Good riddance, 2020.
It's safe to say that a new year is a welcome development after the one that just unfolded. A year that will never be forgotten for reasons far more serious and life-altering than what occurs on a soccer field can be put in the rearview mirror while the page turns to 2021. That alone, of course, doesn't mean everything is suddenly back to normal, but the change does offer hope.
The pandemic's impact, as it relates to global soccer scheduling, has been immense. Last summer was supposed to include the Euros, Copa América and Olympics. Those have all been pushed to the summer of 2021, making for a loaded and congested calendar as long as everything is able to be played as currently scheduled. Men's World Cup qualifying goes into high gear this coming year as well.
That leaves plenty of opportunity to assess the future and make some predictions. Naturally, no predictions at this time last year could have foreseen the depths of what would follow, so take these with a decent-sized grain of salt—unless they come to fruition. Then be sure to remember exactly where you heard it first.
MESSI STAYS, AGAIN
All eyes at Barcelona—and much of the footballing world—are on Lionel Messi to see whether the star who has only ever known Barcelona at the club level will really leave the team and start a new chapter elsewhere.
After seeking an exit over the summer after a conflict with now ex-president Josep Bartomeu bubbled over, Messi returned, saying he would never take the club he loves to court, even though he believed he was in the right about a clause that would've allowed him to leave for free. His contract runs through the end of this season, one that, as things currently look, is not going to be a successful one by Barcelona standards. It sits sixth in La Liga, spurned a chance to top its Champions League group and instead finished second and drew PSG in the last 16 and has just been uncharacteristically poor as it goes through a rough patch. Despite its stature, the club is cash-strapped, which makes accelerating a transition quite difficult, too.
The lingering question is whether the winner of the January presidential election at Barcelona can convince Messi to buy in to the big picture, or at least buy in enough to stick it out and stay put. It says here that come June, Messi will sign a new deal that will keep him in Barcelona through June 2023—a move that allows him to say through the 2022 World Cup, before assessing whether he wants to sign a pre-contract arrangement elsewhere (six months before his deal runs out, which is where he currently finds himself) or commit the remainder of his playing days to the Camp Nou club.
THE YEAR OF DE BRUYNE
Kevin De Bruyne is a phenomenal talent, but there have always been limitations to his ceiling as it relates to garnering the world's individual accolades. That will change in 2021.
With No. 1–ranked Belgium among the favorites at the Euros (and in the final couple of years of its golden generation window), Man City capable of returning to the top of the Premier League and finally breaking through in the latter stages of the Champions League, De Bruyne will have every opportunity to earn the acclaim commensurate with his success and ability. As is usually the case with these awards, it comes down to the best players on the teams that win the trophies for both club and country. That's not always technically the best player in the world, but De Bruyne has the chance to fit that bill.
That's not to say there won't be tough competition, and if Bayern Munich repeats as Champions League winner and Poland goes on somewhat of a run at the Euros, perhaps Robert Lewandowski can repeat as winner (he won FIFA's "Best" award; France Football canceled the 2020 Ballon d'Or). It's not like his goal-scoring form has dipped. But with Barcelona and Juventus currently struggling and serial finalists Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo getting older, there's never been more room for movement and opportunity atop the podium.
De Bruyne did win the PFA Player of the Year in 2020 after his record-tying number of assists (20) in Man City's second-place finish and has been in plenty Team of the Year groups throughout his prime. He'll turn 30 this summer and, provided he avoids injury, will enter his new decade by climbing even higher into the world's elite.
WINNERS OF MAJOR MEN'S TOURNAMENTS
Next summer will feature the Euros and Copa América that should have been played last summer and the regularly scheduled Gold Cup. So here's who will win:
Copa América: There's no reason to doubt Brazil at this point, though winning on foreign soil is a different beast than repeating its feat from 2019, when it won at home. Cohosts Argentina and Colombia are in a different way right now, with Argentina successfully grinding out World Cup qualifying results it struggled to achieve in the previous cycle and Colombia onto another manager after firing Carlos Queiroz. The new format and group alignment means that, on paper, Brazil should avoid Argentina or Uruguay until the final.
