For the past month, the United States was caught up in World Cup fever, as the regularly scheduled “has soccer arrived in America” narrative took over the airwaves, millions of fans watched the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) defy the odds and advance to the round of sixteen. Advancing from the “group of death” is by any objective measure a victory for American soccer, but as the American team full of MLS stars and middling European players pushed one of the most talented rosters on paper into extra time, some of the air was yet again let out of the balloon after a heartbreaking loss that could have finally been the moment the Americans turned the corner. The team entered the match against Belgium decided underdogs, the Belgians were the tournament’s darkhorse pick to make serious noise and with a roster full of names like Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Thibaut Courtois and a bona fide superstar like Romelu Lukaku coming in late as a substitute, the Yanks were clearly outgunned. Thanks to keeper Tim Howard and criminally underrated shifts from defenders Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez the US was even with the Belgians for over 90 minutes, hunkering down and thwarting what seemed to be an endless barrage of shots, crosses and opportunities to blow the match wide open. Before the United States fell in extra time, Chile and Algeria joined the Americans in the moral victory camp, getting proverbial pats on the back from the bigger, badder foes they exhausted for over an hour and a half and pushed to the brink of elimination. We have a lot to be proud of with the way the United States left the 2014 World Cup, but it’s also frustrating to to know the team was one Chris Wondolowski touch away from tying the game after Julian Green’s breakout performance scoring a brilliant goal in the most intense and pressure filled of situations. Chris Wondolowski being face to face with a keeper of Courtois’s pedigree summarized perfectly the United States in this World Cup. As courageous, hard working and resilient as our players were, a team with Wondolowski and players like Brad Evans was not supposed to be pushing Courtois, Kompany and Hazard to the absolute brink. They did, and they took down their boogymen, Ghana and Ronaldo’s Portugal along the way. They outlasted much more talented teams like England, Italy and Spain, some of which played in significantly easier groups. Perhaps we shouldn’t be overly proud and ready to claim we’ve arrived, but more importantly, after this summer, many of the fears around Jurgen Klinsmann’s plans for American soccer can be put to rest and we can be extremely excited for the next four years in the elevation of the sport and national team in the United States.
In possibly their last World Cup appearances, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey firmly cemented their place in the American soccer mythos. Howard’s performance against Belgium may go down as the single greatest performance by an American soccer player ever, and Dempsey, somewhat of an enigma given his last year and a half in MLS, proved why he’s the go-to man in Nike ads and jersey sales. Dempsey scored the nation’s fastest World Cup goal ever, inside the first minute against Ghana, and subsequently took a kick to the face, breaking his nose. Dempsey was as reliable as ever, likely sucking for air through his swollen nose in the Brazilian heat, as he was a dependable and reliable force in the American attack, especially with his gut-punch goal against Portugal. The United States traveled more than any team in the entire tournament and played their pivotal match against the stout Germans in a flooded Recife, and if it weren’t for experienced, calm, cool and collected veterans like Dempsey, the team’s rightful captain, the US was likely on a plane home much sooner than last Tuesday. Something else became apparent watching Dempsey push forward into the attacking third, coupled with his strong season with the Seattle Sounders, his performance at this year’s World Cup made it apparent his legs at age 31 have not met the same fate as Landon Donovan. Dempsey will be 35 for the World Cup in 2018, well beyond his prime. The same could be said for Donovan, who Klinsmann openly hoped would be competing for a spot in 2018. However, plenty of serviceable players in their twilight suited up in Brazil; Dempsey would roughly be the same age as Spain’s Xavi, Germany’s Miroslav Klose, Argentina’s Diego Forlan and fellow teammate Tim Howard. Dempsey might not have the resume of any of those stars, but I’ll be rooting for “Deuce” to do everything he can to find a spot in Russia, and certainly for Donovan, so the two can have the send off they rightfully deserve in helping build the foundation of modern US Soccer. As for Howard, he was already barely inching out backup Brad Guzan, but if there’s any position on the pitch that a 40 year old can inhabit, it’s certainly in goal, and certainly possible for a world class athlete and player like Howard. It’s a long shot, as Howard is slowly transcending the niche of American soccer star into that of a true national sports hero, maybe the confines of Bristol and the ESPN campus will become a more natural fit for the star goalie. As it stands, let us all remember not just the most historic performance by an American keeper at the World Cup, but perhaps the most legendary in the entirety of this year’s tournament. Howard proved why he’d easily start for 90% of the squads in Brazil. While Howard and Dempsey nabbed the headlines, let’s not forget the resurgent performance by the four time World Cup player DaMarcus Beasley. After lackadaisical performances in tune-ups, many questioned whether the 32 year old Beasley earned his spot on the American defense, or was gifted it out of necessity. After watching Beasley sprint up and down the field at lightning speed for 90 minutes, constantly threatening on attack and providing solid play in the rear, it became apparent Beasley more than earned his spot. He’s the only player to ever play in four World Cups for the United States and deservedly so, fullbacks hardly ever get their due and Beasley is more than deserving of praise for his play in Brazil.
