Sunday, December 21, 2014

USA alive and kicking on world stage

Tim Howard of the United States rolls the ball as Kyle Beckerman (L) and Omar Gonzalez look on during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil group G match between the United States and Germany at Arena Pernambuco on June 26, 2014 in Recife, Brazil. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
Tim Howard of the United States rolls the ball as Kyle Beckerman (L) and Omar Gonzalez look on during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil group G match between the United States and Germany at Arena Pernambuco on June 26, 2014 in Recife, Brazil. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

The 2014 FIFA World Cup has ended and in many ways, the questions surrounding United States soccer are the same as when the tournament began.

A lot of people, both those who are long-time familiar with the USA program and those who were just on board for the quadrennial party, have questioned what exactly did the United State team do in Brazil that it did not do four years ago in South Africa?

And if you go strictly by the results —advancing out of group play and then losing in the Round of 16— it is hard to argue with those who say, "been there, done that."

In fact, considering that the United States won a Group in 2010 while finishing second in 2014, there are those who say America took a step back.

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  • Again, on the surface, it is hard to make a rock-solid case against that sentiment — if you want to stay on the surface.

    But the status of the United States in international soccer is always clouded by debatable incremental steps that go a little deeper than looking at what is right in front of you.

    If you, for example, are invested in observing world soccer, you could easily say that winning a group that consisted of England, which is still a world power only in reputation, Algeria and first-time participant Slovenia in 2010 falls short in comparison to simply advancing out of a 2014 "Group of Death" that included historical top-power Germany, consistent European talent-producer Portugal and Ghana, which has frequently been the best overall team in Africa.

    And if you accept the dynamics of World Cup soccer where in any given cycle some teams from Europe that don’t qualify are actually better than the majority of teams that do qualify from other regions, then you can accept that the United States losing in the 2014 Round of 16 to Belgium 2-1 in extra time in Brazil was expected while losing 2-1 in extra time to Ghana at the same stage in 2010 was a disappointing failure.

    I’ve had a lot of debates with people who have said the way Belgium dominated the run of play was more proof that the United States is still behind the rest of the world in soccer.

    That is a myopic view of international soccer and one that is completely wrong.

    The United States is not behind the "rest of the world" in soccer.

    It is behind about six to eight super elite nations and that actually puts the United States right there with the "rest of the world."

    Unless you are in the group with Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and France, you are not going to regularly beat Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Spain, The Netherlands, Italy and France.

    The type of overall talent those nations produce on a yearly basis puts everything else the rest of the world produces to shame.

    There are nations like Portugal, Belgium, Chile, Sweden, Uruguay and England that every so often produce "Golden Generations" that can be legitimate threats to the regular big boys for a limited time, but once those fade it takes a few cycles to produce another.

    The United States was behind the "rest of the world" back in 1989 when a bunch of college kids ended this country’s 40-year absence from the World Cup.

    During the quarter-century since Paul Caliguiri scored on that wondrous dipping shot in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, that qualified Team USA to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the United States has equaled Mexico as the Alpha Dog in the CONCACAF Region; made seven consecutive World Cups, advanced the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup; placed second at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup; beaten top European teams in Europe and advanced to the Knockout Stage of consecutive World Cups for the first time ever.

    Realistically, the United States is in the top echelon of "the rest of the world."

    But that was the case going into Brazil. This is about coming out of Brazil.

    Well, like everything else involving USA soccer, that is open to interpretation.

    Realistically, the United States chances of making a bold statement at the 2014 World Cup ended when striker Jozy Altidore went down with a pulled hamstring 19 minutes into the opening match against Ghana.

    It’s not like Altidore is a Lionel Messi, Neymar or Cristiano Ronaldo, but his loss immediately exposed the United States greatest weakness.  It does not have the depth of talent to overcome the loss of any key player.

    Whatever game plans national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann took into the tournament were scrapped when Altidore went down.

    On the other side of the coin, the fact that Klinsmann could devise a "Plan B" which moved the USA out of a Group of Death was a testament to how far the United States has advanced since 2010,  when it needed a miracle goal in stoppage time against Algeria to advance to the Round of 16.

    That squad did not face  adversity in terms of injury, yet still struggled to advance against much weaker competition.

    Many have said the USA was outplayed in every match and therefore "lucky" to have advanced out of Group G.

    I say you don’t go 1-1-1 against Ghana, Portugal and Germany to move on by being lucky.

    The argument has been made that the United States was "lucky" to push Belgium to extra time in the 2-1 Round of 16 loss. People say Belgium would have won comfortably in regular time had USA goalie Tim Howard not made a record 16 saves.

    I don’t argue that Belgium completely dominated possession, controlled the run of play and created far more scoring opportunities.

    Klinsmann had said he wanted to play a more attacking style, but if injury has your squad depleted and a "world class" goalie is your greatest strength, you play to it.

    You don’t try to play Belgium’s game when you know you are not equipped to play that game. The goal of a World Cup is to advance, however you can do that.

    Klinsmann leaned on Howard because he knew he could, and then looked for those few opportunities to steal the game.

    If Chris Wondolowski scores into an open net in the closing seconds of regular time, it becomes heralded as a great strategy.

    How far has the United State come after the 2014 World Cup?

    Just before the 2014 World Cup, Julian Green, one of the top prospects in Germany, used his dual citizenship to commit to the United States national team.

    Green, John Brooks (Germany), Timmy Chandler (Germany), Mix Diskerud (Norway), Omar Gonzalez (Mexico), Aron Johannsson (Iceland) and Fabian Johnson (Germany) were all young players with dual citizenship who played for the United States in Brazil.

    All except Diskerud played in Brazil. Brooks and Green, two of the three youngest players on the roster, scored for the USA.

    Klinsmann has successfully expanded the usage of the FIFA rule that allows players with dual citizenship to pick a nation.

    It is the international soccer equivalent of acquiring talent through free agency.

    Short term, it has immediately made the talent pool deeper.  Long term, it puts pressure on player-development on the USA to raise its game and produce better talent.

    Both are good for moving the program forward.

    Before the 2014 World Cup began, I said the United States was not ready to win a World Cup but was a lot closer than the last time someone asked.

    After the 2014 World Cup, I don’t see why that has changed.

    John Smallwood Daily News Sports Columnist
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