It’s a special feeling that you get whenever this time rolls around. We’re on the cusp of a World Cup year. Actually, we’re on the cusp of two World Cup years: 2018 and 2019, the men’s World Cup in Russia and the women’s World Cup in France, and after two Mundial-free years in a row, well, we’re ready for soccer to take center stage again for the next two summers (even if the U.S. men won’t be in Russia).
Here are my 10 fearless soccer predictions for 2018:
Spain will win the men’s World Cup
The 2010 champions won’t be the first choice of all the pundits, but they are my choice. Let’s eliminate the other top contenders: France is loaded with young talent, but it won’t be consistent enough to avoid a stinker in at least one of its four knockout round games. (You saw that 0-0 home qualifier against Luxembourg, right?) Brazil rolled through South American qualifying and appears reborn under Tite, but there are questions in the back, and the mental scars of 7-1 haven’t disappeared yet. Argentina just isn’t good enough. And Germany? It may be the heavy favorite to repeat, but there’s something about the defense that seems beatable. Spain has flown under the radar under Julen Lopetegui, but the spine is strong with David De Gea, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Isco, Andrés Iniesta and Álvaro Morata. By the end of Russia 2018, that Spanish pratfall in 2014 will be a distant memory.
Christian Pulisic will join a Premier League team
Don’t look for it to happen in the January transfer window, but rather in the summer. As you could tell by reading Pulisic’s heartfelt piece in The Players Tribune, the 19-year-old U.S. men’s player of the year wants desperately to win. That hasn’t been happening nearly as much this season at Borussia Dortmund, even as Pulisic has become one of the club’s most important players. Everyone knows that Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp covets Pulisic, which would make LFC his most likely Premier League destination, but Pulisic wouldn’t be out of place either at Arsenal, Manchester United or Manchester City. What’s more, while the main reason for a move would be Pulisic’s fit on the field, no club that’s interested in becoming bigger in the United States can ignore that signing the best U.S. men’s prospect of all time could help on the business side.
The new USMNT coach will be Juan Carlos Osorio
He won’t be hired until after the World Cup, where Osorio will lead Mexico to the Round of 16 before falling to Brazil. But even though Mexico will play well in Russia and compete toe-to-toe against Brazil, the Osorio-hating Mexican media will drum him out of the position and set him up to take over north of the border. Osorio’s hire for the USMNT will make sense. He knows the U.S. game well, having coached two MLS teams, but he’s also deeply familiar with the European and South American games and will push talented U.S. youngsters to challenge themselves in Europe (just as he has done with Mexico’s young players). Osorio knows CONCACAF, too, and he won’t let the U.S. be overtaken in World Cup qualifying by Panama and Honduras again.
Whoever wins the U.S. Soccer presidential election won’t matter as much as people think
You can understand why the February 10 election is drawing so much attention, given the rich plotlines following the men’s World Cup qualifying disaster, the withdrawal of longtime president Sunil Gulati (who would have predicted that a year ago?) and the eight (eight!) candidates who will stand in the first contested election for U.S. Soccer president since 1998. Whether it’s the competing philosophies for the federation’s future, the horserace coverage or the scrutiny facing the candidates and the current U.S. soccer infrastructure, there’s a ton to talk about. But in reality, there will be plenty of checks on the president’s power, no matter who wins the election. The U.S. Soccer board of directors will remain largely intact, and we already know that several board members want to introduce a new general manager(s) role. That would reduce the president’s power, as would a likely return to a more circumscribed presidential role more in the mold of Dr. Bob Contiguglia (1998-2006), instead of the sweeping role that Gulati had from 2006 to ’18.
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Manchester City will end up losing at least once in the Premier League but will win the UEFA Champions League
Yes, Pep Guardiola’s City has been magnificent in the league, with 19 victories and just one tie in their first 20 games of the 38-game season. Yes, it would be a brilliant achievement to repeat the feat of Arsenal’s unbeaten Invincibles from 2003-04. And no, I don’t think it’ll happen. Part of the reason will be City’s deep run in Champions League and the priority of winning it, which will happen as an English team wins the European Cup for the first time since Chelsea in 2011-12. But that focus will cause City to put less focus on the league, which it has already essentially won. There’s too much quality in the Premier League these days for a team that’s not using its best lineup every week to go undefeated. City will have at least one slip-up in the league, and it might not even come against one of the top six teams.
MLS will have a completely different look in Ohio
The Columbus Crew will go ahead and make it official, with owner Anthony Precourt announcing that he’s moving the team to Austin in 2019. Meanwhile, Cincinnati will be awarded an MLS expansion team, beating out a Sacramento bid that couldn’t get its financial backing fully in order in time. Meanwhile, David Beckham’s Miami bid will finally get full approval from MLS owners as the league’s 26th team. The frontrunners for teams No. 27 and No. 28 will be Detroit and Sacramento, although some in Sacramento will question whether it’s worth continuing after being passed over again for No. 25. During the time it takes for Sacramento to get the nod, MLS officials will privately hope that another fat-pocketed bid like Nashville’s emerges.
Egypt will be the surprise team at the men’s World Cup
The Pharaohs may not have competed in a World Cup since 1990, but that’s no reason to write them off in Russia. When you have one of the world’s top forwards, you’ll always be in games, and Mohamed Salah has become one of the world’s top forwards. But there’s quality in other positions for Egypt, too, including midfielder Mohamed El Neny and defender Ahmed Hegazi. Nor does it hurt that Egypt drew a relatively easy group with Saudi Arabia, Russia and Uruguay.
More USWNT players will join Lyon
Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe have already spent time at Olympique Lyonnais, and owner Jean-Michel Aulas has been flamboyant in his public desire for more U.S. players to follow. Morgan Brian is set to join Lyon in January, and the wave could continue with Lyon and other European clubs investing more and more each year in their women’s teams. That could cause consternation, however, with U.S. coach Jill Ellis, who would prefer to see her national team players in the NWSL during the year before a World Cup.
LAFC will be the new Atlanta United
The crowds in L.A. won’t be as big as the ones Atlanta had in 2017—that’s simply because LAFC’s new stadium is smaller than Atlanta’s—but the buzz around LAFC will be just as gigantic. Bob Bradley and John Thorrington are assembling a solid roster with DP signings Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi and a solid centerback tandem in Laurent Ciman and Walker Zimmerman. (Omar Gaber and Marco Ureña will be useful contributors as well.) More acquisitions are on the way, obviously, but this team appears to be doing things right on and off the field. There’s a real excitement in Los Angeles about the team, and the presentation of LAFC—from the stadium to the black-and-gold colors to the GIF-able cap tilt player presentations—is legit cool. Here’s hoping the crosstown rival LA Galaxy can keep up.
Rose Lavelle will fully break out for the USWNT
Call it a breakout deferred in for the 22-year-old Lavelle in 2017. The inventive midfielder had some fantastic moments for the USWNT in the first half of the year, providing two goals and an assist in seven games, and she got off to a great start for the Boston Breakers, winning the April NWSL player of the month award. But injuries slowed Lavelle down for country and club, and she ended up playing just 10 of 24 games for the Breakers. Ellis loves her, though, with good reason, and Lavelle could be a cornerstone for the national team by the time the World Cup qualifying tournament rolls around in October.