Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Morning After: Belgium 2, USA 1 - USA Eliminated

In the end, 31 teams go home from the World Cup with a sense of disappointment and sadness.

Tuesday was our turn.

After an excruciatingly tense evening in Brazil that saw the United States once again on the defending side of a contest with a world power, the levee finally broke in extra time as Romelu Lukaku came on and with a combination of great speed and power was able to drive past tired US defenders and help create 2 goals.

The Americans pulled one back on the first World Cup touch of the ball for young Julian Green, but with 14 minutes to find an equalizer, the run finally ended as the 2014 World Cup collapsed under the relentless siege of the Belgians.

The hero for the USA on Tuesday is consistent with a career where he has generally been considered one of the best in the world, goalkeeper Tim Howard.  Howard, whether it is for his club teams in England over the years or his national team in the stars and stripes, is always ready for that big moment and once again demonstrated his quality on the world's largest stage.

Save after heroic save was made by Howard as he urged on his team with encouragement and chastisement as the afternoon went along after he would deflect another speeding missile away from the net.  He was magnificent, and in making an absurd 16 saves (the most since the 1962 World Cup), kept the USA in a match that they really had little business being in.

But, there they were.  92 minutes into the match, remaining level at 0-0.  It was still there to be won if a miracle goal could be scored to support the insane effort of Howard.  The ball was lobbed into the area and there, Jermaine Jones fought to flick the ball on with his head into the path of a charging Chris Wondolowski.  Wondo is the people's champ, and someone it seemed most soccer people were rooting to get a chance to contribute to the World Cup roster back when choices were being made on who gets the tickets to Brazil.

So, the moment happened.  Wondo had the ball fall to his feet with nobody between him and the goal, but the Belgium keeper, Thibaut Courtois.  Courtois knows he is at the mercy of Wondo, so he lunges at the ball to hopefully break the concentration of the striker who has him dead.  If Wondo can just simply side foot the ball on the ground, the USA is in the Quarterfinals.

Instead, things happened fast and the ball hits Wondolowski's foot and goes over the goal.  The broadcast seemed to indicate as it happened that it was called offside.  But, it wasn't.  Ian Darke clarified that the call was simply the flag for a goal-kick, and if Wondo had finished the play, the goal was a good one.  But, the moment happened and the USA missed it.  In a match they had no business winning, they actually could have pulled the ultimate robbery at the final whistle.

The moment passed.

Meanwhile, in the space between regulation and extra time, Belguim smartly substituted one young world class striker, Origi, for another in Lukaku, who was their first choice when the tournament started.  Both troubled the US all day long, and to have fresh legs available and a striker who had something to prove in the extra 30 minutes was a luxury that the Americans could simply not deal with.

Kevin De Bruyne scored the first goal of the match 3 minutes into the extra 30 on a play that Lukaku generated down the right flank, and the De Bruyne - who had been excellent all day - came back against the grain before beating Howard at the far post in a very precise finish.  Then, Lukaku barreled in for a 2nd with a fantastic finish that Howard could only wave at in vain as it threatened to puncture the back of the net.

As mentioned before, Julian Green was then brought on by Jurgen Klinsmann at the break in the 30, but personally, the belief here is that this substitute needed to happen after the first goal.  It seemed clear that in the late stages of another exhausting match, energy at the top of the attack was called for, and once it was clear that Jozy Altidore had no ability to assist, then Green was the only option.  The team needed a boost of energy and to wait until it was 2-0 seemed to lose the plot.

Nevertheless, when Green came on, he was able to cut the lead in half with one touch and perfect finish.

But, even as the goal was scored, most wondered if there would be even a sniff for an equalizer.

And then, amazingly, they earned a free kick from a considerable distance.  What happened next is shown below (Courtesy of Gooooal on Vine) and has to be a candidate for one of the best executed set pieces in this World Cup.  It was orchestrated beautifully and no doubt practiced endlessly for such an occasion.

Michael Bradley would take the kick from 30 yards away, but would side foot it to a cutting Wondolowski who had come around the fence and back towards Bradley.  Then, from the opposite side, Clint Dempsey would time his run from the wall of Belgians towards the goal and Wondolowski would have a chance to angle a one-timer pass right into his path.

