In the end, and rightfully so, the luck of the 2014 World Cup ran out on the United States.
When it came down to skill, creativity and soccer savoir fare, the U.S. had little of any of it on Tuesday afternoon and Belgium had so much of it they should have been penalized for over-doing it.
Ultimately, when folks look back on the USA-Belgium “Round of 16” game from Brazil, it might be more remembered for the day we “saw the light” rather than the day Tim Howard stood on his head to keep the game close.
We got the cleat of reality on Tuesday.
The U.S. soccer program is good.
But we’re nowhere near good enough.
A month ago when Jurgen Klinsmann’s December 2013 interview was published — the one where he said, “Truth is, we’re not good enough to win the World Cup” — lots of people, including me, took umbrage with those comments.
Klinsmann was right.
They weren’t good enough.
Not even close, actually.
He might not have been good enough either, by the way. After all, it was Klinsmann who chose the team of 23 who represented the United States in Brazil. He’s the one who was supposed to get the program up to “championship level” as the head coach.
That said, Klinsmann is far from the scapegoat for the Americans’ failure in WC 2014. He didn’t have a perfect three weeks by any means. He made mistakes, as did the team he coached. In the end, though, JK’s coaching effort in Brazil was better than it was bad. The U.S. could do much, much worse than retaining him for Russia 2018.
Still, the topic at hand, namely the lack of world class offensive players, continues to be the sticking point for anyone — like me — who follows U.S. soccer with a discerning eye.
In the normal run of a 90-minute soccer game, the U.S. side is as efficient as nearly every other nation when it comes to the practical matter of getting the ball from point A to B to C. We can pass it. We can defend. We have decent “shape” and know how to make timely runs that get our opponents to react. Finishing (despite what happened on Tuesday with Wondolowski, Jones and Dempsey) has always been something the U.S. can do. In those areas, we’ve made progress as a soccer playing nation over the last 25 years.
But — and this is a huge “but” — we remain light years behind the rest of the world in the critical area of playing with the soccer ball at our feet.
When Belgium got the ball on Tuesday, their creative offensive players held onto it until THEY decided to get rid of it. And, when they did distribute the ball, it was on their terms. There was no forcing it. They certainly didn’t lose it. They didn’t panic and give it away quickly, before the play was set-up.
On the off-occasion when a U.S. player found himself with the ball at his feet, there was little creativity, an obvious lack of patience and, mainly, a general lack of flair or individual style that forced Belgium to react.
The game on Tuesday will always be remembered for Tim Howard’s epic, heroic performance. If not for him, it would have been 3-0 at the half, as he made three legitimate goal-saving stops in the opening 45 minutes.
Ultimately, someday, it might be remembered as the day we got b-slapped by the Belgians and saw ourselves for what we are: A good team with grit and hard work but not at all dangerous going forward.
At this stage, we’re not a threat — as a nation — to move up the international soccer ladder.
But, in reality, there’s a long, long way to go.