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World Cup winner, EPL race, MLS shakeups and more: 14 predictions for 2014

Lionel Messi Lionel Messi could stake his claim as the greatest player ever by leading Argentina to World Cup glory in Brazil this summer. (Cesar Olmedo/AP)

It’s a World Cup year, and now that we’ve looked back at my favorite soccer moments and stories of 2013 (January-June here, and July-December here), let’s turn our gaze forward to 2014.

The summer spectacle in Brazil will capture most of the attention in the new year, but Bayern Munich is making a run at a second straight Champions League title, the Premier League race is wide open and MLS braces for its final season before adding two new teams in 2015.

Here are 14 predictions for the year ahead:

1. Argentina will win World Cup 2014—and Lionel Messi will stake his claim as the Greatest of All Time.

Brazil is the favorite to win the World Cup on home soil, but Messi knows he needs to raise at least one World Cup trophy if he’s going to be considered in the GOAT race by most observers next to Pelé and Diego Maradona. Messi, the four-time world player of the year, will be 27 on the day of the World Cup final, the last one that will take place during the prime of his career. He needs to win it now, and for the first time Argentina has built a complementary team around Messi that can win the whole thing. That it would take place in Brazil — I have Argentina beating the Brazilians in the final — will only make the triumph greater for the Argentines.

2. Aron Jóhannsson will start games and score for the U.S. at the World Cup, where the Americans will end their misery against Ghana.

Jóhannsson, the 23-year-old Icelandic-American forward, chose to play for the Stars & Stripes and has made a great case to be in the mix as a starting forward for the U.S. with a dynamite season so far in the Netherlands for AZ Alkmaar. It says here that U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann will pair Jóhannsson up top with Jozy Altidore, and the Iceman will deliver at least once in the World Cup. The U.S. opens against Ghana, the team that has eliminated the Americans from the past two World Cups, but this time the U.S. will prevail.

There’s just not enough difference in quality between the two teams for Ghana to beat the U.S. three straight times. (Whether those three points will be enough for the U.S. to advance in a group that includes Portugal and Germany is a different matter. For what it’s worth, I have the U.S. going through to the Round of 16 with four points.)

3. World Cup games will get giant TV audiences in the United States.

Every four years the World Cup is bigger and bigger Stateside, and that will happen again with time-zone-friendly group-stage games that start at noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET. World Cup games involving the U.S. have previously drawn larger TV audiences here than the World Series and NBA Finals, and the gap will only get wider next summer.

4. South American teams will dominate World Cup 2014.

The World Cup has been held in the Americas seven times, and a South American team has won every single time. Don’t look for that to change in 2014. All five South American teams advanced from the group stage in 2010, and I think all six will advance in 2014, with three of them reaching the semifinals (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay) and Argentina beating Brazil in the final. The one thing that will keep more South American teams from advancing deep is the draw itself. In my bracket as of now, the six South American teams will all have to face each other in the Round of 16 games.

5. Instagram will gain critical mass with athletes being more interesting there than on Twitter.

Maybe it’s because athletes see too many pitfalls in being candid on Twitter, or maybe it’s because they’re just more comfortable in a predominantly visual medium, but in my experience soccer players are just more intriguing on Instagram than on Twitter. Some of my favorite athlete Instagram accounts are those of Tim Howard, Didier Drogba, Sydney Leroux and Lukas Podolski, and the amount of compelling athlete accounts only figures to increase in 2014.

6. Sepp Blatter will say at least one offensive thing about women.

The FIFA president pays a lot of attention to racism in the soccer world, and that’s a good thing, considering how big the racism problem continues to be. But the 77-year-old Blatter regularly says things that ring as sexist. In the past he has suggested that women’s soccer players wear tighter uniforms, and in 2013 Blatter undermined FIFA’s move to include a female member of its Executive Committee (Burundi’s Lydia Nsekera) by calling Australian candidate Moya Dodd “good and good-looking.” Expect more of the same in 2014.