Hearts were broken minutes into the first match with Ghana as Jozy Altidore fell with hamstring injury that would keep him out of the rest of the tournament. Altidore was coming into Brazil white hot after a very solid performance against Turkey and an outstanding two goal tune-up against a very good Nigeria team. After the struggles the American striker had both at his club, Sunderland and for the USMNT, it was promising to see him come into the tournament with such momentum. Altidore had always been known as a streaky forward, who would get incredibly hot and seemingly never miss the back of the net, then disappear entirely for matches on end. What never changed with Altidore was the unique physical presence he gave the Americans up front that couldn’t be replaced once he was injured. He was the only forward on the team known for his ability to hold the ball near goal, his size and strength makes it possible for Altidore to maintain possession deep in the attacking third and wait for opportunities to arise for his teammates. Without Altidore, the United States had to find a quick fix, substituting promising forward Aron Johannsson for Altidore against Ghana. Johannson, like his fellow striker Chris Wondolowski, are more traditional strikers, their speed and agility makes them more suited towards facing up against the goal and scoring. Against Ghana, Johannsson came into the game without properly warming up, and it showed, coupled with the striker’s nerves he looked clearly overmatched against the “Black Stars”. It’s since come out that Johannsson was also dealing with a lingering ankle injury and the AZ Alkmaar star will undergo surgery keeping him off the pitch until September at the earliest. Without Altidore, the team had to make due isolating Clint Dempsey at forward, moving him well out of his natural position. The American forwards were significantly weakened without Jozy Altidore, and the importance of his particular skills had many questioning whether the next World Cup team will have a more natural backup plan, like the 6’2″ Terrence Boyd, a German-American currently making his home in the 2. Bundesliga. And, just when we thought the discussion was dead, the deer in the headlights performance from the 23 year old Johannsson and the blown opportunity by Wondolowski beg the question: Could Landon Donovan made a difference in this World Cup? In the role Wondolowski played against Belgium, it’s hard to believe Donovan wouldn’t have finished what was essentially a gifted goal.
While Dempsey proved himself worthy of the captain’s armband, the same can’t be said for Michael Bradley; the 26 year old midfielder is widely regarded as the most talented American player in the world. Bradley wasn’t the team’s captain, but by all measures he was by far the most important player and a man expected to be the face of American soccer moving forward. Bradley worked hard, before exiting after the Belgium game, he logged more miles on the field than any player in the entire World Cup, but he seemed to be starstruck, lost and generally ineffective in his role as creator and playmaker. He seemed to be more than willing to concede possession of the ball, including a crucial misstep against Portugal that allowed Ronaldo to tie the score in the closing seconds with a gifted cross. His disappearing act could be a combination of many things, perhaps the criticisms of his move to Toronto FC were warranted, or, maybe he just isn’t ready to carry the burden of being “the man” for the USMNT just yet. Still, no player’s stock fell like Bradley’s in this World Cup, and had he showed more signs of life in the Germany match, or held onto the ball against Portugal, maybe the Americans are seeing Algeria in the knockout stages. Bradley is too talented to be anything but a lock for the 2018 World Cup team, but it will be interesting to see if he tests the waters overseas again while he’s in the prime of his career, rather than stay in Toronto. Jurgen Klinsmann stressed international experience being important for his players, and Bradley bolting from Roma to Toronto, even though he has a much greater role with the team, is a puzzling career decision. Bradley was floundering with AS Roma before his departure and his so-so performance in Serie A might have foreshadowed his problems in Brazil. Can Bradley finally be the American that isn’t just happy making a big name club overseas, but is one of that club’s stars? It didn’t happen in Roma, but there’s no doubt he could have found a spot elsewhere in Europe, perhaps with a lesser club, before taking the great payday with Toronto. His move to MLS was centered around him taking increased responsibility, making him better prepared for Brazil this year and the realization that he was going to be regarded as the team’s most talented and dangerous player by the opposition. We don’t know who will show up for the United States in the Gold Cup, qualifying or for the World Cup in Russia, but at 26, Bradley should choose wisely between spending the rest of his peak years in Toronto or taking one last shot at Europe.
