2016 was a tremendous year in the sporting world. From highlight reel plays to history making moments and photo finishes, sports was once again a much-needed alternative to the world around us. It was an especially big year for Latino athletes who rewrote the history books, trended on social media, changed the perception of sports fans and inspired millions of people. Here are the top ten moments for Latino athletes in 2016.
10. Auston Matthews makes history as the first Latino be drafted 1st overall in the NHL Entry Draft.
At just 19 years of age, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews has taken the hockey world by storm. Born to a Mexican mother, this California native -as a rookie- has already been labeled as the savior of the Maple Leafs franchise. After making only two playoff appearances since 2004 (with 10 losing seasons and the 2005 NHL Lockout in between), the Leafs realized that they needed to start fresh this year and build for the future. So heading into this season, they drafted Matthews with the top pick in the entry draft back in June.
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With that selection the Leafs made history on two fronts. Not only was Matthews their first number one pick since 1985, but Matthews himself is the first player of Hispanic decent to be drafted with that selection. In the process Matthews surpassed Raffi Torres as the highest ever Latino draft pick (5th overall, 2000); Scott Gomez holds the honor as the first Latino draft pick in NHL history (27th overall, 1998). And both men would be proud as Matthews already has 24 points (15 goals, 9 assists) in just 31 games. He’s also been named to the NHL’s “Three Stars of the Week” list (October 17th), and is in the drivers seat for the Calder Trophy, which is the NHL’s Rookie of the Year award.
9. Brazil’s national soccer team wins Olympic gold.
After winning a silver medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics, and the FIFA Confederations Cup one year later, Brazil’s soccer team would fall on hard times and eventually fall from grace. Being the host country at the World Cup in 2014, they finished fourth after star striker Neymar suffered a back injury during the quarterfinals which caused him to miss the remainder of the tournament. They also fell in the quarterfinal round of the 2015 Copa America to Paraguay, and failed to make it out of the group stage of the Copa America Centenario back in June.
All the while Brazil fell into political and social turmoil, and not having a successful football team to cheer for made life in the South American country a little less joyful. But when the 2016 Olympic Games came around, things changed for the better on the pitch at least. A healthy Neymar rallied host country Brazil past Denmark, Iraq, South Africa, Colombia, Honduras, and Germany to give Brazil its first-ever gold medal in soccer and it’s 30th gold medal overall. For a brief moment at least they gave their fellow citizens a much-needed distraction from reality.
8. Chile wins back-to-back Copa America titles.
When you think of top soccer teams in Latin America, Chile doesn’t always come to mind. But over the last few years CONMEBOL’s southwest nation has built itself into a respectable program. That respectability turned into soccer equality thanks to their performances at South America’s signature football tournament over the past two years. When Chile won the 2015 Copa America and qualified for the 2017 Confederations Cup, they had to endure battles with Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and capped it off with the memorable penalty shootout victory over heavy favorite Argentina in the title game.
In 2016’s Copa America Centenario Argentina got a small piece of payback by beating Chile in group play, but they bounced back defeating the likes of Bolivia and Panama in the remainder of the group stage, followed by dominating wins over Mexico and Colombia in the knockout stages to setup a championship rematch with Argentina. It was déjà vu all over again as Chile for the second straight year bested “La Albiceleste” in another memorable penalty kick contest. Even though the Centenario was purely symbolic in nature, it gave “La Roja” the opportunity to prove that they belong on the worldwide stage.
7. Portugal finally wins a major soccer championship.
After playing in seven UEFA European Championships and six FIFA World Cups, Portugal’s national soccer team has always come up empty handed. When it comes to major tournaments, the Portuguese were always the bridesmaids but never the bride, as the old cliché goes. Their best world cup finish was in 1966 (third), their best EURO finish was in 2004 (second), and they’ve never qualified for a Confederations Cup or the Summer Olympics. That was until 2016.
Portugal finally had something to put in their empty trophy case by putting on a performance for the ages at the EURO tournament this past summer. This year’s European Championship was expanded to 24 teams which was expected to be an uphill climb for anybody. It was definitely an uphill climb for Cristiano Ronaldo and company as they advanced to the knockout stages despite going winless in the group round (three draws against Iceland, Hungary, and Austria).
In the knockout rounds Portugal needed extra time to get past Croatia and penalty kicks to dispatch Poland; it took down a Wales team that was the surprise of the tournament and then had another extra time marathon in order to beat host nation France in the title game. It was a championship well deserved, and now Portugal has their sights set on the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
6. Hispanic players shine at the 2016 World Series.
The 2016 Major League Baseball World Series was memorable for many reasons. The Chicago Cubs won their first championship in 108 years, MLB picked up its highest television ratings ever during this seven-game affair and the ten-inning, rain delayed game seven was also one for the record books. In addition to all of that, it also became a showcase for some of baseball’s top Latino players. The Chicago Cubs had pitchers Jake Arrieta, Aroldis Chapman, Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop along with infielder Javier Baez, catchers Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero, and outfielders Jorge Soler and Albert Almora on their side.
