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As loss to Belgium exemplified, time is now for US to develop game-changing players, style

Jul 2, 2014, 9:47 AM EDT

Julian Green Getty Images

Every now and again, it is fun to think about: What if just ONE of America’s greatest athletes had played soccer instead? What if LeBron or Cam Newton or Mike Trout or Adrian Peterson or Patrick Kane had chosen soccer instead of their sport?

Tuesday, I think, we saw what it might have looked like: It might have looked just a little bit like Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku.

Did you see him? Holy cow: Did you SEE him? Apparently Lukaku has been disappointing for much of this World Cup, listless, indifferent, unready for such a big stage. That, I guess, is why he was a substitute on Tuesday. Lukaku is only 21 years old, and he has spent much of his young career in the Premier League getting loaned out. He’s clearly trying to find his place.

But talent? Absurd. He’s 6-foot-3. He’s brilliantly fast – have you seen that Quicksilver scene in the new X-Men movie? Yeah, he’s like that fast. Most of all, he’s just overpowering when he runs. Like Peterson. Like LeBron. The Guardian named Lukaku one of the 10 most promising players in Europe.

And Tuesday, in extra time, he came in and he made the World Cup his own by running through a game but tired United States defense again and again – unstoppable, unbreakable, untouchable. It was mind-boggling. The United States would send one, two, three defenders at him and he would just smash through them. He set up Belgium’s first goal by simply running through a stumbling U.S. defender. He scored the second with a powerful run to the near post where he shielded off the defender and left-footed a smash past goalkeeper Tim Howard. He had various other moments that almost ended up as goals.

[MORE: Belgium sinks U.S. in extra time, advances to World Cup quarterfinals]

The United States has had many good soccer players. They’ve had scrappy defenders and tough midfielders and blazing fast forwards. Their goaltender, Howard, put on a display for the ages against Belgium with 16 saves, the most ever recorded for a World Cup game. He’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world; America has had a few good goalkeepers. Well, we’re good with our hands.

[MORE: Howard's heroics not enough in 'heartbreaking' U.S. World Cup exit]

But they’ve never had a Romelu Lukaku. Or, more to the point, America’s Romelu Lukakus have spent the last few decades driving hard to the basket, plowing through linebackers and crashing into fences after long fly balls. What kind of goal scorer could Barry Sanders have been? How about Dave Winfield? What about Tim Tebow?

So far America has never had that soccer force who can scare the heck out of the rest of the world. So far America has not had a player who can take over games the way Lukaku did. And it seems that until American soccer has a Lukaku (never mind a real soccer genius like Messi or Neymar), a player capable of making magic time after time, this round of 16 business just might be their limit.

Oh, make no mistake, this was a very nice World Cup for the United States. Few thought they could escape the so-called Group of Death, with Germany and Portugal both ranked in the FIFA Top 5 and the added bonus of Ghana, the country that ended America’s last  two World Cups.

It wasn’t easy. The U.S. scored almost instantly against Ghana this time, then withstood a furious barrage, and finally scored a late game-winner. The U.S. outplayed Portugal and should have come away with a victory but took the draw after a singular bit of magnificence from Cristiano Ronaldo. Then, even in a loss to Germany, they showed will and gritty defending against a clearly superior team.

What they rarely showed, though, was brilliance. Throughout the tournament, the key word was “possession” – the U.S. gave the ball away again and again … they could rarely build any sort of sustained attack because they couldn’t keep possession long enough. A team can have some success at the World Cup with a well-organized defense and a couple of lightning-bolt goals. But sooner or later, that style runs its course.

[MORE: USA player ratings vs. Belgium  |  Signs of progress small, but clear]

Yes, the United States could have beaten Belgium on Tuesday – if Chris Wondolowski had punched home that remarkable chance in the final minute of regulation, the United States surely would have won. But talking about missed chances in soccer isn’t especially helpful; if Howard had not been Superman, the United States would have lost 6-0. The bigger point was the U.S. was thoroughly outplayed by a much more talented team. The U.S. might have stolen the game, but it would have been just that: A steal. Belgium was much, much better.

And if the U.S. is to take the next step, they cannot go into games where they are thoroughly outclassed. The U.S. needs to develop some players who go beyond tough, beyond rugged, beyond resilient and fit and hard-working. They need to develop some players who can do wizardry.

This is something people have been talking about for decades – the “when will America develop a world-class player” stories were written 30 or 40 years ago – but I suspect the time is now.

Sure, people will keep arguing about soccer’s place in the American landscape. Some will point to the extraordinary way this World Cup took hold in the United States. Others will point to the extremely low ratings of MLS. Some will see the trend of young people embracing soccer. Others will point to the many years of youth soccer dominance in America and how little impact it has had on soccer as a spectator sport. That argument isn’t stopping anytime soon.

