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Defining success: Does the U.S. have to make the leap at World Cup 2014?

May 20, 2014, 6:15 PM EDT

Jurgen Klinsmann

Win the World Cup. Develop the American Lionel Messi. Use The Beautiful Game to solve world hunger, and distribute the solution across the galaxy in Neil Degrasse Tyson’s upsetting space sliver. Those are the standards the mainstream sports public has set for soccer’s success in the United States, conveniently setting the bar too high to justify their consistent commitment. With a semifinal run in Brazil, the more patriotic NFL fans might reconsider; more realistically, 2014’s not going to meet those lofty goals.

More rational goals would consider the context of this year’s tournament. Where is the U.S. in its development? What are its goals? What does history tell us about realistic expectations, and most importantly, what obstacles does the team have to overcome? Being oblivious to these factors and defining success the same way you would USA Basketball’s doesn’t even work for baseball, anymore. As soccer fans know, on the men’s side ,the U.S. needs more pragmatic goals.

From a more level-headed perspective, there are a number of ways the U.S. can succeed next month, all of which come down to the same idea that led the  team to bring Jurgen Klinsmann in three years ago: Progress. Is the program getting closer to being competitive with the world’s elite? Are the players being selected, trained, and played in a way that promotes that growth? If the U.S. can’t realistically expect to win the World Cup in 2014, is it at least building for a day when it can?

That’s a lot of questions, something that’s expected when assessing a program in transition. Regardless, this program is very much in transition. The World Cup is just the latest, biggest test of that process, with the team’s response to its difficult group defining whether the 2014 finals can be deemed a success.

Those questions:

source:

U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati replaced Bob Bradley with Jurgen Klinsmann after the 2011 Gold Cup, sparking the program’s transition.

Where is the U.S. in its development?

Jurgen Klinsmann’s hire was a tacit confession the team needed to go in another direction. To expect it to be at its destination in three years is too much. To this point, the team’s shown progress, but the goals for World Cup 2014 are still defined by the program’s long-term objectives.

That doesn’t mean going farther than 2010. Whereas the draw for South Africa gave the U.S. one of the easiest draws in since the tournament expanded to 32 teams (1998), “Group of Death”  has been thrown around (perhaps lazily) in connection with this year’s draw. As Klinsmann’s contract extension attests, the federation knows the team can both show progress and fail to make the second round.

What are its goals?

There are a number of them, but they all come down to one concept. The team needs to be on the same level as the Germanys and Portugals of the world – top 10 teams who happen to be drawn into the U.S.’s quartet in Brazil.This is about more than one-off wins like the U.S. experienced against Spain in 2009. It’s about consistently being though of as one of the world’s better teams – something that’s not going to happen over the next six weeks.

If that comes, that means the U.S. will be dominating CONCACAF. It’ll be consistently churning out higher levels of talent. The pipeline to the national team will extend not only to a strong MLS but to a few of the best teams in Europe. The U.S. will be dominating Gold Cups and making an impact at Confederations Cups. It will be consistent quarterfinal-threat at World Cups.

Another run to a final eight would make the tournament a success, but it wouldn’t mean the U.S.’s goals are accomplished. Klinsmann was brought in to build something sustainable; not merely reach a World Cup mark. This summer is another test of that sustainability, but it’s not the only measure of success.

RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly

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DaMarcus Beasley (L) was part of the team that made the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. He and Landon Donovan, both 20-year-olds in Japan/South Korea, are hoping to make their fourth World Cups.

What does history tell us about realistic expectations? 

The U.S. made a semifinal in 1930: Important but ancient history. In the modern era (one that started with Paul Caligiuri’s goal in Port of Spain) the U.S.’s quarterfinal run under Bruce Arena in 2002 is the reference point. Fans that have persisted over the last 12 years want that magic back.

There is some reason to think it could return. Germany is clearly the group’s favorites, yet Portugal, despite their lofty FIFA ranking (three), is beatable. Though many have focused on the U.S.’s trouble matching up with Cristiano Ronaldo, the team didn’t have an obvious answer to Luis Figo, either. One-on-one match ups make great headlines, but they don’t always define games.

This year’s Portugal team is no more talented than the one that failed in 2002. Whether the U.S. is as talented as its 2002 entry is another debate. Regardless, just as the last 12 years have shown the team’s win over the Selaccao in Suwon didn’t catapult the program, one result in Brazil won’t be a litmus test, either. More realistically: There are better tests of U.S. success than one group stage result.

Obstacles does the team have to overcome?

