That was the feeling about this tournament after the U.S. national team’s elimination, and some knockout round matches that were less than exciting, and a semifinal round that consisted of an ugly blowout and absolute snoozer.
The World Cup needed to go out in style Sunday with an entertaining final to help provide one last good feeling about a tournament that, overall, was compelling and far from boring.
Argentina and Germany didn’t treat us to a goal-fest, and we didn’t have Lionel Messi put in a Superman cape and dominate the final, but it was still a match for the ages. It didn’t produce a goal until Mario Gotze’s magical winning finish in extra time, but didn’t lack drama or attacking entertainment.
Rather than partake in the defensive-minded cynical soccer employed by some other teams in the knockout rounds (like the Dutch in the semifinals and Costa Rica in the quarterfinals), Argentina and Germany reared back and threw attacks at each other through a sizzling first half.
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The second half was a calmer affair and had fewer chances, but it was still every bit a tug-of-war that provided plenty of drama. Argentina settled into a more defensive approach as the fatigue of the semifinal battle with the Netherlands showed.
Germany’s class remained constant though, and while both teams missed chances to win the match in regulation, it was the Germans who produced the key moment of magic, with Gotze’s beauty capping an extra time with plenty of intrigue and uncertainty.
What can American soccer take from Germany’s victory? When you consider the investment Germany made in player development after the failure of the 2000 Euros, and during Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as manager starting in 2006, you see a nation that is reaping the rewards of taking youth development seriously.
Germany’s success is about more than just investing in development. The Bundesliga is a thriving business that is generating impressive revenue that is allowing teams at multiple levels to thrive, and invest in developing young talent.
Simply put, Major League Soccer has a long way to go on that front, and is in the veritable stone ages with regard to player development compared to what Germany is doing. Progress is being made, but until MLS can invest serious money and smart money into player development, the gap that separates the USA from world soccer powers like Germany, Argentina and Brazil will remain.
If anything, Germany’s triumph could give Klinsmann some ammunition to go to the powers that be in American soccer and show them what can come from serious investment and direction on the player development front. Germany’s win might actually wind up putting more pressure on Klinsmann to work his magic with the USA considering he is seen as the man who helped plant the seeds for Germany’s latest World Cup triumph.
Sunday’s final was a good ending to what has to be considered a great World Cup, and a successful one for American soccer. The entertaining soccer produced in Brazil coincided with the U.S. team’s dramatic run through the tournament’s Group of Death, and casual fans by the thousands became hooked on the sport over the past month. Having a worthy team like Germany lift the World Cup trophy on Sunday, and having the Germans win it on a beauty of a goal from Gotze, was easy for any casual sports fan to enjoy and appreciate.
As is the case every four years, the challenge comes now for MLS and U.S. Soccer to bottle up as much of the newborn enthusiasm for the sport and try to cultivate that increased interest. Continuing to improve the product will help, both by bringing in stars like Kaka and David Villa and working to develop younger talent that can not only boost the quality of MLS but also the U.S. national team program.
The day when an American captain is lifting the World Cup trophy is still a long, long way off, but you can say the 2014 World Cup, in its own ways, has helped American soccer inch closer to that dream. Not only because of the new American soccer fans it created, but because of the standard and road map set out by Germany, which we saw Sunday isn’t exactly a bad one to follow.