10 Things USMNT Learned from 2014 World Cup Campaign
The United States men's national team's 2014 World Cup run seemed interminable until its frenetic, then sudden end.
All three of the Americans' group-stage matches were tightly contested. Their encounter with Belgium was as lopsided as any match that finished scoreless through regulation time could be, but American goalkeeper Tim Howard's historic performance extended the American supporters' ability to dream.
Even the extra time against Belgium kept American world football fans in rapt attention to the final whistle. The Americans were one more moment of quality from Jermaine Jones or Clint Dempsey taking the Belgians to penalty kicks—and would you have bet against Howard in that scenario?
And now it's over.
Wounds are still closing for the American players and supporters alike. But the time is already right to look back at the lessons the USMNT learned from this World Cup campaign with an eye to 2018.
10. The Moment Was Not Bigger Than John Brooks
Then Brooks nodded home the match-winner against Ghana, and suddenly nobody could even remember Goodson's name.
Brooks did not factor much in the remainder of the tournament. But his goal was the catalyst to the Americans' advancement out of Group G.
9. DeAndre Yedlin Is Ready Right Now
As with Brooks, there were questions about Klinsmann's selection of DeAndre Yedlin for this World Cup roster.
And as with Brooks, it is now apparent that Klinsmann made a great decision to include Yedlin.
"During the U.S. game against Belgium, manager Jurgen Klinsmann was forced to deal with an injury when starting right back (and U.S. standout) Fabian Johnson pulled up with a strained hamstring," wrote Nate Scott for USA Today. "Klinsmann turned to 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin to fill in. He’s been brilliant."
Yedlin printed himself stacks of pound notes (or Euros) with his performance in this World Cup. He is not going to be making an $80,000.00 base salary in Major League Soccer much longer.
8. Where Was Julian Green?
Klinsmann made a huge splash naming 18-year-old Julian Green to the American squad. Then he inexplicably buried him on the bench.
Had the Belgians not scored twice in the first 15-minute extra-time period, Klinsmann probably never would have put Green into action in this World Cup.
With the cause apparently lost, and the Americans down two goals with 15 minutes to play against a better side, Klinsmann finally relented and let Green play.
It took Green two minutes to score a goal.
Again, if Klinsmann was going to take Green in the first place, he probably should have played him. Right?
7. Jozy Altidore Was Plan A, but There Was No Plan B
When Jozy Altidore scored twice against Nigeria on the eve of the World Cup, it seemed like Klinsmann's master plan was in full effect.
Then Altidore went down in the opening stages of the Americans' first group-stage match, and it quickly became apparent that Klinsmann's master plan had at least one yawning hole.
Aron Johannsson is not Altidore—he's not even Landon Donovan—and after coming on for Altidore against Ghana he was not seen again in the tournament.
Chris Wondolowski did not play meaningful minutes until his late appearance against Belgium, an appearance that defined the term "ill-fated."
True, almost any team would struggle to replace its best striker. But the drop-off from, say, Divock Origi to Romelu Lukaku is not nearly as vertigo-inducing as what the Americans went through once Altidore went down.
6. Players Who Play out of Position Play Like Players Playing out of Position
Altidore's injury caused the Americans two huge problems. The first, that they lacked a competent replacement, we have already dealt with.
The second problem, though, was almost worse than the first.
Without Altidore, Klinsmann had to reconfigure his XI to move Clint Dempsey out of his most effective position, attacking midfielder, and put him at the tip of the spear with the likes of Graham Zusi behind him.
Worse yet, Klinsmann was compelled to move Michael Bradley, as Adrian Melville of ESPN.com (subscription required) observed:
The ripple effect of Altidore's injury continues through the midfield, as Dempsey's role as a target striker forces Michael Bradley to occupy the vacant attacking midfield role. Bradley's struggles continued in the game against Germany, and it's clear he has been asked to do too much while playing outside of his natural holding midfield position.
Dempsey had a very good World Cup despite the change in position because, well, because he's Dempsey and because he can score as a forward as well as he can score as a midfielder.
For Bradley, though, the impact of Altidore's injury was devastating. Bradley never seemed comfortable in the tournament, which to be fair is not that surprising given that he was asked to play out of position against three of the best sides in the world (Portugal, Germany and Belgium).
