Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha in Brazil. Credit: Kelly Sato/A C Moreas
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.
American possession and momentum continued to grow in fits and starts until the final whistle at 90 minutes. Then, tragedy. Just three minutes into overtime, Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne sunk a perfectly placed far-post shot from close range. And when the Belgian’s Romelu Lukaku scored another 12 minutes later, it appeared to be game over.
With just 15 minutes on the clock and nothing left to lose, however, Klinsmann sent on the 19-year-old Green, a rising star on the top team in Germany's Bundesliga. Minutes later, Green charged straight up the middle to meet a ball lofted forward by Michael Bradley. Receiving it at the 18, Green volleyed past the Belgian keeper to bring the Americans back within one.
Time ran out before the Americans could find the net again, and they again went home at the Round of 16 stage, the furthest the team has ever gone at a World Cup.
Some are grumbling that the U.S. once again finds itself going home without advancing to the quarter finals. Some are grumbling about Klinsmann’s decisions — leaving proven goal-scorers like Donovan home, not having a viable backup striker to replace Josie Altidore, benching Beckerman for the Belgium match after three solid showings.
This misses the point. Klinsmann’s squad not only defied all expectations simply emerging from the group stage. They defeated Ghana, played Portugal to a draw, and put in a respectable showing against Germany, one of the top four teams in the world. They scored the only run-of-play goal Belgium has allowed in four Cup matches so far. Had substitute forward Chris Wondolowski not flubbed a relatively easy scoring opportunity late in overtime, the U.S. could well have been the one to advance to the quarterfinals. Klinsmann’s side played solidly against four of the stronger teams at the tournament, which bodes extremely well for America’s future.
Klinsmann’s key change from his predecessors has been to reward players who are hungry and at the top of their form right now. He abhors the notion that a spot on the national team is a reward for past glory. Donovan’s amazing performances in previous years count for little with this coach. And while age factors heavily into Klinsmann’s calculus, he has set no hard limits — DeMarcus Beasley, a veteran of four World Cups for the US, played all four matches at left back because his speed and work ethic continue to meet the highest standard.
Age may not be a problem for keeper Tim Howard’s future on the national team, either. Howard truly deserves all the accolades bestowed upon him. His performance was remarkable — the most saves in a World Cup match in more nearly 50 years. Beyond the acrobatics, his judgment and positioning were impeccable. Whether the 35-year-old will be America’s top keeper four years from now is anyone’s guess, but Kasey Keller, the U.S.’s previous keeper, continued to turn in high-level performances into his early 40s.
But on sum, Klinsmann clearly favors younger, hungrier players who are just entering their peak years. He recognizes that speed is an imperative to play at the top tier. He knows that while the quality of MLS is improving, the best training for world-class play remains in Europe. Players with a European pedigree are more likely to be included on future rosters.
Klinsmann is clearly committed to his new job. He has persuaded several rising stars with dual German-American citizenship playing in the German leagues to join the U.S. national team. If Klinsmann can take a left-for-dead squad out of the Group of Death at his first World Cup for the U.S., where might he be able to take the team four years from now?