comes just days after Alex Morgan announced a temporary move to France where she will suit up for Olympique Lyonnaise for six months before returning to her NWSL club in Orlando.
Given that U.S. national team players salaries are paid by U.S. Soccer the failure of the players and the federation to reach a contract agreement could see a flood of players decamping to Europe in Morgan’s wake.
It is hard to see the league surviving such an exodus, and given that one of the league’s primary goals is to provide a platform for the U.S. WNT, as well as the Canadian and Mexican national teams, it is easy to see just how crucial it is for the parties to reach timely and equitable deal.