The United States men’s soccer team came to the end of the line at the 2014 World Cup on Tuesday after a heartbreaking extra-time defeat to Belgium. Still, after coming through the much-touted “Group of Death” and battling heroically right to the end, they depart Brazil with much credit, having enthralled a large part of a previously soccer-skeptic nation. They have also inspired significant hope for the future of soccer in the U.S. in general as well as the future of the national team.
But with hope comes expectation. A third straight Round of 16 exit in four years time is unlikely to be viewed so favorably. The dust may still be settling on a 2-1 loss in Salvador, but thoughts are already turning to Russia 2018.
Predicting anything to do with a makeup of a team four years out is generally a wonderful way to invite retrospective ridicule. When the U.S. crashed out of the 2010 World Cup, also in the second round and also in extra time, Bob Bradley was coach, DaMarcus Beasley was an impish left winger and Landon Donovan was still a national hero.
By the time Brazil rolled around, former Germany striker and coach Jürgen Klinsmann was in his third year of attempting to transform the U.S. side, Beasley had been converted to a surprisingly effective left-back and Donovan had been unceremoniously dumped on the eve of the World Cup. Few, if any, could have predicted four years ago that a then 17-year-old born in Berlin, John Brooks, would not only feature for the U.S., but provide arguably the team’s most indelible moment from this World Cup. Another dual national, Aron Johannsson was also a surprise committer to the U.S. cause. And then, of course, there is teenager Julian Green, who emerged from nowhere to become Klinsmann’s boldest squad selection.
The 19-year-old from Bayern Munich is one of the players who provides the most optimism for the future and could play a key role come Russia 2018. Green’s early performances for the team in friendlies suggested he was no more than a throwaway selection by Klinsmann in order to get the talented youngster to commit his future to the U.S., rather than the country he represented at Under-19 level, Germany. He came on for the first time in the World Cup with 15 minutes remaining in extra time. Within two minutes he had scored to give the U.S. hope of a most unlikely comeback.
While the U.S. fought bravely to the end, the gulf in talent between the Americans and Belgium was there for all to see. Had it not been for Tim Howard, that gap would have been reflected far more emphatically in the score line. Green is the type of player that Klinsmann hopes can erode that deficiency in raw talent at the highest level
There was some surprise when Klinsmann was given a contract through to 2018 before this World Cup had gotten underway. While he is likely to get some significant offers from clubs in Europe, he answered "I think so,” when asked after the loss to Belgium whether he expected to still be coach in 2018. If that is the case, Klinsmann will expect and be expected to be much further along in his quest to turn the U.S. into a proactive team capable of taking the game to even the high level of opponents they will come up against in the World Cup’s knockout stage.
Despite some positive signs leading into the tournament, what U.S. success there was at this World Cup came from traditional characteristics of heart and fight. The inability to keep possession proved a constant hindrance and led to a Belgium siege for much of Tuesday night in Salvador.
Green, if he develops as many expect, is one of the players who could aid that cause. Another also made a positive statement of his potential against Belgium. DeAndre Yedlin, 20, came off the bench and showcased the pace and attacking intent required of full-backs in proactive teams. The man he replaced, Fabian Johnson, also has that ability in spades and the two could well lock down the full-back spots in the coming years, with Johnson potentially moving to the left to replace Beasley, who aged 32, will surely not see a fifth World Cup.
Michael Bradley supplied the brilliant assist for Green to get his goal, a sign of his passing acumen that was unfortunately not always on display in Brazil. But aged 27, the midfielder will likely still be an important part of the roster in four years time. In attack, with 31-year-old captain Clint Dempsey perhaps having played in his last World Cup, Johannsson could be the man to shine. Jozy Altidore, injured never to return in the opening game, despite his vast international experience is still only 24 and will still expect to be a big part of the team’s plans in Russia. Juan Agudelo, aged 21 but with nearly 20 caps to his name, will hope to get his career back on track and force his way back into the international reckoning.
In goal, 35-year-old Howard has surely bowed out of the World Cup stage. Fortunately, the impressive line of American goalkeepers continues, and Aston Villa’s Brad Guzan, understudy in two World Cups, is now ready to step into the main job. In front of Guzan, the young Omar Gonzalez and the German-born Brooks, along with the excellent Matt Besler, could make it difficult for any center-backs to break into the equation down the road.
But, of course, there will be some players, who emerge from near-obscurity to become major parts of the story of Russia 2018. Chief among those is Gedion Zelalem. The 17-year-old has already made his competitive debut for Arsenal and, despite being born in Berlin and having played for Germany at youth level, has been the recipient of appeals by Klinsmann to declare his allegiance to the U.S. Players like Zelalem and 20-year-old Luis Gil, who made his debut for the U.S. in a friendly earlier this year, will hope to make a big impression when the world’s eyes turn back to Brazil for the Olympics in two years’ time. Other names could also emerge, like Marc Pelosi, a 17-year-old who is with Liverpool, and Will Packwood, a 21-year-old who serves as a center back for Birmingham City.
That Under-23 tournament, coupled with an expanded centenary Copa America to be held on American soil, also in 2016, should be the time when less foolhardy predictions can start to be made about both the makeup and the nature of the U.S. team as they look to make that big breakthrough in Russia.