When fans of American soccer look back on 2006 there won't be too many fond memories.
Sure, there were some bright spots, such as the development of more soccer stadium projects, the continued development of Clint Dempsey and Oguchi Onyewu and the increase in the number of young American players going to Europe, but 2006 provided far more dark moments for American soccer. With the passing of Lamar Hunt, the national team's disappointing finish at the World Cup, U.S. Soccer's failed courtship of Juergen Klinsmann and the regression of so many of the national team's top players, 2006 was basically a year to forget.
This brings us to 2007, a year filled with promise, opportunities and expectations for American soccer. It is also filled with questions to be answered. Here are seven important questions whose answers will determine whether 2007 is unforgettable or another lost year for American soccer:
Which stars will arrive in MLS? Major League Soccer's adoption of its new designated player rule has paved the way for MLS teams to go after players who previously would have been too expensive to target.
What sort of players will come to the league now? That depends on how far teams are willing to go financially. The minimum salary figure is $400,000 but teams are likely going to have to push that figure closer to $1 million to attract real stars. According to some league sources, not all teams are ready to push too far beyond that $400,000 figure, meaning that only a few teams have a real chance of signing the type of marquee names the rule was intended to attract.
Just which stars will make it to MLS in 2007? David Beckham and Ronaldo have been the big names most often mentioned, while some others that had been linked to MLS (Luis Figo and Paulo Wanchope) have chosen bigger paydays in Asia. One thing we will find out with the new rule is which owners are serious about building a winner and which team officials really know what they are doing when it comes to scouting and signing foreign players.
Who will replace the golden generation? With Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope having retired from the national team, we are left to wonder just which players are prepared to step forward and lead the United States' next generation.
Right back and Bundesliga veteran Steve Cherundolo has the makings of a national team captain (he's already the club captain of Hannover 96). Onyewu, who has been linked to a potential move to Real Madrid, also has the qualities to be a team leader. Landon Donovan, who wore the armband briefly a year ago, will need to rebound from a disappointing 2006 before he re-establishes himself as a team leader.
From a playing standpoint, replacing McBride could prove to be the most difficult task for U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley. There are some solid MLS forwards in Brian Ching and Taylor Twellman, but neither is an established forward on the international level. With Eddie Johnson's stock as low as it has been in two years, the U.S. team's forward pool is screaming for someone to emerge.
Who will coach the national team? Bradley has the job now but who does U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati have in mind to take over permanently this summer? Will he feel compelled to deliver a big name after failing so miserably to close the deal with Juergen Klinsmann? Or will he stop listening to the public demand for a high-profile hire and stick with Bradley permanently?
Bradley will have his chance to shine, with at least four games expected to be on the U.S. national team's schedule between now and Gulati's final decision, including a highly anticipated match against Mexico on Feb. 7.
What foreign coaches should be considered on Gulati's radar? Carlos Queiroz and Gerard Houllier have both been in the mix from the beginning and they now stand as the front-runners, assuming Klinsmann doesn't creep back into the picture. Bradley shouldn't be ruled out as a permanent option either, especially if the national team can win its next four games and look good doing so.
Is Freddy ready? Freddy Adu has been desperate to take control of an attack from central midfield, something that wasn't going to happen at D.C. United. Now Adu gets his chance as he is given the keys to a Real Salt Lake attack that was one of the league's most potent in 2006.
How Adu does will have an impact on so many things. You have Real Salt Lake, which is banking on him being the star who helps to draw fans and get a stadium built. You have a league desperate to see Adu come close to meeting the absurd expectations placed on him when he first arrived. You also have a national team which is in desperate need of having an attacking midfielder develop.
What will be the impact of the new MLS player development initiative? Lost in all the hype surrounding MLS' new designated player rule was the league's implementation of a new youth development initiative that will allow teams to reap the rewards of establishing youth development programs.
What the new rules basically will do is make MLS teams get serious about establishing strong youth programs because players they develop through these programs will become their property. While some teams claim to have quality youth setups, none of them currently (save for the Red Bulls) have youth team programs that can be truly considered effective.
Will MLS teams start putting serious resources into youth teams? That is the hope, and with MLS now rewarding teams even further by letting them keep future revenues from the sale of players, there is even more incentive for teams to get serious about developing young players.
Is Mexico going to regain control? You might wonder what the Mexican national team is doing on a list of things for American soccer fans to watch for. It's simple. As bad as 2006 was for U.S. soccer, it was a very promising year for Mexico. No, not because of the World Cup (where Mexico benefited from a sweetheart draw), but because of the fact that Mexican players are finally going to Europe in numbers after staying on this side of the pond for many years.
Pavel Pardo, Ricardo Osorio, Carlos Salcido and Francisco Fonseca joined Mexican captain Rafael Marquez in Europe and the impact of the experience they are gaining will be reflected in the Mexican national team in the coming months. The growth of that quintet, coupled with the continued development of young standouts Carlos Vela and Giovanni Dos Santos, is going to make the U.S. team's recent control of the CONCACAF region difficult to maintain.
In short, anyone who thinks that the U.S. national team had put Mexico in the rearview mirror for good had better realize that it won't be that easy.
What city is next for MLS? The rousing success of the Houston Dynamo and the growing excitement over Toronto FC make Major League Soccer's next pick for an expansion team one of the top stories to watch in 2007.
Atlanta, Cleveland, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Rochester, San Diego, San Jose, Seattle and St. Louis are the 10 markets most frequently linked to a potential MLS franchise. Who are the front-runners? Cleveland and Philadelphia are strong while Seattle is the best candidate among the West Coast cities. One market that shouldn't be counted out is San Jose, which lost the Earthquakes a year ago but appears to have life again.
MLS knows its next selection is crucial because a strong 14th team will ensure that the league is healthy enough to handle the additions of teams 15 and 16 in 2010.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.