When a team enters into a tournament format like the World Cup knockout stage, you always know that the next game very well may be your last.
But that doesn’t mean it is any easier when the end finally comes.
Such is the case for the United States Men’s National team, which saw its World Cup run end on Tuesday in a 2-1 loss to Belgium.
“Thirty-one teams get their heart broken, and it has to end sometime,” goal keeper Tim Howard said after the match. “It ended a little bit early for us. We felt like it was a good Belgium team. Sometimes you give everything you have and do your absolute best, and it doesn’t stack up.”
This loss is particularly hard to take because it signals the likely end (or at least brings us very close to the end) of the international careers of players like Howard, Clint Dempsey, DeMarcus Beasley and Jermaine Jones. While they may not have been part of a “Golden Generation” in U.S. soccer, they were among a group of core players that made the national team relevant on the world stage. The day is coming soon when Dempsey will no longer be on the attack, nor will Howard be in the goal, and that is going to take some time getting used to.
While it is difficult to accept that we may never see several of the current players wear the jersey again in a significant international match (although it sounds like many of them will be there for next summer’s Gold Cup), there is plenty to be excited about with the next generation of players.
Despite not always playing at his best in this World Cup, Michael Bradley is in his prime and should continue to anchor the midfield during the next four years. The same can be said of forward Jozy Altidore, whose injury put a strain on the team’s offense.
While many questioned the inclusion of DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green and John Brooks, among others on the roster, all three put up solid performances when called on. Green and Brooks both found the back of the net with important goals, and Yedlin’s nonstop energy (plus his cross that led to Dempsey’s goal against Portugal) certainly leaves fans wanting to see what this group (along with Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson) can do as they continue to grow together.
It also helps that the youngsters (save Diskerud) were able to participate, rather than just spectate from the bench. Throw in that the majority of the younger players are members of European club teams, and can only help down the road. (Someone needs to work on getting Yedlin overseas immediately, though, so he can develop against top competition.)
“We take a lot, a tremendous amount away from this experience. We grew a lot,” Jurgen Klinsmann said. “We now know that we can play eye-to-eye with the big nations. The teams that we faced here are favorites to win the World Cup and we’ve done tremendously well against them. We see a couple of young players coming through the ranks. To see Julian Green jumping on the field and scoring right away and DeAndre Yedlin, we have many other youngsters waiting. After you finish a World Cup, you discuss the future of it and that goes towards the young players that we have in our country and we build the next cycle.”
The U.S. also solidified its identity during this World Cup, showing that they are a squad that will never give up. They may have only won one of their four matches, but the team never stopped working, which helped overcome a gap in talent and made Ghana, Portugal and Belgium work for everything they got.
Finally, while he wasn’t perfect (and which manager is?), Klinsmann proved his worth during the tournament. The team may not have advanced any further that it did in South Africa in 2010, but Klinsmann’s enthusiasm clearly rubbed off on the players, and with his eye for talent and willingness to make the hard decisions, there is little doubt the U.S. soccer program is heading in the right direction.
“What you hope is that your team really takes this experience and understands now what this level means, what this intensity means, what the pace of the game means and the demands,” Klinsmann said. “It’s not only just going to training or to go play a game on the weekend. It’s about lifestyle. So much comes into this. The experience of the last seven weeks, every little piece plays a role in building a successful team for a World Cup. I think they learned a tremendous amount. I think they all went to their limits. They gave everything they had.
“I found ways to introduce new, young players into our program (over the past three years) and develop the game on every front of it. If it’s on the younger level, it’s on the senior level, on the organizational side, wherever it is, I think we’ve done a lot of work those couple years. Now it comes to a point where you have to swallow a game like this today and have to find a way to move on. We are excited with building a next Olympic team cycle which is huge for us going to Rio de Janeiro in two years. We have a very exciting competition two years from now with Copa America in the United States. I think there’s a lot to build on going forward.”
The U.S. captured the attention of a nation over the past two weeks, turning their games into a communal experience and drawing record numbers – 25 million viewers for the Portugal game, 21.6 million for Belgium (on a Tuesday afternoon, no less). They may even have picked up a new fan or two along the way.
And while their World Cup run came to a close earlier than many would have liked, we’re glad we were able to go along for the ride.
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