2015, A Year in Review. What 2016 may hold for the fans of the beautiful game.

2015 wraps up next Thursday night, and as another year full of footy memories and drama comes to a close.  We look back on 2015 as an amazing year in soccer.  The living legends of the game continued to shine, new faces become household names, and we saw the rise and fall of some of the historic names in the sport.  As the year comes to a close, The Away End looks back on a year which supplied so many great memories, and which has created a lot to look forward to in 2016.  

Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic, center, celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Champions League final. June 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic, center, celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Champions League final. June 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

As we entered into 2015, still hungover from the excitement of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, we were rewarded with a display of brilliance by two European giants in the UEFA Champions League final in Berlin.  The final pined Juventus and Barcelona in a showcase game involving some of the living legends of the game. What would most likely be Andre Pirlo’s last major final, the Italian maestro fell short in Berlin that night to a Barcelona squad firing on all cylinders. Chelsea, days earlier, capped off a dominant Premier League run with another champions trophy.  Praise was sent to Jose Mourinho and the Chelsea squad when the trophy was lifted last May from blues supporters around the globe for their dominant display throughout the season.  Absolutely no one would predict the clubs downward spiral months later leading to the manager’s departure in December of the same year.  

Two different tales for the USMNT and USWNT in 2015. The lady yanks started slowly in Canada, but were able to propel themselves through a tough semi final against a strong German side en route to winning the Women’s World Cup.  A demolition of the Japanese in the final and a historic performance by Carli Lloyd set the ladies names in history as World Champions for the first time since 1999.  New stars were born during the tournament and veterans of the squad were finally triumphant in the Women’s World Cup, a tournament that had haunted the squad for over a decade.  

USWNT lifts the World Cup Trophy in Canada this past summer (USATSI)

USWNT lifts the World Cup Trophy in Canada this past summer (USATSI)

The USMNT struggled through a year where the team failed in the Gold Cup and were humiliated in the Rose Bowl by the Mexicans in the CONCACAF Cup.  The Yanks did not exactly dominate during their World Cup qualifying campaign in 2015 either.  The team struggled to find a post World Cup identity, and Klinsmann has struggled with a transitional period in the squad.  With an aging group of core veterans continuing to be the key players in the squad, the German allowed chances for young talent to be introduced at the international level.  So far there have been inconsistent performances from a lot of the new young players, and the  pressure grew on Klinsmann during 2015. Depending on how the team continues to develop in 2016 and if the U23s  fail to produce a result  against Columbia in March, Klinsmann may struggle to make it through 2016 as the leader of the USMNT.  

A stunned Jermaine Jones looks on as the Mexicans celebrate their over time goal against the USMNT in Pasadena.  (Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports, via Reuters)

A stunned Jermaine Jones looks on as the Mexicans celebrate their over time goal against the USMNT in Pasadena.  (Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports, via Reuters)

The Portland Timbers were crowned MLS champions, a team and city which has brought so much to the league since their entrance into MLS in 2011.  Former Akron University head coach Caleb Porter answered any critics who questioned his methods transitioning into MLS successfully.  The NY Cosmos were crowned champions of the NASL, a league that continues to grow in popularity in markets across the USA and Canada.  Spanish international Raul played for the Cosmos side which was victorious over the Ottawa Fury in November.  

Real Madrid and Spanish legend Raul celebrates the NASL with the NY Cosmos Reuters/Brenden McDermid

Real Madrid and Spanish legend Raul celebrates the NASL with the NY Cosmos Reuters/Brenden McDermid

So what is in store for 2016?  With three major tournaments in the upcoming summer months, 2016 will definitely pack plenty of soccer for the casual fan.  The European Championships will be held in June with France hosting the tournament.  For the first time in fifty years Wales has qualified for the tournament and will face England in a tense group match up on June 16th.  Iceland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Sweden have all qualified as well, making the event one with a very different feel from Euros of the past.  I am looking forward to seeing what may be the last major tournament Zlatan Ibrahimovic will feature in, as well as a curtain call for various other legends of the European game.  

Copa America is being held in the USA this summer, with the likes of the USA, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico in the tournament.  It will be exciting to have world class talent participating in a tournament accessible by fellow US soccer fans.  The final will be in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on June 29th.  As excited as I am for the tournament this summer and the opportunity to see the likes of Messi and Neymar stateside, I would expect high ticket prices for the matches.  Somewhat annoying but nonetheless, it will be an exciting summer event, with games booked for various cities across the country.  

The Olympics in Rio are slated for August, with both the US Men and Women looking to qualify for the tournament.  The US women will almost surely qualify for the games and enter the games a favorite to take the gold.  The men face a tough playoff against Columbia after failing to qualify this past October outright.  The playoff is slated for March and will likely be a home and away format.  With a lot of pressure on the squad to qualify after the failure of the 2012 squad to make the London games, it will be interesting to see how our U23s do in what will surely be the biggest test of their international careers thus far.  

MLS kicks off March 6th, 2016 with no new expansion franchises having entered the league in the off season.  It will be another interesting MLS season with plenty of player movement and with numerous struggling franchises making large organizational overhauls in the off season.  Fans are looking forward to the league continuing to grow in quality as numerous big names have been said to be interested in moving to the MLS in 2016 once their contracts end in Europe. MLS also announced a large 37 million dollar investment into the league’s players this season as well, which will hopefully continue to attract high level talent to the league in the upcoming year.  

Besides all of the actual football occurring in the upcoming year, there are various stories I am excited to see develop.  It will be interesting to see what markets are rewarded MLS franchises, as the league looks to expand to 28 teams in the next decade.  With Atlanta set to enter the league in 2017, along with potentially a franchise in Minnesota,  it will be very interesting if the league announces any truth to the rumors surrounding MLS expansion in the upcoming year.  MIami, Los Angeles, and San Antonio are all said to be potential options for the league, with cities like Detroit, Chattanooga, St. Louis, and many others desperate to be considered by the league.

Relegation and promotion continues to be a hot button issue the MLS has avoided in the past.  With numerous passionate supporters of the movement, 2016 may be the year where the debate boils over, forcing the MLS to address the idea.  I wrote earlier this month as to why I believe the MLS will never support the idea, but we will see if any other leagues move to set a system in place in the upcoming year.   Will 2016 be the year US soccer sees a system of promotion and relegation put into place at any of the levels? I think the demands of the fans who feel so strongly about the need for some system that rewards success and demotes failure from American clubs will at least spark a major conversation from the major players in US Soccer in 2016.  

2016 will be an exciting year to be a soccer fan in the US, as the sport continues to grow in this country rapidly.  The USL Pro now has twenty teams in the growing league, the NASL will expand in 2016, and with countless NPSL and PDL teams located in smaller markets,there has never been more available professional soccer to watch live in this country.  As much as I enjoyed the drama and unthinkable events of 2015, I am excited to see how everything in the soccer world pans out in 2016.  The most dramatically odd EPL season of 2015/16  will come to a close in May, a European and Copa America Champion will be crowned come summer, and possibly another gold medal could be awarded to our women and our young men in Brazil.  One thing remains consistent, no matter what theater the global  and domestic political spectrum may offer us next year, 2016 will be a great time to be a supporter of soccer in the US.