Wednesday, July 2, 2014
We knew this day was coming but that didn't make it any less disappointing as the U.S. men bowed out in the round of 16 for the second time in a row. The U.S. went to extra time with Belgium scoreless but the Belgians scored twice in the first 15 minutes to take a commanding 2-0 lead. The Americans valiantly battled back and cut it to 2-1 but ultimately ran out of time in Salvador.
Belgium will meet Argentina on Saturday (12, ABC) in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the U.S. failed to reach that stage for the third straight World Cup. Tim Howard proved that he's still one of the top goalkeepers on the planet. He made 16 saves, a modern record, and he was the only reason that the U.S. even had a chance to steal this. Belgium had 18 more shots on goal (27-9) and 15 more corner kicks (19-5) which is absurd.
Still, the U.S. could have pulled this out a couple different ways. Chris Wondolowski completely bungled a wide open shot in stoppage time to end regulation. Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku was the difference maker as he came on as a late substitute and assisted on Kevin De Bruyne's goal in the 93rd minute then put the dagger in the U.S.' hopes with a backbreaking tally in the 105th minute.
Julian Green's first ever World Cup appearance was more than a footnote for the U.S. as he scored a sweet one-time volley from Michael Bradley in the 107th minute. Suddenly the Americans had life again and it was remarkable how many other chances they had before the final whistle. The best was a perfectly executed free kick from outside the box that ended with Clint Dempsey one-on-one with Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois but his shot was stopped.
I am not making excuses but simply stating facts that lack of depth certainly hurt. Jozy Altidore's injury along with Fabian Johnson going down with a similar hamstring strain in the first half tonight (what's with that?) really hurt the U.S. Without Altidore, Dempsey had to play out of position and Johnson gave the U.S. defense an offensive spark that they lacked without him.
This World Cup served to magnify the quite obvious strengths and weaknesses of the Americans. When we play top countries, our lack of technical skill and time of possession make it virtually impossible to win. We can count on having a great goalkeeper-that's been a given for years-but field players are another story. Also, our spirit and compete level is off the charts good. We never give up which sounds like a stupid cliché until you watch all these other supposed great teams (England, Portugal, etc.) that crumble or go in the tank immediately when things aren't going their way. This is Year 3 of Jurgen Klinsmann being in charge and I'd have to say he's been wildly successful for the most part.
Do you really believe an American head coach would have steered them out of Group G with Ghana, Portugal and Germany? I think not. I don't believe in moral victories for adults and I am frustrated along with everyone else that they couldn't get further but you have to understand how far we've come and also still how much we have to improve to legitimately challenge for a World Cup in our lifetimes.
I am a realist, I know that soccer will never be the most popular sport in America and I'm fine with that. I never try to force it on anyone but I am always psyched when people come around to it naturally and realize all the things that we love about the beautiful game. In fact, I will be the first to criticize many aspects of the game (flopping, low scoring, lack of action). However, you can't tell me there is a better sporting event in the world than this. With each successive World Cup that we do well in, that surge in popularity and interest can only help our national team progress beyond the Round of 16 and always being the underdog against top teams.
Klinsmann's job is no simple task: revamping the national team along with the young programs and general mindset of our top players. I have the utmost confidence that he's the right guy to do it and I'm happy that U.S. soccer realizes they have to let him (hopefully) work his magic.
Record numbers of viewers tuned into all the U.S. games and it's clear that soccer is more popular in the States than ever before. So how do we keep that momentum going when the next World Cup won't be for another four years? I can't say that MLS will receive a big boost since who cares about that? If you like the U.S. national team, there is plenty of stuff between now and then (hopefully the World Cup will be moved from Qatar to the U.S.): Gold Cup, Confederations Cup, World Cup qualifying and international friendlies. Plus, the Women's World Cup is next summer in Canada where the U.S. will be the favorite to win it. If you are getting into soccer, don't stop consuming it. There are a million different ways to stay involved in it, you don't have to sit around for four boring years.