Bradley was slightly disappointing, but the midfield wasn’t without its breakout performances. Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman were rewarded for their hard work in spot starts and call-ups for the United States with their first, and likely last, appearances in the World Cup. Jermaine Jones became a fan favorite after an absolute beautiful strike against Portugal that tied the game at 1 a piece and Beckerman was a calming, steady defensive presence in the midfield that the team desperately needed in group play. With his outstanding performance in the World Cup, Jones is likely looking at a great payday in MLS as a designated player, if the German-American doesn’t get an enticing offer from a Bundesliga club first. As for Beckerman, less than a week removed from Brazil, the no nonsense, tough as nails Real Salt Lake captain did what else but play a full 90 minutes for his club on Saturday along with his teammate, goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Graham Zusi was one of the sleeper picks as a breakout star for this year’s World Cup squad and while he drew criticism by some for looking clearly overmatched on the pitch, the team is indebted to his services in advancing past the group stage. Zusi was instrumental on the late John Brooks goal that finally put the US past Ghana and his patience and vision was also key in Clint Dempsey’s goal against Ghana. This Sunday, after playing extensively against Belgium, showcasing more of the incredible work ethic and dedication of this year’s team, Zusi also returned to club play in MLS. Zusi, at age 27, was playing for a spot in Europe this World Cup, and while he might not get an enticing offer overseas, he’s likely done enough to warrant a hefty raise and commitment from his club, Sporting KC.
Two of the team’s stars in particular might have made themselves millions in this year’s World Cup. As of this writing, a deal is all but done moving Seattle Sounders star DeAndre Yedlin to AS Roma and rumors are intensifying regarding Sporting KC’s Matt Besler also finding a spot overseas. Besler was a rock throughout qualifying, tune-ups and the World Cup, despite an unfortunate showing late against Belgium, when the team had been holding off a constant attack for 90+ minutes. Yedlin, as a “super sub”, showcased his elite speed against Portugal and Belgium and left many wondering where the team could have been had he seen more minutes in group play. If both are exported to bigger leagues with better paydays, it only reaffirms the growing strength of MLS as a launching pad for American stars. This year’s roster was chock full of MLS players and with young prospects like Luis Gil, Erik Palmer-Brown and Will Trapp, the future looks promising for the league’s stars using the World Cup as a stage to showcase the under the radar talent found throughout MLS. That’s not even counting the very real chance stars like Diego Fagundez and Nagbe gain citizenship and suit up for the USA. The relationship between MLS and the USMNT got much stronger in Brazil, even if Jurgen Klinsmann occasionally threw shade at the organization. Despite the large number of German-American players in this year’s World Cup, in the future, finding and developing key MLS talent will be an integral part of the team’s foundation moving forward.
What’s next for the United States? For starters, as the team’s stars disperse, some will have less rest and relaxation than others. While many of those making their living in Europe will get some time to unwind, prepare and focus on the upcoming seasons in the fall, the team’s many MLS players will return to action ASAP as the league’s season heads into the All-Star Game and its second half. Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi, Omar Gonzalez, Chris Wondolowski, Brad Evans and Nick Rimando all make their living in the United States. If you caught World Cup fever this summer, why not continue to support the growth of the game in the United States and our neighbor to the north? This is a fantastic summer for American soccer: the United States had a strong showing in the World Cup, the MLS season is in full swing and concurrently, MLS teams are competing with North American Soccer League (NASL) and United Soccer Leagues (USL) for the US Open Cup. In a Facebook post after the USMNT returned home, Jurgen Klinsmann stressed the importance of supporting Major League Soccer. There’s no doubt the league lacks the first touch, open space playmaking ability and starpower of leagues overseas but heading into a year where the MLS will be available on both ESPN and FOX, there’s no easier time to be a fan than now. If you’re already a fan of America’s fastest growing pro sports league, you’re no doubt already wondering how the transfer window or a club’s first half performance will affect the MLS Cup playoffs later this year. This year’s transfer window was a blockbuster, bringing stars like Kaka, David Villa and the imminent signing of Chelsea legend Frank Lampard into the mix. If you’re not a fan of MLS, but are looking for an easy, accessible way to continue World Cup fever through the summer, check out my MLS Preview that gives a quick synopsis of this year’s likely playoff-bound clubs and key players. Major League Soccer is yet to turn 20, so it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon and support a club, and if you’re not near an MLS club, there’s plenty of viable alternatives. While MLS is targeting expansion with approved clubs in New York City and Atlanta, the growth of soccer is more than apparent through the NASL and USL. The leagues cover key metros like Atlanta, St. Louis, Sacramento, Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and more. As for the national team, they’ll return in September to face a quality Czech side to begin the process of finding the next group of players who will take on the world in Russia four years from now. It’s going to be a great ride, CONCACAF is ripe for the picking and the Americans have a strong shot at the Confederations Cup in 2017. As time passes, fans and players alike can lick our wounds and be excited about the future of American soccer, it was a fun and exciting ride this summer, and there’s plenty of soccer left for us to enjoy this year in our own backyard. I still #believe…will you?