The 2018 World Cup is over. But as longtime followers of the beautiful game know all too well, soccer never sleeps.
Heck, on the same night France triumphed in Moscow, the transfer market prepared to spin out of control; Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in Turin for his official presentation as a Juventus player; MLS playoff races heated up; and top European clubs, with preseason already in full swing, finalized preparations for their U.S. tours.
The World Cup is often considered a postseason event, but the 2018-19 campaign is, remarkably, mere weeks away. There’s a lot to plunge into immediately. Here’s a look at the top 10 soccer storylines of the next 12 months:
1. There’s another World Cup approaching
You’ll have to wait more than four years, until November 2022, for the next men’s World Cup. But next summer, it’s the women’s turn. The 2019 World Cup kicks off on June 7. The U.S. is the defending champion and favorite, but probably only slightly ahead of host nation France. There has been talk for some time now that as more and more countries continue to pour more resources and attention into the women’s game, the rest of the world is catching up. The trend could make for a wonderfully exciting 2019 tournament.
Oh, and before the American women can dream of a repeat, they have to qualify. The requirement is a top-three (or -four) finish at the CONCACAF Championship in October. Even with a moderately reshaped roster that has battled injuries, that should be straightforward. Then again, Trinidad should have been straightforward.
2. A hectic, Ronaldo-fueled transfer market
Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus stunned the soccer world. It also should set off a chain reaction of transfer activity. The sport is suddenly off balance. Equilibrium must be recovered. Real Madrid needs a new megastar. Other pursuits and negotiations will depend on where Los Blancos look for one (or more).
Clubs in Europe’s top five leagues have already spent more than $3.3 billion this summer. We’ll have a story rounding up the top activity so far in due course. But there’s much more to come. The Premier League window closes on Aug. 9 this year. Other European clubs have until the end of August. A lot will happen in a short period of time.
3. Real Madrid’s rebuild
The most intriguing club in 2018-19 will be the sport’s biggest. The Ronaldo era is abruptly over at the Santiago Bernabeu. So is the Zinedine Zidane era. Real Madrid has won four of the last five Champions Leagues. But it has now lost its best player and threepeat-winning manager; it has a new boss who’ll presumably bring a completely different style; and it has an aging core that finished third in La Liga last year, well off Barcelona’s pace.
For almost any other club, those circumstances would trigger a rebuild – a transitional season with tempered expectations. But Real Madrid doesn’t do tempered expectations. Julen Lopetegui, axed by Spain amid controversy on the eve of the World Cup, will be tasked with simultaneously laying a new foundation and winning trophies. There’s a chance the result is disastrous. There’s also a chance Eden Hazard and/or Neymar, plus another young stud or two, lead Real back to the summit.
4. Can Liverpool (or anybody else) challenge Man City?
When Liverpool ended Manchester City’s run at an unbeaten Premier League season in January, the Citizens were already out of reach at the top of the table. But suddenly they were mortal, and there was a thought that Liverpool’s 4-3 victory blew open the title race … for the following season. Now that following season is here. Naby Keita has arrived from RB Leipzig, Fabinho from Monaco, and Xherdan Shaqiri from Stoke. Now is the time.
City, coming off a record-breaking campaign, is still the best team and the favorite. But the Prem has not had a back-to-back winner since 2008-09. Liverpool is equipped for a title challenge. Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea have outside shots as well. There’s a chance City runs away from the pack again. But England’s should be the most competitive of the Big Five European leagues, with Spain – Real in flux, Barca vulnerable, Atletico Madrid strengthened – the other reasonable choice.
5. Will Germany, Italy or France give us a surprise?
Juventus just added the second-best player in the world, while its closest challenger lost its coach and midfielder conductor. Bayern’s 2017-18 margin was 21 points. PSG’s was 13, and could have been much more.
All three have become one-team leagues. And that’s a problem. Either 2018-19 gives us a surprise title race, or the calls for change amplify. Or …
6. The winds of change are ruffling European soccer
European soccer seems to be approaching a crossroads. Inequality is at an all-time high and increasing. For maybe the first time ever, some sort of European superleague – an exclusive, intra-elite competition that supersedes the current league structure – seems both feasible and perhaps rational.
Manchester United, Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, PSG and Bayern Munich met with FIFA officials in May to discuss lucrative options that would pit the seven giants, and possibly others, against one another more regularly. It’s unclear what exactly such a competition would look like or how close it might be to fruition. But expect talk of it to become more pervasive over the next 12 months.
7. It’s time to start paying attention to MLS
The European leagues are as predictable as ever. Meanwhile, MLS is as unpredictable as ever. Remember when Toronto FC solidified its “best team in league history” status with an MLS Cup that seemed like the first of several? Well, it’s in 10th place in the East, 11 points off the final playoff spot. Three of the leagues five best teams are second-year Atlanta United, expansion side LAFC and FC Dallas, darn near the worst team in MLS over the second half of 2017. The other two of the five, the two New York clubs, recently lost their head coaches to Europe.
That said, we don’t blame you if you haven’t been following the first four-and-a-half months of the season. The absurdly bloated playoff format renders them mostly meaningless. And they’re the reason TFC can blow off the first month of the season, then struggle with Jozy Altidore sidelined by injury, and still be a few wins away from the playoff hunt. But with just 16 points from 19 games, the “now or never” phase of the season is approaching. Last year’s Western Conference champs, the Seattle Sounders, are flat-out bad and 11 points adrift themselves. The LA Galaxy (and Zlatan) are in a playoff race. And those aforementioned top five teams are legitimately fun.
In other words, take a few days after the World Cup to detox, then gear up for the MLS stretch run.
8. The USMNT’s coaching search and rebuild
U.S. men’s national team GM Earnie Stewart starts his new gig in two weeks. His first task is to hire a coach. There’s no timeline for the search, and interim manager Dave Sarachan is in charge until Stewart and the federation get their new gaffer. But ideally the process will be completed by the beginning of September.
Oh, and speaking of September … that’s when the USMNT re-takes the field. The new coach will be thrown into the fire. On the docket this fall for the Yanks: Brazil (Sept. 7, New Jersey), Mexico (Sept. 11, Nashville), reportedly Argentina and Colombia (October), England (Nov. 15, London), and Italy (Nov. 20).
9. UEFA Nations League
Remember when international soccer’s between-World Cups interims used to be barren? Those days are numbered, if not already gone. UEFA’s new Nations League begins in September with mouth-watering fixtures like Germany-France and England-Spain. The competition matches Europe’s top 12 teams up against one another in a league format, with a final four next summer. Every international break, there’ll be three or four high-profile games.
It remains to be seen where Nations League games fall on the importance scale – on, say, a friendly-to-World Cup continuum. They’ll be somewhere in the middle. Either way, they should be entertaining.
10. It’s a FIFA election year
The Nations League could be the first step toward change in international soccer as well. It isn’t just the club game arriving at potential inflection points. There’s been talk of a Global Nations League, and of other international soccer shakeups.
They could depend on whoever is running FIFA at this time next year. There’s a presidential election on June 5 in Paris, two days before the women’s World Cup kicks off. Gianni Infantino has announced he’ll run for re-election, and is a clear favorite. But he’s far from universally popular. Challengers could arise. Or Infantino could be force to make concessions or new promises to win over votes. Those concessions or promises could go a long way toward reshaping the soccer world.
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