Learning To Fly
And just like that, another American dream ends painfully at the feet of Belgium. Years of preparation and tough decisions, not without controversy, went into the U.S. Men’s National Team’s run into the knockout stages, an arduous and heart-pounding journey from the depths of the Group of Death and through the Amazonian rain forest. Landon Donovan was nowhere to be found. Jozy Altidore became an ineffectual cheerleader, for all intents and purposes. Michael Bradley commanded the midfield with the force of a dead battery and held possession in a way which undoubtedly made several Spaniards blush, but who were they to judge?
Tim Howard was brilliant. Clint Dempsey embodied the American ethos, playing through a broken nose and exhaustion. Jermaine Jones struck every ball with passion and unparalleled intensity. Matt Besler fearlessly stood tall against some of the world’s best strikers. This team, for all its follies and missed opportunities, represented its country perhaps more closely than any other at this World Cup. This was truly an American team, despite (or because of, depending on your disposition) all the talk of German-Americans and under-the-table deals preceding Jurgen Klinsmann’s first major tournament on a world stage. Victory again eluded the U.S., but that wasn’t really the goal anyway.
If you listened to the pundits, the United States wasn’t even supposed to make it into the knockout stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. By virtue of drawing into a group which featured favorites Germany and Portugal as well as two-time defending U.S. killers Ghana, this team was supposed to have been lucky to get more than one or two points. It featured one actual forward, a bunch of wingers and attacking midfielders whose roles lacked definition, one true, European-style midfield general in Michael Bradley, a shaky-at-best defense and Tim Howard, who people seemed to like well enough but whose relatively low profile at Everton over the better part of the last decade has kept him out of most Premier League headlines.
Still, they had heart. If the U.S. had proven anything in its last World Cup appearance, it was never to count the team out, even when defeat seemed imminent. There was a theory that because most of our players do not endure European winters for their club teams, they would be better prepared to deal with the heat and humidity of the equatorial Brazilian climate. Sure, Ronaldo could score a brace in Bilbao in the middle of February, but has he ever taken an offseason vacation to a jungle, or to Houston, Texas? For our purposes, they were one in the same.
After finally getting the better of Ghana in the opening match (thanks again, John Brooks), it seemed that we had awoken our own sleeping giant. A damp trek to Manaus led to a tightly contested but entirely winnable game against Portugal which only became a draw at the very last possible second. Maybe Ronaldo had taken that vacation. Even so, with a win and a tie, we were in as good a position as any team to get through to the knockout stages as long as we didn’t (insert apocalyptic goal differential scenario here) and Ghana didn’t (insert apocalyptic goal differential scenario here) and Portugal didn’t (insert apocalyptic goal differential scenario here). Germany? Cue jokes about long-past world wars and superior automotive engineering. We had our own broken wall, but it was one in which we believed, if only because we had to.
It seems misguided and foolish to stake the claim that perhaps two of the best performances the United States Men’s National Team has ever put on came in a draw and in a loss, those last two group stage games, but it is objectively true. For about 85 minutes against Portugal, the U.S. looked and played like a real-life soccer colossus. It was like a game of FIFA, and the sliders were all turned our way. Crucial missteps led to a wonderful cross and equalizer, but that didn’t take anything away from the team’s effort as a whole. The same went against Germany. Holding genuine, bona fide world championship contenders to one goal on the biggest stage in competitive sport is no small task, yet we did it.
Belgium just happened to have perhaps its best game of the tournament against us. If it had been a blowout, we probably could’ve stood it. Going to overtime and then going down 2-0, that was better than we could’ve expected before this Cup began. In a land of rote and tired clichés, our effort had truly been valiant. Tim Howard put up one of the best-ever performances from a goalkeeper at a World Cup, or in any competition for that matter. Lose 2-0 or possibly 3-0 and go home with a sense that the other team was simply better. The stats would indicate as such; take a look at Belgium’s shot chart below, courtesy of FourFourTwo:
It was the hope generated on a Julian Green 107th-minute wondertouch that killed us. Bringing the U.S. back to life only to kill us again, that was the tragicomedy of the match. That it happened as a result of Michael Bradley’s pass was inevitable; he surely couldn’t go on playing like that, and why not get creative with your back to the wall? Green, of course, was still in the afterglow of the Landon Donovan removal, allegedly as a favor to Klinsmann and as insurance for choosing the United States over his other homeland, Germany. That he scored the lead-cutting goal transcended reasonable expectation and most likely will contribute to a massive amount of hype leading up to the next World Cup.
