Ten captivating soccer storylines for 2018

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The decline of <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/cristiano-ronaldo/" data-ylk="slk:Cristiano Ronaldo">Cristiano Ronaldo</a> (7) and the continued burden on <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/lionel-messi/" data-ylk="slk:Lionel Messi">Lionel Messi</a> are two of 2018’s most tantalizing storylines in world soccer. (Getty)
The decline of Cristiano Ronaldo (7) and the continued burden on Lionel Messi are two of 2018’s most tantalizing storylines in world soccer. (Getty)

Hey, it’s a World Cup year!

Too soon?

Sorry. This one may sting for a while longer.

Still, there’s lots to be excited about in soccer in 2018 after a dramatic 2017. There are, as ever in our beloved game, endless storylines to dig into. So we decided to pick out the 10 best ones.

Rebuilding of the U.S. men’s program
U.S. Soccer faces a long and complicated job in setting right all that’s gone wrong with its senior men’s team in recent years. And it won’t all get done in a single year, especially given all the administrative and front office turnover that has to happen before a new coach can even be hired. But the painstaking construction of the 2022 World Cup team — hopefully, since we’ve learned not to assume anything anymore — begins now, with a customary January camp. And then there will be friendlies, and a new manager, and new players probably coalescing into a fresh collective. And then, down the road, there will be qualifiers and another World Cup.

The decline of Cristiano Ronaldo
It felt a little weird for Ronaldo to be handed the Ballon d’Or and Best FIFA Men’s Player awards for 2017 recently. They were his fifth overall for both prizes — which were consolidated for a while but have divorced again — and his fourth in five years. And they were, as ever, well deserved after winning the Champions League for a second year in a row and La Liga for the first time in five years, following a year in which Ronaldo had led Portugal to the Euro trophy. Yet his decline is now obvious. It’s been apparent for a few years that Ronaldo doesn’t move like he used to. But he was still scoring as he always had. This season, his scoring record in La Liga has collapsed — just four goals in a dozen games — even as he’s kept producing in the Champions League, becoming the first player to score in all six group stage games. It bears watching just how fast he goes downhill from here.

The increased workload on an aging Lionel Messi
The game’s other superstar is now also on the wrong side of 30. Well, actually, he’s just 30. But at a time when things seemed aligned for Messi to carry less of a load at Barcelona, with Neymar previously poised to take on a lot of the offensive responsibilities, more has fallen on the Argentine than ever. Neymar bailed for Paris Saint-Germain over the summer and the other striker in their all-time great trident, Luis Suarez, has fallen off badly in the first half of the season, suggesting he may have lost a step. And so here is Messi, having to do more, rather than less. How will it affect him?

Manchester City’s season for the ages
We’ve been fortunate in the last decade to have seen several teams reinvent what the game could be and reimagine just how much some of Europe’s legacy leagues can be dominated by one team. Extraordinarily, all three of those teams — late aughts-Barcelona; 2013-16 Bayern Munich; and now Manchester City — were managed by Pep Guardiola. He’s up to it again with an undefeated league season, and just two draws headed into the new year. City’s Premier League title seems assured, and now the question remains just how high it will set the bar and what number of records it will break.

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2026 World Cup bid
While there will be no World Cup glory on the field for the U.S. in 2018, it could win a different prize: the rights to host the 2026 World Cup along with Mexico and Canada — although the latter two would play relatively minor roles. Although a decision wasn’t originally slated until 2020, it looked for a long time like the three-headed bid from CONCACAF was the only contender. Morocco has since joined the race, but a fast-track proposal is still being considered in June, when the three North American nations could lock up their World Cup. Should they fall short then, other countries will be allowed to re-enter the race, while the original bids remain active.

Premier League spending
Where does it end? Liverpool is dropping more than $100 million on a central defender, because it thinks Virgil van Dijk will be an upgrade over its current options. Although it cannot be entirely sure, since he’s either been injured or in unusually bad form for the last year or so. The Reds are essentially dropping a world-record fee for a defender on blind faith. This is hardly unusual in today’s Premier League, where the money tap is all the way open, and teams seem unsure what to do with all their television cash. Ratings are down on England’s pay TV channels, but if that trend holds, it could be years before that begins to hit the clubs in their wallets. In the meantime, there’s no telling how high this hyperinflation for players will soar.

LAFC and Miami’s MLS project
In March, yet another new MLS team opens its doors in Los Angeles. The city’s second club, LAFC, with a who’s-who of famous owners, is expected to make a big splash. It could raise the bar further after Atlanta United took the league by surprise by not only being competitive but shattering the league’s attendance record with an average of a jaw-dropping 48,200 for home games. But there’s also a big question mark in the league’s future: David Beckham’s Miami team, which still hasn’t been confirmed absent a stadium deal. We should finally get some clarity in 2018.

Christian Pulisic
The 19-year-old attacking midfielder was named the U.S. men’s national team player of the year and has become a Borussia Dortmund regular in his third season on the senior team. In the Guardian’s annual top-100 ranking of soccer players, the Pennsylvanian placed 77th. The talk now isn’t about whether he’ll make it with the Bundesliga powerhouse that’s been somewhat rudderless the last few years, but how long he’ll stick around. Pulisic is still in a good spot in Dortmund, playing Champions League soccer every season and reliably finding himself surrounded by good players. But he should outgrow his role there in the coming years. Maybe even this year.

World Cup qualifying for the USWNT
This could give U.S. fans cold sweats, but the women’s national team will be playing its World Cup qualifying tournament in October. The last time around, it cruised through to qualification for Canada by sweeping to the CONCACAF Women’s Championship — as the tournament is grandiosely called — with a 5-0-0 record and a 21-0 scoring record. A lot has changed since then. The team has been largely rebuilt. But after it won the 2015 Women’s World Cup, it slumped to a worst-ever quarterfinals elimination at the Rio Olympics the following summer. Still, the Americans are the towering favorites to amble to the big tournament in France.

The World Cup!
Sorry again, but we do need to talk about this. We can’t just pretend the tournament in Russia isn’t happening. And there are plenty of compelling questions. Is Spain really back, after winning the 2010 edition but bombing in 2014? Are defending champions Germany still on top? Is talented Belgium finally ready to compete for the title? Can Brazil be consistent? Will Argentina deliver at last? Is Mexico capable of surviving the round of 16 on the seventh attempt?

Let’s find out.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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