World Cup qualifying the biggest storyline in U.S. soccer for 2012
U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann is under heavy scrutiny
Klinsmann will ultimately be judged on his work in World Cup qualifying
MLS attendances and visibility should continue to grow with Montreal's entry
Looking ahead to the headlines of our game in 2012, here's where much of the domestic U.S. soccer news will come from, everything from the awesome to the awful and points in between:
1. World Cup qualifying: The analysis of all things Jurgen Klinsmann through his first five months in charge won't amount to a hill of German beans once the United States wades slowly into World Cup qualifying this summer. Because, truly, only two things matter in the ultimate rating of his performance: qualifying for the next World Cup and subsequent performance upon arrival at Brazil 2014. That's really it. The Americans enter semifinal round qualifying in June, and we'll know by this fall whether they have advanced into final stage qualifying. (They almost certainly will.) If Klinsmann and Co. cruise with aplomb, then the troubling offensive struggles of his initial friendlies will be gladly forgiven. If not .... well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. As for the semifinal round, Antigua and Barbuda (one team) is not a threat. Guatemala, where the United States has won only once in 20 years, and Jamaica are the semifinal round "threats," such as they are.
2. As Jurgen Klinsmann's World Turns: Has there ever been a more compelling, more intriguing figure in U.S. Soccer? (Especially considering the guy wasn't born here and never played in a U.S. shirt!) Opinions already are all over the place on the pricey U.S. men's national team coach, who may be an inspirational visionary completely reshaping the way U.S. Soccer's developmental model works. Or, he may be an impractical dreamer whose ideas just don't mesh with reality. We'll see. Either way, his first full year in charge will surely churn and burn with headlines and chatter, on everything from playing style to his quirky personnel selections. Especially those quirky personnel selections, although his more inclusive January camp roster did finally allay a few concerns, at least.
3. Women's Olympics, a shot at redemption: Remember how the U.S. quest last summer for the Women's World Cup ended? Remember Abby Wambach's dramatic strike (and Ian Darke's breathtaking call) in the quarters, and how things looked under control in the final -- until it all got away from them against Japan? Well, Wambach, Hope Solo, coach Pia Sundhage and the rest of the American women sure do. So the buzz will be about redemption and missions unaccomplished at Germany 2011. The Women's Olympic tournament, unlike the men's version, is the same cast of Women's World Cup characters. So the United States, Japan and Brazil (the usual suspects) probably will be favored. Wambach, Solo, Marta, Homare Sawa and Kelly Smith (the usual suspects) are the likeliest to shine individually in London. (Oh, the U.S. must still qualify. That happens in Vancouver at the end of this month. Don't sweat this one; Sundhage's team is a virtual shoe-in to advance into the 12-team field in London.)
4. Men's Olympic qualifying: We can surely debate the true value of the men's Olympic Soccer Tournament -- an event permanently assigned consigned to coach class while the regal World Cup hogs up the first class seats. Still, in terms of exposure for young U.S. talent, for the emerging reputation of U.S. Olympic coach Caleb Porter (one of the domestic game's bright young minds) and in terms of awareness for certain national team programs around the world, the Olympics have meaning and should be instructive. First, of course, the U.S. has to get there. Regional qualifying in late March and early April is here in the U.S. From there, the Olympics in London will be a headline maker, starting with the selection of three over-aged players. Fairly or unfairly, it all becomes a bigger story if the U.S. bites the big one and somehow fails to arrive into London.
5. Comings, goings and up-and-comers in the U.S. talent pool: The U.S. soccer fan is always looking for the next Tab Ramos, Claudio Reyna or Kasey Keller. (We'd love to discover our own little Leo Messi, but first things first.) So everyone will be interested to see whether Brek Shea can improve on his 10-goal MLS season. Of course, FC Dallas can't keep such a talent forever, so every transfer window from here forward will be rife of speculation around the winger's next address. Same for young striker Juan Agudelo -- assuming he ever gets a starting spot for the Red Bulls. German-born youngsters Danny Williams, Tim Chandler and Fabian Johnson could emerge as game-changers, but may also continue to be a source of low-boil consternation if Klinsmann keeps turning up more of these so-called "passport" players. Also worth watching are the Steady Eddies of the Yanks Abroad brigade. At age 28, Clint Dempsey is hitting his tiptop prime, and his terrific Fulham campaign will only escalate talk that he has outgrown quaint little Craven Cottage. Will summer 2012 finally bring the big move? Meanwhile, Brad Guzan (still Tim Howard's heir apparent, right?) is making good on his big chance at Villa Park, which could help catapult him into a better situation professionally. And Brad Friedel, now 40, will have to retire sooner or later? Won't he?
