This past season in U.S. soccer was certainly an interesting one. In MLS, two new teams were promoted and the soccer world fell in love with them and their passionate fans. Coaches were hired and fired, players finally fulfilled their potential, and others failed to inspire. One MLS team had a chance to make history and win the CONCACAF Champions League, but fell short in a heart-breaking fashion. During the season, the team that dominated from First Kick forward hoisted the trophy at the end of the season. Internationally, the U.S. women took Germany by storm but in the end it was Japan that took everyone’s hearts. The U.S. senior men were underwhelming in the Gold Cup, and seeing Bob Bradley out the door was new coach (and long hoped-for savior) Jurgen Klinsmann.
It was certainly a year of memories, but as we belt out Auld Lang Syne and drink Champagne/sparkling cidar/assorted alcoholic beverages, let’s take a look ahead to 2012. The upcoming year will hopefully feature a U.S. team in the London Olympics, a new broadcast network, World Cup qualifiers, and a whole host of new heroes and villains. One of the things we do best at MLS Talk is make bold and informed predictions that are on occasion proved wrong. Below are twelve such predictions I think we occur in 2012. Happy New Year!
1. The U-23 team will not only qualify for the Olympics, but contend for a medal.
This U-23 team has a confluence of a good youth coach and good young depth on the team. While the team is less talented than probably Mexico and some European teams, I think it will well set up to make a run at the Olympics, especially if they add some quality overage players like Carlos Bocanegra looking to supplement their legacy as medalists.
2. Ratings for MLS matches on the NBC networks will exceed those on the Fox network
NBC has three major advantages for MLS over Fox Soccer. One, it has more platforms to promote the games (imagine MLS commercials showing up on Sunday Night Football, Brian Williams programming, or The Office). Two, NBC needs its new sports network to succeed and will put the resources behind it to make MLS programming a success. Three, the network formally known as Versus is available on more television sets than Fox Soccer, making it easier for casual sports fans to find the matches. The ratings still won’t approach BPL matches on Fox, but the numbers will tick upwards.
3. The USMNT will beat a major European power and drop an embarrassing World Cup qualifier
Rumors are swirling of a U.S.-Italy friendly in the upcoming months, and even if that falls through the U.S. will surely line up one or two more big money friendlies. Because of its talent and Euro 2012 fatigue, the U.S. will knock off a European power and gain some instant cred in world soccer (see Spain 2009). However, it will lose to one of the teams in the group stage of World Cup qualifying in embarrassing fashion, adding unneeded drama into qualifying. Because, after all, this is the Red-White-and-Blue.
4. An MLS team will again play in the CONCACAF Champions League final
Real Salt Lake almost made history this year, and another MLS team stands a good chance of repeating the feat. In the current round, three of the eight teams are MLS teams and two are facing each other (Galaxy v. Toronto). All of them have the talent and depth to make a run at the finals, and the Galaxy and Sounders may be among the two or three most talented teams this spring. Expect to see either Los Angeles or Seattle trying to hoist the CCL trophy this spring.
5. Los Angeles will not repeat as MLS champions
The 2011 LA Galaxy were a truly dominant team. They had the right mix of superstars, support players, and good coaching plus a friendly playoff schedule to allow them to dominate from start to finish. The 2012 season will not be as kind. In addition to two sets of CONCACAF Champions League matches (’11-’12 and ’12-’13) the team will play an unbalanced schedule, which means more matches against the tougher Western Conference teams. In addition, even if Beckham returns, he and Robbie Keane will be playing in Euro 2012. Landon Donovan will be coming off a short-term loan and spending time with the USMNT in World Cup qualifying, as could possibly one or two of his teammates. The schedule glut for the players and team, plus the improvement of the teams around them, mean we will have a new champion in 2012.
6. At least two more fringe USMNT players will come to play in MLS
Last year, Benny Feilhaber, Charlie Davies, and Freddy Adu all returned to MLS to try and get themselves back on the USMNT radar. I can see this trend continuing as players who are on the cusp on making the team will take pay cuts to play in MLS where Jurgen Klinsmann’s staff can more easily watch them. In addition to the older players (maybe Carlos Bocanegra?) who will want to wrap up their career on national soil, players like Edson Buddle or Michael Parkhurst will bite the bullet and come play for an MLS team.
7. Arsenal will conduct a summer tour of the United States
While this is not a specific prediction for U.S. soccer, this is a prediction that will have a major impact on the American soccer scene. Due to Arsene Wenger’s training philosophies, the club has hesitated to play the summer friendlies outside of Europe which has brought the major European clubs to America’s shores. That will change this summer on the heels of a successful Asian tour in 2011. Arsenal will announce a multi-city tour in the spring featuring a mix of MLS teams, one or two Euro club matches at major venues, and a match-up against the MLS All Stars. Arsenal will reap a financial windfall, American Arsenal fans will finally get to see their favorite team without flying across the ocean, and more U.S. fans will become familiar with the Arsenal style of play.
8. A player from one of the BPL big six (not Thierry Henry) will come to MLS midseason
The rumors have been swirling around a number of big name players like Evra and Anelka. One of them this summer will bite the bullet and sign with New York or LA as the latest designated player. My prediction is that it will be a Chelsea player, a victim of AVB’s house cleaning who is too old to play in the new style.
9. A Canadian team will not have the first/second pick in the 2013 Superdraft
Obviously there are three Canadian teams in MLS and none of them will have the first pick in the Superdraft (or second if the 20th franchise is ready for 2013). Even though they are the new team, Montreal has too much talent and too good of a coach to be the worst team in MLS this upcoming season. Vancouver, while still not necessarily playoff bound, will be improved enough to avoid having the worst record in MLS. Toronto will make a huge leap forward this year and contend for the playoffs.
10. The New York Cosmos will be announced as the 20th MLS franchise
It’s the worst kept secret in U.S. soccer, and over the All Star break MLS will announce that the New York Cosmos will be the 20th franchise in the league. Whether they begin play in 2013 or 2014 I will leave to others to predict, but they will be announced to no one’s surprise.
11. DC United will finally find a home, and it will be in DC
Eventually everyone will come to their senses and work this deal out, but one major factor will help with DCU’s push to stay in DC: population growth. The city’s population is growing, with most of the growth coming from young professionals and Hispanics, two demographics that are likely to support a soccer team in the city. In addition, the population growth will help stabilize DC’s shaky finances, making a partial funding of a stadium on the Southwest Waterfront seem even more likely. There will be a major announcement in 2012 and the DC area soccer community will breathe a major sigh of relief.
12. The 4-2-3-1 formation will make the U.S. women’s team unbeatable in international competition
The U.S. women’s team is switching to a more attacking 4-2-3-1 formation for the next World Cup cycle to have more of their dynamic attacking young players on the pitch at the same time. It’s a change that is overdue and will lead to the U.S. women being the de facto best women’s national team in the world by the end of the year.