Any year that a coach gets fired is bound to have been tumultuous, and a lot happened this year. Here’s the best and worst of it.
Best Moment: In a year in which the USMNT likely stagnated more than in any other years previous, there might not seem to be many positives. But the 2-1 win over Ecuador in Seattle showed, at least briefly, that the US can beat talented teams in competitive fixtures when the chips are down. There are caveats to this of course, namely, Ecuador is nowhere near as frightening away from home as they are in Quito's altitude. But even if the US isn't on the level of a Brazil, Argentina or the best in Europe, beating Ecuador is an important marker to show at least where this current crop of players can be on a good day, whatever you think of the departed Jurgen Klinsmann
Worst Moment: Squandering the progress of many players. Jozy Altidore's recent renaissance has been supremely impressive, and he's in his best form since 2013-14. But that very rarely appeared for the national team. John Brooks became one of the best centerbacks to ever wear the Stars and Stripes, but after the Copa America Centenario, those performances became more and more distant. Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood became legitimate striking options for a team that was so reliant on one or two main focal points for years, but their contributions felt wasted most of the time. Same too with Sasha Kljestan, whose welcome return to the player pool felt insignificant in some ways. In 2017, hopefully the emergence of more players in the pool and fantastic performances of older hands are better channeled into good results in what is such a critical year for the program.
Best Moment: USA 4 Costa Rica 0 - Copa America Centenario group stage
The US opened the Copa America Centenario with a 2-0 loss to Colombia and the pressure to win was beyond cabin pressure as the team flew to Chicago for their second match against Costa Rica. Costa Rica has been a tough matchup for the US in recent history. They hadn’t beaten the Ticos by more than a goal since 2005 and had only beaten them twice in the last decade. But the men were on fire at Soldier Field. Clint Dempsey opened with a penalty kick in the 9th minute and the US scored three times in the first half. They cruised to an easy victory and the win set them up for their successful run to the semifinals of the tournament. Perhaps more importantly the US sent a message to CONCACAF that they might again be the class of the confederation.
Worst Moment: Jurgen Klinsmann Fired
However you feel about the reign of Jurgen Klinsmann when a national team coach is fired in the middle of the final round of World Cup qualification, things are not going well. After tragic losses to Jamaica and Guatemala and a disappointing start to the hex, Sunil Gulati made the move to fire Klinsmann and bring back Bruce Arena. The US would most likely have qualified for Russia regardless of the change, so this is a safe move by Gulati and an attempt to restore the goodwill the team had somehow lost. But without a technical director and a retread coach at the helm, the future of US Soccer is now on pause. The sole focus is qualifying for the World Cup, and while that’s a necessary step what’s missing is a clear plan to build an elite soccer nation over the long term. That’s a pretty bad place to be.
Best Moment: With the USMNT getting stagnant under Jurgen Klinsmann, the best moment of the year was making the decision to move on. When it was much easier to think of worst moments than best moments, you know it's time for the program to make a big change. Bruce Arena is a good manager to right the ship, and it gives U.S. Soccer time to chart a new course after the 2018 World Cup. Let's hope they take advantage of this time to make the right decision for the program moving forward.
Worst Moment: There were quite a few to choose from, but the moment that has stuck with me all year is the poor performance from the U23's and their ultimate failure in qualifying for the Olympics. A promising first leg against Colombia in the playoff was thrown away in the second leg. In addition to the poor play, the team showed a lack of discipline throughout qualifying. Leadership, both with this coaching staff and the overall program, really let this group down and did not prepare them for qualifying.
Best Moment: While it was of course a year to forget for US Soccer fans, we were given one bright spot this year. I'm putting the best moment of the year as Christian Pulisic notching his first goal for the Red, White and Blue against Bolivia in Kansas City back in May. Throughout all the trouble this year, Pulisic gives us some reason to be happy for the future of the team. It was the first goal of many and it was the best moment for me because I was there to see it. Honorable mention goes to Besler scoring his first goal after the birth of his first child... because I'm a homer. But because two simple goals are the bright spots of the whole year, I'm saying the real bright spot has to be that the year is finally over! Let's just forget everything and not talk about it ever again.
Worst Moment: The worst spot of the year for me was the two straight losses to open the Hex. Losing to Costa Rica and Mexico is not the end of the world and it doesn't mean they won't qualify for the World Cup. If they were isolated incidents it wouldn't be a big deal. They'll be fine. But those losses showed the team was simply not anywhere near it should be, and where it was promised to be. It showed the other bad results weren't just small problems, but that the team was in a bad place overall. The team hadn't progressed in years and it was clearly time for a change. I wish ol’ Jurgen would have been able to do what he promised and preached, but this low moment of 2016 was enough to spark a regime change. We were at such a low point that his most fierce supporters had given up. While we may all be happy JK is out, that entire situation and those couple weeks were definitely the worst of the year.
