Well, as heartbreaking as today’s loss to Belgium in the round of 16 was, it’s important to remember that few if any expected the USMNT to progress from the group stage. After all, they had Germany, Portugal, and old nemesis Ghana to deal with. But, lo and behold, they accomplished that feat. So that’s a win. Then they take on a beatable Belgium team in the first knockout stage match, and appear content to do little apart from defend and hope to get lucky on a counter attack until they were down two goals in the final minutes of the added 30. So that’s…well, a loss in more ways than one. Don’t get me wrong, this Belgium squad is a dangerous combination of fast, skilled, and huge, reasons why they were a popular dark horse pick to win the whole tournament. I have to laugh there, actually. Looking at it, how unheralded can a team with English Premier League stars, Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, and Marouane Fellaini be? Everton’s Kevin Mirallas isn’t a slouch either, and we haven’t even gotten to Kevin DeBruyne, the best player on the field not named Tim Howard just a few hours ago. But, while they won all three of their group stage matches, the competition was weak and their play looked, at times, uninspired. So there was hope for the U.S. It turned out to be hope unfulfilled, but nevertheless, optimism abounds for the future. Let’s take a look at why some of that optimism is certainly warranted, and why some of it should be taken with a grain of salt.
Wow, there appears to be some phenomenal young talent on this U.S. team. Moreover, they don’t seem intimidated in the least by playing on the world’s biggest stage. DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson look like the real deal, and are only beginning to scratch the surface of their potential. Julian Green, in the few minutes he was given, scored a spectacular goal to give the U.S. late hope against Belgium.
In addition, Matt Besler looks like a future star in defense. No disrespect to a solid MLS Sporting Kansas City side, but he won’t be there for long. And at age 27, he’s absolutely young enough to anchor the U.S. defense for the next four years as they work toward their next qualification. Both Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez acquitted themselves well as Besler’s partner in the middle, and don’t forget Ghana match hero John Brooks, another youngster. The future of the U.S. central defense is very bright.
And now, for a nice helping of crow for THIS critic. I’ve said before that I have never been the biggest Tim Howard fan. I’ve felt for years he was a decent but overrated keeper, and that the U.S. could do better. And while he played pretty well in the group stage, his performance against Belgium was the stuff of legend, and my heart broke for him as he wept in his post-game interview. I can honestly say, no individual performance has ever been better for the USMNT. No individual has ever left more on the field than Howard this last game. The media is often quick to call a semi-routine save spectacular or incredible, but no fewer than six of Howard’s 16 saves were truly remarkable. And no keeper in the world would have stopped either of the two Belgium goals. My hat is off, sir. Well done.
What alien abducted Michael Bradley and put on his jersey? Considered to be one of the best players on the team, he was terrible. His play improved slightly against Germany and Belgium, as he managed to sprinkle a few good passes in with his constant give-aways in bad areas, but all in all, he was historically bad. I scratched my head after he decided in his mid 20s to join MLS side Toronto, after featuring prominently (and performing well) for noteworthy European sides, Heerenvee, Borussia Moenchen Gladbach, Chievo and Roma. But at this point, it appears that well before his prime should even be hit, he can no longer compete at the highest level. He shouldn’t be considered for the shirt in the future, unless he experiences a miraculous turn-around.
Three of the better performers for the U.S. this World Cup were Jermaine Jones, Howard, and Kyle Beckerman. Why is this bad? Because the youngest age of this threesome is 32. It’s highly unlikely any of them will be wearing the U.S. shirt in four years. You can add Clint Dempsey to this list too. Deuce may not always have been brilliant, but his workrate never wavered, and he scored two huge goals. He’s also 32, and unlikely to be around in four years.
For all the credit coach Jurgen Klinsmann is getting for the team making it through the group stage, there are some alarming questions. How did he stick with Bradley for every minute of the tournament with the talented Mix Diskerud sitting on the bench? Were the apparent U.S. tactics of defending, defending, and then more defending his call? We saw that when things got desperate, this team could pose a real threat offensively. Anyone who saw the last ten minutes of the Belgium game can see that. Of course, it’s never that simple. The Belgians, with a two goal lead, decided to sit back. But still. Lastly, how was Beckerman on the bench for the last game? He was undeniably solid for every minute of the group stage, and then he’s not in the line up for the knock out game? It’s just weird, man. Right?
And lastly, where are the strikers of the future? We saw that the team had no suitable replacement for Jozy Altidore as a featured striker. The truly scary thing is, Altidore isn’t even that good. He’s not bad, and when he goes on a hot streak he can score goals in heaps, but he’s not star level. Maybe Aron Johansson will continue to improve, and maybe we’ll see an emergence from Juan Agudelo at some point, but for all the optimism the other positions portend, the attackers leave uncertainty.
Fearless Forecast for 2018
Are you ready for this? I think the U.S. will earn a world ranking high enough by the time the 2018 World Cup groups are drawn that they’ll earn a seed. That doesn’t mean they won’t get another group of death, so to speak, but they’ll end up in no worse of a group situation than they were in this year, and they’ll make it out of the group stage again. And this time, they’ll win a knock out stage game. Maybe two. But no more than that. Hey, progress!
Hey, Torsten, they will have to qualify before that happens! I know. And they will. It won’t be without a nervy moment or two, but they’ll get there.
Player to Watch for the Future
Alejandro Bedoya. Nobody works harder and nobody runs more. Part of this is because his first touch is so bad that he’s chasing his own mistakes a lot of the time. But, that said, his commitment defensively was impressive, and he would be a candidate to step into the holding midfielder role sure to be vacated before long by Jones and Beckerman. At 27, he’s still young enough to refine his game.
Did I miss anything? Let us know in the comments. Thank you for reading.