Any lopsided loss brings with it a reckoning, and that often means questions that inspire difficult answers. But in the case of the U.S. men's national soccer team's 4-2 loss to Belgium on Wednesday night, most of the lessons had already been learned.
First of all, Belgium is good—good enough, in fact, to make a deep run at next year's World Cup. Fans should be impressed with how well Belgium played in Cleveland, but not at all surprised. Even without Eden Hazard, this is a dangerous and stylish team.
But even after such a bad result, not all the lessons were bad for the U.S.
DaMarcus Beasley started again, earned his 100th cap and showed himself serviceable—if hardly indispensable—at left-back. Jermaine Jones hustled and bustled about the midfield, working tirelessly against a technically talented side. And after falling behind early, the U.S. fought back for an equalizer that at least momentarily inspired hope for a victory.
The most important lesson, though, turned out to be the least instructive. Because after committing silly mistakes, allowing three second-half goals and chasing the shadows of Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke around the pitch, the unsettled American defense revealed itself as still very much in disarray.
Positive results against Costa Rica and Mexico in recent CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers seemed to settle the inexperienced unit. But against Belgium's lethal attackers, one could hardly tell.
Benteke bagged two goals in a substitute's cameo as Belgium battered the U.S. after the break. Clint Dempsey restored some respectability to the scoreline with a late penalty, but the truth is that the Americans were easily outplayed by one of Europe's up-and-coming teams.
Not that the U.S. defense made life difficult on them. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann selected Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson in central defense, and the unfamiliarity of the pairing quickly showed.
In the sixth minute, shortly after the U.S. had carved out a half-chance through Jozy Altidore, Belgium broke forward with pace. Romelu Lukaku ran onto Kevin De Bruyne's pass through the defense, but American goalkeeper Tim Howard came off his line quickly and pushed the ball away.
The ball then trickled free toward the edge of the box, and Kevin Mirallas reacted quicker than the groggy American central defenders to chip his shot into the net.
A period of Belgian dominance followed as the U.S. struggled to deal with Belgium's array of attacking talent. But the Americans equalized in the 23rd minute with the help of some slack marking by the visitors.
Clint Dempsey met a corner at the back post and headed the ball across the goal. Geoff Cameron slipped free from his marker and nodded uncontested into the net for his first international goal.
On one hand, it was probably more than the Americans deserved, but on the other, it displayed a fighting spirit that could paper over some of this team's many cracks. Against a team of Belgium's talent, though, the scoreline couldn't last.
Benteke's introduction as a substitute late in the first half heralded trouble for the U.S., but for all the danger he posed, it took another defensive lapse to produce his first goal. This time, Gonzalez's touch was at fault for the error, but the result was the same as in the first half.
Two more strikes followed, the first from the head of Marouane Fellaini before Benteke grabbed his second, and at 4-1 the difference between the teams was glaring. Against a top opponent, the American defense was frail, and instead of helping their cause with mistake-free performances, its two central players gave Klinsmann plenty to think about in the coming days.
In terms of long-term development, the result will hardly matter, and in terms of World Cup qualification, the poor performances will be erased. But without significant improvement before next week's trip to Jamaica, the U.S. will find CONCACAF qualifying a tricky proposition.
Time is short and Germany awaits this weekend in D.C. After a poor start to a critical stretch, the U.S. must improve quickly.