The year 2016 was a bit of a wild ride. There was a lot of pain and suffering in the world, but plenty of joy as well (if you knew where to look and you were very lucky). But for good or ill, 2016 caught us all off-guard. Things we never expected to happen unfolded in front of our eyes. Soccer was no different, and the Soccer Gods used this year to mess with our expectations. At least it wasn’t boring.
Here are some of the biggest surprises from the soccer world in 2016.
On its face this wasn’t that surprising— United were unhappy with Louis van Gaal, they wanted to become title contenders again without waiting for the next Class Of ‘92 to come good, and Mourinho was available. What was surprising were the implications for United’s club politics. Sir Alex Ferguson had opposed Mourinho as his successor, and instead hand-picked David Moyes and later backed Van Gaal even when things got tough. Mourinho’s hire suggests that Ferguson’s political clout with the club directors has taken a hit— and THAT was an interesting development.
If Leo Messi stuck to his guns after his shock announcement following Argentina’s loss to Chile in the Copa América Centenario, this would’ve ranked higher on the list. Instead, the Say It Ain’t So crowd got to him and he un-retired in time for World Cup qualifiers. But don’t be too hard on him for changing his mind; he had a rough summer.
Euro 2016 had many neat little surprises, and Wales overperforming was one of them. While you can’t really describe a team that has Gareth Bale in it as “scrappy,” the Welsh definitely exceeded expectations for one of their strongest tournament showings in decades. Hopefully they can ride this wave of confidence in their remaining WCQs and book a trip to Russia in 2018.
The Sounders were in the basement of the Western Conference in July and had fired Sigi Schmid—their first and up until then only head coach of the MLS Era—to try and salvage their dismal campaign. Six months later they were parading the MLS Cup through downtown Seattle. It was proof that, for better or worse, anyone can make it in Major League Soccer (unless you’re the Chicago Fire).
In terms of shock value, the USWNT failing to win a medal at the Olympics was definitely up there. The fallout from that performance will be felt in American WoSo for years to come. But let’s not overlook the achievements of those who went further— Germany winning the Gold, Pia Sundhage leading Sweden to the Final, and Canada winning a medal and giving Christine Sinclair a long, long overdue award for an astonishing record of service.
The surprise here wasn’t that Sam Allardyce engaged in some shady dealings— something long rumoured in the papers for few years. What was surprising was that he got caught. Especially after being named England manager, the job he had coveted for most of his career. Depending on your point of view, this was either a case of exceptionally bad luck or the logical conclusion of a career built on dubious ethics and integrity. Maybe both.
NASL has struggled for years now to grow, secure broadcast deals, and carve out a niche for itself in the American soccer pyramid, despite a cozy relationship between MLS and US Soccer. That the league would fold under the pressure isn’t surprising. But from the outside, the rate of decay was breathtaking. The league went from maneuvering for D1 status to begging US Soccer for a bailout in less than half a year. It was remarkable. And depressing, if you care about American club soccer outside of MLS.
Playing in their first major international tournament, Iceland finished second in their group (they missed out on the top spot on goal difference) and pulled off a major upset by beating England 2-1 in the Round of 16. Sure, they got pounded by France in the Quarterfinals, but this is one of those rare times where a moral victory matters more than the result. Besides, you know got chills when you first saw the clapping thing.
All streaks come to an end eventually. Joe DiMaggio couldn’t hit in every game in 1941, the 1971-72 Lakers couldn’t keep their winning run going, and the Invincible Arsenal team eventually became… well, vincible. The USMNT had their 2-0 winning streak against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, and it was cherished and celebrated for years. And then last month Mexico dropped a hot steaming deuce on it. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, you get the idea.
I mean, obviously. Obviously. A team that had barely escaped relegation the previous season signed one or two new players, got themselves a new coach in Claudio Ranieri, and suddenly Leicester was the team of good feelings and pizza parties. Even when they were at the top of the table at Christmas last season, no one really thought they could go all the way. It was only a matter of time before they fell back down to earth. Before we knew it, it was March, and Leicester were still at the top. Finally by April everyone started to think maybe they could pull it off. Sure enough, May came along and there’s Andrea Bocelli singing Nessun Dorma at the King Power Stadium. It was such an absurd and magical campaign, and we may never see anything like it again.