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American Soccer's 21 Best Moments and Top Highlights of 2021

The individuals, instances, teams and triumphs that we'll remember most from the last year across the sport.

American soccer endured its share of obstacles in 2021—some resulting from the pandemic and others self-inflicted. The coronavirus ruined another U.S. Open Cup, as well as the Philadelphia Union’s playoff campaign. A U.S. women’s national team in transition struggled at an awkward, closed-door Olympic tournament, while MLS teams flailed and froze yet again on the Concacaf Champions League stage. Casting a sad shadow over all of it was the relentless series of gut-punch scandals that rocked the NWSL, highlighting the fact that this country still hasn’t learned how to get some of the most basic, foundational things right.

But in a year that kicked off with an insurrection and is ending with omicron, we thought it might be beneficial to put more focus on the positive. U.S. soccer fashioned a lot of nice memories in 2021 as fans returned to stadiums and as the year’s dominant story unfolded. This was the year that a golden generation of young American men began to make its mark, knocking Mexico from the regional summit while setting a new standard for European club success. A list of the top 21 feel-good moments and memories from 2021 necessarily starts and ends with the USMNT, which won a record 17 games and two trophies, all while fielding starting XIs that averaged under 24 years of age.

So as the calendar turns to a World Cup year, let’s start the list off with a goal that got the U.S. men going:

Ricardo Pepi, Christian Pulisic and the Washington Spirit produced some of American soccer's top stories in 2021

21 - Sergiño’s Spark

The last World Cup qualifying campaign started to leave the rails with a home loss to Costa Rica. And so this one looked like it might be heading toward trouble following a poor performance in Panama and then a first-minute concession to Costa Rica in Columbus.

Enter Sergiño Dest and his untied shoelaces. Perhaps the most appropriate heir to Clint Dempsey’s “He tries s***” mantle, Dest sparked the U.S. comeback—and a climb to second place in the Octagonal standings—with an audacious left-footed blast from the edge of the Ticos’ penalty area.

His summary following the 2-1 win was as accurate as the shot: “It’s a really important goal and it was a really nice goal.”

20 - Rowdy Remontada

Lore, long-term narratives and staying power are created with games like this: a conference final that saw the two-time champion visitor take a two-goal lead into the 83rd minute before the home team sensationally recovered to force extra time and then win, 3–2. 

The Tampa Bay Rowdies’ astonishing defeat of Louisville City may have been a watershed moment for the USL Championship, which is transitioning from its role as a part-time incubator for MLS talent toward becoming a circuit comprised entirely of independent clubs focused on building their own brands and traditions. Lucky Mkosana, the 34-year-old Zimbabwean Dartmouth alum who scored the Rowdies’ first two goals, including the equalizer six minutes into stoppage time, is the stuff lower-tier legends are made of.

19 - The Pepi Train Arrives

Not every dual national tug-of-war will be won, and at this point none will make or break the USMNT. But this summer’s commitment by 18-year-old FC Dallas striker Ricardo Pepi is significant, and not only because of the goals (U.S. Soccer’s Young Male Player of the Year has a team-leading three across six World Cup qualifiers). 

It’s meaningful because the U.S. men have never really fielded an iconic Mexican-American player—one who straddles both cultures so seamlessly and who was wanted equally by both sides. Pepi is obviously a long way from reaching that status, but the foundation is in place. The U.S.-Mexico rivalry isn’t measured only by final scores. It’s contested at the grassroots as well, and Pepi’s commitment was an important win.

18 - Current Commitment

While the NWSL so frequently seemed to be crumbling in the present, the future still looks bright thanks to the game’s growth and an expanding interest among investors. There will be new clubs in San Diego and Los Angeles—the NWSL’s 11th and 12th—next year. 

But the most impressive new commitment comes from Kansas City, where Current co-founders Angie Long, Chris Long and Brittany Matthews intend to construct a training center and a new, purpose-built, downtown stadium for a combined $85 million. The arena in Berkley Riverfront Park will be the first built specifically for an NWSL team.

17 - Turner’s Tall Tale

American soccer’s focus on youth and professional development and younger ages makes Matt Turner’s story all the more novel and inspiring. The 27-year-old goalkeeper went undrafted out of Fairfield University and spent his first two seasons in the New England Revolution system on loan to the Richmond Kickers.

The chapters added this year would strain belief if they weren’t written before our eyes: An MLS Goalkeeper of the Year season with the Revs that resulted in the club’s first Supporters’ Shield; 12 U.S. caps, which included five World Cup qualifying starts; and an amazing Concacaf Gold Cup, where he backstopped the Americans to an unlikely title with five shutouts and a golden glove performance.

