The United States World Cup run is over and there’s a lot to be sad about, but also a lot to be happy about. The USMNT was not better than Belgium, not even close. Any chance they had of winning the game would have had to come through grit, determination, and a whole lot of luck. For most of the game they showed all those qualities, albeit the luck was only happening on the defensive end of the ball. In the end, the absurd talent of Belgium was just too much and the USMNT could not pull off the upset.
In order to understand the chasm of quality between the United States and Belgium it is important to look at the plethora of talented players Belgium has at its disposal. Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Everton, and Porto are just some of the teams on which the bench players of Belgium played for. The starters were the fifth highest paid among all teams behind the top four which are Spain, Germany, Brazil, and Argentina. They had Romelu Lukaku coming off the bench in injury time who is a forward for Chelsea. To put that in comparison, the USMNT forward who came off the bench was Chris Wondolowski, a 32 year old who plays for the San Jose Earthquakes and was just now playing in his first World Cup. Up until, and during, the World Cup the USMNT have had an argument over who their two center backs would be. Belgium has so many quality center backs that they had to stick two of them as outside fullbacks (They were not happy to be moved outside). Eden Hazard was coming off a season where he had just won PFA Young Player of the Year award while our best winger is 32 and was left at home (Landon Donovan). This Belgium team is an incredibly talented team with an embarrassment of riches. There is a reason they were picked as a dark horse to win the tournament. Unfortunately for the US and the rest of the world, they will probably be one of the favorites to win the 2018 World cup considering they are the second-youngest team in the year’s World Cup. Not only are they talented, but also they will just keep getting better.
There is nothing wrong with losing to a vastly superior team. Every US soccer fan should be proud of the players that wore the Red, White, and Blue. The USMNT was not even supposed to escape their group so it was a great achievement to even get to the knockout round. However, in order to progress as a footballing nation the USMNT must consistently go further in the knockout round. In order to do that, there must be changes. The style of play is the first thing that needs to be changed. Jurgen Klinsmann came into the job promising attacking and attractive football. To say he failed would be too nearsighted. Most of players on this World Cup roster could not have engaged in that game plan against more technically superior teams because their touch and vision is not as developed as the players on a Germany, Belgium, or Colombia. Most times, however, the US played too tentatively. The defense was rock solid at times but frequently the midfield and defense would cough up the ball at inopportune times. It seemed as if the US just wanted to get rid of the ball and were too afraid to commit and lose the ball. Therefore, there was a severe lack of possession, which inevitably increased the pressure on the US defense and helped opposing teams find their rhythm. During the tournament the US was second in worst of time of possession.
To be a good team you do not have to dominate possession like Spain does. Some teams actually prefer less possession so they can hit their opponents on the counter-attack. This was not what the US was doing. Their lack of possession was due to lack of composure on the ball and an overtly defensive strategy. That needs to change next World Cup. If the USMNT wants to grow and become a world power it needs to be able to dictate play. Sitting back and hoping to rebuff you opposition’s attacks and then sneak a goal in, will not be a long-term path to success. The brief flashes of brilliance the US showed when down a goal and being forced to play more open, gives hope that if the national team gets the talent and hone their technical abilities then the US can start to become a team that will not need to park the bus in order to try and steal points.
There’s four years until the next World Cup and, while that may seem agonizingly far away, it is actually a blessing in disguise. There are a lot of young players on this roster that are the key to the USMNT’s future and four years is a great stretch of time in which they can grow and mature. During the wait there are also a lot of tournaments which can be used to refine the United States roster and game-plan. One of the most notable is the 2016 Copa America which will be hosted by the United States for the first time ever. There the United States will get a firm test against outstanding South American competition. Here are all the upcoming tournaments:
1) 2015 U-20 World Cup
2) 2015 Gold Cup
3) 2016 Olympics
4) 2016 Copa America Centenario
5) 2016 World Cup qualifying first stage
6) 2017 Confederations Cup (by virtue of winning either the 2015 Gold Cup or playoff)
7) 2017 Gold Cup
8) 2017 U-20 World Cup
9) 2017 Hexagonal World Cup qualifying
10) 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia
With all those tournaments on the horizon not only do US fans get more international soccer to hold them over until the 2018 World Cup but also the players have time to get used to high-level international competition before the 2018 World Cup. These players will need it too. There are a lot of young players on the World Cup roster and in the US youth soccer pipeline that will need this time to develop. To list a few:
Joseph-Claude “Joe” Gyau (Borussia Dortmund II) 21 yrs.
Josh Gatt (Molde) 22 yrs.
Marc Pelosi (Liverpool) 20 yrs.
Julian Green (Bayern Munich) 19 yrs.*
Deandre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders) 20 yrs.*
John Brooks (Hertha BSC) 21 yrs.*
Aron Jóhannsson (AZ Almaar) 23 yrs.*
Junior Flores (Borussia Dortmund) 18 yrs.
Luca de la Torre (Fulham) 17 yrs.
Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal) 17 yrs. [Currently rumored to be obtaining US citizenship]
*World Cup Roster 2014
This list of promising young players is reassuring but many may be fearful of losing the talisman that carried us through the tournament and the Belgium game, Tim Howard. The United States is world renowned in international football for one thing, producing great goalkeepers and there is a good reason for that because Tim Howard’s backup is fantastic. His name is Brad Guzan and he plays for Aston Villa. In 2013 he was named Aston Villa’s Player Of The Year because his amazing saves single-handedly kept them from being relegated. By 2018 he will be 33 and will be hitting the prime of his career. If this is indeed Tim Howard’s last World Cup then US fans should not fear a significant drop off in quality of play between the posts.
The Belgium game was a blow-out. Without Tim Howard, the Belgians would have demolished the US. The USMNT has the grit and determination to succeed on the world’s biggest stage. Many better teams did not show that during this World Cup. In order for the USMNT to improve though, they must develop their youth talent and begin to play a more open and attractive style of football. There’s time to do that though, and the US certainly has the talent in the pipeline needed to progress and the head coach to bring them to the next level.