As a player and a coach; a teacher and a father, to me it’s always seemed that more is learned in defeat than in victory.
Winning makes it feel as if everything went according to plan; that there was a logical progression, a coherent story, an inevitable outcome, instead of ninety minutes of exhausting struggle and a lucky bounce in injury time.
It’s not that there’s something inherent to defeat that creates learning—it’s that defeat can lead to self-reflection.
The score line in the United States' loss to Mexico does not completely reflect the control that the Mexicans had over the pace of the game, nor does it reflect the two near misses prior to Bornstein’s entrance, nor the struggles the U.S. had throughout the tournament.
With that in mind, here are four things the United States can do to increase its competitiveness on the international stage:
1. Stop Looking only to Europe for Answers—Go South
The Copa America, with its top-level national teams and tough mid-level teams, is a great tournament in which to gain experience.
The U.S. has been invited but, due to scheduling conflicts with the MLS, frequently declines, or—as with the last time they attended—the U.S. sends its B team.
Sending its first team would give U.S. players experience against some of the world’s best.
Why isn’t this a top priority?
That’s just one tournament. Mexico, the teams of Central America, and those of South America have what the U.S. is developing: a soccer infrastructure that supports players from the enthusiast/amateur level to the semi-pro and pro levels.
Structured as if it were a college-exchange program, U.S. players would have an opportunity to develop.
2. Use Japan as a Benchmark
Japan began its top-level league in 1993, three years before the MLS's inaugural season. Japan has said it plans to host and win a World Cup before 2050, and the strides they are making—such as Japan teenager Takashi Usami’s recent signing with Bayern Munich—show they are on the path.
Japan had planned to compete in the Copa America but canceled due to the earthquakes, tsunamis, and the start of their domestic league.
As with the economic-driven sectors, the U.S. is in parallel competition with Japan in soccer.
3. Keep Importing Talent: The U.S. Is Rich—Use It
Strategically continuing to bring players with pedigrees into the MLS would give U.S. players a chance to learn where they learn best: on the field.
Experience is what the U.S. lacks, at the international level it’s critical, and it can be imported in the form of players.
4. Stop Complaining, Start Playing
Studies, including the work of Simon Kuper, report that the U.S. has more soccer players at the youth level than any other country. This is a huge advantage.
But similar to cycling, the journey from enthusiast to semi-pro is underdeveloped, and that leaves the pool of talent looking for other ways to make a living.
This is where U.S. fans—especially those of us who have the privilege of having a forum such as this—can get involved by supporting local teams, coaching, refereeing, and volunteering.
Sir Alex Ferguson had won three major awards in one season, but it was a subsequent loss to Real Madrid that showed him it was time to give up the 4-4-2 formation. He had thought about it before and had felt that the time was near, but the victories kept coming. With that loss he knew it was time to rework the team for the future, even at the expense of silverware in the present.
The loss to Mexico can be an opportunity for the U.S. to come out of its naivete, to make some changes, and to fix some things.