U.S. Soccer 2018 Year In Review: A Tale Of Two Teams
In some respects, 2018 was a marvelous year for U.S. Soccer. The USWNT went unbeaten, won its 500th game and qualified for the 2019 World Cup with ease.
In many other respects, 2018 was a poor year for U.S. Soccer. The USMNT didn’t record a single win of note and both the U-20 and U-17 women’s national teams flamed out in the group stage of their respective World Cups. Plus, U.S. Soccer had a divisive presidential election campaign, eventually settling on Carlos Cordeiro.
U.S. Soccer In 2018 By The Numbers
USWNT Record: 18-0-2
USMNT Record: 3-5-3
So what went well and what went wrong for U.S. Soccer in 2018? Let’s start with the good — the USWNT.
U.S. Women’s National Team Soccer In 2018
The USWNT was just about flawless in 2018, winning 18 of its 20 matches. Aside from 1-1 draws against France and Australia, the U.S. was unbeatable.
The year began with a 5-1 rout of Denmark in January. The U.S. women then won the SheBelieves Cup thanks to 1-0 wins over Germany and England as well as the aforementioned draw with France.
Friendly wins over Mexico and China (two apiece) set the stage for the U.S. to win another competition: the Tournament of Nations. This tournament included convincing wins over Japan (4-2) and Brazil (4-1), plus the 1-1 draw with Australia.
The win over Brazil started a streak of 10 straight victories, which has lasted through the end of the year. It included a couple friendly wins over Chile (despite late kickoffs) to get ready for the main focus of the year.
The most important part of 2018 for the USWNT was the Concacaf Women’s Championship, which began in October and doubled as World Cup qualifying. The U.S. routed rival Mexico 6-0 en route to a flawless qualifying campaign. After beating Canada in the final 2-0, the U.S. finished the tournament with 24 goals for — none against.
Finally, the USWNT closed out the year with 1-0 victories in Europe over Portugal and Scotland. Neither victory was all that impressive, but the win over Portugal was the team’s 500th all time, marking the squad as one of the best in the history of sport.
Alex Morgan had an absurdly prolific year in the red, white and blue. The 29-year-old striker scored 18 goals in 19 appearances to lead all scorers. Carli Lloyd, despite playing more of a backup role these days, added eight goals while Megan Rapinoe scored seven. Also with six apiece were Mallory Pugh and Tobin Heath, the latter of whom had what the USWNT called the goal of the year, though we’re not sure we agree with these rankings.
Counting down our top 10 goals of 2018! pic.twitter.com/m3RhgU3L8G— U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) December 28, 2018
Just as important as any match that was played in 2018, the U.S. learned its path at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. The draw was held in December and the U.S. was given a favorable group against Thailand, Chile and Sweden, though the knockout rounds will quickly escalate the difficulty.
In 2019, USWNT fans can look forward to a number of big matches to prepare for the World Cup, including friendlies against France, Spain, Japan, England, Brazil, Australia and Mexico. The World Cup kicks off on June 7, with the first USWNT match on June 11.
The Americans are currently ranked No. 1 in the world and anything short of a fourth World Cup title will be a disappointment after the stellar 2018 campaign.
U.S. Men’s National Team In 2018
In stark contrast to the women, the USMNT was dreadful in 2018. The team’s most noteworthy accomplishment came when Matt Miazga trolled Diego Lainez for being short in a 1-0 win, which should tell you a little something about how the year went.
There was absolutely nothing to play for in 2018 for the USMNT — all 11 matches were friendlies. The players and coaches acted as such for most of the year.
After Bruce Arena was fired in October 2017, U.S. Soccer installed Dave Sarachan as interim manager. That interim tag stuck around for more than 400 days until Earnie Stewart, hired over the summer as USMNT general manager, picked Gregg Berhalter to be head coach — after the 2018 schedule was complete. While the hire isn’t necessarily a bad choice, that it took well over a year to make the decision ensured that 2018 was a complete waste of everyone's time.
