The U.S. just wrapped up a hard-fought World Cup run, and American fans aren't ready to hear excuses for why their team isn't better. But the future is bright.
By the time Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey arrived in the 68th minute of the U.S. national team’s round of 16 game against Belgium, by the time the two of them crossed the halfway line on the field at Salvador’s Arena Fonte Nova, they had traveled just short of 10,000 air miles during the course of the World Cup and nearly 80,000 meters on foot during the course of four matches. And every inch of that showed.
Jones advanced the ball in the hope of creating an attack on the Belgian goal, and Dempsey ran ahead of him looking to receive a pass. Jones sent his feed forward, only its course was several feet behind the target. Dempsey fell to the ground, forlorn. He picked himself off the turf as spryly as a fighter who’d just been floored by a left hook. Together he and Jones began trudging back toward the defensive end.
This was an exhausted team. No team in the World Cup was forced to travel as far or as long as the United States, and none among the 16 in the knockout stages had to survive a more rigorous group-play schedule.
It was there to see on the field. If you did not notice the number of times Jones missed plays he had been making for the five weeks prior, or if you simply put them down to Belgian superiority, your analysis of what occurred on the United States’ way out of the Cup is more than a little parsimonious.
“I don’t think we could have given any more,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said, and that was entirely correct, because the U.S. team had spent everything in its reserve.
Why do you suppose Howard was the one American player who performed extraordinarily against Belgium? Largely because he had to, of course, but also because he could. Goalkeeper as Howard played it against the Belgians could certainly be exhausting; his 16 saves were the most by any player in the tournament since 1966. But the position generally does not drain one’s endurance in the way midfielders Jones and Michael Bradley were affected.
There has become this almost absurd habit in the United States regarding the national soccer team. Every four years the country gets a little more drunk on its successes as the World Cup unfolds, and the moment elimination arrives it is sold as a cataclysmic indictment of the various failures that produced that result.
Development. Instead of marveling that the United States has progressed in less than a quarter century from a nation that did not exist in world soccer – did not exist – we are told everything being done at the youth level is all wrong: too much emphasis on winning, not enough on skill development. Well it probably can be better, but it can’t be all wrong. Clint Dempsey came out of this system to score a dozen goals for Tottenham Hotspur in 2012-13, and Jozy Altidore scored 26 that same year for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch League.
What can be improved? Greater access to high-level development for inner-city youth; better emphasis on technique, more encouragement for the best young athletes to realize soccer is a viable alternative as a sporting pursuit.
As that effort continues, there are more young American players competing in more important leagues than ever before, and coach Jurgen Klinsmman's recruiting efforts have made the U.S. program more attractive to young talents with more than one passport -- and more than one option.
Strategy. Instead of crediting Klinsmann and his staff for tactics carried the U.S. out of the Group of Death – not Ghana, not Portugal, but the U.S. of A. – and into extra time against Belgium’s impressive talent, he is assailed for being too negative in his approach.
Seriously? How did Belgium eventually score the two goals that beat the Americans? Uh, the first was a counterattack and the second was, well, a counterattack. Dawn on anybody that the U.S. wanted to assure the Belgians didn’t get a lot of counterattacking opportunities, and that maybe that was the proper strategy?
With an exhausted team, an unavailable striker and one of three subs taken out of his quiver by an early injury to right back Fabian Johnson, Klinsmann played a difficult hand and nearly got the U.S. to a penalty kick shootout.
Klinsmann has been criticized for omitting Kyle Beckerman against Belgium, as if the U.S. needed one more exhausted midfielder on the pitch, as if Geoff Cameron’s elimination of Marouane Fellaini hadn’t been worth the switch.
Selection. Did Klinsmann make some debatable roster choices? It certainly can be argued Landon Donovan would have been a more useful inclusion than either Brad Davis or Chris Wondolowski, and that Terrance Boyd or Eddie Johnson might have outdone Wondolowski as well. Wondo never had scored a significant goal for the national team, and after his flub in injury time against the Belgians, he still has not.
However, Klinsmann’s gambles on young John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and eventually Julian Green all turned out to be windfalls. Brooks scored the game-winner against Ghana, Yedlin was a revelation every time he entered the game and Green scored a magnificent goal that got the Americans back in the Belgium match.
The World Cup is not always a fair fight. It starts with where the tournament is placed and how the venues are arranged, then with what teams are favored by the draw and which are disadvantaged, and ultimately by the schedule presented each team.
The U.S. did not have the luxury in such a difficult group of fiddling much with its lineup, and the late goal conceded against Portugal destroyed the opportunity to rest key starters in the final group game. While the U.S. starters were wading through a swamp against Germany in Recife, Belgium was rolling out a junior varsity squad and still, even after being reduced to 10 men, beating an overmatched South Korea team in autumnal Sao Paulo weather.
That the U.S. drew enough energy from Green’s goal to go rampaging through the second extra period against Belgium in a futile attempt to even the score was incredibly impressive. Americans generally don’t care much for explanations that sound like excuses. But they either want the truth or they don’t.