The Cleveland Indians countered the Cubs’ Latin flare with designated hitter Carlos Santana, infielders Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Erik Gonzalez, catchers Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes and some solid pitching talent in Danny Salazar and Dan Otero.
5. Latin America was well represented at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Out of the 205 countries that took part in the 31st Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 20 of them (including Brazil of course) represented Latin America. And each one of these nations accomplished something of value. Aside from Brazil’s aforementioned soccer team winning gold, Argentina’s men’s field hockey team also picked up the gold medal in their respective event. In addition; Colombia’s Oscar Figueroa (gold) and Luis Javier Mosquera (silver) medaled in weightlifting, Cuba’s Ismael Borrero and Mijain Lopez earned their gold medals on the wrestling mat, while their fellow countrymen Julio Cesar De La Cruz (light heavyweight), Robeisy Ramirez (bantamweight), and Arlen Lopez (middleweight) snagged gold in the boxing ring.
Dominican martial artist Luisito Pie won bronze in the taekwondo event. The Honduran national soccer team defeated Algeria and played Argentina to a draw in order to advance to the quarterfinals, then pitched a shutout against South Korea before falling to Brazil in the semifinals.
Mexico took home five total medals in athletics, swimming and diving, taekwondo, boxing and the modern pentathlon. Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas (athletics), Yoel Finol (boxing), and Stefany Hernandez (cycling) medaled for their homeland, while Puerto Rico made Olympic history (that comes up later in this list). And finally Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay all made their presence felt at various track and field events.
4. Jose Quintana and Julio Teheran make baseball history.
Edgar Renteria was the first Colombian national to be selected as an MLB All-Star while playing for the Florida Marlins back in 1998. In 2016, two pitchers became the first Colombian pair to take part in baseball’s mid-summer classic. Jose Quintana of the Chicago White Sox and Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves were bestowed this honor by the big league fans and media.
As Latinos continue to change the perception of sports, Quintana and Teheran prove that soccer isn’t the only sport played in Colombia.
3. David Ortiz gives fans a season to remember before retirement.
At the end of the 2015 baseball season, Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz announced that the 2016 season would be his last. It indeed it was his last go round on the diamond, but with the numbers he put up the Red Sox faithful were begging for him to stay for one more year. For starters Ortiz played in 151-of-162 total regular season games. Most retired players wind down their workload in their final years.
He finished the year with a .315 batting average, .401 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and an .1.021 OPS, to go with 38 home runs and 127 runs batted in. The Red Sox won the American League East division thanks in part to his performance, but they ran into the roadblock known as the Cleveland Indians who were on their way to the World Series.
But in the end, the 41-year-old was named to his final all-star team, he won his second Hank Aaron award and was named best hitter at the MLB/Esurance Awards in November. He’s got a good argument for being a first ballot Hall of Famer.
2. Monica Puig brings Puerto Rico its first-ever Olympic gold medal.
In its Olympic history, Puerto Rico has participated in 18 Olympiads. Before 2016 the Caribbean island only had eight medals to show for it, none of them were gold, and six of them came in the boxing ring. Out of those eight, six were bronze. The most recent silver medal came during the 2012 games in London thanks to wrestler Jaime Espinal. Enter Monica Puig.
Coming into the Rio games Puig was ranked No. 33 in the world by the WTA. She had never won a grand slam event, and only had three singles titles overall. But in Brazil she was a woman on a mission as she swept past seven other competitors to not only become just the second unseeded player to win a medal, but to also make Puerto Rican history by claiming the island’s first Olympic gold medal. As competitive as Puerto Rico has been in boxing, wrestling, and even basketball, it was tennis that allowed “La Borinqueña” to be played at the medal ceremony.
1. Laurie Hernandez is the new face of Team USA gymnastics.
She’s only 16, but for nearly two weeks Team USA gymnast Laurie Hernandez stole our hearts and bested some of the world’s top athletes at the 2016 Rio Olympics. As the youngest member of USA Gymnastics, Hernandez’s efforts on the vault, balance beam, and floor exercise pushed the United States to 13 total medals. Eight of which were gold, and Hernandez added two (gold and silver) to her personal collection.
Her Olympic performance landed her a spot on season 23 of “Dancing with the Stars” which she also won. Is there anything she can’t do?
2016 was an amazing year for these athletes and we’re excited to see what 2017 has in store.