6. The "older" side of town in MLS: It seems odd to speak of "older" MLS markets. But the league, about to begin its 17th season, is a scruffy little puppy no more. As such, some of these "older" franchises need to get with the program. In D.C., the problem has never been franchise commitment or desire, but merely a matter of where the heck to play? MLS commissioner Don Garber continues to lament the fiscally untenable situation, and owner Will Chang is surely loath to keep pouring money into a sinkhole forever. Something's got to give, so it's a story that bears watching. Just north of there, everyone outside of the Kraft family wants the New England Revolution to discard ill-fitting Gillette Stadium and to put more money into the team already. There was some movement, at least, in 2011 in a front office restructure. Whether that was just cosmetic or a tip to more substantive moves ahead, only time in 2012 will tell.
7. "Bienvenue à Montreal!": Only the biggest dreamers could have imagined how successful Major League Soccer's most recent five franchise additions (Toronto, Seattle, Philadelphia, Portland and Vancouver) have been at the gate. Sellouts are the norm. So are waiting lists for season tickets, and the energy of these firecracker new franchises are driving Major League Soccer 2.0 to places unseen over the first decade (like the new TV deal with NBC networks that kicks in this year). This year Montreal becomes No. 19 in MLS and signs point to similarly robust revenues and go-go attendance figures. Along similar lines, league HQ's continued reach for a second New York franchise deserves monitoring. Meanwhile, yet another swell MLS facility opens, this one in downtown Houston; 15 of 19 teams will now pass and trap inside grounds constructed primarily for MLS play.
8. Whither Women's Professional Soccer?: The day will come, perhaps, when a women's professional soccer league will thrive gracefully here rather than limp along in a perpetually tenuous state. But that day probably won't be in 2012. Just last month U.S. Soccer's board of directors granted conditional approval to sanction the wobbly WPS as a Division 1 professional league for 2012. With that, the five remaining clubs -- yes, just five -- can now plan for a 2012 season. Alas, that counts as progress. (Actually, real WPS progress was seen in 2011 in shedding that ridiculous magicJack situation and its impossible owner, so there's that.) For 2012, efforts to broaden stability and status (or a final, fateful spiral going the other way) will continue to make news. So will any more inflammatory Tweets or comments from WPS-attached Hope Solo, who for better or worse has become the face of U.S. women's soccer.
9. FIFA silliness, sorry-ness and ongoing shenanigans: FIFA scandal and corruption is hardly just a domestic story. But the scope of the sliminess means some icky tentacles do stretch into the United States. The FBI is now involved (never a good sign) according to numerous reports out of Europe. And American official Chuck Blazer, one of our country's longtime power brokers in world soccer, is knee-deep in the whole messy mire, initially as a whistle blower and now as a possible target of the probes. Blazer has stepped down as CONCACAF general secretary, but we'd be naive to believe we've heard the last of all this.
10. Bye-bye, Beckham? One thing we can count on for 2012 is a rapid resolution to this one. When David Beckham, 36, wrapped up his gimpy hamstring six weeks ago and guided the Galaxy to an MLS title, most analysts saw his stateside departure as a fait accompli. Recently enriched Paris Saint-Germain seemed the impending last stop of the Brand Beckham express. But every day that goes by without a splashy announcement out of PSG seems to portend good things for the Galaxy, which hopes to keep Beckham's swerve and verve attached to the Home Depot Center for another year, at least. The January transfer window is now open, so if PSG (or any moneyed suitor, for that matter) is going to make a big move, it needs to happen pronto -- if only so we can stop wondering how L.A. is going to erect its championship defense and start worrying more about what the wayward Red Bulls might do.
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