But wherever soccer ends up on the great American sports spectrum, there is no question that this is a moment for the team to build on. Two young players – DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green – had auspicious debuts this World Cup. But there’s something else, too.

You know the story of Pelé, right? He was 10 years old in 1950, when his home country of Brazil lost to Uruguay in one of the most famous matches ever played. The young Pelé saw his father crying after the loss. Pelé went up to his father and said, “Don’t worry. One day, I will win it.”

Something like that could very well have happened at this World Cup, too. This was the most-watched World Cup in American history and by far the most talked about. So maybe a 10-year-old who plays all the sports – maybe a whole bunch of 10 year olds – saw the brilliant passing of Ronaldo, the magic of Messi, the sheer physical sway of Belgium’s 19-year-old wunderkind Divock Origi and his replacement, Lukaku. And maybe they thought, “That’s what I want to be.”

The U.S. fell in the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup. They played hard, and they held up well, and they gave us a final 15 minutes to remember, and they were not good enough. But if those kids were watching … this could be the most important result in U.S. World Cup history.

  1. lyleoross - Jul 2, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    I’m gonna disagree with the author. Apparently he can’t count. There are over five million people playing soccer in the US. The population of Portugal is ten million, as is the population of Belgium. Basic math would tell you that even randomly, we should have some guys with the physical skill necessary. More so, soccer is top three in terms of participation in youth sports.

    The talent is there, the development isn’t. Guys like Lukaku happen not because of some gift, they are made. It has only been in the last seven to ten years, at best, that US youth soccer went from a win games mentality to a make good players mentality. Winning games in youth soccer in the US means highly physical, long ball play, the very things that kill you in high level soccer.

    Go back and review the video, Fabian outran his defense many times, the question is, what did he, and CD and other guys up front, do with the balls they had? Not much. They lacked the awareness (trained awareness) to move the ball tactically. Same in the back. Over and over, our defense got their foot on the ball, and they simply took it long or out. Look at Belgium, when they got their foot on the ball on defense, well over 80% of the time, it ended up going to one of their teammates. You have to start early, and be told, don’t rip the ball, move it to a teammate. That is happening now, but we have a ways to go before those kids come out of the development pipeline.

    • mikeevergreen - Jul 2, 2014 at 12:11 PM

      Look at our U-16 team that beat Brazil in a tournament in January. joey Gallardo, Haji Wright. They’re coming sooner than you think.

      • lyleoross - Jul 4, 2014 at 10:47 PM

        I can’t argue the point, but I will point out that similar things were said about our U21 squad before they got crushed in the last U21 WC. We understand what needs to be done, but I’m not sure we’ve lived it. On the other hand, I hope you’re correct.

        BTW – I’ve seen some NPL U16 kids play and what I’ve seen is consistent with your observation. Call me pessimistic. :)

  2. pilot2011 - Jul 2, 2014 at 10:52 AM

    America definitely has the talent. It is the coaching that they don’t have. Wait for all the old fart soccer coaches and “just boot it” soccer dads to get the heck out of the way and the US will be on the fast track to greatness.

    Starting at 5, 6, 7 years old is crucial. You can’t just have guys tryout for the varsity team in high school and expect that they are our future. You need guys who play club soccer for their entire youth, which basically means you are on a soccer field 3 days a week for team practice then games and tournaments on the weekends… Year round.

    That is how you build a national team.

    • midtec2005 - Jul 2, 2014 at 1:13 PM

      Spot on, and this problem is fixing itself to some extent. 20 years ago, all we had was “just boot it” dads, because no one in this country grew up playing. Now we have tons of people who actually played, coaching. On top of that we have MLS acadamies (finally) starting up.

    • godsholytrousers - Jul 2, 2014 at 2:55 PM

      Jason Kreis is a good example of the type of leadership we need to be developing at the MLS level.
      We don’t need foreign accents to produce our players. We need homegrown talent and homegrown development. There is one country we don’t need advice from in particular, but I don’t want to offend all of my English friends. Clean out your clubs and schools of that influence, and we would automatically increase the level of accountability and training for our youth.

    • nappy25 - Jul 2, 2014 at 5:51 PM

      They should also nix the SuperDraft.

    • simonkulberg - Jul 3, 2014 at 8:44 AM

      It`s a cultural difference more than anything. People in South America and in Europe live and breathe soccer. Every coach has once been a player after being little kids watching every single game and dreaming of becoming good. The entire infrastructure is just there already, having been built for more than a century.

      Having watched the PBS documentary about concussions in football I`m sure this will probably make more parents choose other sports in the near future though, and soccer may well be a likely benefactor. That combined with increased attention to the sport may well conspire to kick off the first US golden generation. But if it does it may be 10-15 years until you reap the rewards.

