There are notable figures you may hear more about in 2016, but will they provide us with sufficient stacks of intrigue? In other words, are they supplying plot? Are there impending twists in their tale?
We’ve picked out our 10 most intriguing men and women in US Soccer this year. (We left Jurgen Klinsmann off the list because the national team manager is intriguing by default; nothing new about 2016. Besides, he’s more “controversial” than “intriguing.” If we scratch out a “10 Most Controversial” list for the year, yeah, that man will be Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4.)
They are in alphabetical order:
Michael Bradley …
If it’s a stretch to say “As Michael Bradley goes, so goes the national team,” it’s not an egregious one. The past year was disappointing for the national team; Bradley himself says so. And he surely wasn’t happy with his club’s concluding moment of 2015, Toronto FC’s sad, sloppy performance as a first-time MLS playoff participant. Part of Bradley’s ongoing strength as a player is his constant craving for across-the-board improvement. Generally speaking, he has grown and gotten better each and every year – until last year, that is. Bradley wasn’t terrible for club or for country, but too many afternoons graded out at just “so-so.” In a year of World Cup qualifiers and an important Copa Centenario, Bradley’s ability to tip the balance (more sizzle, less “so-so” fizzle) would certainly help. What makes him particularly intriguing is that between his two coaches of 2016 (Jurgen Klinsmann and Greg Vanney at TFC), neither has seemed to nail Bradley’s absolute best use.
Peter Gruber, Henry Nguyen and Tom Penn …
We’re making these guys one “person” for the purpose of this list. Our list, our rules. Anyway, they are the three biggest branches on this tree full of LAFC owners. Things happening around this club have the feel of something special. They reveal colors and a logo, and it’s a talker. They name more owners (some famous ones), and it’s a talker. They seem to be taking all the best practices from around MLS, acutely attuned to the lessons, good and bad, of 20 years. Everything they do is intriguing, including the stadium location in a sketchy part of town. On top of all that, Los Angeles is now a city awash in professional sports, which makes everything happening out there more interesting. Finally, pro sports haven’t always enjoyed greatest success in that strange little land just off the coast of Planet Earth, so watching LAFC build its brand will be fascinating, indeed.
Sunil Gulati …
If you think 2015 was a good year for U.S. Soccer’s president, then you and I are measuring on a different scale. In short, it wasn’t. Thing is, there isn’t a lot of hope that the last year’s issues will abate. They seem far more likely, in fact, to take fresh life as this year’s ongoing headaches. Gulati might catch a break if Klinsmann can point his personal needle of success the right direction. Even then, there’s the dark shadow of FIFA scandal lurking about, with all its rotten CONCACAF ties. Even if Gulati has done nothing wrong – to be clear, there is no evidence that U.S. Soccer’s top man has – his mere associations with the indicted and the implicated will continue to sow stress and political undertow.
SEE MORE: Who had soccer’s worst 2015?
Brad Guzan …
At this point, the NYCFC might have a better chance than Aston Villa of playing Premier League soccer in 2016-17. Guzan’s side is dead last, and there’s little evidence of an impending super surge, so relegation approaches “imminent” status. That means Guzan is going to have a choice. His current deal extends into 2017, but would soccer in England’s second tier appeal to the US co-starter in goal? At age 31 and still valued as a solid Premier League backstopper, he could conceivably move within EPL, find a home elsewhere in Europe or – wouldn’t this be cool? – move into MLS as the league’s highest earner in goal.
Jason Kreis …
In a way, Kreis is in a pretty sweet position. Most people around MLS and in domestic soccer circles believe he got a raw deal at New York City FC, a brand new club that practically set land speed records in its race to dysfunction. So Kreis’ coaching reputation was hardly dented by his hair-trigger termination. Now he’s a guest coach with Klinsmann at the national team camp, and this is no stretch to say: Kreis is likely to attract offers. Believe it. With a presumed payout in pocket from NYCFC and a rep still intact, he can afford to be choosey in 2016.
Jordan Morris …
There’s always a Jordan Morris, so to speak: the next big thing; the next Luke Skywalker of US soccer; the next can’t-miss wow-wow wonder-in-the-making. Morris is this year’s wonder-in-the-making, and he’s probably the most obvious person to have on the list. First, there’s the issue of where the young attacker will earn his stacks of cash? Will he sign with Seattle – for what is almost certain to be the league’s top homegrown contract to date – or with Werder Bremen, where he is now training? Or somewhere else? And if he doesn’t sign with MLS, what kind of a “miss” is that from the Sounders? From there, what will we see in Morris’ national team appearances? We may not have to wait long; the NCAA champion from Stanford is likely to appear in US friendlies against Iceland (Jan. 31) and Canada (Feb. 5).
Bill Peterson …
This is a lot of “inside baseball,” and plenty of fans will yawn at the politics of professional soccer in the United States and Canada. That said, there are issues to sort out, and Peterson, as North American Soccer League commissioner, could become an increasingly big player. In all honesty, his league could go either way, suffering further under financial strain (the team in Atlanta just suspended operations) or rising steadily to become an increasing headache for the larger-operation, MLS. We see increasing NASL incursions into MLS territory, such as the Chicago Sting now challenging the established Chicago Fire. (Peter Wilt is a good “get,” guys!) Adding name owners (Carmelo Anthony, Paolo Maldini) and name coaches (Tony Meola) doesn’t hurt Peterson’s NASL either.
SEE MORE: USSF fails to rein in predatory practices of pro leagues.
Megan Rapinoe …
Rapinoe has become the most popular and influential women’s national team figure. Creative and skillful on the field, funny and charming off it, her all-around contributions, competitively and in PR, cannot be understated. So her latest ACL tear, suffered in December, is a double body blow to the program and to US soccer fans. Can she get healthy (and game sharp) in time to contribute to the Rio Olympic chase for gold? We’ll certainly be watching.
Hope Solo …
Olympic qualifying begins soon. Frankly, they could put Oprah in goal and the United States would still qualify out of CONCACAF. But it obviously won’t be such a snap this summer in Rio. That’s where stuff gets real. It is also, traditionally, where Solo is more likely to make herself a point of contention or team consternation. She has drawn attention to herself through word or deed at past World Cups and Olympics. Some of her shenanigans were merely tacky – like her public spat with Brandi Chastain – but still squarely in the file of “needless distractions.” Sometimes the distractions take on darker, more troubling hues. Oh, she is also the world’s top goalkeeper, so her performance in net will say a lot about the US chances of claiming Olympic gold in Rio.
Earnie Stewart …
In terms of competitive pursuits, the Philadelphia Union has generally been a hot mess. Even in success, the club has found ways into “tire fire” status; a lot of really awful stuff has emerged regarding coach Peter Nowak and the team’s only playoff season. So hiring Stewart, smart, studious and hard working, is a clear signal that things are moving in a new (and much better) direction. He’s been playing catch-up the last few months, sorting through Major League Soccer’s arcane salary cap rules and player acquisition mechanics. He is making “money ball” type decisions now for the Union, so everyone is leaning in to see if Stewart can replicate the kind of success he had stretching the budget so prudently in Holland.
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