Euros: If De Bruyne is winning top player honors, that's because Belgium will have finally gotten to the top of the mountain, winning a first major international trophy and reaping the reward of having all of that talent. The bigger question is if UEFA can really go ahead with its pan-European-hosted competition or if that much of a traveling circus is ill-advised, should the impact of the pandemic still be so rampant.
Gold Cup: Mexico will take it, especially if the U.S. doesn't call on its "A" squad for the competition. With a congested calendar and club relationships to consider, it's unclear just who will be selected for the competition.
USA U-23s QUALIFY FOR OLYMPICS—AND HIT THE MEDAL STAND IN TOKYO
The U.S. men haven't qualified for an Olympics since 2008, a well-documented failure on the youth level that has hung over the program for over a decade. That will end this spring, when Jason Kreis guides the U-23s to Tokyo. Just like with the senior team, the one wild card is that it remains to be seen who will be made available for the qualifying tournament and then, presuming qualification is achieved, the Olympics themselves. Clubs are not obligated to release players for youth competitions, and given the compressed schedule and the COVID-19 concerns regarding international travel and exposure outside of a controlled club environment, it's likely many players will be held back. This is the chief challenge facing USMNT GM Brian McBride in his ongoing conversations with clubs both home and abroad—and a giant caveat that accompanies this prediction.
The good news is the U-23 player pool is quite deep for the U.S., and while the likes of Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie are unlikely to be released to go to Tokyo, there's enough talent to get to Japan and do some damage while there before coming up short of winning gold.
It's worth reminding that there's no guaranteed linear connection between Olympic success and senior national team success on the World Cup stage. For instance, Mexico won Olympic gold in 2012, and yet it's still managed to exit both subsequent World Cups at the round-of-16 stage–the same round it reached in the previous five World Cups. But after the failure to qualify for 2012 and 2016, the U.S. (and its youth development initiative) could certainly benefit from the immediate validation that would come along with a deep Olympic run.
USWNT WINS OLYMPIC GOLD AGAIN
One U.S. program with a wonderful Olympic track record is the women's national team, though there is some unfinished business on that front after the ignominy that came with its 2016 quarterfinal ouster.
Since then, the women have won another World Cup, introduced a new head coach and have evolved. The talent remains world-class, and even though the Olympic field is quite strong, powers like France and Germany won't stand in the way due to UEFA's odd qualifying format that sent the top three finishers at the 2019 Women's World Cup to Tokyo (Team Great Britain, Sweden, Netherlands). The big question facing Vlatko Andonovski centers on who he'll bring to Japan, with rosters trimmed down to 18 players. Veterans Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe have been adamant that they would like to remain in frame, but they're not guaranteed admittance like they may have been in the past.
No matter who is taken, the U.S. will win a fifth Olympic gold.
USMNT HAS A DRAMA-LESS START TO WORLD CUP QUALIFYING
The U.S. men have a baseline expectation of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, and fortunately for them, the most difficult matches they figure to have (at Mexico, at Costa Rica) are toward the end of the octagonal schedule. While that could prove to be a negative if they stumble out of the gate, the favorable early slate and extreme motivation to set things right will help Gregg Berhalter & Co. avoid the 0-2-0 start that cost Jürgen Klinsmann his job.
That the road to Qatar could start where the road to Russia came up short (if Trinidad & Tobago gets through Concacaf's first round of qualification), would provide a chance to emphatically signify that this is a new era entirely.
ANGEL CITY MAKES A MAJOR SPLASH
Given the clout Angel City flexed upon its arrival as an NWSL expansion franchise this past summer, I hope you didn't expect that ownership group to start life as a club quietly.
By wielding their vast resources and the lure of L.A., watch NWSL's 2022 expansion club land a front line of Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Christen Press through deals with Orlando and Louisville. Morgan and Press are L.A.-area natives who both boasted their pride in the league landing a Los Angeles team, and in Banc of California Stadium, the club will play in a spectacular facility befitting of the USWNT stars. For those looking closely enough, the seeds were already planted via social media "tampering" months ago from one of the club's many powerful owners, Abby Wambach.
While that may be more of a prediction for 2022, the transactions themselves will go down in the immediate aftermath of the 2021 NWSL season.