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Signs of progress small but clear for the United States

Jul 2, 2014, 12:50 AM EDT

SALVADOR, BRAZIL - JULY 01: Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann of the United States speaks to Eden Hazard of Belgium after Belgium's 2-1 win in extra time during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Belgium and the United States at Arena Fonte Nova on July 1, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil. Getty Images

Like a political candidate who ran on reform, Jurgen Klinsmann was immediately taken to task after today’s loss. After one question about his substitutions, the second salvo of his post-match press conference jumped right into the debate: Did Brazil 2014 represent progress for the United States?

I’m sorry, is this all coming too soon? Hardly. Even the broadcast disrespected your mourning period, jumping right into the debate moments after going back to the studio. Whomever asked Klinsmann the question in Salvador? He’s got to have his piece up by now. Just like presidential campaigns, the race never truly ends; it only rolls from one race to the next.

This campaign is going to be contentious, though. People are already digging in, trying to make their case why the U.S. is treading water. After all, by purely objective measures, the team appears to have done slightly better in 2010:

  • In South Africa, the team went 1-1-2 (W-L-D) overall, finished first in their group, and was put out in the Round of 16 with a relatively level 2-1, extra time loss.
  • In Brazil, they went 1-2-1 overall, finished second in their group, and were eliminated in the Round of 16 with a 2-1, extra time loss, where they were clearly second best.

For some, bottom lines are the only measuring stick. For them, the U.S. either held steady or receded in 2014. Ultimately, their record was worse in Brazil than it was in South Africa.

But after reading two paragraphs of that, hopefully those points have started to sound hollow. Objectively, sure, the facts hint the U.S. is treading water, but no fact exist without context. Level of competition is important. So is the underlying play. For a program focused on building for tomorrow, these things can be as telling as the results.

And if, in that quest for a better tomorrow, you’re inclined to look for progress, consider …

source: AP

Thomas Mueller scored the winning goal as Germany defeated the United States 1-0 in group play at the World Cup. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

1. Strength of opposition

Let’s do a little exercise, shall we? Take the four teams the U.S. played in 2010, add the nations the States faced in 2014, and make a list. Go from strongest to weakest and rank all the opponents the U.S. saw in the last two World Cups.

What do you get? It should look something like this:

1. 2014 Germany
2. 2014 Belgium
3. 2014 Portugal
4. 2014 Ghana
5. 2010 Ghana
6. 2010 England
7. 2010 Slovenia
8. 2010 Algeria

Maybe, in time, we’ll swap one and two. Perhaps three and four flip, too, but that’s not really the point, is it? By most estimations, the four teams the U.S. faced in South Africa were weaker than every team on the schedule this time around.

Think about that. Whereas the U.S. was drawn into a group of “How the heck is England a seeded team” in 2010, this year they were in one of the three toughest groups – one of the three toughest groups in an insanely unbalanced opening stage. I may not agree with all this Group of Death pandering, but Group G was really, really difficult.

So yeah, the U.S. was slightly worse, record-wise, in 2014. Does that mean they’re a worse team? Of course not. That the 2014 team matched the 2010 squad’s progress is a huge hint: The U.S. is better now than they were four years ago.

2. Injuries mattered

Let’s not act like 2010’s team was healthy going into the finals. Charlie Davies’ loss will forever be under-appreciated after his career changed course in Oct. 2009. Oguchi Onyewu tore his patellar tendon the same month. Bob Bradley had his challenges, too.

This year’s Jozy Altidore injury, however, was big. Say whatever you want about his quality, but the absence forced Clint Dempsey out of position and was a big factor in Michael Bradley‘s performances. With one injury, the U.S. not only lost one of their two main goal scorers but also saw their two best players handcuffed. They were set back at two, perhaps three positions.

Then there was Fabian Johnson, who Jurgen Klinsmann lost early in the team’s decisive game. Omar Gonzalez wasn’t healthy coming into camp, sat out the first two games, then played the tournament’s last 210 minutes. And Matt Besler? The U.S. lost him for the second half of the opening match.

