Defining success: Does the U.S. have to make the leap at World Cup 2014?

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Win the World Cup. Develop the American Lionel Messi. Use The Beautiful Game to solve world hunger, and distribute the solution across the galaxy in Neil Degrasse Tyson’s upsetting space sliver. Those are the standards the mainstream sports public has set for soccer’s success in the United States, conveniently setting the bar too high to justify their consistent commitment. With a semifinal run in Brazil, the more patriotic NFL fans might reconsider; more realistically, 2014’s not going to meet those lofty goals.

More rational goals would consider the context of this year’s tournament. Where is the U.S. in its development? What are its goals? What does history tell us about realistic expectations, and most importantly, what obstacles does the team have to overcome? Being oblivious to these factors and defining success the same way you would USA Basketball’s doesn’t even work for baseball, anymore. As soccer fans know, on the men’s side ,the U.S. needs more pragmatic goals.

From a more level-headed perspective, there are a number of ways the U.S. can succeed next month, all of which come down to the same idea that led the  team to bring Jurgen Klinsmann in three years ago: Progress. Is the program getting closer to being competitive with the world’s elite? Are the players being selected, trained, and played in a way that promotes that growth? If the U.S. can’t realistically expect to win the World Cup in 2014, is it at least building for a day when it can?

That’s a lot of questions, something that’s expected when assessing a program in transition. Regardless, this program is very much in transition. The World Cup is just the latest, biggest test of that process, with the team’s response to its difficult group defining whether the 2014 finals can be deemed a success.

Those questions:

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U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati replaced Bob Bradley with Jurgen Klinsmann after the 2011 Gold Cup, sparking the program’s transition.

Where is the U.S. in its development?

Jurgen Klinsmann’s hire was a tacit confession the team needed to go in another direction. To expect it to be at its destination in three years is too much. To this point, the team’s shown progress, but the goals for World Cup 2014 are still defined by the program’s long-term objectives.

That doesn’t mean going farther than 2010. Whereas the draw for South Africa gave the U.S. one of the easiest draws in since the tournament expanded to 32 teams (1998), “Group of Death”  has been thrown around (perhaps lazily) in connection with this year’s draw. As Klinsmann’s contract extension attests, the federation knows the team can both show progress and fail to make the second round.

What are its goals?

There are a number of them, but they all come down to one concept. The team needs to be on the same level as the Germanys and Portugals of the world – top 10 teams who happen to be drawn into the U.S.’s quartet in Brazil.This is about more than one-off wins like the U.S. experienced against Spain in 2009. It’s about consistently being though of as one of the world’s better teams – something that’s not going to happen over the next six weeks.

If that comes, that means the U.S. will be dominating CONCACAF. It’ll be consistently churning out higher levels of talent. The pipeline to the national team will extend not only to a strong MLS but to a few of the best teams in Europe. The U.S. will be dominating Gold Cups and making an impact at Confederations Cups. It will be consistent quarterfinal-threat at World Cups.

Another run to a final eight would make the tournament a success, but it wouldn’t mean the U.S.’s goals are accomplished. Klinsmann was brought in to build something sustainable; not merely reach a World Cup mark. This summer is another test of that sustainability, but it’s not the only measure of success.

RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly

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DaMarcus Beasley (L) was part of the team that made the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. He and Landon Donovan, both 20-year-olds in Japan/South Korea, are hoping to make their fourth World Cups.

What does history tell us about realistic expectations? 

The U.S. made a semifinal in 1930: Important but ancient history. In the modern era (one that started with Paul Caligiuri’s goal in Port of Spain) the U.S.’s quarterfinal run under Bruce Arena in 2002 is the reference point. Fans that have persisted over the last 12 years want that magic back.

There is some reason to think it could return. Germany is clearly the group’s favorites, yet Portugal, despite their lofty FIFA ranking (three), is beatable. Though many have focused on the U.S.’s trouble matching up with Cristiano Ronaldo, the team didn’t have an obvious answer to Luis Figo, either. One-on-one match ups make great headlines, but they don’t always define games.

This year’s Portugal team is no more talented than the one that failed in 2002. Whether the U.S. is as talented as its 2002 entry is another debate. Regardless, just as the last 12 years have shown the team’s win over the Selaccao in Suwon didn’t catapult the program, one result in Brazil won’t be a litmus test, either. More realistically: There are better tests of U.S. success than one group stage result.

Obstacles does the team have to overcome?

The better test is how the team performs over the body of the tournament, and how that reflects on the program’s bigger goals. That isn’t as easy as latching onto a “did we actually win this time” standard, but it is a better predictor of the team’s future. Win, lose, or draw, if the U.S. plays well against Germany, Ghana, and Portugal, the tournament can be seen as a success.

Granted, those quick to reference 2004’s performance won’t think so, but in Germany and Portugal, the U.S. is facing two teams better than anybody that lined up against Bob Bradley’s team in South Africa. One day, the U.S. will be at the point where the bottom line is the only goal, but while big-picture progress is the main objective, the results can be more subtle.

source: AP
U.S. success at Brazil 2014 will likely be determined by how it competes against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. (Photo: AP Photo.)

So what does a successful tournament look like?

Beating Ghana is probably a must. Soccer can offer strange, mitigating scenarios (as the Ghanaians surely know), but it will be difficult for the team to claim progress if it can’t break through against a Ghana side weaker than its 2006 and 2010 models.

