It was a forgettable year for American soccer fans, but there were some highlights to help offset the down moments, writes Ives Galarcep.
You can forgive American soccer fans if they don't have fond memories of 2015. Sure, there were some unforgettable moments, and accomplishments, but overall there was something thoroughly disappointing about the year as a whole.
The bad taste can be attributed in large part to the struggles and disappointments of the U.S. men's national team. The good vibes created by the 2014 World Cup quickly faded, and while there were flashes of promise at various points this year, the lingering memories will be of the team's Gold Cup failure and subsequent CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico. That defeat didn't just mean there will be no 2017 Confederations Cup for the Americans, but much more painfully, was a realization that the U.S. had handed back the crown as King of CONCACAF to Mexico.
There were positives, though — most memorably the U.S. women's national team lifting the World Cup, and securing the title with an emphatic 5-2 victory over Japan.
MLS continued its growth, and overall the league enjoyed a season that could best be described as positive. An influx of stars helped bring more international attention to the league, and expansion helped bring MLS back to Florida while also creating a rivalry in New York.
Here is a look back at the year in American soccer:
It was the year of the women in American soccer, as the U.S. lifted the Women's World Cup trophy. Coach Jill Ellis took some flack heading into the tournament, but she ultimately proved that she knew what she was doing, as her team kicked things up a few notches in the knockout round to win the country's third World Cup. It was a true team effort, from the stingy defense to the heroics of Carli Lloyd. The world champions received a hero's welcome upon their return from striking gold in Canada, earning a memorable ticker-tape parade in New York City.
As forgettable a year as it was for most of the men's teams, one squad that did impress was the Under-20 World Cup team. Led by coach Tab Ramos, the U-20s beat Colombia in the round of 16 before falling to eventual champion Serbia in a quarterfinal penalty shootout. It was a tournament that provided an impressive showcase for some truly promising talents, such as Matt Miazga, Zack Steffen and Rubio Rubin.
In MLS, the Portland Timbers brought a title to one of the most passionate soccer markets in the country, lifting an MLS Cup and kicking off some of the best celebrations the league has seen. Along the way, we saw the emergence of Darlington Nagbe as one of the most promising players in American soccer.
Expansion brought in Orlando City and New York City FC, and though neither team made the playoffs in year one, both helped produce plenty of memorable moments. The packed house in the Citrus Bowl for the opening match was a sight to see, and NYCFC's first home derby, against the New York Red Bulls in a rocking Yankee Stadium, was another memory that will linger for years to come.
The 2015 season was a banner campaign for FC Dallas and the Red Bulls. Oscar Pareja helped lead a young Dallas team built around homegrown players to a first-place finish in the West, while Jesse Marsch overcame the backlash of Mike Petke's firing to rebuild the Red Bulls and help them win their second Supporters' Shield in three seasons.
Overall, MLS' increase to a 12-team postseason was a success. We saw exciting playoff matches throughout, including some of the best MLS games of the year.
Though the U.S. men didn't have a great year, the team did produce some special moments. There was Michael Bradley's Olimpico against Panama to start the year, and his lung-busting run to set up a winning goal against the Netherlands. There also was Bobby Wood's trio of special strikes, including game-winners against the Netherlands and Germany, and the extra-time equalizer against Mexico that was easily one of the most exciting moments of the year for American soccer fans.
This year also helped Jordan Morris become the next great hope for U.S. fans yearning for a star to emerge. He impressed in limited playing time with the U.S. senior team, and was one of the few bright spots on the U.S. U-23 team that stumbled in Olympic qualifying. He capped the year by helping lead Stanford to its first NCAA title, leading to plenty of speculation about whether Morris will finally turn pro.
There simply is no spinning it: The U.S. men endured a bad year. Sure, there were some good results in friendlies, but the Americans laid an egg at the Gold Cup, finishing in fourth place while Mexico lifted the trophy. Two months later, Mexico defeated the Americans in the CONCACAF Cup to secure a place in the Confederations Cup and raise more questions about the job Jurgen Klinsmann is doing.