Klinsmann spent three years enforcing a resilience that paid off in Brazil, but that doesn’t mean the team wasn’t hamstrung. Bradley may have lost two key players, but unlike the Altidore injury, those absences didn’t affect other parts of the lineup.

Is that progress? No, but it does add context to this year’s results. Not only did the U.S face stiffer competition, but the internal obstacles may have been greater, too.

source: AP

Geoff Cameron (20) and United States’ Jermaine Jones, left, celebrate as Clint Dempsey, center, runs from the goal scoring against Portugal. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

3. The high points of the tournament

Think back to 2010. When did the U.S. truly play well? Not that the team was ever bad, but was there ever a point in South Africa that made you feel as confident about the team as the Portugal game did? There were certainly moments against Slovenia, and the end of the Algeria match is legendary, but this year’s performance against the Seleccao had people discussing whether the U.S. had really turned a corner.

That doesn’t change the bottom line, but it tells us how the U.S. went about their business. It goes to assessing what the team is capable of doing, going forward. It speaks to how, if things to continue to improve, the U.S. can grow, and yes, it speaks to progress. The 2014 team, at its best, showed it was capable for more than the 2010 squad.

4. What others around you are saying

Say you know your soccer. Like really, really know it; know it so much that you don’t usually need to listen to anybody’s opinion on anything. Not only are you perfectly qualified to be a professional sports journalist, but you may also be smart enough to know that, on rare occasions, you’re fallible. And when you are, the whole world’s likely to tell you.

This time, literally the whole world is saying so. Across the globe, this U.S. team has forced soccer fans to take notice. Two weeks after the planet had the same, pessimistic predictions that most U.S. fans begrudgingly made before match one, the world’s woken up. By derailing a talented Ghana and coming back (only to be ultimately drawn) against Portugal, the U.S. gave everybody reason to take notice.

This was more than knocking off Mexico in a 2002. This was beating teams the world thought would cut through a star-less American squad.

But let’s get back to talking about you. I know you’re smart. Hey, you tell us so all the time, but maybe your view that the U.S. was lucky against Ghana is jaded? Maybe, like a lot of other people noticed, the U.S. were just playing like a team with a lead. Perhaps they didn’t “choke” against Portugal (please, stop listening to so much sports talk radio). And although they were outplayed by Germany and Belgium, most of the world would be, too.

Maybe the Americans were actually kinda good. Not Germany good, but still … good, by a more inclusive, fairer standard.

But, of course, I’ll defer to you.

5. Everything else this team has done

The World Cup is ultimately four games. It’s pretty insane to draw huge conclusions based on such a small sample size. You know that Netherlands team that’s now a favorite to reach the tournament’s semifinals? They went 0-3-0 at Euro 2012.  Since then, they haven’t lost a competitive match, going 13-0-1 between qualifying and the World Cup.

So let’s look at the U.S. in the bigger picture. They locked up a World Cup spot in CONCACAF after eight of 10 final round games, ended up finishing first in the region, are confederation champions, and had a 12-game wining streak last year. Yeah, there were some down points, like the team’s performances against Ukraine (this winter) and Belgium (last summer), but nobody expected the U.S. to solve all its problems in one cycle.

If you want to say the U.S. isn’t making progress, that’s fine, but you have to explain why the last two years’ results are so deceivingly positive. You have to explain why the rest of the world is wrong to see the difference, and why the team looked so good at points of this tournament. Once you’re done with that, tell us why the U.S. were able to their overcome injuries, and why a much tougher schedule in Brazil couldn’t send them home after three games.

It’s not an impossible argument to make. I’m just glad you’re the one trying to make it; not me.

Personally, I see progress. It’s not earth-shaking, but it’s there, and it’s clear. The U.S. hasn’t established itself as a soccer power, but they’re better than they were four years ago.

  1. braxtonrob - Jul 2, 2014 at 1:31 AM

    Not up front we weren’t (better than 2010).