Best Moment: The USMNT needed one more win order to advance to the knockout stages of the Copa America Centenario. One more match against Paraguay, and then they were through. A win would guarantee it, a draw was likely good enough, and a loss would be lethal. Ten minutes in, with the score nil-nil, Paraguay found themselves on a counter. Three South American attackers vs. a lone John Brooks. My heart caught in my throat. The ball went out wide left to Almirón. John Brooks was still in the middle. First touch. Second touch. The ball's in the box and Guzan's not there. This is it. Paraguay's scored, and then they'll bunker, and then the US is out. I'm spiraling. I'm spiraling and we're out. Third touch. And it's over. John Brooks made it. In the middle of the Penalty Box, in total No-Man's Land, Brooks gracefully lunged forward, left leg outstretched, and pushed the ball away, a heartbeat before Almirón's right foot smashed a wicked shot into the top of the net. The US was still in this. But it was more than that. If the USMNT could deny Paraguay in their perfect scoring opportunity, then how could we lose? The US was going to win this game. It was nothing short of manifest destiny. That moment, that glorious moment with John Brooks magnificent left boot, that was the single moment when I believed in the USMNT more than I ever imagined I could.
Worst Moment: I had driven several hours with my friends to be there that night. The four of us were standing, alongside everyone else in the stadium. The USMNT was on the defensive, and I was watching from the top corner on the complete opposite side of the pitch. I gave myself a sigh of relief when it looked like Bradley had effectively stopped the attack. But then the ball squirmed out past him and a black shirt jumped on it. The American defenders didn't seem to react, and then the ball squirmed into the back of the net. The Mexican fans behind leapt into the air. ¡Si se puede! Dos a Cero was dead.
Best Moment: June 16 - USA 2, Ecuador 1: USMNT Advances to Copa America Semi-finals
This game had it all: a raucous crowd of over 47,000 in Seattle, an opening goal from a local club star, and game-changing red cards shown to each team. After Clint Dempsey gave the Americans an early 1-0 lead, things looked especially promising for the hosts when Ecuador went down to ten men in the 38th minute. A foolish red card from Jermaine Jones would negate that edge early in the second half. Gyasi Zardes' 65' goal seemed like a clincher at the time, but La Tri pulled one back nine minutes later. Most memorable from this game was the heroic defending of the final 15 minutes, led by the stalwart center back tandem of John Brooks and Geoff Cameron. The win secured an impressive Top 4 finish in the hemisphere's most prestigious international tournament.
Worst Moment: After losing the Hexagonal Round opener vs. Mexico four days prior with the death of Dos A Céro, the U.S. needed to recover quickly for a far better performance in San Jose. It got just the opposite. The wheels came off in the second half, as the Americans suffered a humiliating 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Ticos. Worse yet, many players appeared to quit on Klinsmann, as Costa Rica piled on with some of the easiest, most wide-open looks on goal you'll ever see. The defeat not only put 2018 Qualification in jeopardy, but marked the end of the Jürgen Klinsmann era in ignominious fashion... even if his fate seemed increasingly inevitable.
Best Moment: A goal against Bolivia in a meaningless friendly is my best moment of the year. It was Christian Pulisic’s first ever USMNT goal, but not only that, it was the most well-worked team goal we’ve seen in quite some time. It was all created by Jermaine Jones and Darlington Nagbe in the midfield, with the latter showing of his fantastic dribbling skills and setting up the then 17-year-old for his first international tally. It revved up the hype trains surrounding both players before the Copa America began. Those two promising attacking players were going to lead up to the glory in the battle of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, right? Well...nevermind.
Worst Moment: I’ve harped on this numerous times, but only because it was so glaring. The moments the third and fourth goals were conceded in San Jose, Costa Rica the scenario of Klinsmann actually losing his job entered my mind. When I saw basically the whole team quit on him it clicked on like a switch. No one was expecting to win that match, but to see that lack of effort was startling and what I think caused the change in manager. If the U.S. drop a hard-fought 2-0 result there, I think Jurgen still has the job. It was those two moments that really put the nail in his coffin from my perspective.
Best Moment: In these trying times (to be a USMNT fan, or to make my politics obvious, to be an American), it's good to have hope. And hope comes in the form of a speedy 18-year-old winger with impeccable field vision, smarts, and the knack for chaos-creating runs. Not only has Pulisic emerged in 2016 from teenage curiosity to must-start team stalwart, he's also making himself a vital player for a club team that's one of Bundesliga's exhilarating bests. I don't think it's overstating it to say that he's worthy of wearing the #10. My optimism for a legitimate World Cup run in 2026 hinges largely on his continued development into the nebulous category of "world-class player."
Worst Moment: The Copa America match vs. Argentina: The Yanks' Half-World Cup performance was, in not at all a shocking development to anyone who's watched the U.S. in this decade's tournaments, uneven. The opening loss to Colombia stoked the Not Ready For Prime Time fires, and then wins courtesy of Jermaine Jones playing out of his mind propelled the USMNT all the way to the semifinals in Houston, in my neck of the woods. Before the match, in the parking lot, fans were filled with "Why not us?" giddiness. By the end of the match, the normally-unflappable American Outlaws seethed in silence, the Americans hadn't gotten off a single shot (and barely advanced the ball beyond midfield), and buzzards began circling the Klinsmann Era. The U.S. has suffered worse humiliations in a century-plus of soccer history, to be sure, but this was as radical a high-to-low plunge within 90 minutes as any in the modern era.
What were your best and worst moments of the year? Let us know in the comments.