My soccer predictions for 2013
In anticipation of the new year, SI.com's writers are predicting the stories they think will define the sports landscape in 2013.
Soccer never stops. It's one of the great things about the global game, but it also means that taking a breath and looking at the big picture is hard sometimes. Thankfully, the start of a new year forces us to do that, so without further adieu, here are my 10 predictions for 2013:
1. Landon Donovan will continue playing soccer. -- Now 30, the U.S.'s all-time-leading scorer spoke often in 2012 about how he could retire from the sport in 2013, citing fatigue and a diminished hunger for the game. Donovan even mentioned the possibility that he might walk away before the 2013 MLS season, the final year of his contract. But my sense is that he will take advantage of his time off right now and decide he wants to play in his fourth World Cup at Brazil 2014. To do so, he'll need to be a part of the U.S.'s qualification process in 2013, which means continuing with the Los Angeles Galaxy next season. On his day, Donovan is still the best player in MLS and a key starter for the U.S. as well.
2. Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan will get jobbed on the FIFA world player of the year award. -- The two U.S. women's stars are finalists along with Brazil's Marta for the FIFA Ballon d'Or, which is to be awarded in Zurich on January 7. Wambach and Morgan are far more deserving than Marta, a terrific player who in 2012 nevertheless had her worst year in a long time but was somehow chosen in the top three by the poorly-informed voters. (The omission of Canada's Christine Sinclair from the finalists is a joke.) I'd love to be wrong here, but I suspect that the two U.S. players will split votes while clueless voters (the national team coach and captain along with one journalist from each FIFA country) opt for Marta based on reputation. (Full disclosure: I'm the U.S.'s journo voter and I chose Wambach No. 1.) Two saving graces: The 32-year-old Wambach will break Mia Hamm's all-time international goals record in 2013, and the 23-year-old Morgan will continue becoming the most popular current U.S. soccer player, male or female, heading toward Hamm range in terms of recognizability.
3. Arsenal will find a way to finish in the Premier League's top four and qualify for Champions League again. -- Manchester United, Man City and Chelsea appear likely to claim three of the top four spots, but who will get the fourth? As of now, the top candidates are Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, West Brom and Arsenal. But Arsenal has the best goal differential of them all, and the Gunners have the highest upside of any team in this group. Carp all you want about manager Arsène Wenger and his inability to win a trophy since 2005, but his streak of 15 straight Champions League qualifications -- and 13 straight Round of 16 appearances -- is amazing.
4. Brazil will win the Confederations Cup and remind us the five-time world champs can still play. -- Remarkably, Brazil dropped to No. 18 in the most recent FIFA world rankings, an all-time low, below such luminaries as Ecuador, Switzerland, Greece and Croatia. Wait, what?! Look for that ranking to spike upward when host Brazil wins a loaded 2013 Confederations Cup that includes Spain, Italy, Uruguay, Mexico and Japan. World Cup 2002 winner Luiz Felipe Scolari is back at the helm of Brazil, and he's sure to help a team that's blessed with talent m -- Neymar, Oscar and a mix of new stars (Willian) and old ones (Kaká) --overcome the pressure of playing at home. If Brazil wins the Confed Cup, though, it won't be a guarantee of success at World Cup 2014. The Brazilians have won the last two Confederations Cups but failed to advance beyond the World Cup quarterfinals a year later.
5. No English teams will reach the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals for the first time since 1995-96. -- Reigning Premier League champ Manchester City failed to even reach the Champions League Round of 16, as did reigning Champions League titleist Chelsea. What's more, the two remaining English teams got brutal Round of 16 draws: Manchester United with Real Madrid and Arsenal with Bayern Munich. The absence of English sides in the Champions League quarters will occasion all sorts of handwringing. But while I'd argue that this season's Premier League teams are more entertaining than they are good, I'd also say that this season's Champions League problems will be more of a blip on the radar than a symbol of any tectonic-plate shift in European soccer. Simply put, Premier League teams will continue to matter in UEFA's top competition.
6. The U.S. men will have less trouble in the final round of World Cup qualifying than they had in the semifinal round. -- Jurgen Klinsmann's team waited until the final group game in October to survive for this year's Hexagonal, the first time the U.S. had done that since 2000. But while the competition is tougher in the six-team, 10-game final qualifying round, the pressure shouldn't be. After all, four of the six CONCACAF teams could end up at World Cup '14, leaving a bigger margin for error, and the 10-game Hex (as opposed to a six-game semifinal round) should provide a larger sample size and favor the better teams like the United States. True, the U.S. won't have an easy start in the Hex, where the Stars & Stripes is the only team of the six that plays three of its first four games on the road. But the U.S. should still qualify before the final group game this time -- and if the Americans can't finish in the top four spots, then something would be seriously amiss.
7. The Los Angeles Galaxy will win an unprecedented third straight MLS Cup final. -- Give David Beckham plenty of credit for going out with his second consecutive MLS Cup title in 2012, but let's be honest: The Galaxy should be a bit better on the field in 2013 by not having to build its attack around a 38-year-old Beckham in the central midfield (and that's even if DP replacement target Kaká doesn't join until 2014). With Donovan, Robbie Keane, Omar González and a slew of good experienced role players (Mike Magee, Todd Dunivant, Sean Franklin, etc.), Bruce Arena's Galaxy is poised to make history with its third straight MLS crown in 2013. I think it'll happen.
8. Venezuela and Panama will become first-time qualifiers for the World Cup. -- I first made this prediction more than a year ago, and I'm sticking to it. Part of the reason has been the ongoing improvement of two countries that used to be also-rans when it came to international soccer. And part of the reason is their favorable qualifying situations: Panama could finish fourth in the CONCACAF Hexagonal and still make Brazil 2014 by winning a playoff against (most likely) New Zealand. (In 2010 World Cup qualifying, CONCACAF'S fourth-place team had to meet Uruguay.) As for Venezuela, it's currently in fourth place in CONMEBOL qualifying, with an unprecedented six South American teams likely to reach World Cup 2014. (Brazil has an automatic spot as host, with four other CONMEBOL teams qualifying automatically and a fifth set for a playoff against the fifth-place Asian team.)
9. Omar González will join Geoff Cameron as the U.S.'s starting center backs. -- The World Cup is a young man's game, and while U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra has had an exemplary international career, he will be 35 at Brazil 2014. Last January brought the emergence of Geoff Cameron as a first-line starter in the U.S. central defense, and the same thing will happen in January 2013 when the 6'-5" González, 24, breaks through on the national team. It's not hard to see this coming: González is now healed from his serious knee injury, and his MVP performance in the 2012 MLS Cup final showed beyond a doubt that he deserves the chance to win a starting spot with the national team.
10. Soccer will continue passing ice hockey in U.S. popularity. -- Last year it was the U.S. television rights for World Cups '18 and '22 going for a total of $1.1 billion (for English and Spanish languages), the highest of any country in the world. This year it was the U.S. rights for the English Premier League, which went to NBC for $250 million over three years starting in 2013-14. But while soccer is on a distinctly upward trend in the U.S., the NHL is struggling, not least due to the ongoing work stoppage that could claim the entire season. Here's my question: If you added up all the U.S. TV rights money spent on the sport of soccer for 2013 and beyond (national and local, and prorated for events like the World Cup and European Championship), would it already exceed the total for ice hockey? I think it might -- and the gap will only continue to grow.
Whatever happens in 2013 -- and yes, even if I'm wrong on my predictions above -- I'll look forward to sharing it with you along the way. Thank you for reading, and happy New Year!