It’s been 48 hours since the USMNT lost to Belgium in the round of 16 and my stomach is still turning. Throughout the World Cup you felt the entire country (and maybe even the rest of the world) go from “wanting” us to win, to “believing” we will win, to maybe even expecting that we would win. While we have always be known as a team of “grafters” (a british football term for players with a high work-rate), there was a level of talent and class with this American team that was new. They had the potential of moving the ball, and moving without the ball, in a way that makes you truly understand why the world refers to football (soccer) as “the beautiful game”. Watching this tournament, both amongst passionate americans in NYC and amongst a knowledgeable global fan base while I traveled through Brazil, you could tell the USMNT was so close. This team displayed just enough flashes of world class brilliance that made the soccer world, and even the most uneducated fan, take notice of our potential. The problem, however, is that we were not unlucky with our results – we were unlucky with the timing of our player development.
This USMNT was never really threatened to beat Germany or Belgium. Watch the games and you’ll see that while the score indicated the potential for an upset, the quality of play indicated the more likely result of a blowout. If not for very very strong backline play, and absolute world class goal keeping by Tim Howard, the US would absolutely have been blown off the pitch. Yet, we were still so close. With this USMNT, the difference between being dominated and being dominant can be found in the value of only 2-3 players. We were lacking…just barely… in the talent necessary to truly compete at that next level. An attacking midfielder, a true goal scoring striker, and a creative even free-flowing substitute are all this US team was missing that could have 100% changed the results of all 4 of our 2014 World Cup Matches.
When Jurgen Klinsmann came to US Soccer, he came with the intent to completely overhaul our development system and style of play. His approach centers around high levels of fitness (which to be fair the US has always possessed) but paired with a high possession attacking style of play. If you follow the Premier League, Liverpool, under Brenden Rogers, represents a very similar style of play to what Klinsmann aspires. While Liverpool has seen huge progress and a quick turnaround since Rogers brought this aggressive and fluid approach, he was able to do so because of the addition of players like Coutinho, Sterling, Sturridge and the dentist, Luis Suarez. The US, however, featured players like Jones, Zusi, Johannsen, and Wondolowski in replace of those global elites. It simply doesn’t work. While at times Klinnsman’s system allowed for the US to show moments of tremendous ball and player movement, and even occasional elite scoring potential, the fact is that a lesser quality of player talent means a lesser ability to perform consistently at that high level. In soccer, a player’s talent level isn’t usually judged on their potential to perform 1-2 times out of 10, but rather how strong they are, consistently, on ever touch. The US was simply missing 2-3 players that could perform consistently, not even at a star level but just a professional level with every touch. However, there is a major silver lining to this story when we look ahead to 2018.
This US team was not built to win now but instead to lay the foundation for developing our system and our players. You know what? It worked, and again we are much closer than it may appear. Whether you can acknowledge it or not, Michael Bradley is and in 4 years will still be, the most important and possibly complete player on the US team. He was forced to play completely out of position throughout this tournament, pushing forward to the top of the diamond and being asked to lead the offensive charge, but also to hold up his defensive responsibilities that he would normally focus solely on. It’s like asking a middle linebacker to also play quarterback; no matter the skills of the player, there is going to be a drop off in play. In 2018, Bradley will be only 30 years old, but will be dramatically more experienced and also back playing in his regular position of defensive midfield. The other thing that will benefit both the team and Bradley, will be the return of Josy Altidore.
Altidore may only be very good, and not great, but his size, power, and skills fit perfectly into Klinsmann’s attacking but possession driven style. Altidore is big and loves playing with his back to the goal. This means the ball can be played up top through the middle, but rather than only being able to run on and attack, Josy is able to hold the ball up and create opportunities for creative players like Dempsey that are sitting right behind him. The 2018 team should be greatly improved just by having Altidore return to the pitch. The entire 2014 offensive system was built around this style of play with Josy, Dempsey and Bradley playing in a line and being able to possess the ball through the middle of the field. When Altidore got hurt, the US had no player even slightly similar to him on the bench, which meant they pushed Dempsey and Bradley up the field further, but without the ability to hold the ball up. You may have noticed that when Wondolowski came on in the Belgium match, and Dempsey slotted back in behind him (to his natural position), the entire team looked more comfortable and more dangerous. However, we really had no other true attacking talents, to fill that void. Without that player up top, ideally Altidore, this meant that all the play down the field had to occur at the wings where by our last area of talent gap was apparent.
Possibly the brightest area for our future in 2018 will come with the upgrading of our wing players. When Klinsmann left off Landon Donovan, a move that was as much about his ego as his plans for 2018, it did create the opportunity for him to carry young players like Yedlin and Green on the roster. At only 20 and 18 respectively, Yedlin and Green bring so much energy, pace, and on the ball talent to our wings that they were able to make an immediate impact against a world class team like Belgium. Not to take away from players like Zusi and Bedoya, but they simply do not possess half the potential of Yedlin and Green – or possibly half the talent in this very moment. Yedlin is an absolute beast running up from the defensive wing, with the balls to take on anyone and the speed to fly past them. Green, a relative unknown in the US, possess a similar pace and quickness but with a deft touch unlike many players in the US. Green has the true potential to be our Raheem Sterling, which if you watch Liverpool (not England), is a huge compliment. The improvement on our wings in 2018 will undoubtedly be the most immediately noticeable factor in our performance.
The one area where the US, for once, has little worry is in the future of our defensive half of the field. Tim Howard is the US’s newest superstar (even if he’s already been considered one in every country but his own for more than 10 years), and at 36, in the shape he is in, there is a very good chance that he’ll be back in 2018 to give strikers around the world endless nightmares. The other area of depth is along our back line, which is centered around Omar Gonzalez. If you weren’t sure, he truly is a monster. For the majority of every match he absolutely controlled the defensive 1/3 of the field, and was extremely clutch in clearing the ball off the goal line on more than one occasion. When you pair him with player’s like Brooks replacing extremely average but hardworking players like Kyle Beckerman, our defensive future is extremely bright.
As we look back on the 2014 USMNT’s performance at the World Cup, it should honestly be seen as a huge sign of progress. No past US team possessed the technical skill or strategic ball movement that this team was capable of, and at times proved able to execute against the even the best competition. Against every team they played, including Germany and Belgium, the US showed the ability to truly dissect a defense with ball movement and put world class strikes on net. The player talent gap at the 2-3 positions meant the difference between possessing the ball and not possessing the ball. And, in Klinssman’s system this means all the difference. Looking forward to this team in 2018, along with the mix of 16-20 year old future talent’s like Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal), Marc Pelosi (Liverpool), and Benji Joya, the USMNT is sure to take another huge step forward. 4 more years of development in Klinsmann’s system, along with the recruitment of players into it who simply possess a higher technical skill, is exactly what we need. It’s almost as though the 2014 World Cup came just a few years too soon. However, as an American fan, you shouldn’t be in anyway discouraged. The tide is finally changing in the global landscape of football, and the future for the US under Klinsmann really is, quite bright.