Grant Wahl's top 10 soccer stories of 2015 and the most rewarding stories he worked on this year.
Soccer never stops. Even now, when most of the world’s leagues are dormant at New Year’s, the English Premier League is powering through one of its busiest stretches of the season. Soccer’s continuously spinning wheel is one thing that makes the sport great, but the end of the calendar year is always a good time to look back and look forward.
I’ll have my predictions for 2016 later in the week, but for now, here are my top 10 soccer stories of 2015:
1. U.S. Women Win World Cup
For the first time since 1999, the U.S. raised the Women’s World Cup trophy, and it happened in an astonishing way: A four-goal barrage against Japan in the first 16 minutes of the World Cup final, with Carli Lloyd capping her first-half hat trick with a goal from midfield.
The 5-2 triumph captivated an average U.S. TV audience of 27 million, the most ever to watch a soccer game in the U.S., and set off a nationwide celebration that included a ticker-tape parade in New York City. My favorite WWC story was sitting down with Lloyd in Los Angeles two days later and hearing her talk about her truly hardcore training methods—and even practicing shots from midfield more than a decade earlier.
2. Loretta Lynch Nails FIFA
Corruption allegations have dogged FIFA for years, but everything changed May 27 when Swiss agents (working with the U.S. Department of Justice and its attorney general, Lynch) raided the fancy Zurich hotel housing FIFA honchos and made a series of arrests connected to racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy. Within days FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced he would be leaving his post—FIFA would ban Blatter and UEFA president Michel Platini, the two most powerful people in world soccer, for eight years—and by the end of the year more than 40 soccer officials and marketers had been charged in the U.S. investigation. It’s hard to think of many situations in which far-reaching U.S. power would be embraced by the rest of the world, but this was one of them.
3. U.S. Men Fall Flat
After a 2014 in which the U.S. men exceeded expectations at the World Cup, 2015 was an annus horribilis by just about every measure. Jurgen Klinsmann’s team finished fourth in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, including a stunning semifinal loss to Jamaica, and squandered its chance at redemption with a 3-2 extra-time loss to Mexico in the playoff for a Confederations Cup spot. Even the Under-23 Olympic team disappointed, losing to Honduras with a Rio 2016 berth on the line and forcing the U.S. into a playoff with Colombia in March. None of those failures impacts qualifying for World Cup 2018, which got off to a decent start, and the year did include road friendly wins at Germany and the Netherlands. But the aura surrounding Klinsmann dimmed considerably in 2015, and his U.S. team lost much of its identity.
• WAHL: USMNT must regain its identity in 2016 as disappointing year ends
4. Barcelona Rises to New Heights
The best club team in the world resides once again in Catalonia. Barcelona’s titles in 2015 included the UEFA Champions League, the Spanish league, the Copa del Rey and the FIFA Club World Cup. Lionel Messi returned to being the premier player on the planet, and his trident with Neymar and Luis Suárez produced some of the most sublime soccer we have ever seen. It’s one thing to have tremendous talent on your team (see: Real Madrid), but it’s another thing to achieve chemistry with that talent, and Barcelona has found a way to do it.
5. Mourinho Wins Premier League, Fired Seven Months Later
Rarely have we ever seen a team fall from champion to also-ran as quickly as Chelsea did in 2015. Mourinho’s team won the Premier League title by eight points in May, and even if the Blues didn’t play their best soccer last spring, nobody would have predicted they’d be just above the relegation zone in late December—and without Mourinho, who was fired December 17. What went wrong? Plenty. Several players stopped performing at a high level. Mourinho appeared to lose the locker room. And Chelsea lost its famous balance as the defense began conceding goals left and right. It was a reminder that at the highest level things can go off the rails with alarming speed, even for the best teams.
