In the wake of the U.S. men’s national team’s 2-1 loss to Belgium — a game in which the team looked dead and buried, only to make a furious but failed comeback in the closing minutes of extra time — some perspective is needed.
Yes, the U.S. lost in the same round (Round of 16) as the last World Cup. They also lost on the same scoreline (2-1), with a goal in the same exact minute (93rd) as 2010.
But the similarities are only superficial. This World Cup was what progress looks like for U.S. soccer — slow, incremental, measured progress that’s only visible when viewed over a period of years.
The results were the same, but the details couldn’t be more different. In 2010 the U.S. barely survived a group that was so weak it was labelled E.A.S.Y. (England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks). They lost in the Round of 16 to a mid-tier Ghana team, failing to score in the run of play and looking so bad initially that Ricardo Clark was substituted off after 30 minutes.
In 2014, the circumstances were different.
The U.S. was drawn into a group with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana that some called the toughest in the tournament. After stealing a game from Ghana, the U.S. finally played the “American style” that Jurgen Klinsmann talks so much about against Portugal — bullying one of the best teams in Europe (or so they’re ranked) for long stretches. In the Round of 16 they lost to a Belgium team that were such a unanimous dark horse pick that they ceased to be a dark horse and became a full-fledged favourite months before the tournament.
There were still elements of the old U.S. style in Brazil. Against Ghana and Belgium especially, you wouldn’t have been able to separate this American team from the hard-working, technically limited U.S. teams of the past.
But within the folds of these U.S. performances you saw glimpses of progress.
You saw 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin emerge as a right back with world-class speed.
You saw 19-year-old Julian Green score a goal on his first touch of the game.
You saw Jermaine Jones score a goal with a level of technique you rarely see from U.S. players.
You saw a team with enough depth recover after losing its best forward, Jozy Altidore, in the 23rd minute of the tournament.
You saw, at times, a team that wanted to play more out of the back more than boot it down field. You saw, at times, the style that Klinsmann wants to play — a team that’s organised defensively but breaks in numbers and with speed, especially at the fullback position.
Those good things were all in there, mixed in among the not-so-good things (namely: the defensive blunders against Ghana and Portugal, the willingness to sit behind the ball unless they needed a goal, the lack of creativity in the midfield).
But this year, more than 2010, those good things took up a larger proportion of what the U.S. was doing overall, considering the competition.
That is how soccer in America has grown and will continue to grow. There won’t be a single moment, a single game, or a single goal. There will only be small steps built upon small steps.
This World Cup gave ample reason to think the U.S., under Jurgen Klinsmann, is headed in the right direction. The challenge now is to build on the things the U.S. did well here, make progress on the youth level, and continue toward the long-term goal of constructing a self-sustaining system that will produce a national team good enough to win a World Cup.
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