World Cup Update: How good is the U.S. team?

Now that the U.S. has been eliminated from the World Cup, the excitement our run generated has given way to disappointment over the realization that we were constantly on the back foot against Germany and Belgium. So how good, really, is the U.S. team?

The answer, I think, is clear. We’re one of the top 20, and probably one of the top 16, teams in world. But we aren’t in the top 10. And Jurgen Klinsmann was obviously right when he said we had no chance of winning the World Cup.

We played four matches in Brazil. Each was against a top 20 team, in my judgment. The results of the 360 minutes of regulation time? One win, one loss, and two draws. Four goals scored; four conceded. To me this is strong evidence that we too are a top 20 team.

Let’s dig deeper by (1) looking at the run of play in the four games, (2) looking at our World Cup qualifying campaign, and (3) dividing the four teams we played in Brazil into those in the top 10 (Germany and Belgium) and those in the second ten (Portugal and Ghana).

Against the second ten, we had a win and a draw. We outplayed Portugal but were outplayed, to about the same degree, by Ghana.

In qualifying for the World Cup, we finished ahead of Mexico and Costa Rica. Both of these teams made the final 16 in Brazil and looked good doing so. Thus, we fit comfortably in the top 20.

Against Germany and Belgium, we had a loss and a draw that became a loss after extra time. Although the aggregate score was 0-1 in regulation time, we were second best by a good margin in both contests. So again, we’re not a top 10 team.

Being in or around the top 16 isn’t terrible. It means we’re about a half step from having a good shot at the final eight and an outside chance of making a World Cup semifinal. With a full step up in class, we would become a dark horse to win the darn thing.

But two concerns linger. First, are we making progress? Second, why were we unable to take the game to our opponents except when they were protecting a lead?

The answer to the first question isn’t entirely clear. We made the Round of 16 at the last World Cup and then exited after extra time, just like we did this year. However, in 2010 we benefited from being in an easy group. That team, which tied England only because of a shocking goalkeeping error by Robert Green, had to come from behind to draw Slovenia, and needed a last second goal to beat Algeria (a poor team in 2010), probably would not have emerged from a Group of Death like the one the U.S. played in this year.

On the other hand, 12 years ago the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals and gave Germany all it could handle at that stage.

Overall, my assessment is that the U.S. is progressing, but very slowly. We’re not even a half step ahead of where we have been for more than a decade.

And what about our style of play? This year, Mexico and Costa played aggressive, attacking football regardless of the opposition. So too did Nigeria (in the first hour against France) and Algeria (in the first half against Germany and for longer against Belgium). Why couldn’t the U.S. play similar soccer against similar, or the same, opponents?

The answer, I believe, is that we could have done, but decided not to. Faced with (1) a difficult group and (2) the very early loss of key forward Jozy Altidore, Klinsmann decided to play a very defensive formation, loaded with defense-minded midfielders, from which it was almost impossible to play good attacking soccer on a sustained basis. If Klinsmann had used different personnel in a different formation, and especially if he had selected Landon Donovan, the U.S. could have been more threatening against Germany and Belgium.

I’m not saying, though, that Klinsmann made a mistake. In my view, had he used a more aggressive approach we still would not have advanced past the Round of 16. And we might not have made it that far.

Unless you’re Brazil, Germany, Argentina, or (until recently) Spain, international football is a matter of “horses for courses.” Although I continue to believe that Klinsmann should have taken Donavan to Brazil, overall he largely used the right horses for the course the U.S. had to run this year.

Let’s hope that four years from now, the U.S. will have a few new attacking horses and an easier preliminary course.

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