7. Bayern Munich will win another Champions League and go undefeated in the Bundesliga.

Many observers will say ho-hum when Bayern raises its second straight Champions League trophy this May in Lisbon, and it’s true that Bayern’s talent is off the charts. But the transition from one coach (Jupp Heynckes) to a new one (Pep Guardiola) is never easy, and the Bayern players have handled the switch with aplomb, even when it includes such surprises as moving Philipp Lahm from fullback to the central midfield. When it comes to club soccer, we have entered the Bayern Era.

Cristiano Ronaldo Cristiano Ronaldo scored 69 goals for club and country in 2013 and is a Ballon d'Or finalist. (Frank Augstein/AP photo)

8. Cristiano Ronaldo will win the 2013 FIFA Ballon d’Or.

We’ll know for sure very soon — Jan. 13, to be exact — but Ronaldo will win his second world player of the year award, and the fact is the decision isn’t really very hard. Ronaldo had a remarkable 69 goals in calendar year 2013 (59 for Real Madrid, 10 for Portugal), and nobody else is even close to that total. Goals shouldn’t be the only determining factor, of course, but among the fellow finalists, Messi didn’t do enough to supersede Ronaldo, and Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribéry (while deserving of praise) didn’t stand out nearly as much as Ronaldo did. Ronaldo was the outstanding player of 2013, period.

9. In the Premier League, Manchester City will top the table by a wide margin, while Manchester United squeaks into a Champions League berth.

Arsenal has been a revelation this season and continues to hold a slight lead in the league for now, but Man City will be too good over the long haul, not least because Manuel Pellegrini’s team has fixed its inexplicable road woes. And despite a miserable start by Manchester United, manager David Moyes will find a way to slip in the top four along with Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal.

10. Sydney Leroux will continue becoming a breakout star.

The U.S. women’s team will qualify for World Cup 2015 this year, and Leroux, 23, is poised to become the next U.S. women’s player to become a truly national figure. Leroux scores goals, she exudes enthusiasm and she’s comfortable being herself on social media. No U.S. women’s player appeared in more games than Leroux’s 15 in 2013, and only Abby Wambach (11 goals) scored more than Leroux’s 10. There’s a reason why Nike has started to make Leroux even more visible in its promotions. Here’s hoping they come up with pre-World Cup ad campaign involving Leroux and Alex Morgan as a Brock Landers-Chest Rockwell-style action-movie duo.

11. New England and Kelyn Rowe will make the leap in MLS.

After showing extreme promise last season, Rowe and New England will put themselves in contention to win the 2014 MLS Cup title under coach Jay Heaps. For large parts of last season, New England was one of the most entertaining teams in the league, and Rowe has the tools to take the next step this year.

12. The Real Salt Lake exodus will continue

The word out of Salt Lake is that people don’t much like working for new owner Dell Loy Hansen, who miscalculated badly on extending Jason Kreis’s contract and ended up losing him to New York City FC. Salt Lake still has a lot of talent on the field, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more departures from RSL over the next year.

13. The team of the year in the NWSL will be the Seattle Reign.

The biggest disappointment of last year’s NWSL season was Seattle, which started 0-9-1 and played without any of its U.S. national team stars (Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Amy Rodriguez) for the first half of the season. The team rebounded with a 5-0-2 run once Solo and Rapinoe came back, showing what the team could be, and coach Laura Harvey has been active in the offseason, adding Leroux, former Arsenal midfielder Kim Little, Danielle Foxhoven and Beverly Goebel. Whether that will be enough to unseat champion Portland remains to be seen, but Seattle now has the firepower to compete head-to-head.

14. Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi will be the highest-profile Americans to move abroad.

Fresh off stand-out World Cup performances that draw the attention of European clubs, Gonzalez and Zusi will jump across the Atlantic and join new clubs. Los Angeles will use its open Designated Player slot from Gonzalez’s departure to sign Frank Lampard, while Kansas City will sign an up-and-coming midfielder from Argentina to replace Zusi.

Happy new year to everyone, and let’s hope 2014 is as exciting as it looks like it could be!

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