U.S. fans hoping to find some solace in youth national team performances didn't find much more to be happy about. The U.S. U-17s crashed out of the World Cup in the group stage, while the U.S. U-23s failed to secure a place in the Olympics, and will now need to beat Colombia in a two-leg series in March to earn a place at the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil.
The U.S. women were not immune to setbacks, though their lowest point wasn't caused by the players, but by U.S. Soccer. A scheduled friendly in Hawaii was forced to be canceled abruptly because of poor field conditions, leaving plenty of fans of the U.S. team heartbroken and leading to serious questions about whether U.S. Soccer treats the women fairly.
Another forgettable moment for U.S. Soccer in 2015 came when CEO Dan Flynn was forced to testify in front of a U.S. Senate subcommittee regarding FIFA and CONCACAF corruption. The fact that U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati failed to appear raised some eyebrows, and Flynn's performance in the face of tough questions could hardly be called convincing.
American fans who take joy in following the success of U.S. players overseas have found fewer and fewer American players to root for in top leagues. The flow of top Americans coming to MLS from foreign leagues now outpaces the number of U.S. internationals making moves overseas. There are still some players carrying the flag for Americans in Europe, such as Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson, but the numbers are as low as they have been in years. That trend is made increasingly difficult for American fans to stomach as they watch more and more Mexican players playing in top leagues and in the UEFA Champions League.
The Montreal Impact's run to the CONCACAF Champions League final was a positive step for MLS, but that feat overshadowed the fact that it was a poor CCL tournament for American teams. D.C. United was the only one of four American MLS teams to advance past the group stage, and D.C. fell in the quarterfinals.
Officiating continued to be a sore subject for MLS, and for American referees, as Mark Geiger's shocking handling of the Gold Cup semifinal between Mexico and Panama triggering allegations of CONCACAF corruption.
Treatment of officials also was a low point for American soccer, with Clint Dempsey drawing a suspension for ripping up a referee's notebook in the middle of a U.S. Open Cup match, and Jermaine Jones earning a six-match suspension for accosting none other than Geiger for what Jones considered to be a blatant missed call in the playoffs.
Another persistent issue MLS continues to battle with is poor TV ratings. The MLS Cup final pulled the lowest domestic TV ratings in years, while stats throughout the season were still not heading in the direction a growing league would hope for.
Injuries continued to plague a trio of promising American prospects, as Terrence Boyd, Joe Gyau and Joshua Gatt watched most or all of the year go by without being able to play.
Many will consider the fact that the U.S. Justice Department helped shake FIFA to its corrupt knees by handing down indictments of several key officials a clear-cut positive for American soccer. It definitely was a victory for the sport around the world, as corrupt officials are being brought to justice. The reason it falls in the in-betweens is because the moment itself has left the CONCACAF region looking like a corruption-infested backwater, while U.S. Soccer officials have been left looking oblivious.
MLS succeeded in bringing in a plethora of high-profile players to help fill the void left by the retirements of Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan. While some of those star signings enjoyed good debut seasons in MLS, several others struggled badly, leading to more questions about MLS being seen as a retirement league. Most notably, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard failed to live up to expectations in their first MLS seasons.
NYCFC failed to make any progress toward a stadium project, but the club did manage to make the most of playing at Yankee Stadium, drawing impressive crowds to the Bronx in year one despite disappointing results.
MLS continues to make progress toward further expansion, with plenty of markets stepping up to make good bids, but the struggle to find a viable stadium project in Miami has helped stall David Beckham's MLS expansion bid. Recent news has been promising in Miami, but it is looking more and more like only one expansion team (Atlanta United) will be ready to go for the 2017 season.
Bob Bradley continued to blaze a trail for American coaches, helping Norwegian club Stabaek to an impressive season before taking the coaching job at Le Havre in the French second division. As impressive as his efforts are, the fact that he still can't find tangible offers in bigger leagues is disheartening.