What an epic game from Tim Howard. He basically kept us in the game and, soccer being a sport where you can get badly outplayed for the duration of the game but still come away victorious, Chris Wondolowski had a golden opportunity to beat Belgium late in full-time. All American soccer fans have gotta be hoping that Howard remains healthy and spry when the ’18 cup rolls around, though he’ll be 39 years old.
The game was incredibly tense and certainly the most exciting full-time scoreless draw I’ve ever seen. Howard did everything he could to keep the floodgates closed, but there was a sense of inevitability that he couldn’t stem the tide forever, especially when Wondo failed to convert.
There are a couple of things to take from this defeat, which wrapped up a perhaps surprisingly solid overall appearance in Brazil. The first is that the skill gap between American soccer and European football is still pretty wide. Though the Americans created some good chances in this game, Belgium was a threat virtually every time they touched the ball. Their spacing was usually good, and their passes and coordination were spot on. You never really got that sense from watching the Americans attack…you felt that we’d most likely score off a nice long pass on the counter into a nice run, or on a deflection, or maybe with physicality off a corner or other set piece. There was a glaring difference in how Belgium continued to be able to manufacture good opportunities when the American defense had dug in, and how we struggled to do so (until the desperation from the 2-0 deficit set in, really). There were some moments of brilliance, but nothing approaching consistency. Too many passes didn’t have a chance of connecting, or led to ball-stoppage instead of continued creativity.
And I think the most stark difference, which is why Americans are going to be rooting for the young Julian Greens and DeAndre Yedlins to develop in time for ’18, is that I seldom felt an American player was at an advantage going 1-on-1 on either offense OR defense. Yedlin had outstanding speed, and along with Jermaine Jones, it felt like these two were the only players able to translate any kind of physical advantage into a direct impact on the game.
I don’t mean to pick on Michael Bradley, whose beautiful pass to Green instantly breathed life back into the game, but for all the hype he got before this World Cup, he was a disappointment. He’s also a prime example of what i’m talking about. Just about every time he got the ball on some kind of counterattack or ‘fast-break’ situation, he would usually be forced to turn around to complete a safe backwards pass. I don’t think he once tried to take his man off the dribble, or keep the breaks going with any kind of brilliance. He committed numerous turnovers, or strangled attacking momentum because he just didn’t have the ability to create opportunities. I wish we saw more (or any) of Mix Diskerud in this capacity. Contrast this with Belgium, whose sub Romelu Lukaku was an instant terror on the wing, scoring Belgium’s second goal and nearly adding another in the midst of three defenders just minutes later. In general, I felt uneasy every time Damarcus Beasley or any other American defender was isolated on a Belgian advance; it seemed totally certain that they would either be directly beaten, or concede some kind of nice cross or entry pass. At some point it seemed like American defenders were just wildly trying to throw their bodies in the path of the ball, rather than systematically wrestle possession away. Belgium applied direct on-ball pressure to the Americans selectively, but when it did it always seemed like they could force a turnover or momentum-killing decision. Clint Dempsey flashed his big solo play ability in the group stage, but seldom did he get the ball today in a situation to ply his trade (except for the miss in the 114th minute).
Uneducated as I am about soccer, I think there are two philosophies which the American team must choose from moving forward, if they want to continue having success and crack a Top 8. The first is deciding whether and if they can catch up to what is blatantly superior technical play that the European teams have. I suspect that this route might have factored into Klinsmann’s decisions to bring in so much young, part-American talent from Europe’s fertile grounds. You can bet that players like Green, Diskerud and Aron Johansson are going to bear a large chunk of the hype and expectations for the ’18 Cup, and maybe Klinsmann wants their European DNA to be at the vanguard of the next generation of American soccer.
The other route is to continue leveraging the incredible raw athletic talent available in the United States to find physically overwhelming players. I’m thinking of guys like Jermaine Jones here. He was an absolute beast who seemed to be one of the few American players in position to fight for and potentially win every 50/50 confrontation on the field, in any third. Yedlin’s speed really seemed to change things even though he’s a defender, and he’s another example of this newer crop of American athlete that grew up absorbed in soccer instead of basketball/football. He reminded me a bit of LSU football’s ‘honey badger’, Tyrann Mathieu.
All told, it’s safe to say we exceeded expectations at this World Cup. That Wondo play was the only real time that I could convincingly see people saying, “Landon wouldn’t have fucked that up.” We hung with some of Europe’s best, took revenge on Ghana, and had a chance to crack the quarters. Now it’s all about continuing to improve and build on this in time for Russia in four years.