A year in review
A look back on 2021: What was positive and negative in American soccer
December 30, 2021
THE END OF DECEMBER is here, and we’ve reached the final days of 2021. Overall, it was a pretty good year for American soccer. The U.S. national team is in a good position, Americans abroad had a nice end to the 2020/21 season but have had a harder time to start 2021/22. NYCFC was crowned the MLS champion in a season that was pretty good – both in quality and in the export of players it sold to Europe.
There was a lot to unpack this year – both good and bad. And here is how we saw it.
Pulisic wins Champions League
There are several things that mark the definitive progress of American soccer – an improving domestic league, the rise in overall quality of the typical American player, the number of Americans in the Champions League, and finally to have an American actually play a big role for the winning team.
In 2021, Christian Pulisic became the first American to play in the Champions League final and be part of a winning effort when he came off the bench for Chelsea in its 1-0 upset win over Manchester City. In the semifinal win over Real Madrid, Pulisic was won of the most important players and scored in the first leg – a 1-1 draw in Spain.
Pulisic missed a big chance in the final but still was dangerous in his 24 minutes on the field. To have the top American player be part of winning a Champions League was a watershed moment for the sport in the United States.
One of the big turning points in MLS came a few years ago when commissioner Don Garber announced that he wanted the league to become a selling league. Now, the decision fell on each of the teams to adopt this philosophy but many of them have. What is important is that 2021 really showcased that the days of exporting players like Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies was not a fluke.
In 2021 we saw breakout performances in Europe from several players who played in MLS in 2020.
Joe Scally: Was sold by NYCFC and is a regular starter at Borussia Monchengladbach.
Brenden Aaronson: Was sold by Philadelphia and won the Austrian Bundesliga with Red Bull Salzburg and helped the team to the knockouts of the Champions League.
Gianluca Busio: Was sold by Sporting Kansas City and is a starter for Venezia.
Tanner Tessmann: While not a regular starter, Tessmann has been promising in his minutes in Serie A with Venezia. He’s another sale from FC Dallas.
Reggie Cannon: Sold by Dallas after starting there and breaking into the national team, Cannon typically starts for Boavista in Portugal.
Sam Vines: Sold by Colorado, the left back is now a starter for Royal Antwerp – the runners up in Belgium.
Daryl Dike: Was loaned by Orlando to Barnsley at the second half of last season and scored nine goals in half a season. It helped his marketability. He returned to Orlando and did well and will eventually move abroad permanently.
Christian Ramirez: was sold by Houston to Aberdeen. Despite not playing much for the Dynamo, Ramirez has been one of the best strikers in the Premiership this season.
Bryan Reynolds: Reynolds is the only notable sale of an American player this year that didn’t really impress in 2021 but he made the move to AS Roma needing a lot of work because he was only a starter at FC Dallas for about two months. Jose Mourinho’s arrival in Roma set him back but a loan should give him the playing time he needs to develop and make use of his elite athleticism.
Currently in the league there are a lot of talented homegrowns that will play a few years domestically and then make the move. Ricardo Pepi, George Bello, James Sands, and Cole Bassett are just a few that could be on the move soon.
Homegrowns, young imports surge
Building off the last section, the domestic league continues to get younger – both with the imports and with the homegrowns. For many who wanted MLS to get younger after its first 15-20 years, the last 5-6 years have been a terrific turn in the right direction.
The wave of good, solid young players in MLS is not stopping.
In Philadelphia, the likely bet is that Quinn Sullivan, Paxten Aaronson, and Jack McGlynn should be the ones to watch. Under Jim Curtin, that team has been youth friendly and young players have done well. Next year should be an important time for many of the next group of players, all of whom are on the U.S. U-20 team.
The New York Red Bulls will get younger and the signing of promising U.S. U-20 midfielder Dan Edelman was important. John Tolkin, 19, took big strides in 2021 and the left back should be in even better shape in 2022.
DC United’s Kevin Paredes was one of the best 2003-born players in MLS in 2021 (second behind Pepi). His development will be important in 2022 and he will likely also play for the U.S. U-20 team.
San Jose’s Cade Cowell is similar to Paredes but the promising winger will also look to solidify his starting spot in 2022.
In Chicago, Gaga Solnina, 17, is one of the most promising young American goalkeepers in many years and already has the job locked down for Chicago.
On top of homegrowns, the league is getting younger with foreign imports – mostly with young South American players.
Players like NYCFC’s Talles Magno and Chicago’s Jhon Jáder Durán (who will arrive in Chicago this year) are reflective of this movement.
There are still older players who move, but the stronger emphasis has been on youth – and it has made the league better and more relevant.
In September, Weston McKennie was dismissed from the U.S. national team in the middle of three important qualifiers for breaking team rules – later reported to be sneaking out and violating COVID policy. Combined with a similar incident of throwing a party in Italy amid the pandemic (and getting suspended by Juventus) there were questions over his mentality.
But McKennie has responded terrifically since the September incident. His play for Juventus has improved and the club advanced to the Champions League knockouts. McKennie returned to the national team and scored against Mexico in a big 2-0 win.
McKennie’s response to adversity has been among the best stories of the season for Americans in Europe.
In 2020 and even the previous two years, there was an awful lot riding on Josh Sargent and Gyasi Zardes for the U.S. national team. The team lacked depth at the striker spot. In 2021, we saw the emergence of several different No. 9 options – particularly Ricardo Pepi, Daryl Dike, and Jordan Pefok.