16 - Hall’s Doors Finally Open

A frustrating barrier was quietly but critically broken this year when D.C. United legend Jaime Moreno was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame 11 years after he retired. One of only two players in MLS history with 100 goals and 100 assists, the four-time champion was excluded for one maddening reason: he isn’t American and so couldn’t excel for the USMNT. Voters didn’t value the Bolivian’s MLS accomplishments. U.S. soccer culture remained country over club.

An overhaul of the NSHOF’s election procedure offered Moreno a second chance via the veterans’ ballot, and he earned 95% of the vote. The landslide should represent a shift in how we’re going to tell American soccer’s story, and it’ll open the door for other foreign-born players—men and women—who’ve made a lasting impact on U.S. soil. Building the club game matters. It’s the local, day-to-day foundation of the sport, and Moreno hopefully will be the first of many recognized for their contributions.

15 - A Legendary Goodbye

Speaking of Hall of Famers who didn’t excel for the USMNT, there may be a debate when Chris Wondolowski becomes eligible in three years. After all, his international career comprised just 11 goals in 35 appearances.

But there shouldn’t be a debate. Wondolowski’s incredible story and career should be preserved forever, and the latter ended appropriately and poignantly on MLS Decision Day, when the 38-year-old tallied his 171st regular season goal before grabbing a mic and announcing his retirement on the field at San Jose’s PayPal Park. Wondo, a local who played for Chico State, never forgot his roots. Telling the fans first was a fitting way to call it quits.

“Instead of doing this in a press conference, instead of in front of a bunch of cameras later on, I want to do it in front of you guys, because you guys have been there from day one,” he said. “But this is the last ride. I told myself I would cry, and I knew that the tears have been coming. But thank you guys. It’s been amazing ride.”

14 - Hoppe hat trick saves Schalke from infamy

This year’s most stunning single performance by an American abroad had to come all the way back on Jan. 9, when a 19-year-old Californian making just his third top tier start scored a hat trick that saved his big but floundering club, Schalke 04, from an ignominious record. 

On the verge of a record-tying 31st straight Bundesliga game without a win, Schalke pummeled TSG Hoffenheim, 4-0, with Matthew Hoppe netting the first three goals in a surreal 21-minute span on either side of halftime. 

There wasn’t much of a happy ending. Schalke was relegated anyway, and Hoppe is now on the bench at Mallorca. But they’ll never forget his name in Gelsenkirchen, and it remains a moment that’s almost impossible to grasp.

"Is it not the thing that makes this game so lovely and so interesting?” Schalke sporting director Peter Knäbel told Sports Illustrated. “It’s not about mathematics. It’s about emotions. We tried to explain it, but leave it like it is. Leave the player, leave the game, its little secrets.”

Carli Lloyd retired in 2021

13 - Braces and Bronze

Faced with a potential ending they hadn’t imagined, a pair of USWNT legends summoned their renowned ability to master the moment and guided the world champions to an Olympic bronze medal. For Carli Lloyd, it was the last competitive international following an almost peerless career. She retired following the NWSL season. For Megan Rapinoe, who will be 38 at the next Women’s World Cup, there’s a chance it could have been. 

Although the tournament didn’t go well, the bronze medal game represented some redemption. Rapinoe scored twice early, Lloyd struck on either side of intermission and the Americans held on to defeat Australia, 4–3. Leaving Tokyo with nothing would’ve been almost incomprehensible, and so these two U.S. legends ensured that didn’t happen.

“That was the U.S. mentality,” Lloyd said.

12 - A True Captain America

The nickname ‘Captain America’ tends to get tossed at just about any U.S. player who does well abroad. But Tim Ream, Fulham’s veteran defender, embodied the hero’s spirit in a more genuine fashion this year when he lent his support to a young fan with cerebral palsy who’d suffered online harassment. Small, heartfelt gestures can make a difference.

Just watch the video from the BBC:

11 - Solutions Save the Day

After stumbling to a 0-0-2 World Cup qualifying start and then falling behind to Honduras during a miserable first half in San Pedro Sula, the USMNT was in peril. Nothing had clicked. Blame coach Gregg Berhalter for that start if you wish. But then give him substantial credit for recognizing his initial plans weren’t working, for having the guts and humility to change them and for developing the depth that could make the difference.

He calls substitutes “solutions,” and that evening in Honduras, they lived up to that nickname. Berhalter moved away from an experimental 3-4-3 and made three personnel changes at halftime. Those three solutions—Antonee Robinson, Brenden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget—each scored. Pepi struck as well, and the Americans escaped with a surprisingly comfortable 4-1 win.