    GREAT effort by the team, but the coaching has GOT to improve (more than anything else).
    I will give JK credit though for a very well selected roster; he made a mistake for 3-4 spots at most, but that’s typical. What’s not typical is WHO he made the roster mistakes on.

    Also, over-training this team before the trip was STUPID.

    And for a former striker, you’d think he’d have realized that it would be ESSENTIAL to have a player who can HEAD-home goals. How on earth were we supposed to finish crosses without a player like that?!? Mind-boggling.

  2. acieu - Jul 2, 2014 at 2:06 AM

    Hard to give much credit. We won one game. Tied one and lost the last two in a row. Only Howard saved us from larger losses. We were seldom a threat to score.

  3. yankeefootball - Jul 2, 2014 at 2:09 AM

    The USMNT is clearly better now than four years ago. The idea that any team had any second thoughts about the US is an indication of growth. The team, going in, was looked at as okay, not good enough by the football powers. Now, I think they pay a little more attention to it. As we go through the summer, we will watch to see how many USMNT players are looked at in the transfer window. That is another indication of growth. With so many MLS players on the roster, the league may also benefit internationally from the display over the last few weeks. More importantly moving forward is finding the quality to fill the roster spots of the older players who may be gone at the end of the next cycle. Dempsey, Jones, Beasley and Howard will all be at the tail end of their careers. That may be the true measure of how far the USMNT has come of how far it still must go down the path to true growth.

    • rkb555 - Jul 3, 2014 at 1:27 PM

      US will need a lot more than an indication of growth to compete with the elite of the world in this sport. When we go deep and beat teams decidedly and not be outplayed and win or lose and advance will other teams begin to take attention. US has a long ways to go before we can stop saying great effort, great energy, great whatever and start saying great victory, brilliant play.

  4. andreweac - Jul 2, 2014 at 3:31 AM

    Great post by yankeefootball.

    The next three years are arguably more important for Klingsmann’s legacy. How does the talent in America develop? Obviously soccer in America needs to steal more elite athletes away from American football and get young talent to develop technical skills to compete against global powers.

    Easier said than done. America is realistically a generation away from being a perennial top 5 global superpower along with Brazil, Germany and others.

    From all appearances Klingsmann realizes this. Play the long game. America has 300 million+ people, more youth than any other football powerhouse nation. While soccer will never be THE sport for most young athletes to dedicate their careers to large steps were made this time to pull more away from sports like American football, etc.

    America needs to have perennial top 5-10 U21 teams moving forward.

  5. platinumkid - Jul 2, 2014 at 6:33 AM

    It is unrealistic to expect great results. The leading nations in football (sorry, soccer!) are (and always have been!) in Europe and South America. This is the 20th World cup and in 84 years of competition, only 8 countries have won the title. Pretty exclusive club! Five of them are in the Quarters now and it’s all but guaranteed one is going to win it again (maybe Holland have a chance to join the exclusive club…may be). So, for the US Team, the realistic expectations are a) All players give everything they have b) The team looks competitive and don’t embarrass themselves. US team covered both imo.

    • rkb555 - Jul 3, 2014 at 1:29 PM

      Platinumkid says “It is unrealistic to expect great results.”

      I hope the players didn’t go in with that mindset and I hope they never do.

  6. tariencole - Jul 2, 2014 at 7:32 AM

    The Altidore injury was crippling, and in retrospect the 1 change to the 23 we really ought to have made was Boyd for Wondo. You have to possess a distinct mentality to outright eschew target forwards. And Deuce is always best when he can ghost into space and slip away from markers. Something a target man never gets the luxury of. Still, I pretty much give Klinsi an 8 this WC, because almost every change he made paid dividends. Even Wondo yesterday. Klinsmann can’t score for him, and Wondo is an exceptional poacher, if nothing else. I would’ve loved to have seen a second half where Fabian could’ve played the game, and Yedlin come on for Zusi at halftime. I’m pretty sure that match looks entirely different than the one we saw. Because even on his own, Yedlin’s pace gave the Belgians fits.

