This summer’s slate of tournament soccer is officially over, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I’ve got a few closing thoughts to help you digest all of the action, with some awards to be given and some moments that deserve highlighting. Let’s wrap up these cups.
There’s No Stopping La Furia Roja:
There is no bigger stage in soccer than the World Cup. It’s where legends are made, titans clash and careers are defined. This year’s edition lived up to the billing, with upsets, excitement, and what felt like a real changing of the guard. A first-time champion was crowned, the home side nearly pulled off a miracle and new stars began to shine brighter than the ones we’re all familiar with.
MVP: Aitana Bonmatí, Spain
What a player. Seven starts, three goals, two assists and a deserved world title. From start to finish, Bonmatí was the heartbeat of this Spain squad. Considering the club season she just had, she’s got to be one of the favorites to win this year’s Ballon d’Or. Though the Spanish federation still needs to deal with some polarizing figures in their management, Bonmatí ignored the noise and inspired her nation, showing that this game is bigger than any single person. Soccer is a gift to be shared with all, and what a gift it is to watch her take the pitch.
Breakout Player: Linda Caicedo, Colombia
Plenty of people knew about Caicedo’s undeniable talent before Colombia took the field, but it’s safe to say that her contributions in the land down under put her firmly on the radar of every soccer fan across the globe. Two goals and one assist may not seem significant at first glance, but remember, she’s 18 years old. 18! She was the fire behind an extremely fun Colombia side, helping her nation advance all the way to a quarterfinal, where they narrowly lost to the Lionesses. The sun is setting on the last generation of women’s soccer stars; it’s time for the Linda Caicedo’s of the world to step into the limelight.
Biggest Surprise: USWNT’s Early Exit
Three-peats aren’t easy to come by, especially over the course of 12 years. The USWNT didn’t look like themselves at all in this tournament. Despite playing the best game of their run against Sweden in the knockouts, the Stars and Stripes fell in a dramatic penalty shootout. For American soccer fans, it was a heartbreaking end to an era of dominance; for the rest of the world, it was a reminder that anything is possible in this beautiful game. Sometimes, even the mightiest fall down, but it’s not our missteps that define us; it’s how we choose to respond. We’ve got four years to get the next generation ready to remind the world who we are in South Africa.
Something I Loved: Punching Up
Everyone loves an underdog, but how about four? In a game traditionally dominated by a few powerhouses, any upsets in the World Cup will always inspire the world to dream big. The exemplary displays put on by South Africa, Morocco, Jamaica, and Nigeria at this year’s tournament were truly incredible to witness, and that’s exactly what makes the World Cup so great. Those teams were ranked 54, 72, 43, and 40 in FIFA’s World Rankings prior to the tournament, yet all four advanced from the group stages. Jamaica and Nigeria nearly advanced to the quarterfinals as well, but the fairy tale was cut short. Every small triumph like this will fuel the next generation to achieve even more. Well done to these mighty underdogs; the beautiful game is better for your contributions!
And the 2023 Leagues Cup Goes to … Messi League Soccer!
What a whirlwind. 30 days, 77 matches, 251 goals and one trophy lift later, and we’ve called curtains on the first edition of the new-look Leagues Cup. While I was among the skeptics going into the tournament, I must admit that was exciting. That 3.26 goals per-game scoring clip alone is insane, beating both Liga MX (2.53) and MLS (2.64) regular-season scoring averages by nearly a goal a game, but there was plenty to love beyond the goals. For the first time, we saw the two biggest soccer leagues in North America fully integrated with one another. Liga MX fans were out in force no matter where their teams went, prompting plenty of MLS fans to respond in kind. It was a beautiful coming together of two soccer cultures that have grown alongside one another for so long; I can’t wait to see it in action again next year.
MVP: Just Guess
I won’t do it. I CAN’T do it … but I have to. Obviously, Messi was the most valuable player in the tournament, but picking him feels like cheating. My heart desperately wants to pick a certain MNUFC attacker, but we’ll save him for later. Messi’s introduction to North American soccer couldn’t have gone much better. Number 10 scored 10 goals while leading last-place Inter Miami to their first trophy in club history. He had some help from some old friends, but there’s no denying that Messi was the secret to Miami’s success. Defenses across the globe have failed to find an answer for years. Why would MLS be any different? The man is simply unstoppable; defenders beware.
Breakout Player: Bongokuhle Hlongwane
For everyone familiar with Minnesota United, Bongi’s name was familiar and loved long before Leagues Cup kicked off. However, the South African winger took this opportunity to show the rest of the world how talented he really is, finally realizing the potential that Loons fans have seen so often at Allianz Field. He had the Midas touch in this tournament, scoring seven goals in just four matches. He’s no one-trick pony, either, scoring with his head, finishing crosses, and using that blistering pace of his to get in behind. If you didn’t know his name before all of this, you’re forgiven. If you don’t know his name now, you’re simply not paying attention.
Biggest Surprise: The Best (?) of Liga MX
It’s no secret that Liga MX teams probably didn’t perform as well as their fans would have liked. Giant clubs like Club América, Chivas Guadalajara, and Tigres all exited far earlier than most people predicted before the tournament. While it was no surprise that some of the smaller clubs didn’t advance very far, I was genuinely shocked that Monterrey was the lone Mexican team in the semifinals. However, when analyzing Liga MX’s performance as a whole, you need to consider more than the on-field product that we saw. For the duration of this tournament, every Mexican side was traveling. That means no home fans, no familiar stadiums and no sleeping in their own beds for up to a month. Chivas has less of an excuse than the teams that made knockout runs, but the principle remains: it’s tough to play on the road for that long. While the playing field may not have been totally level, Liga MX has long thought of itself as superior to MLS. They’ll be disappointed at how this one shook out.
Something I Loved: Shootout Drama
Admittedly, I’ve always hated the idea of skipping extra time and going straight to penalties. After seeing it in use during Leagues Cup, I’ve got to say, I may have been wrong all along. In every close game, the prospect of a possible shootout seemed to galvanize the players, either pushing them to find an equalizer or scrambling to find the winner before leaving their fate up to chance. Extra time would have turned an already busy schedule into a brutal joke for teams that advanced well into the tournament, so I suppose this was a good time to test this method out. The final was a great example of the drama I’m talking about, as was León’s crazy win over Vancouver in the group stage.
The summer of soccer is over, but the game goes on. MLS regular season action is back and more important than ever, with your Loons chasing a playoff spot in the closing stages of the season. It’s not tournament soccer, but it’s a pretty fun alternative!