Brazil 2014, at the onset, looked like 1998 revisited. It turned out to be anything but. The U.S. World Cup run was slapdash, nerve-wracking and more than a bit fortunate. But, it was also, given initial expectations, no trifling feat.
The U.S. faced a talent deficit in all four matches. Ghana and Portugal, while shells of past sides, still had players the U.S. could not equal. No American player, even the mighty Tim Howard, would have taken the field for Belgium or Germany. Four teams should have beaten them. One did, barely, in regulation.
The U.S. endured the World Cup’s most grueling travel schedule. They traveled 8,900 miles over 11 days in the group stage (most of any team). That was just to get to the three matches played in heavy heat and humidity (Ghana), in the middle of the Amazon (Portugal) and after a monsoon (Germany). In the tournament of dead legs, theirs should have been the deadest. Instead, they displayed more resilience than many European powers.
Weaknesses were apparent. The U.S. back four was vulnerable, cobbled together from spare parts before the tournament. The U.S. had no dynamic, world-class midfielder. Even with a healthy Jozy Altidore, the U.S. would not have had a menacing, goal-compiling striker. They lacked top-quality technique. They weren’t large, strong or quick. This team had to rely on effort to even flirt with success. The players gave everything they had.
Klinsmann deserves some of the credit. The U.S. had one of (if not the) most cohesive squads in the tournament. That alone is an achievement, considering the squad had little World Cup experience, had little experience playing with each other and had players strewn across 21 different clubs in eight different leagues. Not to mention multiple countries of origin.
His tactical acumen was maligned in the past, most notably by former charge Philipp Lahm. In 2014, it was a strength. The U.S. swapped players and styles for a new challenge. Klinsmann’s selections, substitute choices and alignment were mostly spot on. His team came nowhere near controlling midfield. But they were disciplined and mitigated damage.
Much of the credit rests with the U.S. players. The battle was uphill. The grind, physically and mentally, was exacting. The players embraced it. There were mistakes. But nearly every player put in a strong shift. Many performed beyond what could be reasonably expected.
Untread Germans weren’t intimidated. MLS players manned up against more heralded opponents. Veterans Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, on the field all 390-plus minutes, were the No. 1 and No. 3 top distance runners in the tournament respectively, despite the climate and the plane flights. Their laboring gave the U.S. a chance. They were still charging at the finish, trying to get the U.S. to penalties.
America believed. The U.S. campaign was by most measures a triumph. But, 2014 will still feel hollow. The reason: We’ve been here before.
The U.S. team has been the world’s plucky darlings. They have been to the knockout rounds four of the last six tournaments. They have left the playing field against major European powers with their chins up. “Success” has been sustained. Progress, unlike 1998 or even 2010, is moving beyond that. Beating not competing. Being more than just England’s long absent esprit de corps.
The next step, as shown against Germany and Belgium, is player development. It’s time for the American Romelu Lukaku. Or, at least, the American who won’t get steamrolled by Romelu Lukaku. Recruiting German academies is a stop gap. Those players must come from the United States and, specifically, Major League Soccer.
MLS can’t be just a place for a DeAndre Yedlin to emerge. It must be a place for him to grow and to refine his game against the best competition. It must be a place that produces so many DeAndre Yedlins we don’t need to freak out about each DeAndre Yedlin. That requires enhanced resources, which can only come through television.
MLS is stable, growing and meeting benchmarks. But the soccer explosion on mainstream American TV has mostly passed it by. World Cup boosts have come and gone. The MLS Cup final still struggles against Everybody Loves Raymond reruns. Ratings have declined, while the EPL, the Champions League and the USMNT have thrived. Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley coming back has had virtually no impact. Maybe the fifth World Cup will be the charm?
Americans may believe in the U.S. national team on a grand scale. But until they believe in MLS, winning the World Cup remains as remote a prospect as ever.
[USA Today Sports]