Where should the United States expect to be at that point, as a soccer nation? World Cup viewership was at its all-time highest, with the matches against Portugal and Belgium being among the highest-rated television programs of the year. This could be as a result of more friendly viewing schedules. That’s the pessimist’s opinion, but he’s got a point. We win Olympic medal counts so often that it has become an expectation rather than a hope, but that’s the only real measurable athletic activity in which we consistently out-perform everyone else. Our sports are, for the most part, self-contained, with the occasional Canadian team thrown in so as to make the appearance of a “world championship” digestible for viewers. The United States has always struggled to adapt to worldly trends and traditions, too often believing its own path is the only path. The treatment of soccer has been, at times, borderline xenophobic.
As the world becomes smaller, however, Americans have come to confront some things, albeit reluctantly, with a more open mind. Hope, that devilish mistress which batted its eyes against Belgium, springs eternal for soccer as an accepted American sport. Soccer faces an uphill battle, as always, to win and keep the hearts of Americans leading up to Russia 2018. The MLS schedule is catered to American audiences perfectly, as it only conflicts with Major League Baseball for most of its season and does not overlap with most major European contests. As American players garner respect among international teams, expect more of ours to find temporary or permanent homes abroad, exposing themselves to new styles of play and gaining the all-important experience they need to succeed.
A feeling which seems to follow the USMNT each World Cup cycle is that of an intern trying to prove himself worthy of a long-term position. The team constantly faces the sort of dilemma similar to recent college graduates (in the interest full disclosure: I am a recent college graduate): you need experience to gain acceptance, but you cannot attain experience without previous acceptance. The fans always expect that because we are supposed to produce the strongest, the fastest and the most agile athletes on the planet, we should inherently dominate soccer even without an especially long or gloried domestic tradition.
The USMNT finds itself trying to win over the American public, one which is too caught up with everything else to bother caring about anything outside of actual match play. Landon Donovan getting left off the 23-man World Cup roster is akin to the Lakers unceremoniously cutting Kobe Bryant, yet most of the public merely brushed Klinsmann’s move off and welcomed the challenge of forging ahead without its longtime leader. That’s fine, and it is distinctly American. At least we’re carving out an identity, albeit at the hands of a German soccer legend living in southern California.
What happens over the course of the next four years is paramount to the potential ubiquity of soccer in the United States. For years, critics and so-called experts have claimed that the United States is on the brink of near-universal soccer acceptance, yet after each World Cup there is a lull in popularity. Major League Soccer’s challenge involves enticing prime European talent, which would result in a higher overall quality of play. Backed by Manchester City’s mad money, NYCFC seems prime to be the heir apparent to the New York Cosmos, and maybe it can capitalize on its geographic and financial situation to lure some of the world’s best stateside.
Internationally, there is no reason to believe that the USMNT cannot continue its upward trajectory, though Klinsmann himself has always maintained that 2018 was the true goal for his squad. The most recent “reasonable” expectation for the team has been for it to simply get out of the group stages at the World Cup. In 2014, given the tough draw and natural obstacles involved in traveling more than any other team, it seemed fair to assume that the United States would flounder. Doomsday projections burned when John Brooks scored that winner against Ghana, and now the team might be realizing that its own potential far exceeds anyone’s opinions, expert or otherwise. This nation is prepared for a winner in the world’s most popular sport, and the rising generation of internationally-coached and experienced players may soon be able to deliver on a promise given in Uruguay in 1930, when the United States finished third at the inaugural World Cup. Hope, that conniving thief of the night, might just shine her love light in red, white and blue in four years.