The USMNT got off to a pretty disconcerting start to the year as they suffered their first-ever loss to Guatemala in World Cup qualifying, falling 2-0. It was also their first loss to Guatemala in any competition since 1988, and the Americans look pretty awful after going down just seven minutes in. Klinsmann again was put in the hot seat as he played a handful of players in positions that are not their primary ones.
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The U-23s fail to qualify for the Olympics ... again
This is not technically a matter for the senior USMNT, but the U-23 team that was set out to qualify for Rio did include players who played for the full USMNT this year, including Jordan Morris, Kellyn Acosta, Julian Green and Paul Arriola. Klinsmann had made it one of his stated goals to get the U.S. men into the Olympics and assigned his top assistant, Andi Herzog to coach the team, but they didn't qualify straight out of CONCACAF. A loss in the semis of the qualifying tournament sent them to a playoff, where a loss to Colombia at home marked the first time in nearly 50 years that they have failed to qualify for consecutive Olympics.
A slew of surprises at Copa America
By the time the Copa American Centenario rolled around, Klinsmann looked to be in quite the hot seat. Copa America, which was the closest event the USMNT could get to a World Cup-like tournament until the real thing in 2018, represented a serious challenge and Klinsmann needed to prove the team had progressed. He abandoned his tinkering ways and started the same line-up three straight times, the first time a USMNT coach had done so since 1930. It was a bold, unexpected strategy and the USMNT won their Copa America group, a solid, if surprising, accomplishment.
An embarrassing outing vs. Messi’s Argentina, but a successful finish
When the USMNT made it to the semifinals of Copa America, hopes were high as the Americans had already met the best realistic expectations for the tournament. The Americans held their own and only one match stood between them and the final. But the semifinal vs. Lionel Messi and Argentina proved just how wide the gulf is between the USMNT and the world’s top teams. As if the 4-0 loss wasn't bad enough, but the Americans, frankly, weren’t even competitive. Still, the USMNT managed to finish fourth, which looked pretty good on paper — although, the only teams they beat throughout the entire tournament were Ecuador, Paraguay and Costa Rica, teams some would argue the USMNT should beat.
AFP/Getty ImagesOMAR TORRES
Clint Dempsey’s heart condition puts future in doubt
Dempsey had just come off a great Copa America. He was one of the USMNT’s best players there, and he proved even at 33 years old, he is not the kind of striker the USMNT can easily move away from. But in August, an irregular heartbeat sidelined him, at first only temporarily but soon for the rest of the year. Even the Sounders have said they're unsure of whether or not he has played his last game.
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A teenage Christian Pulisic emerges as a star
When 2016 started, most Americans had never heard of Pulisic, then a 17-year-old kid. In January, he earned his first-ever start for Borussia Dortmund — and things took off from there. He got his first cap with the USMNT the next month, and then after that, he started scoring goals for both club and country. Now, he's starring for one of the world's biggest clubs and had scored three goals for the USMNT. He turned 18 this year, having already set a bunch of records for American soccer and been handed the keys to the attack against Mexico, and is already one of the team's best players, but this is just the beginning.
Jozy Altidore has the best stretch of his career
It didn’t look like 2016 was going to be Altidore’s year. Through injury and trouble finding his footing, he struggled for Toronto FC and didn’t score a single goal almost two-thirds into the season. He also missed Copa America due to a hamstring injury, his fourth major tournament he missed due to a hamstring injury. But the break did wonders for Altidore. In his return, he scored non-stop for Toronto FC, setting an MLS record in for consecutive playoff games with a goal, and he took back his starting spot for the USMNT, finishing with six goals in 10 appearances. He was so good in the second half of 2016 that he earned U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year.
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Dos a Cero ends with a tinkering disaster
The question going into the all-important much-hyped USMNT qualifier vs. Mexico was, would Klinsmann go with a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, and how would his line-up fit that formation? Turns out, the answer was neither. The Americans came out in what looked like a 3-5-2, that Klinsmann called a 3-4-3, and then days laters called a 3-4-1-2. Whatever it was, it messed up with the players’ spacing and understanding of their roles, and the USMNT conceded early, ultimately falling 2-1. Players questioned the approach after the match, but however they got there, one thing mattered: Dos a Cero was dead.
The USMNT gives up vs. Costa Rica
The Americans followed up their Mexico loss with a 4-0 shutout loss in Costa Rica, and while the score was pretty bad, it was the way the Americans looked lost and unmotivated that was of particular concern. Of course, the score itself was a concern too — it was the Americans' worst shutout loss in World Cup qualifying since 1957. It also marked the USMNT’s worst start to the hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying ever.
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Jurgen Klinsmann fired
It seemed Klinsmann had run out of second chances. On November 21, 2016, Klinsmann was fired. He finished having compiled a 55-27-16 record since he took the helm August 2011 and left the U.S. dead last in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
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Bruce Arena takes over
U.S. Soccer dipped back into the past to hire Arena, but it seemed like a logical fit for the job. Arena is being asked to take over in the middle of World Cup qualifying, which U.S. Soccer has never done, and turn the team around quickly. He previously coached the USMNT from 1998 to 2006 and he returns to guide them through the 2018 World Cup, if all goes according to plan. He’s been one of the best managers in MLS history, winning five MLS Cups, and left his position at the LA Galaxy for the job.
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A new era begins
Arena won’t hold his first USMNT camp until 2017, but he has already made it clear he will be a different kind of manager than Klinsmann, and he has already identified a number of MLS players he will call into his January camp that didn’t get looks under Klinsmann.
As we head to 2017, the U.S. national team looks nothing like we'd have expected at the start of 2016. It's been a wild year, to say the least.