    Second, you’re right. Every team in 10 was weaker than every team in 14 we played. And yet we played scared of an England team that just was not good. We played flat against a Slovenia team we should’ve run off the pitch. There were stupid cards and bad challenges. Everything the US is infamous for at the World Cup. Yes, there was a rally against Slovenia (golf clap). And we finally outlasted Algeria (one moment of brilliance. But really, we ought to have done better.) and yet, that team couldn’t have put 10 good minutes together if it had wanted to.

    This team put nearly 70 good minutes together, against Portugal. And at least 20 good minutes against Ghana before Jozy went down. Not to mention the ‘bad fouls’ were happening TO the US, not “BY” them. Ghana should’ve been done to 10 men for the nose-breaker on Dempsey. Tell me that wouldn’t have changed the amount of zeal they attacked with?

    But all the more, I’m going to call “Moving the Goalposts” on anyone who says this World Cup was a failure. What did we hear in December when this group was announced? From around the world, we were told if the US got a POINT in Group G, they were lucky. That they could play to their absolute maximum and not win a game, let alone advance. There was a collective groan from US supporters, and mocking laughter from the world. I’ll admit I put our chances of escaping @ 50/50. You could’ve counted on one hand the number of non-Red, White & Blue tinted glasses wearing ‘experts’ who believed the US would get out. And even among those inside, there were loud voices anticipating failure (Alexi Lalas, anyone?).

    So now the US escapes an incredibly unbalanced group. Despite a crippling injury. Outplays Portugal and is ‘guilty’ of playing tactically the other 2 matches. And yet, we’re supposed to think they regressed. Yeah, this is moving the goalposts, and I call rubbish. Are we there yet? Of course not. But we’re a lot closer to seeing ‘there’ then we were 4 years ago. Especially when you look at the potential for this team in 18.

  7. dfstell - Jul 2, 2014 at 7:38 AM

    I often don’t agree with your pieces, but I think this one is right on the nose. The record is basically the same as four years ago, but I’m a lot happier with this performance than last one just because of the quality of the opposition and that the US had moments where they played really good soccer against some really good teams. I kinda feel like 2010 showed the ceiling for how far a team could go with an attack that was almost entirely built around a counter-attack.

    We still had some counterattacking and set-piece magic this time, but also scored some great goals from the run of play too. You need to have that weapon.

    So….agreed that we were better.

    I also agree with the commenter above that we’re still a generation away from being really top-notch. That’ll just take time. The big difference will be in youth coaching. I’m 40. When I was a kid, the soccer coaches had mostly never played soccer. Now people of my generation are the youth coaches and they grew up playing soccer, BUT they themselves didn’t have the best coaching, access to 24/7 games on TV and the abundance of adult rec leagues that we have now. So, my generation is limited as coaches. But….when today’s children hit that 35-40 age when they start to coach, LOOK OUT. They’ll have gotten proper coaching as kids, they’ll have had the opportunity to watch on TV, their moms and dads will play in rec leagues…..They’ll be spectacular coaches for kids who will play in the 2044 World Cup.

  8. nottinghamforest13 - Jul 2, 2014 at 8:08 AM

    A far cry from the days of Bruce Arena & Bob Bradley. Things are on the upswing.

  9. lewpuls - Jul 2, 2014 at 8:14 AM

    I’m often critical of the writers here, but Richard Farley has always been head and shoulders above the rest.

    I think the US performance showed that FIFA rankings sometimes make sense. We were good enough for the 16 but not for the 8. Who knows what would have happened if Jozy had been able to play. Belgium had some World Class players (Courtois, Kompany, Hazard at least), we did not (except Howard).

  10. scoochpooch - Jul 2, 2014 at 8:20 AM

    Also don’t forget that the US got help/was lucky against England in 2010 when overrated Joe Hart pulled one of his more famous boners and allowed a cheap goal to US. That should help your case better as well.

    • Nicholas Mendola - Jul 2, 2014 at 8:52 AM

      That was Robert Green. And it could’ve been reversed if Maurice Edu’s goal wasn’t ruled wrongfully offsides. They were fine.

