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Talking points: Signs of progress everywhere for the U.S. against Portugal

Jun 22, 2014, 10:21 PM EDT

Now two hours after Silvestre Valera’s goal, fans’ disappointment is starting to give way. A more objective, less emotional reality is taking hold.

Yes, that just happened. Yes, the United States just went toe-to-toe with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and nearly replicated 2002’s famous result. And yes, to the surprise of those who judged harshly after the win over Ghana, the U.S. is capable of playing some attractive, occasionally imposing soccer.

In the big picture, that means progress: Significant steps forward from 2010 — at least, in terms of how the team plays. Isolated to Brazil 2014, however, the result means the U.S. has work to do on Thursday against Germany.

Before we shift focus, though, let’s take another moment to consider what happened today in Manaus. Here’s three — no, four — talking points after the U.S.’s 2-2 draw with Portugal:

0. Let’s count all the ‘holy crap’ moments we’ve seen so far – Just in the U.S. matches, we’ve had …

This being the internet, I’d normally say “go home, World Cup, you’re drunk.” But no. No, no, no. Keep going. The next round’s on me. Stick around, World Cup. You are such an irresistible drunk.

[ MORE: Valera equalizer stuns U.S. | Man of the Match rankings | How the U.S. can advance ]
[ MORE: Soccerly covers the World Cup ]

source: Getty Images

Geoff Cameron of the United States looks on during a break in the action between the United States and Portugal. (Credit: Getty Images.)

1. The criticism of Bradley and Cameron has already started – There’s no defending Cameron’s mistake. His fifth-minute error won’t happen again, but it was still one of the worst mistakes we’ve seen at the World Cup. That Cameron was the man Varela ran behind on the tying goal only compounded the defender’s problems. He wasn’t the only man at fault, but his part meant he was involved in both Portugal goals.

As for Bradley, his giveaway that sparked Portugal’s last second counter is already being dissected (and rightly so), but the midfielder’s fatigue was evident moments earlier, when he stoically watched a Jermaine Jones pass roll to a Portuguese attacker in the U.S.’s third. Gassed by the end of regulation time, Bradley seemed out on his feet come the 95th minute, unable to maintain possession in those final, crucial moments.

Through 180 minutes in Brazil, Bradley hasn’t been himself. Against Ghana, you could explain that as him battling two defensive midfielders without the outlet of Jozy Altidore. Sunday’s game, however, was different. Though Klinsmann’s tweaked his formation to feature what’s normally his best player, Bradley has yet to distinguish himself in at this year’s World Cup.

2. Consider the proof of concept … – As the U.S. adjusted to Portugal’s early goal, eventually fighting back to take a second-half lead, all the qualities Jurgen Klinsmann’s been trying to install again came through. Granted, I said the same thing after the U.S. defeated Ghana, so this may be one writer who can’t let a narrative go. Still, let’s go down the checklist, shall we?

  • More resiliency/Better equipped to adapt to adversity: See the response to André Ayew’s goal, the comeback against Portugal, and the adaptation in the absence of Jozy Altidore.
  • More flexibilty/An ability to dictate play, when needed: It wasn’t needed for most of the match against Ghana, when the U.S. proved capable of playing on the back foot (four shots on goal to Ghana’s three). Against Portugal, Nani’s early goal made sure the Klinsmann fulfilled his promise of a more aggressive approach. Though the final scoreline wasn’t as good, the performance was more convincing. The U.S. just doesn’t have a set approach.
  • More depth/Less reliance on stars: Clint Dempsey was huge today, but Bradley — the U.S.’s most important player — was average at best, and while Europe-proven Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones had huge impacts, the MLS talents that Klinsmann has brought into the pool also paid off. Matt Besler was the team’s best defender, Graham Zusi made key contributions, Kyle Beckerman has become part of the foundation, while Chris Wonolowski and DeAndre Yedlin proved valuable options off the bench. Klinsmann is using more players, instilling them with the confidence they can compete at this level, and proving the depth in the U.S. pool is not as shallow as previously thought.
source: Getty Images

Jurgen Klinsmann of the United States looks on the United States and Portugal. (Credit: Getty Images)

3. … and the progress the U.S. has shown – Klinsmann was derided for saying the U.S. can’t win the World Cup, but was that ever the goal for this cycle? More readily, the goal was progress, and while 180 minutes isn’t much of a sample, compare this year’s performance against 2010’s.

While the U.S. finished first in that year’s group, the packet was weak. As the second round match against Ghana showed, the U.S. didn’t need to make progress as a program to top that foursome. This year, the U.S. beat Ghana. They went toe-to-toe with a Portugal team many thought would play through them.

Tied for first in their group, the U.S. has fully deserved their results. The team was seconds away from its first two-win group stage in history, and there’s still one match to go.

Most casting Portugal were clear favorites were basing their judgement on reputation alone. Portugal is established, European, have more talent, and play better soccer. In their eyes, the U.S. just aren’t on that level.

After today’s performance, does that perception change? The U.S. probably needs to get out of its group (and impress in the knockout round) before detractors believe a gridiron country and every produce a “proper football team,” but the objective reality is much different.

Even if the U.S. doesn’t make the final 16, they’ve shown huge progress at this tournament. The team may not be among the best in the world, but the arrow’s definitely pointed in the right direction.

  1. navyeoddavee9 - Jun 22, 2014 at 10:32 PM

    3a. Howard

  2. jkirby317 - Jun 22, 2014 at 10:47 PM

    I believe that we should have won!
    I believe that we should have won!
    I believe that we should have won!

  3. chesschum - Jun 22, 2014 at 10:49 PM

    Very good article. Hard to know how a full strength Portugal would have fared against the US, though.

