Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Preview: Early cycle friendly shelves normal questions for U.S. national team’s return

    Sep 2, 2014, 10:36 PM EDT

    US Men's National Team vs Germany

    The beginning of a long World Cup cycle allows the normal questions to be put aside for Wednesday’s friendly.

  2. PST’s Major League Soccer Power Rankings – The faith-destroying edition

    Sep 2, 2014, 8:48 PM EDT

    Omar Gonzalez

    FC Dallas’s short reign is over, with a familiar name returning to the top spot.

  3. ACL tear brings premature end to Tally Hall’s season

    Sep 2, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT

    2011 MLS Cup - Houston Dynamo Training Session Getty Images

    Houston’s defense suffers a setback, with Hall expected to be sidelined for 6-9 months.

  4. PST’s Major League Soccer Player of the Week: LA Galaxy’s Landon Donovan

    Sep 2, 2014, 6:08 PM EDT

    Philadelphia Union v Los Angeles Galaxy Getty Images

    A one-goal, four-assist week means another legend claims our honor.

  5. What tomorrow’s goalkeeper platoon tells us about the U.S. goalkeeper void

    Sep 2, 2014, 5:18 PM EDT

    Turkey v United States Getty Images

    This was supposed to be Guzan’s audition. Instead, this looks like competition.

  6. Jozy Altidore to captain U.S. Wednesday against Czech Republic

    Sep 2, 2014, 4:05 PM EDT

    Altidore Getty Images

    Altidore’s 72nd cap will feature the U.S.’s armband, with Jurgen Klinsmann having handed his striker the honor for tomorrow’s friendly in Prague.

  7. With Radamel Falcao, can Manchester United challenge for the Premier League?

    Sep 2, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT

    Falcao AP

    Colombian hotshot signs for the Red Devils on Deadline Day. Will his move guarantee goals, and maybe more?

  8. EXCLUSIVE: Fresh off his club debut, young Emerson Hyndman takes his USMNT chance in stride

    Sep 2, 2014, 1:45 PM EDT

    Hyndman2 Getty Images

    At just 18 years old, Emerson Hyndman has come through the Fulham youth ranks and is turning heads at all levels. He speaks to ProSoccerTalk about the chances coming all at once.

  9. Spanish defender Cesar Azpilicueta signs new five-year deal at Chelsea

    Sep 2, 2014, 1:01 PM EDT

    Chelsea Training Session and Press Conference Getty Images

    Blues sign full back to new long-term deal at Stamford Bridge.

  10. PHOTO: San Antonio reveal stunning stadium expansion plans, aim for MLS entry

    Sep 2, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT

    Source: San Antonio Scorpions Source: San Antonio Scorpions

    Scorpions reveal stunning stadium plans, as the latest lower-league side plans for MLS expansion.

  11. Confirmed: Tom Cleverley signs for Aston Villa on season-long loan

    Sep 2, 2014, 11:29 AM EDT

    Chelsea v Manchester United - Premier League Getty Images

    Cleverley arrives at Villa Park after late, late loan move on Deadline Day.

  12. From Prague, with love: Klinsmann previews USA’s friendly vs. Czech Republic

    Sep 2, 2014, 10:23 AM EDT

    Jürgen Klinsmann AP

    Speaking ahead of the USA’s clash in Prague, here’s what Klinsmann had to say.

  13. Captain Bastian: Schweinsteiger named new skipper of Germany

    Sep 2, 2014, 9:47 AM EDT

    Brazil Soccer WCup Germany Argentina AP

    Bayern Munich midfielder to lead Germany after Lahm’s retirement.

  14. Record summer: Breaking the transfer window down, by the numbers

    Sep 2, 2014, 9:08 AM EDT

    Britain Soccer Manchester United Angel Di Maria AP

    Where did the cash go? Who spent the most? Which records tumbled?

  15. Cristiano Ronaldo hits out at Real Madrid’s transfer moves

    Sep 2, 2014, 8:26 AM EDT

    Ancelotti's ability to adjust to Atletico's neutralization of Cristiano Ronaldo is a token of his genius. AP

    Ronaldo’s not happy that Alonso, Di Maria were allowed to leave in the window.

  16. Maradona’s quote after Pope’s inter-religious peace match is priceless

    Sep 1, 2014, 11:30 PM EDT

    201409011528557269254 AP

    “Today two powers were brought together, the hand of God and that of the Pope,” Maradona joked. No, really. That’s what he said.

  17. Premier League Team of the Week: Find out who starred on Matchday 3

    Sep 1, 2014, 10:29 PM EDT

    Newcastle United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Getty Images

    From a 18-year-old Jamaican-English midfielder to a 34-year-old veteran goalkeeper, this team takes a ride through all types of players.

Featured video

Official: Welbeck signs for Arsenal