1. Reflections begin, of course, with the women’s team, which faced growing challenges from teams representing countries slowly awakening to investing in the female game.
The group stage was a breeze, highlighted by 13 goals against Thailand and subsequent criticism of the team’s unrestrained scoring and celebrations. But that, in a nutshell, was a microcosm of Jill Ellis’s squad: ruthless, driven and unapologetic about its mission. In response, the Americans celebrated the next match with restrained golf claps.
The knockout stage was a series of tests, from rising Spain, from a host team that believed its time had come, from unfazed England and from stubborn Netherlands.
The United States finished with seven victories in seven matches and, for the first time in its decorated history, repeated as world champion.
2. The World Cup triumph transcended sport as Megan Rapinoe and teammates shined a bright light on the role of elite female athletes in sport and society. They used their platform to challenge male-dominated norms and to fight for financial fairness in both their own federation and in those dragging their feet worldwide.
Rapinoe, the tournament’s Golden Ball winner as MVP, was a lightning rod — and the lightning. She spoke eloquently about the team’s efforts to fundamentally change how the world sees female athletes and how their performance could embolden anyone fighting for a greater cause.
Politics were not spared: Rapinoe and others spoke out about President Trump and his policies — he, of course, shot back. Hence, the idea that this four-week competition was merely about soccer was obliterated.
3. While the women’s team flourished, the men’s rebuilding efforts continued after the catastrophic failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Gregg Berhalter, a controversial pick as coach because his brother is a high-ranking executive at the U.S. Soccer Federation, began his first full year with mixed reviews.
The Americans had an 11-5-2 record, though in the matches that mattered most, they lost to Mexico in the Concacaf Gold Cup final and rebounded from their first defeat to Canada in 34 years to advance to the Nations League semifinals next June.
Berhalter’s implementation of a style emphasizing possession and building an attack from the back started slowly. But with a young core in place, there are signs of hope before 2022 World Cup qualifying begins in September.
4. The brightest light in U.S. men’s soccer remains Christian Pulisic, 21, who became the subject of the most expensive transfer, by far, of an American: $73 million, paid by Chelsea to Borussia Dortmund, which had nurtured him for four years.
Initially, the pride of Hershey, Pa., had a hard time gaining playing time for a young Chelsea squad, but between Oct. 26 and Nov. 27, he scored six goals across all competitions, including a hat trick against Burnley. Ups and downs will continue, but there is no doubt he belongs in the sport’s most popular and demanding league.
5. For the embattled USSF, the women’s championship provided a brief escape from legal migraines and various missteps. The Chicago-based governing body is fighting five lawsuits, most notably a gender discrimination case brought by the women’s team players.
Recent financial statements showed $17 million in losses, in part because of heavy legal fees. That figure is projected to rise in 2020. The search for a new chief executive has dragged. Youth national teams are not faring well, and coaching vacancies have swelled.
USSF President Carlos Cordeiro did not do himself — or the perception of the federation — any favors when, during a public address at the women’s celebration in New York, he failed to properly pronounce Rapinoe’s last name.
6. MLS might have finally found a solution to years of flawed playoff formats, implementing single elimination from start to finish and shortening the time frame. The first year was a joyride, featuring several compelling matches and a second title in four seasons for the Seattle Sounders, who drew 69,274 to sold-out CenturyLink Field for a 3-1 victory over Toronto FC.
7. MLS continued to expand at a rapid pace, adding FC Cincinnati this year and preparing to welcome Inter Miami and Nashville SC next year. That’s 10 newcomers in 10 years for 26 overall. Since September, MLS has announced Charlotte (in 2021, along with Austin) and St. Louis and Sacramento (both in 2022). At 30 teams, MLS will have the same number as the NBA and Major League Baseball, one shy of the NHL and two short of the NFL.
8. The pace of growth is slower in the National Women’s Soccer League, but bolstered by the success and popularity of the national team, the future now seems brighter. All but one of the nine teams (Houston) enjoyed attendance bumps, and the overall figure grew by 22 percent. ESPN made a greater commitment; at least one city (Louisville) will join in 2021; and global power Olympique Lyonnais bought a majority stake in Tacoma, Wash.-based Reign FC.
9. If the women’s pro game gains greater global reach, the North Carolina Courage is well positioned to carry the NWSL flag. It rolled through the regular season with a 15-5-4 record and plus-31 goal differential, then won two playoff matches by a combined 8-1 for its second straight title. In August, the Courage hosted an international tournament, beating Manchester City before losing to Olympique Lyonnais in the final.
10. The NCAA men’s trophy remained inside the Beltway after Georgetown won its first crown by defeating Virginia on penalty kicks following a 3-3 draw. Maryland had won it in 2018. On the women’s side, Brazilian-born Catarina Macario had one of the greatest seasons in NCAA history: 32 goals and 23 assists as Stanford won the title for the second time in three seasons.