    • overtherepermanently - Jun 23, 2014 at 1:16 PM

      Hard to know how a full strength US would have fared either.

  4. herogoesallin - Jun 22, 2014 at 10:54 PM

    hopefully munich players have more pride and play real. please no tie!!!

  5. Brian - Jun 22, 2014 at 11:18 PM

    No one is playing at full strength, so that doesn’t really matter. The point of a tournament like this is to measure your total squad, not just your best 11.

  6. fagiolip - Jun 23, 2014 at 12:08 AM

    Credit to JK. This team is playing at a differnt level than a Bruce Arena or Bradley team ever played.

  7. italianamerican1 - Jun 23, 2014 at 6:37 AM

    I wish I could drink this Kool-Aid. But Portugal is a shadow of itself as Germany had already shown, and Germany was facing a fitter Ronaldo. Ghana didn’t get points but pushed the US all over the field. I don’t think an unjustified victory and a draw in a match that should’ve been easily won qualifies as progress, much as we’re all hungering to see it that way.

    • egb234 - Jun 23, 2014 at 2:41 PM

      Getting so tired of all of the Klinsmann haters hanging to every last thread of hope that they were right. This team is stronger and deeper than ever. They play better football–combo passing setting up exciting goals rather that hoping for second chance goals or a loose ball in the box. It’s blatantly obvious.

      “Portugal is a shadow of itself as Germany had already shown” Did you watch the game? Did you see that Portugal were unlucky to concede a very weak penalty when Goetze went down easily and the ref bought it? Did you see that one of Portugal’s best players lost his mind and exited early with a red card? Did you see Portugal suffer multiple injuries? The 4-0 result was more about the penalty and Pepe than about Portugal forgetting to how to play the game.

      “Ghana . . . pushed the US all over the field” Did you watch the game? Did you know that the US scored in the first 30 second and then decided to concede possession and park the bus? Aside from one play, Ghana never put a shot on target from inside of 20 yards. The US controlled the game for 82 minutes and then won on a perfectly executed corner. Having possession doesn’t equate to dominating the game. See Bayern v. Real Madrid.

      It’s about more than the above comment, though. Everyone who has been rooting against Klinsmann is coming up with this nonsense. Wynalda blamed Klinsmann, too. It’s really just ridiculous at this point.

    • egb234 - Jun 23, 2014 at 2:48 PM

      Geeting really tired of this garbage. Klinsmann haters just can’t admit that they were wrong. It is clear to anyone who watches the sport that the US play a more exciting brand of football and have more depth and confidence under Klinsmann.

      Combo play + exciting goals > launching balls forward and hoping to score on a second chance.

      No only are these points stupid (Portugal was unlucky to concede a penalty after Goetze went down easily and gave up after Pepe’s ejection–they didn’t suddenly forget how to play; the US conceded possession to Ghana and only allowed one good shot inside of 20 yards–possession isn’t “pushing all over the field”) but they’re desperate.

      I saw Wynalda blaming Klinsmann, too. So dumb.

      • italianamerican1 - Jun 23, 2014 at 3:32 PM

        I like Klinsmann. I agree the play is more forward-thinking and exciting. And I think it can continue developing under Klinsmann. But more exciting doesn’t necessarily equal better. I think it takes red-white-and-blue-colored glasses to say we didn’t mainly just chase the game against Ghana, and I didn’t think Portugal looked good on Sunday, even leaving aside Ronaldo’s poor and obviously injured form. Hope I’m wrong and you’re right, and that it’s my extreme disappointment coloring my own glasses.

  8. rafibomb10 - Jun 23, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    I hate to keep beating on the same drum, but Geoff Cameron was clearly at fault on both goals. That is unacceptable. The first one was pretty clear cut, but to me the second one was worse, not only because it blew our win, but because he had no grasp of if any runs were coming, caught ball watching, and flailed his knee at the ball rather then attacking it in the air like Valera did. Shoddy, inconsistent defending is what is keeping Omar out of the lineup, so Cameron is in some deep water if you ask me.

  9. geejon - Jun 23, 2014 at 10:07 AM

    Bradley is proving why he’s the most overrated player on the U.S. squad. While they obviously play 2 different positions, just watching Jermaine Jones be everywhere all at once for 2 full games while Bradley is miskicking, turning the ball over or being pushed off the ball is striking. Too slow. Too weak. Not as easy to make pretty thru-balls against real teams as it is when you’re playing the likes of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. No wonder he came back to the states. Granted Dempsey came back as well, but unlike Bradley, Dempsey’s proved in Int’l play he’s got the game when it’s big-boy time. Now we wait to see Bradley get abused in the middle of the field against Germany. Hope we catch a break and have Ghana-Portugal play to a draw.

    • sdbeisbol - Jun 23, 2014 at 2:26 PM

      I think Bradley is underrated tbh. Dempsey can score scrappy goals but he isn’t a dominate force in the attack the way Bradley is. And I highly doubt Bradley is getting benched because of two “off” games.

      • geejon - Jun 24, 2014 at 11:37 AM

        Where did I say Bradley would be “benched”? It’s not like they have other options anyway. What I said was he’s incredibly overrated by Americans and you proved my point by referring to him as a “Dominant force” … you’re kidding right? Andrea Pirlo is a dominant force. Michael Bradley is a decent player who’s been hyped by Americans like he’s some world class midfielder. He’s a decent player who plays a position the U.S. is incredibly weak in and for that reason indispensable to them but that’s more a sign of the U.S. lack of depth and talent than him being anything special. He’s never done anything on the world stage to earn his hype … never controlled the middle of the pitch like someone playing his position should. He’s an average player and he’s showing it. Let’s hope he’s a bit better tomorrow.

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