Niksa: Defining the USMNT’s bittersweet World Cup ending

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about [Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s impact on team] and I think the players would agree. We’re still building and it’s obviously disappointing not to get a little further here. It’s no longer the case that we’re happy just to be in the second round. We want to advance, the players want to advance and they know they’re capable of it.” –U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, Belgium-USA post game press conference

As a United States men’s national team soccer fan, the main question that I am left asking myself after watching this team be eliminated is, “What am I supposed to feel?” Should I feel proud of the USA’s success in the World Cup? Proud that it got out of the “Group of Death”? Proud that it went endline-to-endline with a technically superior Belgium team? Or should I feel disappointed that the U.S. put in all of that hard work to get out of the “Group of Death” only to allow Belgium to put 26 shots on goal and force goalkeeper Tim Howard to record a World Cup record 15 saves?

Like most US soccer fans, I cannot decide whether it is disappointment or joy that I should be feeling, and I also cannot decide whether the US missed an opportunity to show the world that it had improved from the World Cup in South Africa four years ago. As such, I think that the best thing to do as a fan is to analyze both the positive and negative aspects of this World Cup campaign, and then decide which side outweighs the other.

Let’s start with some of the disappointing aspects of the USA’s World Cup run. One thing that stood out to me as I watched the Belgium game was the absence of Kyle Beckerman, the team’s strongest defensive midfielder. Beckerman had been enjoying a stellar World Cup campaign in the matches leading up to the Belgium game, but he was benched for the match with the Belgians, as Jurgen Klinsmann decided to turn to a 5-4-1 formation in order to counteract Belgium’s attacking game plan.

I believe that Beckerman’s presence as a defensive midfielder would have completely altered the game, since he is so good at playing in front of his defense and distributing balls to the wing. No offense to Geoff Cameron, who played admirably as that third center back/defensive midfielder, but I think that Klinsmann’s decision to leave Beckerman on the bench was disappointing.

Another underwhelming aspect from the United States’s exit was the lack of good attacking play from the wings. Unfortunately for Klinsmann and the rest of the national team, both Carlos Bedoya and Graham Zusi struggled in the last two group games before turning in another set of poor performances against Belgium. It was shocking to many US fans that Belgium had so much free space and time to roam against the US’s fullbacks, and the main reason it was allowed so much freedom was because of the poor play of Zusi and Bedoya. Belgium exploited both of these players’ lack of defensive prowess and offensive flair by sending multiple fullbacks and midfielders down the open wings, allowing it to tire out the USA’s valiant defense.

Once the US was exposed on the wings, opposing teams began to force the U.S.’s best central midfielders out wide. In turn, as the central midfield was stretched, forward Clint Dempsey became isolated, allowing opposing teams to control possession. The lack of dynamic midfield wing play is something that the USMNT will have to improve on prior to 2018, and for Zusi and Bedoya, I think that they should treat this World Cup as a learning experience.

In turning toward some of the positives from the USA’s World Cup run, I think that every US fan can be proud of the heart of this team, which has made the USMNT respected around the world. When the U.S. went down 1-0 on that Nani goal against Portugal, I thought the final scoreline would be 2-0 or 3-0 in favor of “A Selecao.”

Instead, the U.S. fought off the heat and humidity of Manaus to take the lead in the 82nd minute, before ultimately settling for a draw. The U.S. has never given up in any World Cup game that I have watched; even after going down 2-0 to Belgium in extra time, the USA came back and almost equalized in the last 15 minutes. The US men’s national team always demonstrates this country’s fighting spirit, which is something that I will never take for granted.

The second positive aspect that I think Jurgen Klinsmann and his team can take away from this World Cup is the fantastic play of both his German-American players and his younger, inexperienced players. Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Julien Green and Kyle Beckerman all performed admirably in Brazil, with many analysts remarking that Jones was the US’s best field player during the group stage. In addition, Beckerman and Johnson played smart and composed football, so it is a shame this will probably be Beckerman’s last World Cup.

However, out of the four German-Americans on the squad who played in this World Cup, it is young Julien Green who undoubtedly has the brightest future. Green’s only minutes may have come during extra time against Belgium, but he made the most of his cameo by acrobatically scoring his first goal for the US.

Green was not the only one to put on a show in his first World Cup either, as it was 19-year old defender DeAndre Yedlin who put in arguably the best shift out of all of the US outfield players against Belgium. Yedlin was fast, made good runs and was most noticeably fearless, going up consistently against world class players. Coach Klinsmann and the rest of us back home saw a lot of good things from our young players, something that will make Americans hopeful come Russia 2018.

Therefore, with these two negative aspects and two positive aspects to consider, what is the verdict on the USA’s World Cup run? I believe that even though Klinsmann made the US a more dynamic soccer team, this World Cup should be felt by all as a missed opportunity to increase the prestige of USMNT soccer.

On the one hand, I am a realist. I know that this is the first time ever that the U.S. has ever notched two consecutive knockout round appearances. I also know that the USMNT had to escape the Group of Death, which is certainly no small feat.

However, when the US stepped onto the Arena Nova Fonte to play their second consecutive knockout game, it was Belgium who was setting the tone. Belgium drove cross after cross, shot after shot at the resolute Tim Howard. Why is it, on the world’s grandest football stage, that the team becomes complacent? Klinsmann was able to come up with an answer to this question in his postgame press conference, an answer that I think is a fitting description of U.S. soccer:

“There is still a little too much respect on our end when it comes to the big stage; why not really play? It is something that we have to go through, I don’t know how many years it takes. I think it is a process that the players need to realize that you have to take it to the opponent. Don’t back up so much.”

That is the problem with US soccer in a nutshell, and it has been a problem since coach Bruce Arena was managing the USMNT in the early 2000’s. Quite simply, the USA has to realize that it needs to be the one pushing the tempo, not its opponent. This is the reason why I think this World Cup was a disappointment as a USMNT fan. Even though the US has played a more attractive brand of football, it became too easily intimidated by more technically superior teams.

In 2006 and 2010, it was Ghana, with Asamoah Gyan and Kevin Prince-Boateng, that knocked the US off its game and out of the World Cup. This year, it was the Belgian force of nature Romelu Lukaku, and maestro Kevin de Bruyne, that eliminated them. The US may have been able to make it to the round of 16, but just like four years ago, that is where its journey ended.

If the US can instill a mentality that its players will not be intimidated by more flashy and world-renowned opposition, and if the US can continue to develop its talented, young players, then I think the U.S. can take another step forward at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Contact Matt Niksa at mattniksa80 ‘at’ gmail.com.

  • A soccer fan

    Wonderful article and great details and analysis of the US soccer games. I truly agree with the author’s point of views. It’s really nice to see the pros and cons of the US games layout. Yes, there is no doubt that the US team has hearts and hopefully they will have the talents to win the games in the future. Nice work and will forward to reading more.