Hold your head up high, America

Photo credit Instagram user  welovefootball90

Photo credit Instagram user welovefootball90

The United States exited the 2014 World Cup like they entered it: swinging. From the moment Clint Dempsey corralled the ball outside Ghana’s penalty area and drove into the box, this American team delivered both excitement and sorrow in equal measure this month in Brazil.

Their performances were rarely pretty but were undoubtedly entertaining. From John Brooks’s game winner to Julian Green’s hope-giver, the United States acquired fans this summer like Ernest Hemingway described going broke: slowly, then all at once. By the Belgium game, it felt like all of America had caught football fever as record crowds gathered in stadiums, city squares, and bars to watch the U.S.A go for Brazilian glory.

The United States can be faulted for many things at this World Cup but heart, effort, commitment, desire, and determination will not be among them. Today, we reflect, we remember, we criticize, and most importantly, we say goodbye to a U.S. team that managed to catch hold of our imagination for a few weeks this summer.

The Warm Up

Against a Belgian team stacked with talent, the mood in U.S. soccer circles pre-match felt decidedly buoyant, the American Outlaws “I Believe” chant infecting the body politic with Jurgen-like levels of positivity.

So bold was this brave new world of (popular) American soccer that Klinsmann felt confident in trotting out a 4-3-3 formation.

It was the formation that best matched the available American personnel, but not one the United States had any experience playing. Would it work?

The Match Report

The Man in the Arena
Every discussion of the United States v. Belgium game must start with Tim Howard. Miles of copy will be written about Howard’s bravura performance. It was Herculean, inspired, unceasing. Tim Howard for President. Tim Howard for Secretary of Defense. Tim Howard forever.

That stat shows you why the United States was lucky to advance to the Round of 16, and Tim Howard has everything to do with it. The American possession problem—discussed below—forced Howard to become a many-headed hydra, protecting the goal with hands, feet, legs, arms, and whatever other magic he could conjure up from inside his neck beard. Later in this post, we’ll be saying goodbye to several American players who most likely just played their final World Cup match. After that performance, I’m not so sure the 35 year-old Tim Howard will be among them. You earned that World Cup record, Tim. I’ll let the GIFs do the rest of the talking.

The Men Who Were Not in The Arena
After Dempsey’s first minute goal against Ghana game, it became clear the United States had possession problems, especially against a team that pressed  high in the defensive third. In that situation, you need a forward who can play with his back to goal, hold the ball, and give your midfielders time to advance up the field. Jurgen Klinsmann brought one player capable of doing this—Jozy Altidore—and he played 20-some minutes at this World Cup. All credit to Clint Dempsey, but he is not at his best playing with his back to the goal. Peak Deuce runs at defenders, swashbuckling with homegrown Texas swagger.

While neither Eddie Johnson or Terrance Boyd are natural target forwards (Jozy’s not either, by the way), they at least have the size and strength to withstand a challenge from a physical centerback like Vincent Kompany. Did you see what Romelu Lukaku did to Matt Besler in extra time?

That’s 100% force. Not bringing a strong forward to backup Jozy was a mistake.

Against Belgium, Jurgen’s ambitious 4-3-3 devolved into an all hands on deck 4-6-0, admirably trying to prevent the purveyors of waffles and chocolate from scoring. This defensive effort meant that the United States would not be able to truly threaten Belgium’s goal for most of the game. It forced some truly incredible saves from both Tim Howard and his defenders, keeping the U.S. alive  for 90 minutes. Unfortunately, Belgium was just too relentless to be kept out of goal for 120 minutes.

The Youth Movement
My expectations for DeAndre Yedlin entering the 2014 World Cup were limited. I figured the kid would have an active social media presence and kickback in the hot tub with the backup goalies. I was wrong.

The Seattle Sounders FC homegrown product stood up Eden Hazard and didn’t blink. While his crosses didn’t always find a target, he consistently got into dangerous positions and used his speed to hassle opposing defenses. My only regret was that he had to enter the game at right back instead of right midfield. Imagine him and Fabian Johnson running up and down the same side of the field. That’s a tandem I want to see soon.

When Julian Green entered the match, the U.S. already down 2-0 in extra time, I thought (and said) that this was Klinsmann throwing up the white flag, giving Green a courtesy run at the World Cup in recompense for choosing to play for the United States over Germany. I was wrong.

A great run across the back line from Green, and an even better pass from Michael Bradley who played his best game of the tournament. While there’s much to be sad about today, with Green and Yedlin in the squad, the Youth Movement in the United States is strong.

Ironically, the one veteran substitute Klinsmann made, bringing on Chris Wondolowski, failed. Wondo, the professional goal poacher, had one job to do in the game: score a goal. Unfortunately for the United States, he missed two clear chances.

After the game, my friend predicted that Wondo will become the Tracy McGrady of American soccer. He can break Landon Donovan’s goal-scoring record in MLS, win countless MLS Cups, and still be remembered as the guy who had two clear chances on goal against Belgium and missed them both.

The Klinsmann Experiment
In 2011, Jurgen Klinsmann was brought in to change U.S. Soccer. At the senior national team level, change has yet to come. In Brazil, the United States played typical American soccer: scramble, defend, counter, and repeat. The American performances were never pretty, but they were moderately effective and earned Klinsmann two very important things:

1) Job Security: Getting out of the Group of Death cemented his place as coach for the 2018 World Cup cycle. Yes, he already has a contract but a disastrous showing in Brazil would have raised some doubts about his status.

2) A Mandate: The U.S. did well enough to get out of the group but not well enough for anyone to argue that U.S. soccer is world class already. Klinsmann still has a reform mandate to change the culture of American soccer.

With four years to prepare for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, you should expect to see Klinsmann phase out the final remnants of the Arena/Bradley years. While it’s both a natural progression for the squad, it’s also Jurgen’s chance to stamp “Klinsmann” boldly across the face of the program.

What should you look forward to? Here are a few predictions:

  • Expect more youth: DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Julian Green, Luis Gil, Aron Johannsson, Mix Diskerud, potentially Gedion Zelalem.
  • Expect more MLS-based U.S. players to move to Europe: Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Omar Gonzalez, and Michael Bradley are high on that list.
  • Expect an almost all Euro-based roster for the 2018 World Cup in Russia
  • Expect to say goodbye to the following players at some point soon: Nick Rimando, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis, Jermaine Jones, Chris Wondolowski, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard (it’s up to Timmy, though).

Why? It’s all about “another level” now, and for Jurgen that means Europe. I don’t want anyone to think I’m disparaging MLS here, but read Klinsmann’s comments about MLS (especially when Bradley and Dempsey returned) and you’ll detect his scarcely concealed contempt for the league. If either player wants any part in the Russia cycle, I expect both will need to make a return to Europe.

2014 was really just an appetizer. The real Klinsmann experiment begins now.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose
The magic in Jurgen’s blue polo shirt ran out, but this tournament gave us countless moments to remember. We survived the the jungles of Manaus, the sweaty beaches of Recife. We woke up, bleary-eyed, in a cheap hotel near Copacabana, the sugary remains of a caipirinha still lingering on our lips.

Hold your head up high, America. The Belgians may have invented the waffle, but we invented Waffle House.

There will be more of us next time, traipsing across the Russian hinterlands into the lukewarm embrace of our Cold War rival. Rest, relax, refresh. Save those nickels and dimes for your 2018 war chest. To Russia with love, my friends.

What did you think of the U.S. performance in Brazil? How do you feel about Klinsmann and the U.S. team moving forward? Share your thoughts with us @andrew_helms or @8by8mag.

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