The 2018 season began with a drab 0-0 draw in January with Bosnia and Herzegovina, most notable for Jordan Morris being sexy. That was followed by a 1-0 win over Paraguay in March and a 3-0 victory over Bolivia in May.
But none of those teams are any good. Once the competition ramped up the Americans shrank.
The U.S. lost 2-1 to an Ireland side that wasn’t close to full strength. The U.S. did manage to stun eventual World Cup champion France 1-1 right before some big summer tournament the Americans weren’t invited to, with Zack Steffen coming up huge. But watching the World Cup without the U.S. was just depressing.
The post-World Cup friendlies were even worse for the U.S., as Sarachan’s prolonged involvement showed no improvement. The USMNT lost to Brazil 2-0, somehow beat Mexico in a matchup of C teams, was outclassed by Colombia 4-2 and struggled to a 1-1 draw with Peru. The year ended with an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to England and a 1-0 loss to Italy that would’ve been much worse if not for the heroics of Ethan Horvath.
In 11 matches, the U.S. managed to score just 10 goals, three coming against Bolivia. Bobby Wood led the team with three strikes. Josh Sargent, who played all of 236 minutes, was second with two strikes. The 18-year-old’s debut goal against Bolivia was one of the few positive notes to take from 2018 heading into 2019, as he has also begun scoring for Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga.
Berhalter’s hire in December gives USMNT fans some reason to hope that 2019 will be better — at least the team will have a coach and play meaningful competition (Gold Cup and Nations League). But it’s hard not to look back on 2018 as a lost year.
U.S. Youth Teams In 2018
Somewhere in between the brilliance of the USWNT and the indifference of the USMNT was the U.S. Soccer youth setup in 2018.
On the men’s side, the U-20 team crushed the competition in the Concacaf U-20 Championship, which doubled as qualifying for the 2019 U-20 World Cup. The U.S. cruised through the group stage with five wins and a +37 goal difference, then beat Costa Rica 4-0 and Honduras 1-0 to qualify for the World Cup. The team capped it off with a 2-0 win over rival Mexico to win the tournament.
On the women’s side, the U-20 USWNT finished second in the same tournament, falling to Mexico in a shootout in the final. That was still enough to qualify for the U-20 Women’s World Cup, but the team didn’t last long in France, losing to Japan, beating Paraguay and tying Spain to finish third and go home early. To be fair, Japan beat Spain in the final, so it’s not like the U.S. lost to bad competition, but it was the first time the U.S. failed to qualify for the tournament’s group stage.
The U-17 women’s team also played in Concacaf and World Cup tournaments. These younger American women won the Concacaf tournament with a 3-2 win over Mexico. But they finished dead last in their group at the World Cup in Uruguay while watching Mexico advance all the way to the final.
So while the USMNT senior team had a miserable year, the youth teams did well; the opposite was true for the impressive USWNT senior team and its underperforming youth teams.
Professional Soccer In 2018
Professional leagues in the U.S. had, for the most part, strong seasons in 2018.
In the National Women’s Soccer League, the North Carolina Courage avenged last year’s loss in the title game to the Portland Thorns with an impressive 3-0 win in Portland in the NWSL Championship. The Courage, who have now won back-to-back NWSL Shields, are the undoubted queens of the league after finishing the regular season 19 points ahead of Portland.
Though the Thorns couldn’t repeat as NWSL champs, they dominated the league in attendance, bringing on average 16,959 fans to Providence Park with nine of the top 10 attended regular-season matches played in Portland. The Utah Royals also had an impressive debut season at the turnstiles, averaging 9,466 fans per match, good for second best in the league.
Portland’s Lindsey Horan was named league MVP, Chicago’s Sam Kerr won the Golden Boot with 16 goals and Sky Blue’s Imani Dorsey won Rookie of the Year. Adrianna Franch was named Goalkeeper of the Year but still can’t get a match with the USWNT for some reason.
