Jan. 3—There's no doubt 2022 was a memorable year for the sport, both locally and internationally, but 2023 is upon us now. The Inquirer's soccer staff shares their wishes for the upcoming year.
Jonathan Tannenwald, Inquirer Soccer Writer:
For the U.S. men: A new manager who improves the team without imposing on it. Yes, I just said Gregg Berhalter's time should be up. I believe he has taken the program as far as he can, and I want to be just as clear in saying he should be applauded for it. Berhalter fixed what Jürgen Klinsmann wrecked. He should be measured against the 2018 failure, not the 2014 cycle before it. In my book there's no question his tenure has been a success.
An amicable departure with his contract up wouldn't give Berhalter's critics the carnal satisfaction of a firing, but it's not about them. Berhalter has earned a dignified exit.
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Now it's time for something new — but not just anything new. The genuine talent and cohesion of this era of players shouldn't be upended just to bring in a big name that some fans crave. They don't need a Pep Guardiola or a Luis Enrique.
That doesn't mean I'm against an international hire. Carlo Ancelotti (who's obviously a big name) is the kind of manager who takes what a team already has and makes it better. But he has said he won't leave Real Madrid before his contract ends in 2024. Not even for Brazil, which already wants him.
I've said my choice would be Jesse Marsch, but that's in an ideal world. In the real world, he won't leave Leeds United on his own, and he shouldn't. So who else is out there? I can't help wondering about Tab Ramos. I don't know if he wants the job, but he coached a lot of the current players with the under-20s. I'd be shocked if he turns down a call from U.S. Soccer.
How sporting director Earnie Stewart and men's national team GM Brian McBride thread the needle will define their front-office careers. (And by the way, it'd help if they'd face the cameras more often.)
One more wish for this category: that Christian Pulisic finds a club situation where he's as happy as he is when he's with the national team. Whether that's at Chelsea or elsewhere, we'll see. But a happy Pulisic is good for everyone — above all, himself.
For the U.S. women: A healthy Catarina Macario, Tierna Davidson, Kelley O'Hara, Lynn Williams, Christen Press, and everyone else who's out amid injuries or childbirth right now. You could almost mount a full team from the list of absentees.
Macario is the biggest name, and her return alone could be transformational as the Americans prepare for the upcoming World Cup. But stout defense is as key to the program's DNA as the winning mentality forged by the four stars on the jerseys.
Alana Cook has struggled against big teams, and Sofia Huerta hasn't always been good enough either. Davidson is sorely missed at centerback, and O'Hara could regain the starting right back job even though she'll turn 35 in August.
The U.S. will go to New Zealand as one of the favorites, but with the rest of the world itching to pounce. If Vlatko Andonovski has a full-strength squad, the pouncers will find some claws coming back at them.A wish for Andonovski, too: that he keeps his willingness to play Lindsey Horan in the deeper midfield role she held in the 2022 finale against Germany. That Andi Sullivan isn't Julie Ertz is evident, but it's increasingly evident that no one is.
For the Union: That Jack Elliott finally gets the national respect he has long deserved; that Brandan Craig and Quinn Sullivan get more playing time; and that Jack McGlynn gets a spotlight as a star in the making. Another striker and another backup attacking midfielder wouldn't hurt either.
Also, a wish that so many people have made every year, but to no avail: that the Union finally make it easy to get to Subaru Park by public transit. It might mean running their shuttle buses from the Sports Complex instead of the Chester Transportation Center, and that might cost more than the current setup. But it's the cost of doing business as a pro sports team, especially one that has more attention on the Philly sports landscape than ever.
One more wish, from the bigger picture: That local sports organizers do everything they can to bring big international soccer games to Lincoln Financial Field between now and the World Cup.
We still don't know where the 2023 Concacaf Nations League final four will be, for example, or Gold Cup games beyond the final. Philadelphia should push its way to the front of the line, with an ideal stadium and a big fan base that's ready to show up.The same goes for the many European club exhibition games that dot the country during the summer. This city hasn't had a big one in a while. And when the U.S. national teams come to town, here's hoping they visit when the Linc can host them. Give them the chance to draw bigger crowds than Subaru Park's 18,500-seat capacity, and they'll do it.
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For the U.S. men: I'm less "Berhalter Out" than I am about wanting the U.S. Soccer federation to embrace the diverse talent in the coaching pool that's available at present. There's a new generation of American coaches — Jesse Marsch has club coaching experience abroad, Hugo Perez has international coaching experience, Tab Ramos youth national team coaching stints, not to mention those with MLS experience, like Josh Wolff, Philadelphia's own Jim Curtin, Robin Fraser and Steve Cherundolo.