The better test is how the team performs over the body of the tournament, and how that reflects on the program’s bigger goals. That isn’t as easy as latching onto a “did we actually win this time” standard, but it is a better predictor of the team’s future. Win, lose, or draw, if the U.S. plays well against Germany, Ghana, and Portugal, the tournament can be seen as a success.

Granted, those quick to reference 2004’s performance won’t think so, but in Germany and Portugal, the U.S. is facing two teams better than anybody that lined up against Bob Bradley’s team in South Africa. One day, the U.S. will be at the point where the bottom line is the only goal, but while big-picture progress is the main objective, the results can be more subtle.

source: AP

U.S. success at Brazil 2014 will likely be determined by how it competes against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. (Photo: AP Photo.)

So what does a successful tournament look like?

Beating Ghana is probably a must. Soccer can offer strange, mitigating scenarios (as the Ghanaians surely know), but it will be difficult for the team to claim progress if it can’t break through against a Ghana side weaker than its 2006 and 2010 models.

The Germany game? The U.S. has a chance, but against teams at that level — the rarefied air taken in by Argentina, Brazil, Spain as well as the Germans — few are expected to win, particularly at a World Cup. Even if the U.S. is blown out by the Germans, many will likely to chalk that up to the immense collection of talent Klinsmann helped build.

It’s the battle in between those two games that could define U.S. success. If the U.S. can’t compete with Portugal, the team won’t have an argument to make. People will look back to how the team performed against England and Ghana four years ago and ask whether the U.S. is better off now. While Paulo Bento’s group is talented, the team is not worlds above where the U.S. should be.

Regardless, progress will be about more than the final result. If the U.S. performs to its potential, it should be able to challenge for second in the group. In the process, the team will continue building a program that makes 2002 more than a one-off.

Perhaps that coveted semifinal run won’t happen this summer, but this summer’s progress could lay the foundation for a 2016 breakthrough.

  1. willking9 - May 20, 2014 at 6:52 PM

    Hate to be pessimistic, but hard to see any scenario in which we get out of our group. Still going to be a great tournament that soccer fans everywhere will enjoy.

    • tridecagon - May 22, 2014 at 9:54 AM

      Here’s your scenario:

      Beat Ghana
      Draw Portugal
      Lose to Germany

      There are LOTS of ways that this gets you out of the group – you can get through on goal differential, or if Ghana manages at least a draw against Portugal, or ….

      This is the World Cup. The top two teams in any group have a good chance of going through, but not a great chance. Anything can happen in one game, and Portugal has a long history of blowing it at the big dance.

  2. rphillish - May 20, 2014 at 6:56 PM

    If the US can get out of this group it can command some serious attention and respect. I’ll be happy with at least one win, preferably over Ghana.
    The sport is growing, and win or lose I love this team. I wont be defining the USMNT by one World Cup, and If that’s not good enough for haters world wide, that’s their problem.

  3. el timo - May 20, 2014 at 7:10 PM

    This team is made up of great guys, lion-hearted guys, who will make us proud. That is a certainty. “Progress” won’t have much to do with the result in Brazil, but rather with all the future lion-hearts who are coming up. One example from my team, TFC: rookie Nick Hagglund at center-back. Watch him play and see what progress at that position looks like.

  4. jimmycrackcorn99 - May 21, 2014 at 12:53 AM

    Well written article. As fans, we are “stuck” in the transition level: we want to see our team do well, but we know it will be a huge success to get out of the group. We bet and hope with our hearts and not with our heads. We cheer for the underdog, which we will continue to be, at least for a while. We all know that there is potential – on any given day, anything can happen in soccer/football/futbol/Fußball. Please let it happen this year – we are becoming impatient – but we will be there if you lose too.

  5. jucam1 - May 21, 2014 at 2:29 AM

    Almost Zero chance to get out of group stage, hopefully they put up a strong effort and beat Ghana, but they don’t have even close to enough talent to beat Portugal or Germany. I would love to see the young guys get dome experience instead of the overrated Altidore. Either way, the goal is to put up a fight against Portugal and Germany, and challenge Ghana for a win.

  6. godsholytrousers - May 21, 2014 at 8:48 AM

    I’ve heard the greatest definition of success, and I preach it to my players all the time.

    Success is the opportunity to do this all again tomorrow.

    For US Soccer, success is happening everyday. I remember a time when the NASL folded up shop and we lost our professional league. Don’t forget where you’ve come from as you go where you’re going.

