On Tuesday afternoon, the United States men's national team and their head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, saw their World Cup run end with a 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium in the round of 16.
Despite a valiant effort from their goalkeeper Tim Howard, the Americans were not able to hold off the Belgians forever and surrendered both goals in extra time.
So, what went wrong for Klinsmann and the USMNT against Belgium?
To start with, Klinsmann was forced to deal with a couple of wild cards early in the match. In the 30th minute, right-back Fabian Johnson, who surprisingly was one of the team's most dangerous attacking weapons, went down with an apparent hamstring injury.
His replacement, DeAndre Yedlin played very well, but the injury forced Klinsmann to burn an early sub.
The second wild card that Klinsmann had to deal with early in the match was a yellow card to Geoff Cameron. In the 18th minute, after a Michael Bradley giveaway, Cameron was forced to commit a tactical foul to stop the Belgian counterattack. Although Cameron went on to play the rest of the match, with the yellow card looming over Cameron and the U.S.'s head, Klinsmann had to be more cautious in using his substitutions.
When the U.S. finally did make a change, it was to bring on Chris Wondolowski for Graham Zusi in the 72nd minute. Wondolowski, of course, was the one who missed the open chance in second-half stoppage time that would have surely won the match for the Americans.
Many have argued that Wondolowski was being called offside on the play, but that appears to be untrue. After the miss, the Belgian defenders can clearly be seen beseeching the linesman for an offside call and reports have since emerged that the linesman's motion with his flag was simply him indicating a goal kick after the miss.
Rewatched on ESPN3 tactical cam. The flag never went up on Wondolowski. Assistant referee only signaled for goal kick.— Liviu Bird (@liviubird) July 2, 2014
Surprisingly, especially considering they gave up 17 shots on target, the U.S. defense largely did their job against Belgium, closing down shooting angles, making tackle after tackle and clearing away the danger again and again. The real culprit against Belgium was the U.S. midfield, which offered little in terms of sustained possession, especially in the middle or attacking thirds.
Michael Bradley was once again played out of position and, once again, didn't seem his normal self. And Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya, once again, offered little offensively. All three did their job defensively, as usual, but they didn't help the U.S. relieve pressure for long stretches of the match.
To be sure, the U.S. was exhausted after three challenging group-stage matches. Jermaine Jones, who had a very strong tournament overall, was clearly out of gas against the Belgians and could be seen walking many times late in the second half and in extra time.
For his part, Klinsmann seemed to wait too long to make his third substitution. The game was calling out for a creative attacking midfielder like Mix Diskerud—who didn't play a single minute for the Americans in the tournament. Diskerud coming on instead of Wondolowski late in the second half would have seemed to make more sense. Klinsmann also could have brought on the Norwegian-American anytime after the 80th minute to provide a spark to the exhausted U.S. midfield.
American fans will also always be asking themselves "What If?" when it comes to the 2014 World Cup. What if Jozy Altidore had never gotten hurt in the U.S.'s first game against Ghana? The big striker's holdup play was clearly missing for the rest of the tournament as Clint Dempsey was forced into the role as the lone forward.
Except for some good stretches against Portugal, the U.S. was dominated in possession in each of its other three matches—an area that Altidore would have surely helped with his ability to win the ball and bring others into the play.
The match against Portugal also brings its own questions. What if the U.S. had been able to hold its lead late against the Iberians? Conceding the 95th-minute equalizer killed off automatic advancement for the Americans and forced them to put forth an exhausting 90-minute effort against Germany in their final group-stage match.
If the U.S. had held the lead against Portugal and won, Klinsmann could have rested most of his starters against Germany in preparation for the game against Belgium.
It's difficult to give the U.S. squad, or their coach, too much grief after the loss to Belgium. They escaped the proverbial "group of death" and gave Belgium—a pre-tournament favorite—a run for their money. Still, the team relied on old-fashioned American hustle in the tournament, far more than technical superiority for long stretches—something that still needs to change.
It's hard to deny that the U.S. is continuing to improve as a soccer nation, but to truly step to that next level, they'll need to push deeper into the World Cup tournament in 2018, regardless of the draw, or circumstances.
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