The Germany game? The U.S. has a chance, but against teams at that level — the rarefied air taken in by Argentina, Brazil, Spain as well as the Germans — few are expected to win, particularly at a World Cup. Even if the U.S. is blown out by the Germans, many will likely to chalk that up to the immense collection of talent Klinsmann helped build.

It’s the battle in between those two games that could define U.S. success. If the U.S. can’t compete with Portugal, the team won’t have an argument to make. People will look back to how the team performed against England and Ghana four years ago and ask whether the U.S. is better off now. While Paulo Bento’s group is talented, the team is not worlds above where the U.S. should be.

Regardless, progress will be about more than the final result. If the U.S. performs to its potential, it should be able to challenge for second in the group. In the process, the team will continue building a program that makes 2002 more than a one-off.

Perhaps that coveted semifinal run won’t happen this summer, but this summer’s progress could lay the foundation for a 2016 breakthrough.

Bravo fit again, but will he start Chile’s Confed Cup group finale?

Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
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MOSCOW (AP) Claudio Bravo is fit again and could start in goal against Australia at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said Saturday.

Bravo – who is Chile’s joint most-capped player with Alexis Sanchez – hasn’t played since April 27, when he injured his calf for Manchester City in a derby game with Manchester United.

“Claudio is fit, he’s managed to train the last couple of days just like his other teammates,” Pizzi said. “He’s ready and available to play.”

Pizzi brushed off concerns about a lack of match fitness, saying that “quite obviously we take into account that factor” but players like Bravo are “are of such good quality that it isn’t that important they haven’t played in the last couple of months.”

Stand-in Johnny Herrera played in Chile’s 2-0 group stage win over Cameroon and Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Germany.

Gary Medel was substituted with a minor injury while playing in defense for Chile against Germany. Teammate Francisco Silva said Saturday that Medel had complained of “a very small muscle contraction issue” but was now fit.

Pizzi said he will aim to tire out Australia with Chile’s trademark all-action style, even though his team struggled for energy in the latter stages against Germany.

“This energy drop we had in the second half didn’t damage us too much because the opposing team couldn’t maintain a high pace because of the demands we’d imposed on them,” Pizzi said of the Germany game.

“We’re going to try to get (the Australians) tired as well and use this to beat our opponent, and we hope this is going to translate into goals.”

USMNT’s Wood extends Hamburg contract through 2021

Photo credit: Hamburg / Twitter: @HSV
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HAMBURG, Germany (AP) American forward Bobby Wood extended his contract with Bundesliga side Hamburger SV on Saturday to 2021.

Wood, who joined Hamburg from second-tier Union Berlin, scored five goals and set up two more in 28 Bundesliga games. He had 17 goals in 31 second-division games for Union the season before.

“Not only his goals count for us, but his readiness to run and challenge,” Hamburg sporting director Jens Todt said. “Bobby is a key player for our offense and a real team player.”

Wood has eight goals in 32 appearances for the United States.

MLS Snapshot: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win 2-0

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The game in 100 words (or less): The only thing standing in the way of New York City FC avenging their infamous 7-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls with a lopsided demolition job of their own, on Saturday, was an otherworldly goalkeeping performance from Luis Robles. It was the Red Bulls shot-stopper, with his four saves on the afternoon (three of them coming in spectacular fashion), who kept Jesse Marsch’s side within touching distance for more than an hour. Jack Harrison was denied early on by Robles, but got the better of him not long later for the game’s opening goal. Heroics from Robles kept the score at 1-0 for another 32 minutes, before Ben Sweat’s (accidental?) header made it 2-0 in the 65th minute. The Red Bulls, on the other hand, managed their first shot on target in the 80th minute. That’s three wins in a row for NYCFC, who go seven points clear of their Hudson River rivals and keep Toronto FC in sight at the top of the league table, five points ahead.

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Three moments that mattered

18′ — Robles goes full-stretch to deny Harrison — David Villa’s vision and Rodney Wallace‘s hold-play created the chance for Harrison, but Luis Robles’ acrobatics denied the 20-year-old Englishman in spectacular fashion.

33′ — Harrison not to be denied this time — Sweat delivered the ball to Harrison near the top of the box, and the second-year man did everything right with what’s a really, really difficult chance to take — facing away from goal, first-time, ball traveling across the goalkeeper, upper-90 to the far post.

65′ — Sweat loops a header past Robles for 2-0 — Sweat probably didn’t mean it, but the ball hit the back of the net, and that’s all that matters. Not a bad time to score your first MLS goal, either.

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Man of the match: Luis Robles

Goalscorers: Harrison (33′), Sweat (65′)

Watford signs Will Hughes from Derby County

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Watford has completed the capture of 22-year-old central midfielder Will Hughes, a fantastic transfer for one of England’s younger talents.

Hughes, despite his young age, racked up 189 appearances for Derby County (despite missing significant time in 2015 for an ACL tear) and now gets his first shot at the Premier League, and with it potentially a chance to push his way into the England fold. Hughes has been a staple for the England youth system, making 22 appearances for the country’s U-21 side but is yet to feature for the senior team.

The fee for the transfer was undisclosed but reports have tabbed the amount at around $10 million.

Hughes came close to making the Premier League with Derby County on multiple occasions, reaching the Championship playoffs in both 2014 and 2016. Now, he’ll battle the likes of Valon Behrami, Tom Cleverley, Etienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucoure for a spot in Watford’s midfield.

The club release confirmed that Hughes has not yet completed his medical, and will do so when he returns to the U.K. from competing in the U-21 European Championships in Poland.