As a result, the youthful USMNT closed its first qualifying window with some confidence.

“I think this whole window was great for this group,” Berhalter said that night. “We really needed that in terms of the eye-opening of what this experience actually is. To cap it off with a win was important.”

10 - The Parallel Paths Play Out

There will be debates about whether or not MLS deserved this outcome, but make no mistake, it was vital to any pretense that the league cares about “club, country and community.” It would’ve been impossible to imagine in late 2017, when the league blessed Anthony Precourt’s effort to move the Columbus Crew to Austin, that the 2021 season would feature stunning, brand-new stadiums in both cities

But Precourt’s Austin FC kicked off its inaugural campaign surrounded by raucous hype and untainted by relocation. And then the MLS Cup champion Crew, which was rescued by an unprecedented grassroots fan movement then sold in late 2018, opened its new downtown arena in July. It was beyond a best-case conclusion to a problem that had been generating all the wrong sort of headlines.

9 - Thorns Go Global

The Portland Thorns were hit hard by this year’s NWSL reckoning but in many ways it remained the NWSL’s flagship club, drawing relatively massive crowds and finishing atop the regular season standings. The high point to a strange campaign came in late August, when the Thorns defeated seven-time European champion Olympique Lyonnais to win the Women’s International Champions Cup. The tournament also included reigning European champ Barcelona and 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup winner Houston Dash.

It was an exhibition event, but the closely contested games were one clear sign that it’s well past time for an official women’s Club World Cup. Big European clubs are investing in the women’s game, many Liga MX Femenil playoff games are packed and the NWSL is expanding. Instead of FIFA ruining all the competitions it already runs, perhaps it could launch a welcome new one.

Christian Pulisic scores in the Nations League final vs. Mexico

8 - Pulisic’s Year of Highlights

He became the first American man to appear in and win the UEFA Champions League final, and he played a massive role in getting Chelsea there with a goal and an assist in the two-leg semifinal defeat of Real Madrid. He converted his penalty kick in the Blues’ UEFA Super Cup shootout win over Villarreal. And for country, he scored two massive game-winners against Mexico—first in the inaugural Concacaf Nations League final in June, and then in the World Cup qualifying triumph in November.

This year wasn’t easy for Christian Pulisic, who dealt with injuries, the coronavirus, a logjam of talent at Chelsea and massive expectations with the U.S. But when the spotlight was brightest, he flourished. At the end he was crowned U.S. Soccer’s Male Player of the Year for a third time. The record number of wins is four, and he’s still just 23 years old.

7 - A Real Revolution

The New England Revolution are no longer treading water. Long considered an irrelevant second fiddle in Foxborough, the Revs turned a huge corner in 2021. The stage was set with the construction of a $35 million training facility near Gillette Stadium that gives the club a state-of-the-art home, as well as some symbolic independence from the Patriots. Bruce Arena and his staff came aboard, and Revs’ ownership spent millions on the likes of Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou.

It all bore fruit this year. New England set a regular season points record, claimed four major individual awards and put four players on the league’s Best XI. Relevance came with it, and the club finished ninth in average attendance, compared to 18th in 2019.

Hurt by the long layoff before the playoffs, New England was knocked out by NYCFC in the Eastern Conference semis. But it’s now poised to be an MLS Cup contender for the foreseeable future.

6 — NYCFC, Johnson Break Through

New York City FC’s very late surge and distant fourth-place finish may not have represented a sufficient or obvious championship résumé. But multiple seasons of consistent quality and high finishes, not to mention a philosophical turn away from big-name European veterans and toward smart scouting and development, are valid foundations for a title.

NYCFC played good soccer under coach Ronny Deila, even if it didn’t always produce results. And it found championship anchors in MLS Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos, a bargain signing from sister club Montevideo City Torque, and veteran goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who is often overshadowed on the national team level but who has been consistently effective and popular across his 12-year MLS career.

It all came together and culminated in this month’s MLS Cup final at Portland’s Providence Park, where Castellano’s first-half goal was nullified by the Timbers’ last-gasp equalizer. Johnson then rode to the rescue and made two shootout saves. NYCFC’s championship not only was a win for the club’s revised approach, but for a market where MLS has underperformed since its inception. 

Also, Johnson won Christmas with this tweet:

5 - European Gold Rush

American men in Europe are no longer striving on the fringes or hanging on for dear life. They’re contending, contributing and winning, and in 2021 they brought an unprecedented haul of medals home from across the Atlantic.

— Pulisic won the UEFA Champions League and Super Cup with Chelsea.

