It is what it is…until someone changes the status quo.
The year 2015 taught us that we don’t have to accept the negative aspects of the otherwise beautiful game. The major news story of the year in world football was the charges and arrests of top FIFA executives. This will forever be known as the year of the crackdown on the culture of bribery and corruption within the game. It is unclear how it will affect the next two World Cup tournaments in Russia and Qatar, but the investigation, led by U.S. authorities, is a strong statement that the world of football will simply not accept criminal behavior at its helm.
Another monumental crackdown came when U.S. Soccer issued new guidelines either banning or limiting youth players from heading the ball, depending on their age. In the era of increased awareness of concussions and the astounding discoveries on the long-term health problems caused by repeated head trauma, this rule made history in the game. There is still a lot of research to be done on this front, but in 2015 we learned that like with American football, pressure is on to focus on prevention.
We are still ahead of the curve in the women’s game, but we must not rest on our laurels.
This past summer’s Women’s World Cup proved once again that the depth and individual talent in the U.S. for female players is second to none. The dominant performance to become World Cup Champions was a strong statement that perhaps other countries haven’t closed the gap as much as we thought. That being said, parity within the women’s game is increasing quickly. While we proved that we are still the best, we also had the oldest team in the tournament. With the retirement of key players and many teams around the world increasing programming for the women’s game, we must continue to evolve and grow to maintain our dominance.
Additionally, the Women’s World Cup and Victory Tour that followed showed us that female athletes are still not treated with the same respect as the men. Gender discrimination was a topic of conversation around the decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on turf. Most recently, the U.S.W.N.T. victory tour match in Hawaii that was cancelled due to the unsafe playing surface further emphasized the issue of sexism in soccer. Whereas the U.S. Men’s National Team has played 100 percent of its domestic games since 2014 on grass, the U.S. Women have played less than 70 percent of their domestic games during that same timeframe on natural grass surfaces. Eight of ten World Cup Victory Tour games were scheduled on turf fields. If we didn’t learn in 2015 that this is unacceptable, then we should have.
Teams need coaches with direction.
The American soccer community has frequently been up in arms about Jurgen Klinsmann’s decisions. Whether it should be Tim Howard or Brad Guzan in goal, or whether Klinsmann is the right man to lead our team to much-needed progress, the debate rages on. What I do believe this year showed us is that our U.S.M.N.T needs more guidance. I have heard firsthand from those who have played for him, and read numerous articles that explain Klinsmann’s coaching style as very hands off. He makes his player selections (in which we have seen relatively little continuity) and then tells the players to express themselves on the field, with very little direction or framework on how to do so. This simply does not work. If we consider the renowned Ajax system of the 60s-70s, or the German system that just reigned supreme in the Men’s World Cup in Brazil, there is a common thread. Behind player individuality and creativity and proactive thinking in the flow of the game is a very rigid framework in terms of tactical methodology and systematic understanding. The players learn—through direct explanation, chalkboard sessions, and repetition in training—very specific roles and how those roles play out within the scope of the team concept. Even a moment of apparent spontaneous brilliance is built from a core understanding and some basic decision-making guidelines. The fact that Klinsmann fields U.S. teams for international competition and gives them so little information is not actually liberating for the players; it is simply leaving them unprepared. We may have learned this in 2015, but let’s hope he has, too.
Soccer is healthy and growing in the U.S.
The year 2015 saw Penn State women and Stanford men hoist their first ever N.C.A.A. College Cups, which is a testament to the growth of the college game. M.L.S. is beginning to see a return on the strong investment in youth academies with the emergence of homegrown players like Jordan Morris and Gyasi Zardes making it to the international stage. N.W.S.L. saw the announcement of a second expansion team as the Orlando Pride became the tenth team in the league. We retired a legend, who asked us to forget her, but the outpouring of love and support for Abby Wambach shows she certainly will not be forgotten. The year 2015 has taught us that while we certainly don’t have it all figured out, soccer is flourishing in this country. We may be a toddler in the game compared to the rest of the world, but our growth spurts are impressive.