  7. ws0001 - May 21, 2014 at 11:42 AM

    I am of the belief that the draw likely makes this World Cup one where one should not make grand pronouncements about the state of the MLS, US National Team, and soccer in America. I think the US is sending the least talented team to Group G, and it is going to have an incredibly difficult time getting points. Obviously, things can happen. The 2010 World Cup looked a lot better because Robert Green fumbled an easy save. A bad foul by an opponent can open things up quickly, but I think people who want to make the argument for the US advancing are being put in a position where they are talking themselves into believing Ghana is less formidable than they are. When Ghana puts out their best players, they are a better squad. They aren’t bringing their AFCON team to Brazil, and Kevin Prince Boateng only showing up right before a World Cup doesn’t make him less a threat once there. It is possible that playing in Manaus is an advantage for the US because American summers have given some/much of the team experience playing in 90 degree weather where you can drink the air with a straw, certainly more so than Portugal, but they have an incredibly talented squad as well. With Germany, one cannot make the case to win other than to say there is a long history of surprises and strange things can happen. (France had 1 point as the 9th team in the world at the time of the 2010 draw and Italy came away with 2 point as the 4th ranked team by FIFA. Both of those teams were said to have easy draws as well. The Czech Republic was #2 in the world at the time of the 2006 draw and ended up with 3 points and an early exit. In Korea/Japan, France was the top team in the world at the time of the draw, Argentina was 2, Portugal was 4 and none of them got out of their groups.) One of the nice aspects of the 2016 Copa, is that it will give the US an extra crack at elite opposition in the middle of the next cycle. It would be far more disappointing if they fare poorly in that competition because they get elite teams (Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, et al) under ideal circumstances at home. The World Cup is a tough draw under difficult travel and weather circumstances with some very important players entering training not having been at their best.

  8. lunasceiling - May 21, 2014 at 12:42 PM

    The draw changed everything, expectation-wise. Portugal’s horrible qualifying run (which put them in such a low-ranked “pot”) and some unlucky draws mean that what could have been a very respectable run with one of our better squads is likely to be three-and-out. So it goes. I’m tempted to suggest that Klinsmann load his final roster with guys who are likely to be there in 2018 and just let the chips fall where they may in Brazil.

    • tridecagon - May 22, 2014 at 7:20 PM

      Looks like you basically got your wish!

      • lunasceiling - May 22, 2014 at 8:10 PM

        Yeah…well, at least my prediction. Not at all sure how I feel about no Donovan. They guy has a nose for goal in high pressure situations.

  9. talgrath - May 21, 2014 at 2:10 PM

    Let’s be clear here, this is just about the opposite of the draw the USMNT got in South Africa four years ago, but that doesn’t mean the USMNT is sunk. The whole concept behind a “group of death” is that this is the group you don’t want to be in, where anything can happen because the four teams involved are some of the top teams in their region and who knows who will make it out; it’s the death of some great teams at the earliest stage possible in the tournament. Germany and Portugal aren’t just saying they’re worried about the USMNT and Ghana for fun or to play mind games, that’s honest concern; the USMNT has beaten some of the best teams in the world and sometimes they look like world beaters. If the right USMNT shows up with the right amount of luck it could seriously screw up Portugal or Germany’s party. Logically, you have to tell yourself it isn’t happening, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope; for all we know fortune will favor the bold and the USMNT will walk out top of the group.

  10. lyleoross - May 21, 2014 at 3:12 PM

    Fans who were there 12 years ago have been with the sport long enough to be realistic about our chances, and to know better than to expect a semis-appearance.

    I’m not really sure that you actually defined any measures of success, other than those based on a win loss situation, hardly important, and very limited. Try this on. A measure of success will be to see if JK has actually changed the mindset of our players from a long ball (based on panic in the back field) breakaway type of game, to one of tactical control through the mid even when we are getting whipped up on. Can they stay a course that represents the future, when they are getting buried?

    If JK accomplishes this, then IMO he’s a darned fine manager, and it’s actually something realistic that can be measured, especially against Germany and Portugal where the guys are going to be pressured enough to panic easily.

    • el timo - May 21, 2014 at 5:44 PM

      We will be successful by that measure from the right side, because Cameron to Zusi to Bradley to Donovan or vice versa gives us solid ball control. I’m praying for good link-ups from the left from Beasley or Johnson or Jones or Dempsey or whomever but I’d expect Bradley to cheat that way to make it work. I’m also praying we can play tough, physical soccer without committing dumb fouls that lose us games.

      • lyleoross - May 22, 2014 at 11:28 AM

        Absolutely! My worry is that they will fall back into that pack it in, punch it long to Donovan style that is based on a hope and a dream.

      • tridecagon - May 22, 2014 at 7:19 PM

        lyle – no need to worry about that anymore, eh?

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