The 2014 World Cup came to an end for the United States last week after an extra time loss in the Round of 16 to favored Belgium. Despite an incredible performance from Tim Howard, it wasn’t enough to send the Americans to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002. It’s a disappointing end to the tournament run, but America should hold its head high after what transpired over the course of its four games.
The World Cup was a major stepping stone for the USMNT and for soccer in the United States. Four years ago, America advanced just as far in the World Cup. In fact, in 2010 America lost in extra time by the same score, 2-1, after giving up an early goal in extra time. Based on those similarities, one would think the runs in 2010 and 2014 were comparable, but when stepping back a bit, the differences are clear.
A major difference between 2010 and 2014 was the quality of competition the United States was matched up against. In 2010, America drew one of, if not the easiest group in the world group: England, Slovenia and Algeria. Even with such an easy group, the United States needed a goal in the waning moments of the third game against Algeria to defeat the Fennec Foxes 1-0 and make it out of the group. In the Round of 16, the United States faced Ghana. Obviously the matchup was no cakewalk, but the Ghanaians were certainly beatable.
In 2014, America was unlucky enough to draw its second Group of Death in three World Cups: Germany, Portugal and Ghana. No one expected the United States to get out of the group. There were story lines at every turn: Klissmann’s German connections and several of our players being German-Americans, a rematch of the 2002 upset when America shocked the world by beating Portugal 3-2 and the third World Cup in a row in which the United States played Ghana, the country that had knocked out the Americans in 2006 and 2010. Some said the United States wouldn’t get a point. But they did it anyway. America advanced out of the group instead of young Ghana and fourth-ranked Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo. Then they faced Belgium, widely considered a dark horse to win the entire tournament with a roster loaded with recognizable names and world-class talent. People said America wouldn’t be able to hang, but they defended with every ounce of energy and effort they had, took Belgium in to extra time tied 0-0. After the first half of extra time when they were in a 2-0 hole and all hope seemed lost, they didn’t give up. They pressed forward, scored a goal and nearly got another to send the game to penalties. The outcomes of both tournaments might have been the same, but the road there made all the difference.
The bright, young talent on this year’s team should make every American excited for the future. Of the 23-man roster for the 2014 World Cup, 14 of the 23 are under the age of 30. At the next World Cup, the striking force will likely be Jozy Altidore, who already has tons of experience, and Aron Johannsson, whose ability is becoming more and more apparent to Americans. John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green are all under the age of 21 and each came up big at some point throughout the four games. Tim Howard will unfortunately be 39 in 2018, so he might not be in goal for the United States, but Aston Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan is more than capable of taking over for him. Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez are 27 and 25 respectively and had great tournaments. And not to mention Jurgen Klissmann, a man with experience with winning at the highest stage, is at the helm. The future is extremely bright for 2018, and who knows what names will come to the forefront in the next four years.
The most exciting thing to take away from this World Cup was undoubtedly the support the USMNT received. Images of American fans at public viewing parties and bars all across the country showed the increase of popularity of the sport of soccer and the pride in the national team in America. It seemed like everyone was tuned in and paying attention to America’s run, regardless of their knowledge of soccer. Over time, but particularly over the last four years, a switch has been turned in the United States. People are getting excited for the sport and for this team. The international soccer scene is going to have to grow some respect for the United States. America is not the pushover it once was. The people in this country care and care deeply about the national team and have shown their devotion through their support these last few weeks. The important thing now is that those fans don’t go in to hiding for four years until the next World Cup. The USMNT and the sport of soccer needs Americans to stick with the sport all the time. We will see how much the dedication from this summer carries over next year when the Gold Cup rolls around, but it seems like this time more than any other time, these fans are here to stay.
This World Cup brought us some moments that will become iconic in American soccer lore. From John Brooks’s header to beat Ghana and his celebration
to Jermaine Jones’s long-range goal against Portugal,
moments like these are ones that will still be replayed not just four years from now, but decades from now. These clips show the beginning of a transformation in this nation. They show that we can accomplish our goals, even if the rest of the world thinks we can’t. People will doubt us for a long time just because we’re America. For the first time, it looked like the pressure didn’t phase the United States at all.
The United States needs to remain realistic in its expectations. We are a country focused on winning now and in many other sports were are used to having the capability of winning first place, if not dominating. This isn’t going to happen in soccer, at least not yet, and people need to realize and be okay with that. We shouldn’t settle for mediocrity, but we have to understand that these things take time, particularly when trying to become a power in an already well-established international sport. The United States is yet to see a golden generation come through its ranks, but it will happen eventually. We are slowly but surely making moves upward. By the time the golden generation does come, things could fall in to place. We were never going to win the 2014 World Cup, and unless something drastic happens, we probably won’t win in 2018 either. But to all those who say the United States will never win a World Cup, I point you to the progress this team, the MLS and soccer in America have since 1994. Everything is trending upwards and the support is steadily growing. As soccer’s popularity grows, better athletes will dedicate themselves to soccer instead of other sports and more money and priority will be spent on soccer. The country has the people and the resources to be a top soccer national, it just needs to tap in to its potential. At this point, it isn’t a question of if soccer will make it in America, but when. It’s only a matter of time.