2017 is now a wrap. While it brought both good times and bad times, 2018 is a brand new year and Orlando City fans should go into it with high hopes. Below are 18 things that soccer fans in Orlando should be excited for (or at least should keep an eye on) in the new year. The list is in no particular order.
1. Opening Day
So while this list is in no particular order, MLS and NWSL opening days are first on the list for a reason. There is not much more excitement — except perhaps playoff matches — than watching all the off-season moves finally come together and seeing how it all looks in live action. Last year’s inaugural game in Orlando City Stadium was one that many fans will never forget, and one of my personal favorite sporting events. Opening day for the Pride also had one of the best fan atmospheres of their entire season.
MLS announced in early December the games for opening weekend, and the Lions host D.C. United to begin the 2018 season. NWSL has not released its schedule yet, but the past two years the have Pride opened the season in the third weekend in April in Portland.
2. 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
No, the United States is not participating, but it’s still the World Cup. Any soccer fan should not need much convincing as to why they should watch the biggest sporting event in the world. While I am still unsure as to who I will be cheering on, the World Cup should be on everyone’s summer to-do list.
3. U.S. Soccer Presidential Elections
While this will not be the most entertaining thing to watch for, its implications are going to be huge. Sunil Gulati has been the president since 2006, but his time is finally over. After failing to qualify for the World Cup, soccer fans all over the country are demanding change. Who becomes the next man — or woman — in charge will determine the future of soccer in this country.
4. Kaká’s Future
The last Ballon d’Or winner not named Messi or Ronaldo retired from soccer at the end of 2017. The Brazilian helped make Orlando City what it is today, and will be Forever A Lion. The club will certainly not be the same without Kaká.
What will he do next? Only he knows the answer to that but the world, and certainly Orlando, will be watching and waiting.
5. Cyle Larin Moving Abroad
There have been rumors that Cyle Larin will be going to Europe almost as soon as he came into he league. Those rumors are stronger than ever now, and it seems that the former MLS Rookie of the Year will truly, inevitably be leaving The City Beautiful.
Where will he go? What will the transfer fee be? Who will replace the Canadian? There are more questions than answers at this point, but Larin almost certainly will not be wearing purple by the end of the year.
6. New Signings
There have already been multiple signings made, but Orlando has yet to make a big splash in the market. There is not going to be another player making “Kaká money,” but who is going to be the play-maker in the Lions’ offense? There should still be more players brought, in and it will be interesting to see who steps up in preseason.
7. OCB’s Future
In October of last year there were reports that OCB will will or will not be back in 2018. Around that same time, the club released almost the entire roster. A month later, Head Coach Anthony Pulis left Orlando to take over Saint Louis FC. Since then, there has been little news about the developmental side. Time is running out on this and there needs to be news one way or another in the near future — either player signings, OCB folding, or a reorganization.
8. Dom Dwyer’s Impact
It is looking like 2018 will be Dom’s year to shine. Larin could be gone, and Carlos Rivas’ future is unknown as well. Dwyer, on the other hand, has the potential to help the Lions finally get over the playoff hump. Of course he needs a supporting cast, but this year might be the best of the USMNT forward’s career.
9. Can Orlando City Finally Make the Playoffs?
Dwyer’s impact leads to two other things to watch for. The first is if the Lions could finally make the postseason (No. 10 is the other impact). It has been a rough couple of years and the team has yet to play up to the level that is expected. Head Coach Jason Kreis should have his team close to where he wants it in terms of personnel, and there could be no excuses this year for not getting in.
10. Orlando City USMNT Call-Ups
As of right now, Dwyer should definitely be called up onto the national team. Joe Bendik and Jonathan Spector have slim chances. Tommy Redding has an even slimmer chance. But 2018 is the start of a whole new national team setup, and every player has a clean slate right now. If they want to play at the highest level, then they need to produce when it matters. Dwyer needs to get back to a top goal-scoring threat in the league. Spector and Redding need to play more consistently. Bendik needs to continue his acrobatic stops and improve his distribution.
11. USMNT Head Coach
Whoever is the next U.S. Soccer president will determine who takes charge, but it is just as big of a decision as the elections will be. My personal preference is Peter Vermes, but there are many coaches in the running. This coach will be working largely with younger players and will need to rebuild the identity of U.S. soccer.
12. Pride’s Quest for First Title
The Pride came so close to winning it all in their second season, before losing to Portland in the NWSL semifinals. This year, the expectation is to go all the way. They were the best team in the league towards the end of 2017 and need to pick up where they left off.
13. Marta and Morgan Connection
Let’s just be honest here — Orlando City was nowhere near as fun to watch as the Pride were in 2017. After a slow start, the Pride turned it around and finished the regular season as the best team in the league. One of the biggest reasons for this is the connection between Marta and Alex Morgan. Two of the best players in the world, they took the league by storm and played at a level above anybody else in the league. Well, everybody except for league MVP Sam Kerr.
2018 could be even better for the pair, as they will have had a half season and an entire preseason to work with one another.
14. Can Rachel Hill Keep Up Winter Performances?
Rachel Hill had a rookie year to remember. She only scored three goals and had one assist in 14 games, but she changed the game when she was in. At the end of the NWSL season, it was clear that Hill had a bright future ahead of her. It became even more clear of this after the 22-year-old’s performances in the W-League. Hill scored seven goals and had three assists in Australia. If she can continue this in 2018 with the Pride, Orlando’s attack will be even more impressive than last year, when they were the best attacking team in the NWSL.
15. After a Breakout Year, What’s Next for Chi?
Chioma Ubogagu joined the Pride at the beginning of last year, and it was arguably the second-best signing the Pride, Lions, and OCB had all year — Marta was the best. Chi scored four goals and had three assists in 2017, and played up top, in the midfield, and even made her debut as a defender. She is not close to the level of play of the Pride’s best, but her work ethic and impressive performances were enough to catch the eye of Jill Ellis and earn a USWNT call-up. Hopefully Ubogagu can continue to earn more minutes in 2018 and a first national team cap.
16. Man City Best EPL Team Ever?
Manchester City is currently unbeaten in the Premier League — a run that included a record-smashing 18-game win streak — and has all but won England’s top flight before the turn of the year. Can City continue this dominance and will it go down the best team in EPL history?
17. Can Toronto Repeat?
After winning the treble in 2017 and being arguably the best MLS side ever, Toronto can only go down from here, right? Seeing how the Canadian side follows up its historic year will be one of the biggest stories in MLS this year.
The women have not lost a home game for over a decade. Then 2017 happened and the Yanks lost three games in the States. It was a year that all of U.S. was poor. Jill Ellis may not be the best coach for the Yanks, but she is not going anywhere anytime soon.
The U.S. was not poor last year, but didn’t live up to the high expectations that Americans have been used to seeing. The U.S. finished the year as the best women’s side in the world and 2018 is looking even brighter. After a January friendly match against Denmark, we will get a good look at the women’s side in March during the SheBelieves Cup — when it stops in Orlando — and the Yanks are expected to finish on top.