Happy Thanksgiving, SSFC readers. We hope you’re having a great day. On this holiday of eating and reflecting, we thought it’d be a fun idea to tell you what we’re thankful for in the soccer world this year. Here it goes:
In 2016, I'm thankful to have plenty of U.S. players that I actually enjoy watching play soccer. My favorite player of all-time is Ronaldinho. He embodied fun on the field, and made magic happen. He broke the rules of what was supposed to work at the highest levels of the game and had a damn good time doing it. For years, if I wanted to see an American player play like that...well, I couldn't. I would mostly try to look for youth games featuring the next big thing and make due with Heather O'Reilly or Landon Donovan, who were the closest I got to that for a long time. And make no mistake, they were great players, but mostly in the "run fast and straight ahead" kind of way. But now? Now I can watch Christian Pulisic go make grown men look foolish. I can see Tobin Heath cross defenders into infinity. Darlington Nagbe has dribbles for days. And Crystal Dunn. Have y'all ever seen Crystal Dunn play soccer? She's like a lightning bolt of happiness hit the field. Go watch that goal against England on loop while listening to "Ultralight Beam" and tell me women's soccer isn't as good as men's. I love watching these players play, and I love that they choose to represent the vast and diverse land I call home.
The Hex, and it's massive margin for error. In other World Cup Qualifying competitions, the US' World Cup hopes might be well and truly dead. But with the Hex, even with the terrible start, the US is still on track to qualify for WC2018 if they do what we think they can do. And, with rumors that the Hex might be going away for 2022 qualification, we should be thankful for its existence as well as the massive margin for error it gives teams that struggle early on, or even late (see, Mexico). If the US qualifies despite its slow start and coaching change, we should thank the Hex and CONCACAF for that.
I'm thankful for Copa America Centenario -- a great idea that, despite a few minor execution issues (including misplaced national anthems), showed that the U.S. can host a major tournament, that this hemisphere can produce a compelling tournament full of fun games and open play, and that the USMNT can be competitive within such a tournament. The semifinal match against Argentina, while a serious recordscratch on the above narrative, was inspirational in its own twisted way, showing a dissatisfied team and fan base that more work needs to be done, and cementing the feeling that merely making the semis was not something to settle for. Here's hoping a tournament uniting the Americas is more than a one-time thing.
This year I'm thankful for a women's professional league stable enough that it didn't need the USWNT to win a gold medal to sustain interest. I'm thankful for expanded WNT player pools and a changing of the guard leading to call ups from the league and college ranks. I'm thankful for increased diversity on the WNT and getting to help run SSFC as a cool, inclusive place.
I’m thankful for the willingness Jill Ellis has shown to take risks on new players and to continue to move the USWNT towards being a more technically and tactically astute side as they enter into a new cycle. It takes courage to tinker with a system that has achieved so much success in the past, especially after having won the Women’s World Cup just over a year ago. That she’s brought so many new players with few or no senior caps into the mix since winning the World Cup shows both confidence in her staff’s ability to identify, develop and incorporate new talent into the existing group, and humility in recognizing that there are new levels the WNT must reach if they’re going to continue to stay on top of the international women’s game. As other countries continue to put more funding into their women’s programs, the USSF will have to take a hard look at how they develop youth on the women’s side (and the types of players they promote), but Ellis’ acknowledgement of the need to adapt at the senior level is a good place to start.
2016 has been a year that has seen a little of everything in American soccer. I'm biased being here in Atlanta, but I'm thankful for the growth of MLS and the positives it is bringing to the sport in this country. New clubs to the league are pushing it forward, bringing new ideas to the table, and growing the game in new areas. Kids in Atlanta and Minnesota will have players to look up to and emulate, a team to go watch and learn from, and an academy system that can develop their potential talent. These are all things we could not count on not that long ago. Soccer in the U.S. will look dramatically different in 2017 than it did in 2007 and it's sometimes easy to overlook that progress.
In 2016, I’m thankful for the exciting wave of new players entering the ranks of US Soccer. At the top of the list are Mal Pugh and Christian Pulisic, of course, but it’s also been a delight to watch Bobby Wood integrate so easily into the national team and the Bundesliga, to watch Lynn Williams and Kealia Ohai wreak havoc in the NWSL and then follow it up with goal-scoring encores in their first national team appearances, to watch Andi Sullivan jump from college to the national team and look like she'd been there for years. It's an exciting time to be a fan of American soccer, not just for what these teams can do in 2017, but for what they can do over the next decade. I’m also thankful that the topic of gender equity in the national team finally broke through into the popular consciousness this year. While there’s still a lot of work to be done, I’m at least somewhat optimistic that US Soccer will move in a more egalitarian direction going forward.
It’s been a pretty crazy year for soccer in America. The USMNT has seen its ups and downs. Unfortunately the year has ended on the sourest of notes with a coaching change occurring. I’m thankful for Atlanta United and finally having a local club team to distract me during the many down weeks without international soccer things going on. I’m thankful for Christian Pulisic giving us eternal hope no matter how bad things may seem. Jordan Morris too. I’m thankful for the SSFC staff for writing some great articles so you guys don’t have to read my drivel as much. I’m thankful for soccer in general. What a crazy, emotional, glorious sport it is.