December 31, 2016
2016 was the worst year ever -- in recent years -- for U.S. soccer on the field
By Michael Lewis
Jurgen Klinsmann was a major casualty of 2016 as he was sacked as U.S. national team coach.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
More than one person wants to see 2016 end ASAP and there probably are many members of the U.S. soccer community that wanted to see the year go away months ago (don't let the door hit you in the you-know-where while you leave).
They will get their wish at midnight Saturday.
In two words, it has been a brutal year for the highest levels of the game, particularly on the field.
Under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. men hit a new low in the CONCACAF hexagonal. The U.S. women failed to reach the final four of a major FIFA-back tournament for the very first time since the Women’s World Cup was inaugurated in 1991 and MLS Cup, the supposed showpiece for the league, was a disaster.
It was the first year ever, at least in recent times.
Let's look at what transpired at the very top of the pyramid:
No great Olympian feats this time
For the first time ever, the U.S. women failed to reach the semifinals of a Women's World Cup or the Olympics in 13 tries (1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015 WWCs and 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
In stunning fashion, the Americans were bounced out of the Rio Summer Games by Sweden and former USA national coach Pia Sundhage, who knew more than enough about her former team that she devised a strategy to shut down the vaunted USA attack en route to a shootout win.
Most of the USA women showed class in a rare defeat, although goalkeeper Hope Solo did not exactly endear herself to any sportsmanship award committees by publicly by complaining about the Swedes' tactics of playing for a draw (which many underdog teams do, BTW).
And then there have been the contentious negotiations between the U.S. women and U.S. Soccer over a new contract, which includes equal pay with the U.S. men and better working conditions (not playing on artificial turf).
On Thursday, U.S. Women's National Team Players Association, axed executive director Rich Nichols, four days before the expiration of the current labor agreement. A January camp in Los Angeles is expected to be announced soon.
Team in crisis
For the first time ever, the U.S. men dropped the first two games of the CONCACAF hexagonal, two results that cost Klinsmann his job. Klinsmann's position as national coach and technical director had to be hanging by a thread for a while. While his playing resume was second to none, Klinsmann wasn't as precise as national team boss, continually tinkering with his Starting XI and bench. That did not sit well with the players as the USA dropped a 2-1 decision to Mexico -- on a late goal by all-time USA nemesis and former Red Bull Rafa Marquez in the first game of the final round of CONCACAF qualifying at what was supposed to be the friendliest venue of them all, MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
The Americans then ventured down to Costa Rica, where they were disassembled in a 4-0 rout. That was the worst result they had endured in that Central American country, which was quite telling considering that they USA has struggled there for decades.
LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, who enjoyed an eight-year tenure as USA coach from 1998-2006 (including a quarterfinal finish at the 2002 World Cup) was called in to clean up the mess and right a sinking ship. Arena's first qualifier will be against Honduras March 24.
No goals, no shots on goal, oh no!
While there were many things to boast about concerning MLS, which included record attendance, the jewel of the league, MLS Cup, was more like Fool's Gold than a diamond. Played in sub-freezing weather at night Dec. 10 in Toronto, Canada at BMO Field, just about as far north as you can among the 22 franchises, the game was, well, the worst MLS Cup ever.
The final verdict: the Seattle Sounders prevailed over Toronto FC, 5-4, in a shootout after playing to a scoreless draw over 120 minutes of regulation and extratime.
While I was happy for the Sounders (they switched coaches from Sigi Schmid to Brian Schmetzter midway through the season) and their championship-hungry fans (they had never won a D1 title until now), they were not deserved winners that night.
They were outshot 19-3 and became the first teams in cup history that failed to place a shot on goal (as opposed to the countless three they took toward the net).
And there's more
Off the field, the 12-team North American Soccer League came close to oblivion as it lost at least three teams to other leagues (Minnesota United to MLS and the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury to the United Soccer League) and a couple of other teams are on shaky soil. The Cosmos had to shutter their doors, at least on a temporary basis (team owners are negotiating).
Hopefully, 2017 won't bring as much chaos to the American soccer universe.
Only time will tell.
Just check back here in 365 days to find out.