Between Orland and Barnsley, Dike scored 20 goals this season. Ricardo Pepi had 13 for FC Dallas. Thus far in the Swiss Super League, Pefok has 11 goals in 1084 minutes along with 5 goals in 809 minutes in the Champions League (and qualifiers).
There are still questions over all three of these players. Pepi is young and Dike and Pefok might not be an ideal fit into Berhalter’s system. But regardless, the national team forward position has more options right now.
Youth teams return
At the tail end of 2021, the top U.S. youth national teams returned to action as the U-17 and U-20 teams both finally hired head coaches and held camps. Gonzalo Segares was hired to lead the U-17s and former FC Dallas assistant Mikey Varas was hired as the U-20 boss.
For the U-20 team, there is a pretty good base of players but in 2022 the team will take part in a critical tournament that will serve as qualifying for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.
It is welcome news to have both top youth teams back after what was a 20-month hiatus due to COVID. Perhaps it took too long, but 2021 ends with both teams back in action.
Lackluster Americans abroad season
The most disappointing part of 2021 is that the start of the 2021/22 European season has been a step backward for most top American players. Yes, it is very good to see a record number of players in the Champions League, but how many top players (aside from the previously mentioned Weston McKennie) are in better positions than the previous two season?
Sergino Dest: his position at Barcelona is questionable under Xavi and he might not be a set starter anymore. There are some reports linking him to a transfer away from Nou Camp.
Christian Pulisic: the American has dealt with COVID and injuries this season. Since he’s come back, he’s moved around from various positions and has rarely played left wing. He hasn’t had the impact of previous seasons.
Tyler Adams: has been in and out of the starting lineup for RB Leipzig, which is having a down year. The departure of Jesse Marsch also hasn’t helped Adams.
John Brooks: The Wolfsburg central defender has been struggling the past two months and a recent Bild article painted him in a negative light.
Josh Sargent: The striker yet to get on the board for Norwich in a tough Premier League campaign.
Yunus Musah: The midfielder rarely starts or plays his preferred central midfield position for Valencia.
Tim Weah: has been about even with last season for Lille, which is simply not a contender in Ligue 1 anymore but has made the knockout stage of the Champions League.
Zack Steffen: rarely plays for Manchester City.
Chris Richards: is on loan at Hoffenheim and is one of the few national team players ahead of where he was in 2021.
Antonee Robinson and Tim Ream: are both having nice seasons at Fulham, albeit in the Championship after relegation at the end of 2020/21.
Matt Miazga: is still looking for consistent playing time on his loan to Deportivo Alaves. He seems to have lost his national team spot for the time being.
Mark McKenzie: has been in and out of the starting lineup at KRC Genk this season as the club is having a down year. He is ending the season on the heels of some strong performances.
Bottom line is that compared with the previous two seasons, it hasn’t been a great year for Americans abroad, relatively speaking.
MLS major market blues
MLS had a nice season and there were some fun storylines. But while the league thrives in many places, many of the older teams or teams in big markets are struggling.
Yes, NYCFC won the title after an outstanding playoff run. But until the team gets a stadium, it will struggle to fit in. This season, it had to combine home games at Red Bull Arena (which made for a better soccer experience) and Yankee Stadium (the worst venue in the league).
But Chicago, RBNY, Houston, DC United, the LA Galaxy, and LAFC all struggled on the field (only RBNY made the playoffs, where they were bounced in the first round). Chicago, RBNY, and DC United all struggled to draw well. Becoming popular in Chicago, New York, and LA is critical for the league. To be fair, the LA teams draw well when they’re doing well.
But the league could really use Seattle or Atlanta-level enthusiasm in New York and Chicago. It’s more important than even a successful new expansion team.
Olympic drought continues
The United States missed out on yet another chance to participate in the Olympics when the U.S. U-23 team failed to qualify back in March. The United States has now failed to qualify for the event in 2012, 2016, and 2021.
Even despite getting players released, the team was poorly put together with a lack of wingers and attacking midfielders.
The good news is that qualifying for the tournament is now in the hands of the U.S. U-20 team, a team which is generally more successful.
But it was huge missed opportunity. With the full national team so young, fewer openings pop up. The chance to get players experience in non-CONCACAF opportunities to expand the player pool is limited. The Olympics might not be considered important for European countries, but they naturally have strong competition with the European Championships, the World Cup, qualifiers, and the Nations League. The U.S. team needs to take advantage of any opportunity to play meaningful games outside of CONCACAF, even at the youth level.
Future USMNT schedule
With just two more rounds of qualifying to go, 2021 has drawn us closer to just how empty the schedule for the U.S. team will be in the coming years. March will be the last qualifiers the U.S. team has for about seven years.
But with the Nations League and the Gold Cup now taking place twice inside of a four year cycle, there are limited opportunities for the U.S. team to even play friendlies outside of CONCACAF.
The 2016 Copa America Centenario opened the eyes to what was possible for the U.S. team to have a meaningful competition outside of its region aside from the World Cup. The U.S. team unfortunately has to turn down guest invitations for the Copa America because club releases are not mandatory for guest teams (the Centernario was an exception).
Whether it be a making the Gold Cup a four year tournament to push to have more Copa America Centenario-style tournaments with mandatory releases, or having a “global” Nations League, this year makes it clear that some “big picture” thinking needs to happen. Otherwise, the U.S. team is going to be boxed into non-stop CONCACAF play for four years between World Cups.
The United States, Mexico, and now Canada have to think about ways to keep their national teams active with challenging tournaments between World Cups.