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A Small Step Forward, Part 1
(TALLAHASSEE) As a soccer fan, grilling with my family and watching the Quarterfinal matches of the 2014 World Cup seems like a perfect way to spend the 4th of July. But as I consider the slate of teams still vying most important trophy in sports, I can’t help but lament the absence of the US.
Oh what I would have given to see The Squad match up against Lionel Messi and Argentina on Saturday, especially since I became a soccer fan because of Diego Maradona and the Argentine team that won the 1986 World Cup. To see my team try and stop his most worthy successor would have provided the best reason to stay inside and not deal with this Florida heat.
Alas, it didn’t work out that way. As we all know, the US survived one of the World Cup Groups of Death, successfully navigating their way past Portugal and Ghana and just behind Germany but fell just agonizingly short of completing an amazing extra-time comeback against Belgium in the Round of 16. After four years the US fell at the same hurdle…but took a small step forward, both on and off the field.
There are many that see this US failure to get past the Round of 16 once again as a sign that nothing has changed for American soccer; that we remain a decent side but certainly not one that can successfully compete against the soccer powers of the world. While this may seem like a harsh assessment of a team achieved something that England, Italy, Spain and all of the African countries were unable to accomplish it’s not entirely unfair either. For too much of this tournament, the US sat back in groups of 8 or 9 and simply defended. It’s easy suggest that the US is simply unable to play in other way against the top sides. We have a poor record against European sides at the World Cup having beaten only Portugal in 2002 since we started regularly qualifying for this event and did not so much going forward against Ghana.
But I don’t completely buy into that. Yes, what we saw far too often in Brazil was at odds with Jurgen Klinsmann’s decree that the US will play a “more proactive” brand of soccer during his tenure as coach. But they didn’t play that way in any of the warm-up matches prior to leaving Brazil including against fellow Round of 16 qualifiers, Nigeria. They certainly did not play that way against Portugal. In the US’ second group stage match they created several chances and looked fluid, competent and threatening going forward against a talented and desperate Portuguese side that grabbed an early lead but conceded space for the US to exploit. Had the back line not switched off at two crucial points, the US would have won handily and rendered the Germany match nothing more than a meaningful friendly. And let us not discount the absence of Jozy Altidore who is able to receive the ball as an up-field outlet and hold up play as his teammates advance.
But just as in any sport, if you turn the ball over, you won’t win. Ghana and Germany pressured the US into giveaways that allowed them the dominate possession. That was distressing enough but what was much more disappointing was the US’ inability to maintain possession against a Belgium side that conceded time and space in a manner similar to Portugal. Too many passes were just off the mark, not precise enough or poorly weighted that resulted in limited possession, a blunted attack and in Fabian Johnson’s case an injury as he stretched to reach a ball just out of his reach and strained his hamstring.
This is why so many top soccer nations, while respecting the US, don’t necessarily fear The Squad, either. Ball possession while under sustained defensive pressure and the ability dribble out of it when necessary are basic requirements for teams that want to make deep runs in World Cup competition. Too often, that quality was found wanting for The Squad. What was especially maddening for US fans is that The Squad managed to do so, not just during the Portugal match but during the last 15 minutes of extra time against Belgium, as well. After Julian Green’s F-You moment to all who questioned his inclusion in this team, the US simply had Belgium shook with waves of crisp passing, new found confidence off the dribble and opportunities in the box. I understand that desperation can heighten one’s capabilities but where was this for the preceding 105 minutes? While Tim Howard was nothing short of heroic in what was likely his final World Cup match for the US, Belgium can thank their goal keeper, Thibaut Courtois for keeping them from suffering a stunning collapse.
The US, in reality had lost the match long before that or Chris Wondolowski’s cringe-inducing and horrifying miss at the end of regulation. While much is and has always been made of the US’ resilience, I think we can finally dismiss the notion that “hard work and determination” alone is going win us matches against the top sides of the world. At this level, EVERYONE plays hard. Only a few have the necessary quality that ultimately separates those who simply get out of groups and those who advance far beyond them. Right now, we’re still in the former and even Landon Donovan admitted we’re not at THAT level yet.
But what’s also clear is that it’s coming. This is by no means meant to minimize what we did in Brazil. I was there and saw first hand what we accomplished. I marveled at the tenacity and skill of the veterans like Damarcus Beasley, Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey, all of whom we probably won’t see in Russia. I praised the mental preparedness of young Julian Green (who scored a brilliant volley with his very first World Cup touch) of Matt Besler, John Brooks and Deandre Yedlin and hailed at the composure of Omar Gonzalez and even Michael Bradley who has come in for criticism for a World Cup campaign that was below his standard of excellence. And Tim Howard has rightly turned into a bona fide superhero for his display against Belgium. We showed that at times we CAN play this game at a high level. It was thrilling to watch and we gained some fans in doing so.
In 2010 we scrapped our way out of a less challenging than group and fell to a team few thought would make the quarterfinals. This time around we scrapped our way out of a much harder group, a feat that few outside the US thought was possible and fell after putting an almighty scare into a team that many think have the capability to win the whole thing.
We fell, yes, in a familiar place. But on the field, we took small step forward.
Now the mission is making that step a longer one.
Watch this space for Part 2…
Based in Tallahassee, Andrew L. Dixon, III has contributed soccer articles to BASN since 2004. He previously authored a column for the US Soccer Players.com website.