6. Surprise: Portland Timbers Rule MLS
This was one of the most parity-filled years in the history of MLS, and if a team got hot at the end of the season you figured it might have a chance at winning the MLS Cup title. That’s exactly what happened with Portland. The Timbers beefed up their defense before the season by acquiring Nat Borchers, and coach Caleb Porter made a major tactical change late in the season to move Darlington Nagbe centrally. It worked like a charm. Portland (the West’s No. 3 seed) survived the craziest penalty-kick shootout in MLS history in the knockout round against Kansas City (which hit three posts on two spot kicks which could have eliminated the Timbers), and Portland was solid the rest of the way, including on the road. The giant fan reception and parade from the rabid Portland fans back home was a cool moment to witness.
7. Abby Wambach Retires
The greatest goal-scorer in the history of international soccer decided to hang up her cleats after raising her long-awaited first World Cup trophy, finishing her career with a World Cup and two Olympic gold medals. Wambach didn’t have the starring role for the U.S. at Canada 2015 the way she had in previous tournaments, but she was still a driving vocal force for the team, and she handled her diminished playing role with dignity throughout. Wambach also continued to speak her mind, sometimes eloquently (as when she talked about the importance of the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision on the day of the World Cup quarterfinals) and sometimes much less so (as when she criticized Klinsmann’s use of dual nationals she called “foreign”). But that’s all part of it with Wambach, who will always let you know what she thinks.
Abby Wambach through the years
8. Leicester City’s Premier League Stunner
I wasn’t the only person before the season who predicted Chelsea would win the Premier League and Leicester would be relegated. But here we are in late December, and Leicester is somehow at the top of the league and one of the best stories in sports. Give plenty of credit to manager Claudio Ranieri and players like Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté, who have kept this run going far longer than anyone would have anticipated. Even if LCFC can muster a top four finish it would be remarkable.
9. That Sketchy Gold Cup
How bad did the officiating get at this year’s Gold Cup? Well, after its controversial semifinal loss to Mexico more than half the Panama team ran after referee Mark Geiger, who needed stadium security to protect him, after which the Panamanians held up a banner in their locker room that read CONCACAF LADRONES (CONCACAF THIEVES). Amid allegations of a corrupted tournament in which Mexico advanced twice after late questionable calls, CONCACAF president Alfredo Hawit issued a press release that threw Geiger under the bus for “officiating errors that … impacted the outcome of the game.” In December, Hawit would be arrested as part of the FIFA scandal.
10. Iceland Qualifies for Euro 2016
When the European Championship was expanded from 16 to 24 teams, I was one of the people who complained the tournament was being watered down and qualifying would be a giant bore. I was wrong. Qualifying ended up being exciting in several groups, none more so than in Group A, where tiny Iceland (population: 320,000) qualified for its first major tournament. The Icelandic Juggernaut beat the Netherlands at home and on the road, helping make sure the Dutch (who’d finished third in World Cup 2014) missed the 24-team Euro 2016 entirely. The great thing about Iceland is they might actually do some good things in France next summer coming out of a group that includes Portugal, Hungary and Austria.
Today’s media landscape requires more news coverage than ever, but one maxim I always try to follow is: Write stories people will remember. Here are my 10 favorite examples from 2015:
• Loved working with Brian Straus and Alex Abnos on this oral history of MLS’s zany first year
• Never thought I’d write a 5,000-word story on socks. But I promise this article on TruSox is worth reading
• The Analytics Revolution has come to soccer, and no clubs using it are more intriguing than Midtjylland and Brentford, run by Matthew Benham and Rasmus Ankersen
• Abby Wambach was a fantastic interview subject for Abby’s Road, my in-depth SI magazine story on the quest to win her first World Cup
• How do you go from being a washout as an MLS GM to being the best-connected American in European soccer? Let Charlie Stillitano tell you
• My Carli Lloyd story post-Women’s World Cup (mentioned above)
• Not long before the Women’s World Cup, U.S. Soccer fired the USWNT’s kit man. And therein lay a story
• At a time when people are calling for walls between the U.S. and Mexico, the rivalry between the two nations’ soccer teams is breaking down those barriers
• Nigeria’s harsh anti-gay laws and their impact on the Nigerian women’s national team
• Michael Bradley unfiltered on what he’s about
Thanks for reading in 2015!