It was quite a year for the beautiful game in the United States. We have already discussed the ups and downs of the sport in the women’s game, now we turn our attention to the men.
And yes, we will start with Jurgen Klinsmann.
In recent days it has been all about Bob (Bradley, of course) but no single figure has dominated the U.S. men’s soccer conversation as the enigmatic German has from the day of his 2011 introduction as the savior of American soccer, right up to his firing as Coach and Technical Director on November 21.
That Klinsmann was fired in the same year that he brought the U.S. to the semifinals of the Copa America was all too appropriate an ending for a coach who inspired as much love as loathing throughout his five years as the Capo di tutti capi of U.S. Soccer.
It was a year that also saw the Americans drop a stunning 2-0 decision to Guatemala in World Cup Qualifiers in March. The Copa turned the tide Klinsmann’s way but just for a while.
The straw that broke Klinsmann’s back was consecutive defeats to open the Hex, losses that put the fear of missing out on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup very much on the table.
That was enough to get Sunil Gulati to remind Klinsmann just who really is the boss by firing Klinsmann and replacing him with former U.S. MNT coach Bruce Arena.
Arena is viewed as a safe choice, a man who has been down this road before in qualifying the U.S. for the 2002 and 2006 Mundials, and that is Arena’s charge now, just qualify.
Gone for now is the lofty talk that accompanied Klinsmann’s hiring, leave that for the next man. In 2002 Arena brought a fearless group to the quarterfinals and stood toe to toe with Germany before losing on a 1-0 when the officials missed a blatant handball that would have tied the game for the Yanks.
It is the best result the American men have produced at the World Cup but Germany 2006 was a different proposition with Arena’s team eliminated in the group stage.
Arena, under contract through the 2018 World Cup, has been recalled to bring some stability to the team, to avoid the embarrassment of missing out on the World Cup, and to make a decent showing once he gets there.
After that, we’ll see.
The third leg of the U.S. coaching stool in 2016 was Bob Bradley, the man who succeeded Arena when Gulati failed to entice Klinsmann the first time around, only to be jettisoned when Gulati finally met Klinsmann’s demands five years ago.
Bradley’s recent hiring and even more recent firing at Swansea was a huge story for American soccer and its never-ending quest for respect on the world stage.
Klinsmann’s hiring to the U.S. MNT top job had elements of that quest but Bradley’s rapid rise and fall carried all sorts of implications in that area, to the point where speculation is rife that no American coach will get an opportunity in a major European league anytime soon, if ever.
On the field, the Americans had that success at the Copa, although its complete capitulation versus Argentina in the semifinals did nothing to enhance the team’s reputation.
The event itself was a success, however, with some great games in front of good crowds culminating in a sold out Copa Championship match at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey between Chile and Argentina.
Chile took the honors following pks forcing a brief international retirement from the great Lionel Messi.
One thorny issue that U.S. Soccer is struggling with as the year winds down is the survival of the North American Soccer League (NASL) and the future of Division 2 soccer in the U.S.A.
U.S. Soccer has twice postponed a decision on sanctioning the NASL for 2017, a league that is losing teams as it strives to hold on. NASL clubs the Ottawa Fury and the Tampa Bay Rowdies are moving to USL, Minnesota United FC begin play in MLS in next season, and the Jacksonville Armada and Rayo OKC would seem to be folding while the league’s glamor team the New York Cosmos is either folding, taking a year off, or via Sport Illustrated’s Brian Straus, possibly close to being sold to a new ownership group that will try to play in 2017.
Meanwhile, the third-division United Soccer League (USL) waits in the wings, adding teams, and possibly positioning itself to assume Division 2 status should the NASL fold or be stripped of that status by U.S.S.F.
But let us end on a happier note, with the once and future kings of American soccer, Landon Donovan and Christian Pulisic.
Once upon a time Donovan was the teen prodigy who was going show the old world that the new guys could put down our baseball gloves excel at the world’s game.
Like Pulisic, Donovan even decamped to Germany for that purpose. Unlike Pulisic, Donovan never made it in Germany and but for a couple of loan spells with Everton and one at Bayern Munich, Donovan spent all of his career at home in MLS.
Donovan relied on the international game to prove his point, excelling at two senior World Cups, 2002 and 2010, not so much in 2006 while being infamously denied a fourth Cup by Klinsmann in 2014.
Donovan made his mark on 2016 with a shock return to his beloved L.A. Galaxy. The Galaxy was in a bit of an injury fix when Donovan returned for the final six regular-season games and a couple of playoff matches.
It was a thicker, slower version of Donovan than the one who retired in 2014 but he was still effective at times. The vision was still there as was the ability to pick out a pass.
Now as 2016 winds down Donovan is an MLS free agent and is by all accounts fielding offers from MLS team other than the Galaxy.
L.A. was happy to see Donovan ride off into the sunset after his brief return and Donovan appeared set to do just that. But interest from Real Salt Lake has been reported, and there could be more teams to come.
This all may end up being nothing more than one final flirtation for Donovan, or perhaps he is seriously exploring another, more lengthy comeback.
So, while Donovan ponders the end of his playing days, Pulisic looks set to embark on the career so many U.S. soccer lovers once thought would be Donovan’s if he had stuck it out in Germany.
And it all happened for Pulisic in 2016. Here are a few milestones the Hershey, Pennsylvania product reached this year. Bundesliga debut, first Bundesliga goal, became the youngest foreign player to score in Bundesliga, and the youngest player to score twice in the Bundesliga.
Pulisic also made his Europa League debut and his Champions League bow, becoming the youngest player to play for Borussia Dortmund in the world’s most prestigious club tournament.
Along the way, Pulisic also forced his way into a starting role for Jurgen Klinsmann’s lineup, adding a couple of more “youngest” marks. Pulisic became the youngest man to score a goal for the U.S. MNT with a goal in May versus Bolivia in a friendly and the youngest to score for his country in a World Cup Qualifier, with a strike against CONCACAF minnows St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Amazingly, all of the above was accomplished before Pulisic turned 18.
When 2016 began Pulisic was just one of a host of young Americans hoping to make a first team breakthrough at club level. It ends with Pulisic firmly established as part of a deep and deeply talented Borussia Dortmund side, an 18-year-old trying to ignore persistent rumors of a big money transfer offer from Liverpool while he battles the giants of the Bundesliga week in and week out.
So as 2016 becomes 2017 we will watch with interest as American soccer’s once and future kings plot their careers, hoping for a final thrill from Donovan while expecting to thrill to Pulisic’s exploits for years to come.