Forget the fact that in falling to Belgium 2-1, the U.S. men’s soccer team was eliminated from this year’s World Cup. In Brazil, U.S. Coach Jürgen Klinsmann is finally answering the question that has eluded his predecessors for more than two decades — how can the U.S. compete at the highest levels of international soccer?
For Klinsmann, this World Cup was never about this World Cup. It was about 2018. And why not? From nearly his first day on the job, Coach Klinsmann acknowledged publicly that his team was not yet ready to make a run at the World Cup. When the American team lost the assignment lottery and fell into a “Group of Death,” the wily German seized the opportunity. Knowing he couldn’t be blamed for early elimination, and cosseted with a guaranteed contract through the 2018 World Cup, Klinsmann could start preparing now for the next World Cup in Russia.
In the run-up to Rio, Klinsmann, a striker in his own playing days, jettisoned aging veterans in favor of youth. Even Landon Donovan, the most famous, most celebrated and, arguably, the most dangerous U.S. player was abandoned. Klinsmann gravitated to a younger mix of homegrown Major League Soccer bright lights and those with experience in European leagues. His roster was far heavier with next-generation talent than is typical at the World Cup, players such as John Brooks (age 21), Julian Green (just turned 19), and Seattle’s DeAndre Yedlin (20).
When the Cup opened, American fans were resigned to enjoying three U.S. games, then transferring their allegiance to another country capable of moving on. Hope had been extinguished by a cold, steely, clear-headed realism — we would not make it out of the group stage.
When the Americans felled their old nemesis Ghana in their opening match, however, advancement became, while still unlikely, at least plausible. Fans allowed themselves a slight flutter. Then expectations shifted — seismically — during the Portugal match. At the opening whistle American supporters would have been happy with a draw. Yet by the end of the match, with the U.S. up 2-1 and less than a minute on the clock, the Americans were going to be the first team in its group to advance, even before the traditional powerhouse Germany! So when the Portuguese evened the score with 20 seconds left to play, fans were despondent. Rather than guaranteed advancement, the U.S. again faced the prospect of elimination.
Yet advance they did, thanks to Ghana’s final loss to Portugal. The team that no one picked to survive group stage had done just that, tallying a 1-1-1 record against three world-class opponents.
The American loss to Belgium Tuesday marked the end of the 2014 Cup for the U.S. When evaluating the full 120 minutes of play, the Belgians were the superior team. The Americans played sloppily at times, as they did against Portugal and Germany. But in that defeat, Klinsmann showed just how the U.S. is going to claw its way into the upper tier of international football, possibly as early as four years from now.
For much of the first 70 minutes, it seemed only a matter of time until Belgium found the back of the net. But the game began to open up for the American side when Yedlin was brought on in the 32nd minute to replace the injured Fabian Johnson at right back. Up until then the notoriously stingy Belgian defense, which did not concede a single goal during the run of play in its first three matches, had little problem blunting the stolid U.S. attack. The 20-year-old Yedlin immediately changed the balance of the game with slashing attacks deep into Belgian territory. Before the game was over Yedlin had launched a half dozen crosses into the box. His deep runs left the U.S. exposed on at least one counter, but in general, Yedlin had the speed to recover. And his menacing forays forward created many scoring opportunities late in the match.
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