What to watch for in American soccer in 2019
Two weeks ago, we looked back at the year in American soccer. Today, we look ahead — to, among other notable subjects, the quest for a fourth women’s world crown, to a new man in charge of the rebuilding men, to Cincinnati’s MLS debut, to a 20-year-old in west London and to millennials in Germany.
Because “11” figures prominently in the sport — 11 players in the lineup, Best XI honors, 11 lines in Ajax Amsterdam’s crest — it’s appropriate to bundle the top story lines into what we’ll call a “soccer decagon.” (A baker has his dozen, right?)
1. World supremacy? The U.S. women’s national team will enter the World Cup in France (June 7-July 7) as the favorite because Jill Ellis’s squad is the reigning champion, unbeaten since July 2017 and ranked No. 1 by FIFA. Rich in depth, she could field two semifinal-caliber lineups.
The path to the final in Lyon will begin with an easy first-round group but lead to a possible major obstacle (the third-ranked hosts) in a quarterfinal in Paris. The French have won two of the past five meetings and, in a major test for both sides, they will clash in a Jan. 19 friendly in Le Havre.
Beyond the usual threats, the Americans must be cautious of emerging teams from traditional soccer-playing countries that are taking the women’s brand of the sport more seriously than ever (England, Spain and the Netherlands, for instance).
2. Berhalter’s new crew: After five seasons with the Columbus Crew, Gregg Berhalter has taken over a men’s national team stung by its failure to qualify for last year’s World Cup. A winter training camp of MLS players will begin this week, but the more important work will come with a broad selection of players for two March friendlies and summer competition.
Key questions: Will his possession style translate from MLS to the international arena? How will he deploy his most talented figure, Christian Pulisic? Will he stick with some older players or turn almost exclusively to the new generation?
3. Pulisic at Chelsea: With a $73 million transfer to the Premier League from the Bundesliga, the most promising American talent ever will arrive in London this summer with enormous expectations. He will carry the flag, so to speak, of a country that has waited decades for an exciting, young attacking player to land with an English superpower.
With German titan Borussia Dortmund, Pulisic made great gains in league play and in the UEFA Champions League before accepting a secondary role of late. He will remain with Dortmund for the rest of the season before joining the Blues — and probably featuring prominently in the 2019-20 campaign.
4. Elsewhere in Europe: Pulisic is not the only one making considerable strides overseas at an early age. Midfielder Tyler Adams, 19, signed with Germany’s RB Leipzig after starring with the New York Red Bulls; forward Josh Sargent, 18, has begun scoring for Germany’s Werder Bremen; midfielder Weston McKennie, 20, and forward Haji Wright, 20, are in the starting mix for Germany’s Schalke; and goalkeeper Zack Steffen, 23, was bought by Manchester City from Columbus. (He’ll move this summer and go on loan.)
5. Golden opportunity: For the United States and the Concacaf region, the first meaningful men’s competition of the new World Cup cycle is the Gold Cup, set for June 15 to July 7. The field has expanded to 16 teams from 12 and, besides the 15 U.S. venues, will include two matches apiece in Costa Rica and a Caribbean site to be determined. A strong showing here — particularly a victory over bitter rival Mexico — would do wonders for the confidence of Berhalter’s squad.
6. MLS in Cincinnati: After smashing second-division attendance records for three seasons — as well as gathering the necessary cash for expansion fees and developing plans for a new stadium — FC Cincinnati was fast-tracked to top-tier MLS.
7. Stadium watch: Minnesota United will open the 16th MLS stadium designed, first and foremost, for soccer when 19,400-seat Allianz Field in St. Paul debuts April 13. The team played its first two seasons at TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota.
8. Coaching aura: An influx of prominent foreign coaches arrives with Guillermo Barros Schelotto joining the Los Angeles Galaxy from Boca Juniors, Matias Almeyda moving from Chivas Guadalajara to San Jose, and Frank de Boer, formerly with Ajax, Inter Milan and Crystal Palace, taking over reigning champion Atlanta. Caleb Porter, who won the title with Portland in 2015, was hired by Columbus.
9. MLS format changes: The league has never been able to find a perfect playoff system, so it altered the plan again by making every round a single game. (Previously, the conference semifinals and conference finals were two legs.) Seven teams from each conference will qualify instead of six. And the season has been tightened, leaving the MLS Cup on Nov. 10 instead of in early December.
10. NWSL inroads? The women’s league has been a smash hit in Portland and showed good signs in Salt Lake City’s inaugural year. But several markets continue to struggle. A strong World Cup performance by the U.S. national team, which has a roster full of NWSL players, would provide a boost. Expanding to California in 2020 also would help.
11. USL’s rise: MLS is not the only men’s league hoping to gain a greater foothold nationally. The second-tier circuit, now known as USL Championship, will field 36 teams, including Loudoun United, operated by D.C. United with a 5,000-seat stadium under construction in Leesburg. The USL also created a third division called USL League One with 10 teams.