For an infant soccer nation like the USA, the end of a World Cup is a confusing time. We knew the USMNT wasn’t going to win the Cup, no matter how much we chanted about believing otherwise. Yet we’re sad to be going home. We made progress, but is the rest of the world still leaving us behind.
Even the surest sign of generating a true soccer culture was a bundle of contradictions. A drama familiar to every established football power is the tabloid controversy over the exclusion of an aging talisman from the party. Was Landon fit enough? Should he have been included anyway?
As the disappointment of Tuesday’s defeat ebbs away, we are left with all these conflicting emotions. Out in the round of 16. Again. Yet, we escaped the so-called “group of death” in which the U.S. was plausibly the least likely of the four teams to emerge going in. We displayed some genuine quality at times, yet still relied on that particularly American recipe of hard work, perseverance and world-class goalkeeping. We were much the second best side against Belgium, but the winning goal was right there.
So, how to balance the appreciation of the progress made with the knowledge of what is still to be done?
On one hand, Jurgen Klinsmann’s promise of a new, proactive and attacking USMNT was largely unfulfilled. While the lightning quick opening goal against Ghana in some ways dictated the defensive posture against in that match, there was no such excuse against Germany or the Belgians. The team’s inability to really possess the ball meant facing wave after wave of attacking pressure. Only against Portugal did the U.S. have long periods of fluent possession.
The reversion to a more pragmatic style, with three central midfielders and a lone striker was to some degree a betrayal of the development of the more technical American style Klinsmann advertised. But against the talent level of the four opponents, the line between adventurousness and naivety is thin.
And still for all the sameness of the hard running and physicality, throughout qualifying and the friendlies leading up to the tourney the U.S. played with unprecedented skill and precision. Even in the tourney, the goals scored by Dempsey against Ghana, Jones against Portugal and Green against Belgium were moments of genuine quality and inspiration.
Thus, for any complaints about conservatism, the improvement in technique was there to be seen. DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson each showed flashes of attacking class. Geoff Cameron and even Omar Gonzalez made the occasional marauding run, a far cry from the hoof-and-chase which has marked the style of play with ball at feet from American central defenders.
If possession was surrendered too cheaply in midfield, that was a consequence of actually trying to play through the midfield rather than hitting hopeful balls towards foraging strikers. Progress involving this sort of radical style change will always been halting, with many backwards steps and growing pains. It is an odd criticism indeed that the steps backwards weren’t big enough as would have likely been the case had the U.S. tried to out-pass their opponents in Brazil.
Which gets to the root of the problem. Though the overall technical level of the American player has risen, it is still not quite good enough. Kyle Beckerman, though excellent in his appearances at this tourney, lacks the footspeed to be a genuine international class player. Graham Zusi’s touch let him down at several crucial moments in the middle of the park. Michael Bradley, normally excellent in the role of a worker bee, was asked to be the United State’s answer to Andrea Pirlo with predictable results.
So how to add some of this badly needed imagination? Klinsmann has shown no hesitation bringing in new players, whether the revelation of Yedlin or the sizable German-American contingent lead by Fabian Johnson and the precocious Julian Green. But the U.S. can’t rely simply on youthful energy and foreign-trained technical skill or tactical nous forever. U.S. Soccer has shown it can produce athletes, but something must be done to improve the ability to produce ball playing attackers.
Developing these players requires not just time and patience, but a change in mindset. It’s no mistake that the one American-trained player in the squad who could produce the unexpected was Dempsey, the one player who came up outside the traditional U.S. system. How would a player like Leo Messi or even Belgium’s Dries Mertens emerge? Almost deemed too small in their own soccer-mad nations, would these little geniuses have even gotten the opportunities to develop or would they be shunted aside for “better athletes” in the prototypical American calculus of bigger, stronger, faster? Where is the little artist needed to compliment the steady stream of artisans?
Only when these players are coming through the ranks and playing not only in MLS but for sides in Spain, Italy, Germany and France with the U.S. really be ready to take that next step into true contender status. It almost surely won’t happen in time for Russia 2018, but those four years should see another few steps forward, with fewer steps back.