As his 2014 World Cup journey came to a close, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann had plenty to think about after the Americans 2-1 defeat at the hands of Belgium on July 1.
He could begin with the positives, and there are plenty of them.
His team played with an effort that is worth being proud of. They played with more grit and confidence than ever. They weren’t just the same old Americans that weren’t really feared. No, this time they had really earned some respect.
They had taken down old nemesis Ghana and imposed their will on powerhouse Portugal. They had held Germany steady enough to not lose decisively and had been outplayed by Belgium, but through Tim Howard, still showed that their country could also be a home to one of the best soccer talents in the world.
They had played with more toughness, wisdom and poise than ever, while making sure that after this World Cup, the clichés and jokes about American soccer were all but silenced.
They had also made a nation believe. They had made a country come closer together for soccer than ever before. Maybe it was because of the social media craze that’s sweeping America or maybe it was something else, but either way, “I believe” began to feel as patriotic as the red white and blue of the flag.
Klinsmann’s group did not come close to winning the World Cup. In fact, they lost in the exact same way as in 2010, a round of 16, 2-1, extra time loss. But even in losing, the American side was able to capture the attention of their fans at home.
“Many people watched this competition, maybe more than South Africa,” Klinsmann said the day after the Belgium loss. “We are all in this together. We all try to make this game grow in our country and get it to the next level.”
Klinsmann has begun to inspire belief in his national program, but he must also be pondering what needs to happen for his team to take the next step.
A marquee striker is needed with a game that reaches further than anything Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey ever did. The U.S. needs a feared striker that the team can find its identity in – a Suárez, or Neymar or Messi type of player.
Right now, the best chances lay with 19-year-old Julian Green, whose goal minutes after making his World Cup debut against Belgium made a promising statement for the future of U.S. soccer. With four years to develop until the next World Cup, Green could be ready to lead this team and be supported by other young promising players like defenders John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin.
Defense should be the bigger focus, though. A big time goal-scorer won’t make up for the lack of defending the U.S. had throughout the entire World Cup. This is their biggest task at hand to take the next step. Strong defenders are needed desperately. In the Belgium game alone, the U.S. allowed 26 shots compared to nine given up by Belgium. If it were not for Howard’s 15 saves, they would have been completely dismantled.
Great defending won’t necessarily win you a World Cup, but it can neutralize teams like Germany and Brazil in their attacking. If reaching a World Cup victory is possible for the U.S., it will have to start with learning how not to lose.
It’s something that Klinsmann will need to figure out. He will ultimately have to align a group that defends well and creates better counterattacks than the U.S. had in this World Cup.
Klinsmann surely knows this and he has likely already began pondering what his next group of guys will look like.
Older players like Dempsey and Howard might have seen their last World Cup. The U.S. will look completely different in four years. But they also might be more ready. Their time to really make a run at it might be only a few decisions away.