— Zack Steffen won the English Premier League and EFL Cup with Manchester City.

— Tim Weah won France’s Ligue 1 with Lille.

— Aaronson won the Austrian Bundesliga and ÖFB-Cup with Red Bull Salzburg (under American coach Jesse Marsch).

— Jordan Pefok won the Swiss Super League with Young Boys.

— Ethan Horvath won the Belgian Pro League with Club Brugge.

— Dest won Spain’s Copa del Rey with Barcelona.

— Gio Reyna won Germany’s DFB-Pokal with Borussia Dortmund.

— Weston McKennie won the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa with Juventus.

— Mark McKenzie won the Belgian Cup with Genk.

The Washington Spirit won the NWSL title

4 - Washington Warriors

None of those titles were as unlikely, however, as the one claimed by the Washington Spirit in November. The unheralded Spirit were the real-life, multi-player manifestation of Jake Taylor’s line in Major League: “Well then, I guess there’s only one thing left to do: Win the whole f*****’ thing.”

The Spirit were saddled with an ugly and public ownership dispute that saw players and fans take sides against majority owner Steve Baldwin, a mid-season coaching change necessitated by the sort of abuse and rotten culture that was the story of the NWSL season and multiple coronavirus forfeits. The team has no permanent home and lacks the sort of brand or big-name stars who move the needle.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have stars. USWNT veteran Kelley O’Hara added championship pedigree. Striker Ashley Hatch, with four USWNT caps, won the league scoring title. The uncapped Aubrey Bledsoe was named NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year for the second time and Trinity Rodman proved definitively that she’s more than just a famous name, tying for the league lead in assists and winning the Rookie of the Year award and U.S. Soccer's Young Female Player of the Year honor.

The third-place Spirit won three playoff games, one on the road and two in extra time, to claim their unlikely championship.

“People have no idea what we’ve all gone through, and the resiliency and perseverance of every single player is pretty incredible,” said O’Hara, who scored the title-clinching goal. “It’s something I haven’t seen from an NWSL team I’ve been on.”

3 - Mile High Message

The year’s top three moments are parts of a trilogy that cemented the rise of this young generation of USMNT talents and re-established the pecking order in Concacaf.

The opener came in Denver, where a new competition with dubious import produced a final for the ages, a back-and-forth roller coaster between the U.S. and Mexico that featured all the regional standards. There was controversy, drama, atmosphere and violence, and it proved to be the perfect baptism for a team looking to gain vital experience in the Concacaf cauldron.

The first Concacaf Nations League tournament will be remembered for the Americans’ 3-2 extra time win over Mexico, which ended with Pulisic’s climactic penalty and then substitute goalie Horvath’s remarkable save of Andrés Guardado’s spot kick at the other end.

The U.S. hadn’t defeated Mexico in official competition in seven years. It had to prove it could. It had to believe it could. 

“We're a young side, and we need to learn how to win,” Berhalter said.

The USMNT won the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup

2 - Gold Cup Champions

In deference to the tournament’s late-summer schedule, Berhalter took a risk at the Gold Cup and named a squad devoid of almost all the program’s European stars. Would the lessons learned over months of tactical and cultural development and then honed in Denver trickle down the depth chart?

There could be no greater validation of Berhalter’s plan or the national team’s progress than what followed, a not-always-pretty-but-beautifully-efficient, six-win run to the Concacaf championship. The Americans yielded just one goal, won all three knockout matches by 1–0 scores and, to top it off, outlasted an El Tri side featuring numerous regulars in the extra-time final. Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson, whose emergence this year was a highlight, scored the trophy winner before a pro-Mexico crowd in Las Vegas and probably should’ve been named tournament MVP.

The result was a seventh Concacaf championship, not to mention humiliation for Mexico.

“I’m so excited for them, so proud of them. We really wanted it badly for this group,” Berhalter said.

1 - A Climactic Night in Cincinnati

The trilogy concluded with what may have been the finest half of soccer ever played by the Americans against El Tri, a front-foot tour de force that left Mexico reeling before 26,000 frenzied fans at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati. Pulisic came off the bench and scored with his first touch, and McKennie added the symbolic backbreaker, creating another “Dos a Cero” classic.

Changes in international soccer’s competitive structure meant that November’s showdown probably was the last time the U.S. would host Mexico in that sort of atmosphere with a World Cup spot on the line. To cap decades of tradition with that performance was something to behold, and if there was any doubt about who sat atop Concacaf when it was over, Pulisic ended them with his “MAN IN THE MIRROR” undershirt. This generation of U.S. players doesn’t define itself only in relation to Mexico. It has bigger ambitions.

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