Keith Hickey: Klinsmann must deliver fifth game in 2018

After a second-straight exit in the round of 16, it's time for U.S. fans to expect more from their men's national team.
In 1998, U.S. Soccer Federation executives and technical staff launched a hopelessly overambitious undertaking called Project 2010. Its aim was to transform the United States men's national team into a legitimate World Cup contender by 2010.

While it was inevitably doomed to fall short of its optimistic goals, the program did underline two truths about American soccer: The USA expects a World Cup win eventually, and that expectation carries the requirement of continual progress.

Three years after replacing Bob Bradley as U.S. coach, Jurgen Klinsmann's first World Cup lasted no longer than his predecessor's. The Americans shipped two goals in extra time versus Belgium and could claw back only one. In the four FIFA World Cups since Project 2010 launched, the USA has made the quarterfinals, exited at the group stage and, twice in a row now, been seen out at the first knockout round.

That's not progress. That's stagnation.

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While huge gains are being made in the soccer culture of the country and more media attention and fan enthusiasm is focused on the sport and its representative men's team than ever before, the on-field performances have been ... OK. Good sometimes, but not consistently good, and never truly great.

Getting out of Group G, the "Group of Death," even by the back door, was an admirable achievement. Few outside of the United States expected it. The USA's win over Ghana was a smash and grab — an early goal, dogged defense, and then set piece heroics after a dangerous opponent broke through. Portugal was a better performance, the best turned in by Klinsmann's team all tournament, but a win became a draw thanks to simple errors. Despite a few bright moments against Germany, the USA was simply outclassed when it came up against a true contender.

But surely the group stage is all about escaping. Be good enough, at the right time, and it doesn't really matter if you scored 15 goals and seized nine points or ground out a close win and a draw and went through on goal difference; you're still in it, four wins away from fame, fortune and immortality.

Belgium was the real test. A better team on paper, but less experienced on the international stage. The Americans had three players with more than 100 caps: DaMarcus Beasley, who was playing in his fourth World Cup, captain and team leading scorer in the tournament Clint Dempsey, and the eternally safe hands of Tim Howard in goal.

Belgium started a teenager up front and a 22-year-old (albeit already a hugely successful one) between the sticks. Just one Belgian player had played in a World Cup before 2014.

Despite its inexperience, the European team looked like the one that belonged in Brazil. While the Americans showed heart, the Belgians showed heart and world-class skill. Howard was a force of nature in goal and his overworked defenders routinely performed small miracles, but the USA failed to assert itself going forward until it found itself two goals down. Despite a small majority of possession for the Americans, Belgium had more shots, created better chances and put more pressure on the U.S. defense.

The incessant pressure finally wore through in extra time. The introduction of Romelu Lukaku was a sledgehammer to the tired American defense. His storming run down the right set up Kevin De Bruyne for the opener, and his blast past Howard was an excellent strike to give his side the insurance goal. It was required after Julian Green's 107th-minute strike.

It's hard to change a culture. Heroic defense, great goalkeeping and dangerous counterattacks have been staples of the U.S. national team's game since at least the 1950 World Cup. Despite all the early talk of controlling games and playing attacking soccer, it's not a shock that Klinsmann's tactics weren't that different from Bradley's.

Under both coaches, an organized back line and multiple defensive-minded midfielders allowed dynamic wide players to bomb forward on the counter and link with the offense. It was Belgium that played to Klinsmann's ideal, pressing high, carving out chances with possession-based attacking soccer and threatening with a variety of options.

That's OK, if this is a baseline for the future. Klinsmann blooded a number of youngsters and extracted impressive performances from sources other coaches might have overlooked. Brad Evans was a workable stopgap in qualifying and would have been accepted by American fans had he found his name on the list for Brazil. Instead, his 20-year-old club teammate DeAndre Yedlin announced his arrival on the international stage and penciled his name into the projections of U.S. fans with three impact substitute performances. Omar Gonzalez finally replicated his best LA Galaxy form with commanding defensive displays against Germany and Belgium. John Brooks and Julian Green each scored as subs in their World Cup debuts.

Klinsmann will have to replace a number of key players by 2018 — Howard will be 39, Dempsey 35, and Beasley, Beckerman and Jones all 36 — but the basis of a 2018 side is visible, and many of its likely starters and most promising talents now have invaluable World Cup experience.

So a second-round exit is, again, OK. "OK" with the caveat that the 2018 World Cup provides something better. Major League Soccer continues to churn out players, while the USSF technical staff has made an art of recruiting dual nationals. Klinsmann has the raw materials and a solid foundation of his chosen players on which to build a team capable of a fifth game.

So when 2018 comes around, U.S. fans should expect from their team and their coach a place in the last eight, no matter the draw. Escaping the group stage only to exit as soon as the safety net is taken out shall henceforth be the wont of lesser soccer nations. It's where Mexico has been stuck since before Julian Green was born. It's no longer good enough for the United States.