  3. gregalthoff - Jul 2, 2014 at 11:11 AM

    Our best players have typically gone to play against mediocre players in the NCAA. Some are starting to head to European academies like Barca, so that’s a start.

  4. baldeagle2020 - Jul 2, 2014 at 11:11 AM

    @Lyleoross I actually created an account ,to agree and applaud your analysis . Your comments about the defense lack of tactical passing , and possession mentally are spot on . I even c this with my daughters when they go to soccer practice . I also c it in my weekly soccer game with the guys …. Just kick it out or long .

  5. diablos67 - Jul 2, 2014 at 11:15 AM

    Frankly the world should be glad that the US lags behind the rest of the world on the soccer field(pitch). Because we can push players out that are wickedly talented when we have the infrastructure. But if you think about it, why do our best players go into football, basketball, baseball..its because thats where the money is, thats where the prestige is. At least here in Texas, you usually don’t hear how the local soccer team did, but I can guarantee you that most people can tell you how the high school football team is doing, how UT and A&M are doing, and probably how the cowboys and the Texans are doing. As we continue to place more infrastructure in place for soccer, the better we’ll get..its just going to take time…a lot of it.

    • mikeevergreen - Jul 2, 2014 at 12:15 PM

      Texas pushes out lots of soccer talent (think: Clint Dempsey & what seems to be a third of the players in MLS) because kids don’t just slack off if they don’t make the football team, they join another sport.

    • godsholytrousers - Jul 2, 2014 at 2:58 PM

      Texas is supplying tons of talent for MLS, colleges across the US, and also national team pools in CONCACAF (Mexico scouts are everywhere here).

  6. mhardt14 - Jul 2, 2014 at 11:52 AM

    So true; because thats where the money is, . Many players that now make millions in other sports considered soccer and went with the NBA or NFL money. Kobi grew up in Italy and if the MLS was around he might have stuck with soccer. Same thing with Ocho chino or whoever that Bengals guy is. He changed from soccer to Football for the money. So if you think the MLS sucks and continue to watch Premier League instead think again. The MLS is key to to getting kids to drop out of Football and play soccer.

  7. mikeevergreen - Jul 2, 2014 at 12:27 PM

    Eric Wynalda is full of it up to his eyeballs.

  8. awhayes - Jul 2, 2014 at 1:20 PM

    Some good points here. However, I’m in the camp that the US does have the talent, we just don’t identify it well and then we don’t use it well in those instances where it has been correctly identified. As you point out Joe, possession is a real key in terms of building legit offensive attacks – something that except for the Portugal game, we hardly did at all. Why? Well, Bradley and Dempsey were playing out of position for one. But we also didn’t effectively tap into the talent we had available – guys that have a better skillset for position and build up like Mix Diskerud, Green, Johannsson, Yedlin (should have been starting over Bedoya) – and even some of the guys left behind like Tim Ream, Benny Feilhaber and of course Donovan. I really do believe that if the right guys made the roster and right guys got minutes in Brazil, this team could have done better – and not looked SO outclassed in 3 of the 4 games.

  9. braxtonrob - Jul 2, 2014 at 3:51 PM

    It’s ALWAYS going to come down to WHO picks the ROSTER.

    (JK has 4 more years to do it the ‘German-way’. Good luck!)

  10. braxtonrob - Jul 2, 2014 at 3:53 PM

    Also, it’s NOT the players in the US that need to catch up, it’s the COACHING!!

  11. konmtu - Jul 2, 2014 at 11:09 PM

    If Lukaku was born in the US he’d be a linebacker. I agree coaching is an issue, but it is simple. The best US athletes do not become soccer players. I wish it wasn’t so, but that’s the cold hard truth.

    • simonkulberg - Jul 3, 2014 at 8:53 AM

      Look on the bright side: 30 years ago there was no such thing as an American soccer player as far as top European clubs went. Now you have about 10 players playing at high levels in Europe and MLS is now obviously good enough for young players to market themselves to Europe. And then there`s money in it for talented guys just as much as in US football, basketball and baseball.
      This situation will only develop in the future and who knows when the MLS becomes truly competitive as a league in its own right, so foreign players will want to come there. Even that could happen over the next 4-8 years. Already many African, Latin American and Asian players probably see MLS as a good second option if they can`t get a break in Europe. And this will also bring in the money, even if the MLS is just a stepping stone for talented foreigners from outside Europe.
      I can`t see anything but a bright future for US soccer myself.

  12. yyyass - Jul 3, 2014 at 10:59 AM

    We need to stop losing so much talent to Figure Skating. If we could bring in that talent, well, we would certainly dazzle the competition.

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