When I evaluate soccer teams and players, I often remind myself of the four pillars in the game: technical, tactical, physical and psychological.
American soccer fans are likely familiar with the last two, as the U.S. men's national team has both in abundance. Spirit, work ethic and a back-to-the-wall mentality were all there against Belgium. Always have been and always will be. In fact, when I spoke to Belgian soccer expert John Chapman, he said the feeling in the Belgian camp was that they did not worry so much about the individuals on the U.S. team as much as the never-say-die attitude.
Truthfully, Belgium never expected to play the U.S. team and would have been more comfortable playing as an underdog against, say, Germany or Portugal as they had probably anticipated. The role that, you know, U.S. soccer has played forever.
Don’t forget that the Red Devils are very young and inexperienced and although better on paper, had little experience playing in World Cups as of late.
Knowing all of this ahead of this game, as against Germany, I said that there is no logical reason why Belgium should dominate Team USA over 90 minutes.
Yet, before you knew it, Belgium could have scored in, what, 30 seconds? Psychology plays a big part, and the tone was set for almost the rest of the match. The truth is that, of course, Belgium did dominate the U.S. and Tim Howard kept his team in the game.
Rooting for Team USA, I also had the audacity to think quietly in my head that I wished both Germany and Belgium would score already after early domination so we would start playing. Reverse psychology, I guess, but you get the drift.
Team USA has the talent and know-how, but hasn't figured out how to manage it. Discipline is usually a strength for the U.S., but it seems that the team becomes uncomfortable on big occasions. That has been a theme for a couple of World Cups now as the team starts slow and is often handcuffed by what I can only assume is fear or a message from managers to be pragmatic.
This goes against the American mentality, in my opinion, and we've see what the team is capable of when forced to attack.
The U.S. did get more adventurous quickly, but to try and describe the Belgium game tactically would be a chore because both sides lacked tactics. Doug McIntyre from ESPN The Magazine best summed up USA's approach:
U.S. going with a high-risk, high-reward approach in these opening minutes. #USAvBEL— Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN) July 1, 2014
That trend continued for the rest of the game. To break down where the U.S. had problems defensively would be tedious, as it seemed like it was everywhere. It was emergency defending, and even though some players looked good in putting out fires, it was just that.
Because of the hectic, wide-open aspect of the game, USA fought and worried Belgium more than the Red Devils would like to admit. Technically, Belgium was better and had a much higher understanding of movement with and without the ball—but they were just as disorganized and naive as the U.S. team on many occasions.
The real difference is often merely technical: Confidence on the ball, lack of possession because of careless passing in crucial moments and touches to keep a movement going. Things that players can easily improve in a high-pressure environment.
Speaking to FIFA.com after the Belgium game, coach Jurgen Klinsmann seemed to acknowledge as much, saying:
We are still in the process of learning to take our game to the opponent. No matter what their name is, we cannot just wait too long to start our game.
I think there is a little bit too much respect when it comes to the big stage—why not play them eye-to-eye? I don't know how many years that takes to change but it's something we have to go through. The players have got to realise they have to take it to the opponent.
The U.S. came close in the end, and although I was not all that sure that they could, I was not surprised that they almost pulled it off. Give this USA team a finger and they'll take your arm.
All the team missing is the couple of players that could be the X-factor, like a Romelu Lukaku and many other names that quickly come to mind. Frankly, the U.S. may be one of the very few teams in this World Cup that lacked such a player. Howard has proven that he belongs in that category, of course, but Klinsmann's team needs not just one, but a few difference makers to achieve success at the other end.
Howver, the performances of young players like DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Julian Green—who scored with his first World Cup touch—suggested that more X-factors are on the way.
It's good that those players had their chance to show what they can do, however short it was for some of them. After all, look at the impact they made. From now on, though, Klinsmann must find ways to work them into the conversation for the starting XI. For the team to move forward, these young, exciting players should become the focal point as soon as possible.
When Americans look back on this World Cup, we will be proud. No regrets given the opposition, and maybe the team still overachieved. The team once again galvanized the nation and parts of the world.
That, again, is progress for those that did not believe it was possible.
Klinsmann again has proven that he is a good leader, and his personality suits this team well. He had many doubters leading into this World Cup and he answered with results when they mattered.
Most of the time.
I still have a feeling that he often flies by the seat of his pants when making tactical or personnel decisions, but the team responded well under him. I'm sure fans will continue to wonder how much better strikers Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johannsson were than the ones left out, but it is clear that in the end Klinsmann had little trust in both.
At least we can appreciate the fact that Green was baptized in the right way. His experience in Brazil will pay dividends in the future.
The U.S. national team has been to the round of 16 on a number of occasions now and frankly, it's uncertain if they can get past it. They reached the quarterfinals in 2002 before falling to Germany, but have failed to advance back to that stage or further since. There is a call for progress and that is understandable.
The U.S. fought its way to a 0-0 result after 90 minutes, but just as it felt it would only take one chance for them to break the deadlock, the same could also be said for Belgium.
USA had that chance, but failed to take advantage of it.
Wondolowski, a natural poacher in front of goal, saw his chance sail over the crossbar in the final minutes of stoppage time. Three minutes into extra time, Kevin De Bruyne finally beat Howard, before Lukaku fired in what ended up being the game-winning goal. With a stroke of luck and a better touch, it could have been a different story and the U.S. would be on its way to a quarterfinal meeting with Lionel Messi's Argentina.
As I think back to the four pillars of this wonderful game, I can’t help but feel that talent should be mentioned separately. U.S. soccer has good balance in all the key categories, but is still a little short when it comes to pure skill.
So, Klinsmann will take the plaudits that the team has earned, the recognition from the world's media, the positive momentum that was created in Brazil and move on while building on the pillars of the game. Perhaps next time it will be someone like Green or Yedlin who tweets out a message like the one above from Belgium captain Vincent Kompany:
"Two words..Thibaut Courtois #Respect #BelUSA."
It's possible for U.S. soccer to raise the bar and its expectations, but more work still needs to be done. Regardless, the team's performance in Brazil signified progress.
Polish-born Janusz Michallik played 44 times for the United States national team, and in MLS for the Columbus Crew and New England Revolution. Now a respected commentator and pundit for ESPN, Fox, SiriusXM FC, OneWorldSports and others, Janusz will be contributing to B/R's coverage of the USMNT.