The Major League Soccer season was about two things: Zlatan and Zlatan Atlanta United.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived with the LA Galaxy in the summer and immediately set the league on fire. Wayne Rooney also joined D.C. United and also made a huge impact — arguably more than Zlatan as Rooney actually got his team to the playoffs.
As great as some of the designated players were — the league said goodbye to David Villa after four productive seasons — 2018 was all about two teams: Atlanta and New York Red Bulls.
While much of the focus throughout the season was on the Five Stripes and their incredible crowds at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Red Bulls actually won the Supporters’ Shield on the last day of the season, surpassing Toronto FC’s MLS record for points in the process (Atlanta equaled Toronto’s previous record, set in 2017).
But once the playoffs game, Atlanta took over. With Josef Martinez — named league MVP after scoring a record 31 goals — leading the way and Tata Martino coaching, the Five Stripes crushed New York 3-0 in the first leg of the Eastern Conference final on the way to a 3-1 aggregate victory. The 2-0 win over Sporting KC in the final then confirmed what we all knew: Atlanta United was the best team in MLS in 2018.
Atlanta finished the season drawing on average 53,000 fans to every match, an impressive figure for any club in the world, let alone the American South. But when it comes to fans away from the pitch, the season was dominated by the turmoil surrounding the Columbus Crew, who averaged a league-worst 12,447 fans. After team owner Anthony Precourt threatened to move the Crew to Austin, Columbus was saved in the 11th hour by the Cleveland Browns owners. However, Austin will still get a team from the mess.
In addition to Martinez as MVP, Atlanta’s Tata Martino was named Coach of the Year. Ibrahimovic was, to no one’s surprise, named Newcomer of the Year and scored the Goal of the Year. Gyasi Zardes earned Comeback Player of the Year as his touch improved from titanium to mere brick and he scored 19 goals under Berhalter with the Crew.
Well, there’s not really much to say about the North American Soccer League. The 2018 season was canceled as the league continues to hemorrhage teams to the USL. The NASL is likely done in the foreseeable future as a sustainable league.
While the NASL has struggled, the United Soccer League has thrived, including plans to have three divisions in the coming years. The league again set attendance records in 2018, though those numbers will be tough to match as Cincinnati FC — which averaged 31,478 fans per match — moves to MLS.
On the pitch, Cincinnati won the regular-season title but was upset in the conference semifinals by New York Red Bulls II. Ultimately, Louisville City FC won its second straight title, beating Didier Drogba’s Phoenix Rising 1-0 in the final.
In the Concacaf Champions League, New York Red Bulls reached the semifinals before falling to Guadalajara, which edged Toronto FC in a shootout to win the tournament.
The Houston Dynamo, who finished 17th out of 23 teams in MLS, won the U.S. Open Cup to qualify for the 2019 Concacaf Champions League alongside Atlanta, New York Red Bulls and Sporting KC.
In the college ranks, Maryland beat Akron to win the NCAA Division I men’s championship. Deyna Castellanos and Florida State stunned No. 1 Stanford in the semifinals before winning the women’s NCAA title with a 1-0 win over North Carolina.
Retirements/Losses In U.S. Soccer In 2018
U.S. soccer lost its resident Dad Joke teller in Bobby Boswell, who retired in January.
The biggest retirement in the U.S. in 2018 was that of Clint Dempsey. The USMNT’s all-time leading goal scorer (tied with Landon Donovan, who retired for a second time this year) hung up his boots in August in the middle of the MLS season. Dempsey was one of the few Americans who had success wherever he went — from Fulham in England to with the U.S. at the World Cup. He’s the only American to score at three straight World Cups and had a flair that was unmatched on he USMNT.
The saddest lost of 2018 came in the year’s closing days. Legendary coach Sigi Schmid died at age 65 on Dec. 25. With 266 regular-season wins, Schmid was the winningest coach in MLS history to go with two MLS Cups and four U.S. Open Cups.