      • chunkala - Jul 2, 2014 at 1:58 PM

        Woops, my apologies to Hart. Just seems like something he would do after I’ve watched him the past 3 years in EPL.

  11. some1kj - Jul 2, 2014 at 9:09 AM

    I think Klinsmann did a terrific job given the limited talent he has to work with relatively speaking when compared to top class world players in Europe and South America. Just think about it, England, Italy, Spain, Portugal all went home not able to get out of their groups! Ha… People gripe about Donavan not being selected, JK was right in leaving him out, unfortunately Bradley did not perform to his potential in this tournament. Other young players that JK introduced show great potential for the future. Too bad the US were thrown in a very tough group to start with and had to put up with traveling thousands of miles, played in some of the worst conditions, else they might have done better coming out of the group. Very proud of the team. One final thought, I think Belgium is going home after their next game

  12. jucam1 - Jul 2, 2014 at 9:24 AM

    I said a year ago that this was an experience tournament for JK, playing the youngsters, getting them to see top class competition, and getting the experience for ’18. They got a few breaks, and Howard played out if his mind which sent them to the knockout stage even though they were clearly outclassed. I do agree in part with this piece though, this team is better than the 2010, and from this experience will come the team JK is really building for which is ’18. He knows its a cake walk for the US to qualify, and that now that Costa Rica is the best team in Concacaf, they’ll have a better team than them to chase and compete with in qualifying which will make them better.

  13. renhoekk2 - Jul 2, 2014 at 9:24 AM

    I see the point. We played very tough competition in every match and that needs to be considered when looking at the final results. If we were in a weaker group and won another game would that have changed anyone’s outlook? Is a win over Iran or Cameroon a bigger accomplishment than a draw with Portugal? We weren’t going to win any group we were put into. Even if we won the Portugal game we were never going to beat Germany for the group title. It’s a lack of talent plain and simple. When a team like Belgium can bring on a talent like Lukaku off the bench it really underscores the point. He would instantly be the best player on the US squad and he didn’t even start for his team. And Benteke was Belgium’s preferred striker before his injury. The best athletes in all of these other countries play soccer. If the best athletes in the US start playing soccer instead of football, basketball etc… then we can compete. Until then we what we are. We were outplayed in every game except maybe Portugal and we gave that one away.

  14. lyleoross - Jul 2, 2014 at 9:34 AM

    While I liked this article, let me point out a couple of things. In youth soccer in the US we have finally realized, at least in the more structured better funded clubs, that our development model is bad. What clubs typically aimed for was wins, and goals. Parents can recognize these things. The way you get those things in youth soccer is with physical play in the back, and upon possession, you go long to your fastest most talented guy up field (can anyone say LD) who shoves the ball in the goal. The problem is that when you run up against a talented team with good ball skills, well those long balls are turn overs, and that talented guy is one on four, and probably less talented than a player who developed in a system where ball control was a must.

    The job that JK has is convert us from a long ball, physical system, to a tactical control oriented team. So, the real question isn’t wins, losses or goals (easy for the uninitiated to understand), it is tactical play. By that measure there was some good, but still a lot bad. Portugal was acceptable, even good, Ghana was not, Germany was not, and neither was Belgium. In the last three, the weight placed on passes, our ability to receive the ball, our accuracy, and our tactical positional play were all suspect. MB was rarely in the position he should have been, frankly, Jones, the rebel was better, and the guy who best played his position was Yedlin, IMO. Let me remind you that during qualification, our technical and tactical play was good, at times even great. That said, there was an interesting phenomenon. Whenever we were behind, we seemed to play better. Accuracy increased, positional play increased, the weight on the ball increased as did receiving. Huh, when under pressure, we looked better. Why? If I were to hazard a guess, I might think that the team was thinking too much. They carried a lot more weight on their shoulders than the US squad ever has. For the first time, arguably, their country was watching. Quite simply, they tried to do too much. The young guys were okay, they’ve grown up in the newer system and doing too much means playing that tactical and technical game harder, the old guys simply pushed too hard, and hence fell prone to old habits. They wanted to deliver for their country. But, when they were stressed or pressured, they stopped thinking, and played to score, using the skills they have most recently developed.