It happened just as they hoped and as you can see above, if Dempsey can settle the pass just a bit better, they again have a chance to at least force penalty kicks to advance.  Instead, the ball gets away from Dempsey, Courtois again comes off his line to trouble the shooter, and the chance gets away from the United States.

Those two moments above are the moments that will be talked about for years for those of us who enjoy the USMNT this much.  The World Cup is a passionate event for the simple reasons that you only get a shot history once every 4 years.  When it sails by with close-calls and regrets, you have a story to tell.

But, in fairness to reality, it seems important to note that the United States had a chance to win that match, but were clearly not a team that deserved to win.  Of course, we have been reminded that "deserve" has nothing to do with the outcome of these matches, nevertheless, the US has to be concerned with some realities about their 4 match stay at the World Cup.

Most notably, according to research done by Steve Fenn, the USA was a -53 in shot differential in the 4 matches in the tournament.  That is a stunning average of over 13 per match.  We can debate the relative difficulty level of shots and whether it is a tell-all stat or simply one that should be acknowledged, but conceding 13 more shots than you attempt every match is simply not a recipe for long-term success.

And that comes back to some of the more over-reaching story lines about the state of affairs for the United States National Team in general.  The resolve is awesome.  The battle is fantastic.  The talent pool is expanding.  The youth is improving (although, compare teenagers or players on the roster under 20 or 22 or 24 with Belgium and see how we measure up (hint: It isn't good)).

But, overall, for the USA to continue its upward trajectory toward the real world powers in this sport, the improvement will have to continue to come through the technical skills that are required to possess the ball more.  And not simple possession numbers that might mislead, but the ability to boss a match in the opposing half with skill and precision that puts the opponent on its heels.

If we were to be fair, we would say that the USA never owned the ball in the 4 matches, aside from small slivers of attacks.  Overall, Ghana had the ball for most of the match, Portugal was the closest to even, and then Germany and Belgium were both able to make the US chase.  This depletes energy for late stages of the match when you need reserves available.

The USA doesn't choose to play this way.  In fact, when Klinsmann was hired, the talk was about more attacks and possession based game plans.  However, you can plan all you want.  Until you have the players in the midfield who can carry out this plan, you are always going to be stuck playing the only style you can survive with - which appears to be to play with 10 behind the ball and a lone striker who will attempt to set up counter attacks (a tactic hurt badly without Jozy available for the entire WC run).

This, of course, in the international game is not something that you fix in free agency.  This requires patience as a new generation attempt to replace the old between now and 2018 or 2022.  Right now, hopefully, there are American 14 year olds who will be able to play 50/50 ball with the 14 year olds in Belgium or Germany.  As most people know, that is a lot to expect, but the USA has made tremendous strides.  Now, it is up to the next generation to hopefully carry on for what Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and Michael Bradley have done.  Bradley should still be available in 2018, but the rest are likely done being the best players in the USMNT mix.

Now, it is time to take this major progress of qualifying for the World Cup and routinely advancing out of Group Play to the next level.  But, that is for Green and DeAndre Yedlin and others to accomplish.

It was a great run and proof that Klinsmann is the man for the job.  This team was noticed around the world for its brave defending and resolve.  But, to keep this from being its identity, they are going to need more special players who can take over a match with their skill.

It will be interesting to see what this all looks like for 2018.

Until then, it is great to know that what has been accomplished.  The team did so much and the scenes from around the country might be the most enduring images.  The pictures of thousands living and dying with the fortunes on the field are images that most of our sports ventures do not offer.  We all have our own teams and segments of society that get us to stand up for a moment.

But, the national team?  That brings everyone to the same agenda and cause.  And in 2014, that is something that seems a bit rare in society.  Who knew it was a soccer team that would get us to find out the joys of all being on the same page?

Anyway, for our boys, the trip to Brazil was both successful and disappointing.  Great moments and gutting, as well.

But, they can return with their heads up high.  They squeezed everything they could out of what they had.

Now, we just need to find more.

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