5. Tim Howard Is Nowhere Close to Being Finished as a No. 1 Goalkeeper
One of the biggest USMNT stories in the weeks leading up to this World Cup was whether it would be Tim Howard's last one.
"It could be," Howard said according to Frank Giase of the Star-Ledger. "But I don’t get caught up in big games and big moments. If I had three more World Cups in me this one would be important. It’s not going to mean more or less just because it might be my last."
After Howard's goalkeeping clinic against Belgium, Klinsmann should do whatever he can to convince Howard to give him one more World Cup cycle.
"It’s exciting. I love pulling the shirt on, hearing the anthem. It’s amazing," Howard noted.
Klinsmann has to hope Howard will still feel that patriotic tug in 2018.
4. The Defenders Took a Beating but Still Stood Tall
Klinsmann has some questions to answer with reference to the 2018 World Cup team, particularly with reference to Altidore and to the ongoing need for faster, more skilled attacking players.
At the back, though, Klinsmann's squad is looking pretty good.
Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez formed a more-than-adequate defense tandem in front of Howard. Besler pushed through injury for much of the tournament. His performance with Gonzalez allowed Klinsmann to deploy Geoff Cameron elsewhere on the pitch.
Besler is 27. Gonzalez is 25. If the Americans can find better defenders between now and 2018, by all means they should. But you could do much worse than Besler and Gonzalez, who will both be at or close to their primes in 2018.
3. Never, Ever Switch off
Lost in the excitement of surviving Group G by dint of Cristiano Ronaldo's left-footed strike against Ghana was the fact that Ronaldo's right-footed cross at the death against the Americans nearly put the Americans out of the knockout round.
Bradley's turnover in the middle of the pitch as the match against Portugal wound down was regrettable, but there were men back. Ronaldo and his teammates treated the defending Americans like traffic cones.
Maybe the Americans did not think that the Portuguese were still trying to earn a result. Maybe the Americans were still fully engaged and just lost out in a moment against one of the best players in the world.
But Ronaldo can create a goal in an eye's blink. The Americans let him do it, and it almost cost them dearly.
2. So Close and Yet so Far Away
It is indisputable that the Americans were one Wondolowski conversion from advancing to play Argentina in a 2014 World Cup quarterfinal.
It is similarly indisputable that, had the Americans advanced at the Belgians' expense, it would have been wholly against the run of play. And it would have further disguised the gulf between the Americans and elite sides like Germany and Belgium.
Staked to four points in their first two matches against Ghana and Portugal, the Americans not only did not win another match in this tournament, they really did not much threaten to win.
Germany, you will recall, did not even need to beat the Americans to advance to the knockout stage. Yet the Germans beat the Americans comfortably and conclusively.
Then in the round of 16 the Americans had to play Belgium, a side who did need to win, and look what happened. Without Howard's "Keanu Reeves in The Matrix" routine, the Americans would have been straight up blown off the pitch.
This is not to say that the Americans are a poor side. They are not. They are quite good.
But at the World Cup, the gulf between "quite good" and "good enough to win the tournament" is as wide and deep as the Atlantic Ocean.
1. All Things Considered, Klinsmann Got It Right and Is the Right Coach for 2018
Now is as good a time as any to give Klinsmann his due, because almost every move he made with reference to the American 2014 World Cup squad worked out.
Brooks, Yedlin and Green more than justified their places on the team despite being young, untested players before the tournament began.
Klinsmann lost Altidore for about 95 percent of the tournament in the Americans' first match and still steered the Americans out of the "Group of Death." Yes, another striker would have been nice, but Klinsmann found a way for the Americans to advance without one, which is to his credit.
Even the omission of Landon Donovan did not really hurt Klinsmann, unless you think that Donovan would have been on the pitch in Wondolowski's place against Belgium and that Donovan would have scored where Wondolowski didn't. That is a fairly significant stretch to make.
Before this World Cup, the fear was that the Americans would get dispatched from Group G in short order and that questions about the direction of Klinsmann's program would abound.
In defeat, though, the Americans are now salivating about the potential of Green and Yedlin (and Brooks to a lesser extent) and some of the even younger talent in the pipeline.
This is a pretty exciting time to be a United States men's national team follower.