The national teams remained front and center, but as soccer continues to grow and diversify, story lines big and small blossomed in 2018. Here are 11 of them:
1. U.S. wins the World Cup (kind of): Certainly not the men’s team. And not the women (until perhaps next summer). We’re talking about the right to host the 2026 tournament, along with Canada and Mexico. The North American bid routed Morocco in the FIFA voting, meaning the sport’s spectacle will take place in these parts for the first time since 1994. Fears of another tainted process, which resulted in Qatar getting the 2022 event instead of the United States, never materialized in a (somewhat) reformed FIFA.
2. A World Cup without the U.S.: With Russia staging the tournament for the first time, the Americans didn’t show up. It wasn’t a boycott; they failed to qualify. So much for Putin and Trump sharing the FIFA suite. Despite the absence of the United States (as well as Italy and Netherlands), the tournament was a smash hit. And Americans (the public, not the players) were on hand. There weren’t as many as past World Cups, but Red Square became the meeting point for thousands of Mexican Americans, Peruvian Americans and many more.
3. Indomitable women: While the U.S. men missed the World Cup, the top-ranked women cruised to a berth in France next summer by blasting regional competition in the qualifying tournament. The reigning champions finished the year with an 18-0-2 mark and extended their unbeaten streak since July 2017 to 28 matches (25-0-3 with a 93-17 scoring advantage). They’ve accomplished it with a balanced roster; Megan Rapinoe (fourth) was the only American in the top 10 of voting for FIFA female player of the year.
4. USSF shuffle: The U.S. Soccer Federation elected a new president (former VP Carlos Cordeiro), hired a general manager for the men’s program (Earnie Stewart), began making plans for a new chief executive (Dan Flynn plans to retire as early as 2019) and finally got around to appointing a new men’s coach (Gregg Berhalter). A much-needed female voice (former star Cindy Parlow Cone) will become vice president. Under new management, will American soccer set a clear vision and reach full potential?
5 Interim, redefined: Dave Sarachan became the caretaker of the men’s national team following the World Cup qualifying fiasco. It figured to be a brief assignment, but then the USSF needed him for three more months, then three more and another six while plodding through a process to hire a long-term coach. Favored all along, Berhalter, from the Columbus Crew, got the gig. Emphasizing possession and tactics, he inherits a squad with a young core and about two years to get back on track.
6 The kids are all right: It’s not all doom and gloom for the men’s program. A young fleet of players, many from prominent European leagues, gained valuable experience in a series of friendlies against top-shelf opponents. Besides Borussia Dortmund attacker Christian Pulisic — who, though only 20, is the cornerstone of the new-look squad — the games offered opportunity to Schalke’s Weston McKennie (20), Paris Saint-Germain’s Tim Weah (18), Columbus’s Zack Steffen (23), RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams (19), Werder Bremen’s Josh Sargent (18) and Nantes’ Matt Miazga (23).
7. London is not calling: The Premier League was once the foremost destination for Americans seeking European dreams. This past year, however, the number of U.S. players receiving first-team minutes in the world’s most famous circuit dwindled to three defensive-oriented types (Newcastle’s DeAndre Yedlin, Fulham’s Tim Ream and Huddersfield Town’s Danny Williams). There are six on loan elsewhere, four assigned to under-23 squads and rumors of Pulisic jumping to Chelsea or Liverpool.
8. Southern soccer: Atlanta is a soccer town? Yes, Atlanta is a soccer town. In its second year of existence, Atlanta United not only played attractive soccer and won the title, the club continued demolishing league attendance records (53,000 average) and drew the largest crowd in MLS Cup history (73,019). On the field, Josef Martinez set the single-season scoring record with 31 goals and won the MVP award. Off the field, investor Arthur Blank spent on his futbol team and marketed it like he does his football organization, the Falcons.
9. Big names, big impact: Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and England’s Wayne Rooney are past their prime but still packing plenty of punch, as they demonstrated in their MLS debut seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy and D.C. United, respectively. Ibrahimovic hit the target with goals (20), assists (12) and marketing genius, while Rooney timed his midseason arrival with the opening of Audi Field and provided several epic moments (plus 12 goals and seven assists) as United rocketed from last place to a playoff berth.
10. MLS’s expanding horizons: The league had planned to cap the number of teams at 28, and with Cincinnati starting in 2019 and Nashville, Miami and Austin on the horizon, MLS has only one slot left. With several cities in the running (and willing to pay expansion fees exceeding $100 million), Commissioner Don Garber has tossed around the idea of going to 30 or more. Even though not all league investors are on board, a league that almost went under about 15 years ago is raising its flag all over the place.
11. Merriment at Maryland: Without the usual array of elite attackers, Sasho Cirovski’s Terrapins failed to score in their first four matches and were 4-5-3 after conceding a 90th-minute goal at Indiana. Would they even qualify for the NCAA tournament? No worries: They wound up winning the darn thing. Defense and chemistry clicked into place and, with five consecutive tournament shutouts, Maryland earned the most improbable of its three titles since 2005.