The 11 soccer stories to watch in 2016

Jurgen Klinsmann, Cristiano Ronaldo, Alex Morgan, Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola.

Soccer stories to watch in 2016

Jurgen Klinsmann, Cristiano Ronaldo, Alex Morgan, Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola.

There is always another game. Always another tournament or league or competition. And in soccer, as sure as the sun rises and sets, there is another storyline. It's why we're besotted by that sport of ours.

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It isn't just one team against another, a battle between billionaires' playthings. It's tribal. And geopolitical. It matters profoundly. Fans feel it down into their bone marrow. And it just so happens, or perhaps it's exactly because of all this, that the stories in soccer are somehow always bigger, bolder, more grotesque than in any other sport. Even corruption is somehow more craven in the world's favorite game.

Here, then, is FC Yahoo's Starting XI of stories we'll be watching in 2016.

Happy New Soccer Year, everybody.

Sepp Blatter

Of course, Sepp Blatter. Ask yourself when was the last year he wasn't a storyline? Could it just be that 2016 is the last time he's a significant part of the conversation, though? If his eight-year suspension from soccer does indeed hold up in front of the Court of Arbitration in Sport, and he really vacates office in February, we might have finally and happily seen the last of him.

But before that happens, we'll be talking about him some more.

Copa America Centenario

Few tournaments have had as hard of a time getting organized as this one-off celebration of the South American championship's hundredth anniversary. It got ensnared in the Department of Justice indictments that roiled soccer in May and, for a time, it looked like it wasn't going to happen. But eventually, U.S. Soccer managed to untangle the mess and ensure that the thing would go ahead here in the United States, as planned.

But this event will be far more than just an opportunity for Americans to see Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar, James Rodriguez and Arturo Vidal play in meaningful competition at home. And it represents something bigger than a chance for the U.S. men's national team to measure itself against the rest of the hemisphere.

This tournament is, above all, an open audition to stage another World Cup stateside. It's expected that the U.S. will bid for the 2026 World Cup, for which it will be a favorite. This was also true for the 2022 World Cup, however, and we all know how that turned out.

Pep Guardiola

The Bayern Munich manager says he has already decided where he will work next season, after his three-year deal with the Bavarians is up. This is significant not just for deciding where perhaps the most accomplished manager in the game will sprinkle his magic dust next. It matters because Pep is basically the axis around which the managerial revolving door spins.

Carlo Ancelotti has been lined up to replace him at Bayern. But all other vacancies probably won't be filled until Guardiola has picked his spot, whereupon the rest of the managers will shuffle around in whatever jobs he hasn't taken.

It all starts with the Spaniard.


If it won't any longer be Sepp Blatter's International House of Graft, what exactly will FIFA become? The beleaguered governing body of the world's game has come to a crossroads in its long and ugly existence. Can the greed be checked at last? Are there enough reformist and honest people in positions of power now to really change anything?

And who will become its new president? Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, the Jordanian challenger in Blatter's final election who is telling us what we want to hear? Is he the right man for the right time, the one to decentralize soccer's power and create sufficient oversight to clean house?

Lionel Messi

The little Argentinian maestro will turn 29 in 2016, meaning he shouldn't yet be coming out on the other end of his prime. He's favored to win a fifth FIFA Ballon d'Or in January – besting his own record. And it isn't looking like Barcelona's absurd dynasty is nearing its end just yet.

But there's one thing Messi hasn't accomplished yet: win a major trophy at the senior level with Argentina. He's led his country to an Under-20 World Cup title and the Olympic Under-23 gold. Yet in spite of dragging Argentina into the final of the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America, he has thus far failed to claim any senior-level silverware for his adoring nation.

Could the Copa Centenario be it?

Euro 2016

For a time, the European continental championship was the hardest national team competition in the world to win. Simply because there's a greater concentration of strong countries in Europe than any other continent. And until the upcoming edition in France this summer, a mere 16 teams qualified, meaning the field was absolutely stacked.

With a field of 24, things still won't be a whole lot easier this time around. Tellingly, the Netherlands, who had placed third at the World Cup just a year earlier, failed to qualify at all. There will be footballing fireworks. Perhaps the greatest concern for the host French: keeping terrorism at bay during their month in the soccer spotlight.

Jurgen Klinsmann

The German is still the head coach of the U.S. men's national team, not to mention the federation's technical director. If 2013 and 2014 were strong years for him, 2015 was something of a disaster. The patience with his project has worn thin among many. And while he seems to retain the confidence of U.S. Soccer, another challenging year could test the faith put in him and his methods.

With the Copa Centenario and more qualifiers in the offing, this year could be make or break for the Klinsmann Era.

Rio Olympics

We don't yet know how many American soccer teams will go to Brazil this summer, if any. Qualification for the women seems like a formality. On the men's side, it's anything but. Whereas the senior women should saunter through their qualifying tournament in Texas in February, the Under-23 men's team tripped up in theirs in October and will have to beat mighty Colombia in a two-game playoff in March.

Assuming they qualify, the women will go for a fourth straight Olympic gold medal – and a fifth in the six editions there has been women's soccer at the Summer Games. But they'll have to do it without a host of retired veterans like Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday and Shannon Boxx while midfielder Megan Rapinoe is a question mark with a serious knee injury.

As for the men, it will at this point be an accomplishment just for them to qualify.

Cristiano Ronaldo

As one of the greatest players the game has ever seen slowly creeps toward his 31st birthday, there is no doubt that he has evolved into a less mobile yet still prolific goal scorer. The question now is how long he can hold onto his prime.

Meanwhile, it's looking increasingly likely that he'll leave Real Madrid this summer. After seven seasons in the Spanish capital, the question is whether he returns to Manchester United or perhaps joins Paris Saint-Germain, which would be just the fourth club of his career.


The National Women's Soccer League looks slated to become the first North American women's pro league to make it to a fourth season, after the WUSA and WPS failed to. In fact, it will add a 10th team in Orlando, and there's talk of further expansion.

The NWSL remains a bare-bones outfit, by necessity more than choice. But the question has become whether a professional outfit can finally capitalize on the U.S. women's national team's popularity and success past a few thriving teams amongst a field of loss-leaders.

Sunil Gulati

The U.S. Soccer president will mark a decade of running the national soccer governing body. In that capacity, he will have to make a decision on whether to stand by Klinsmann if things go sour again and probably oversee another women's campaign in Rio.

But most of all, Gulati, who is one of the greener members of FIFA's all-powerful Executive Committee, will have to assert himself and protect American interests in Zurich. That means, among other things, holding the crooked power brokers to account and being a force for change.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.




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