    To me, that says good things. It says that while there was more ugly than pretty, JK has them on the right path. Again, look at Portugal, look late against Ghana, Germany and Belgium, and compare that play to early play against Ghana, Germany and Belgium. There are two teams, one that is sloppy and out of position, and one that looks pretty decent, even against Germany and Belgium.

  15. east96st - Jul 2, 2014 at 9:40 AM

    Are we better? Yes. But, lack of possession, unforced turnovers, average – at best – passing, and average – at best – set pieces shows how far we still have to go. Foot skills and passing are still significant deficits. We need to instruct and train our kids better. Some of the unforced turnovers made by this team were inexcusable. But we had no one to go out there and do it better. It’s the ceiling our players have hit. The question was not whether Belgium would score, the question was when. We gave them the ball over and over and over again. I do not blame any one individual player or coaching. It is who we are at this moment in time. The next step up relies on teenagers whose names we do not yet know. If their ball skills have taken that next step, so will the National team. If they have not, we will continue to see a team with promise, but not the skill set to go even further.

  16. monte01 - Jul 2, 2014 at 10:41 AM

    I agree with virtually all of the observations of the author. However, in my mind, in 2016 the United States will be presented a potentially better chance to assess whether it has progressed or regressed in terms of football quality and style. That is because it will be host to the Copa América Centenario, which should feature the A-teams from South America (virtually every CONMEBOL team will be participating), plus the best of CONCACAF. As host nation, there can be no excuses about group strength, balance, etc., even if the US find themselves early on playing a talented Brazilian, Columbian, Argentinian, Chilean, or similar squad. The 2010 and 2014 World Cups presented the United States with 8 total games, two decided in extra time. Interesting enough, not one of those games was against South American competition. The United States should play at least four-five games at Copa América Centenario, including multiple games against CONMEBOL entrants, and those games will be on home soil. In my mind, the United States showed more flair in both the recent Portugal draw and the Belgium loss than the squad did in either the England draw of 2010 (which required a terrible goalkeeper by mistake by Joe Hart for the U.S. even to level the score), or the Algeria win (which barring the final goal was not too memorable). But whether others agree with me or not, at Copa América Centenario, which is only two years away, the United States will actually have to play games against decent South and Central American competition as a “favorite,” and that might reveal even more about their growth and overall quality than this most recent competition.

  17. doclolly - Jul 2, 2014 at 11:27 AM

    Alot of people criticize JK for stealing German-American players, but i don’t blame him for that because Germany’s youth development is miles better then ours. The problem with the US is they lack “star” power…. Besides Tim Howard who is def Top 5 in the world GK, Who do we have that scares people Donovan was nice player in his prime but is washed up now, Clint dempsey is good not great, Michael Bradley is decent but disappears for large amounts of time, Jozy Altidore is completely overrated and would be lucky to be a striker off the bench on most elite teams. Our talent pool is filled with decent role players with the occasional good player. Hopefully with all the brain injuries going on in football parents will push their kids more into soccer giving us the chance to build up better players but until then Football/Basketball/Baseball all take the elite youth talent we have and you see the scraps that soccer is left with.

  18. andreweac - Jul 2, 2014 at 11:47 AM

    In all fairness if football was THE sport for children to play America would dominate the World Cup. We have 308 million people and a growing population. This is more than Germany and Brazil… Combined.

    This is roughly the same as the entire populations of Italy, Germany, France, England and Spain.

    America could have a team that would be comparable to the basketball dream teams.

  19. mhardt14 - Jul 2, 2014 at 11:59 AM

    No one is taking Jurgen to task for leaving off Terrence Boyd. He is the only suitable replacement for Altidore. As for the future the tournaments keep coming. 2015 Gold cup, 2016 Copa AMerica at home, 2017-confederations cup in Russia, 2018 World Cup Russia

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