The minute the final whistle blew, signaling the end of the World Cup for the U.S. Men’s National Team, soccer fans in the United States wearily exhaled.
The thought that seemed to be on a lot of people’s minds: “We gave it a good shot.”
International soccer has always been an uphill battle for Americans, against a variety of factors. Finishing among the top 16, in one context, is a great accomplishment on the beautiful game’s biggest stage. The 2014 edition of the USMNT offered plenty of memorable moments, such as John Brooks’ winning header against Ghana, or Tim Howard’s dives across the pitch in a goal-keeping performance for the ages.
But in this Cup — one watched by more Americans than ever in history — for me, the takeaway is this: The U.S. may be one of the better squads in the world, but it never seemed even near the same plateau as many of its foes.
Heart and determination? In spades. Skill and talent? Not quite up to par.
One thing that seems to frustrate some would-be viewers about soccer is the odd and subjective flow of the game.
A team may seem to be dominating possession or getting more chances than the other, but can still be trailing. A result isn’t necessarily the best indicator of how the game was played.
Similarly, the United States’ results somewhat belied its level of talent. Advancing out of the group stage was as much a function of a late-earned win and some other teams collapsing as the Americans controlling their own destiny. Among the titans of Germany, France, Brazil and Argentina, the U.S. never seemed a legitimate contender. Tough losses to the Germans and ultimately Belgium seem to truly reveal what the Americans were.
It’s in the details: The U.S. players had trouble matching one-on-one and making threatening runs. Even those considered the top Americans — Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey among them — looked pedestrian compared to the swift, controlled attacks from the Belgian and German midfielders and strikers.
Watching other games, we see the kinds of long-distance strikes and impressive touch headers that other teams are capable of, and those beautiful elements are somewhat lacking for the U.S. When the Americans had to play balls off bounces or try to rip past defenders with a tricky move, it was a losing proposition.
Even smaller nations have their once-in-a-generation star who succeeds at the club level — such as Portugal’s Ronaldo or Ivory Coast’s Drogba — but the U.S. struggles to produce players who become international stars. After the Americans lost to Belgium, soccer pundits on social media observed that if the U.S., German and Belgian players all were in a draft, it would be tough to pick an American in the first 20 selections, save perhaps Howard.
Looking at the stats, the United States is pretty middle-of-the-pack when it comes to such World Cup stats as passing percentage, percentage of shots on target, and attacks, and miserably near the bottom of clearance completion rate. While that’s to be expected against the world’s best, it naturally leads to another question: What will it take for the United States to be the world’s best?
That’s a question tied up in a lot of factors: soccer’s popularity versus other sports, the way coaches teach the game, the sport’s systemic ties to education in this country. Jurgen Klinsmann’s vision will be tested for the next four years to see how he attempts to bypass or surmount these issues to bring younger, more talented personnel up through the system.
But it’s clear that the U.S. players are not as individually skilled as the world’s best. And although it was admirable to watch the underdog Americans scrap their way nearly to the quarterfinals, it should create more satisfaction than anxiety.