Phil Jackson, the revered coaching guru of basketball, believed teams would begin to tune out a coach's message after five years. That's pretty close to a World Cup cycle of four years, so I'd like to see it made standard practice to cut a coach's tenure closer to when players are still listening.
I'd throw money at Marcelo Bielsa to coach most anywhere for as long as he's still working, but I see a lot of good options with potential to at least do as well, or better, than Gregg Berhalter has done.
While we're on the topic of a new national team coach, I'd like to see more transparency in the hiring process. If it's a three-way vote between U.S. Soccer president Cindy Cone, sporting director Stewart and men's national team general manager McBride, I'd like it to be clear. If it's the call of just one of the three or whoever else, that would also be good to know. Back when Sunil Gulati was federation president, it was evident the final calls on the national team coach hiring and firings for both the men and the women were his to make. With Cone, and given some of the new administrative roles now in the federation, that's not necessarily the case.
For the U.S. women: It's a cliché in sports to say "a loss is the best thing," for a team at times, but I believe what will take the U.S. women to the next level with their new generation of players is a good loss in the World Cup. I'd like an epic, fighting loss, like in the 2011 final against Japan. I'd also like it to come from a rival who emerges to more consistently challenge the U.S. Of late, England looks like a likely candidate to do this.
I'm not going to say that missing out on the 2018 World Cup was the best thing for the men's team, but among the benefits of the loss to Trinidad and Tobago was a new appreciation of the competition in CONCACAF, from the players and coaches, to the USSF administration, to the fans, all of whom, to varying degrees, had been taking qualification for granted. Younger players got more opportunities earlier on in this latest cycle and that should really benefit the men's team in 2026.
Similarly, in the women's game, I wonder if there will be a true recognition and understanding of how much the game has grown worldwide if the United States keeps winning the tournament where it matters the most. Rivalries drive all of sports, and a consistent squad to challenge the U.S. by taking their favorite trophy would not only force the American team to raise it's level, but would also set the USWNT up to be the comeback redemption team in future tournaments. Catarina Macario, Sophia Smith and Ashley Sanchez should be leading the vanguard for this, but without a key loss, the status quo often remains longer than it should.
For the Union: The Union need Lionel Messi. No, not on their team, necessarily, although I don't see that as any more far-fetched than Sporting Kansas City almost signing Cristiano Ronaldo. It's fine if Messi comes to MLS, signs with Inter Miami. The Union has done well against the glamour teams of the league before, including the epic 2022 MLS Cup final which many have called the best ever in league history. But let's call that game the good loss that the Union have learned from and will use to come back stronger, battle-tested to take that next step to lift the championship trophy. There still needs to be a hook for people to change casual viewing habits to even give the Union a chance.
It's ironic that some Americans follow and watch Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams faithfully on their T.V. now that both play for Leeds United, but they didn't go see either of them when Aaronson was with the Union or Adams was playing for New York Red Bull and those fans could have watched those young talents in person. This year could well be Jack McGlynn's last season in MLS. Paxten, Aaronson's younger brother, has already left for Germany. And the Union academy keeps producing similar talents. I don't know how much more evidence any soccer fan needs to realize that there is likely that a future World Cup talent, perhaps even one who will star for the U.S. when the tournament comes to Philadelphia as a host city, playing on the Union roster right now and worth the drive out to Subaru Park to see.
However, Messi realigns that whole paradigm, because it's no longer a question of whether one should check out emerging league talent now and be smug about knowing them later on. If Messi's coming into town, it's a chance to watch the GOAT play, and no one should miss out on that opportunity. It would be a huge interest boost all across the league and the Union would benefit from that.
One more wish, from the bigger picture: There's a joy to sports in general and soccer especially, because of the worldwide scale of interest in the game, that I'd like to see be celebrated more. Especially in the wake of the passing of Pelé, who was the epitome of that vibrant enthusiasm, ready to make magic happen every time the ball rolled out on the field, it would be nice to see that fun, not just to honor his example, but also because that's what it's all about.
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What a moment it was to watch Messi and Kylian Mbappé duel it out in the World Cup final. If, as Jon mentioned, more international games come locally to the Linc ahead of the 2026 tournament, and the fans get to watch some of the sport's best generational talents in person, I hope they celebrate all of it. That's history, right before our eyes. Enjoy it.
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