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.

La Liga: Asensio leads Madrid past Eibar; Atleti end slump

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Marco Asensio scored and helped force an own-goal to lead Real Madrid to a 3-0 win at home over Eibar in the Spanish league on Sunday.

The 21-year-old forward got Madrid going in the 18th minute when his well-placed cross meant for Sergio Ramos was headed into the net by Eibar defender Paulo Oliveira.

Asensio put the result beyond doubt 10 minutes later at the Santiago Bernabeu when he drove Francisco “Isco” Alarcon’s cross under goalkeeper Marco Dmitrovic.

Marcelo rounded off the victory in the 82nd after substitute Karim Benzema set him up.

Following a rocky start with only two wins in the first five rounds, Zinedine Zidane’s team has now won four straight in the league as it remained in third place. Barcelona leads by four points over Valencia, with Madrid another point behind.

“Not everything went perfectly, but we are happy for the win,” Zidane said. “It was important to get the three points and to score that many goals.”

The goal was Asensio’s fifth of the season, and his third in the league to go with two from the Spanish Super Cup.

Dmitrovic could have done more to keep out Asensio’s goal, but the Eibar `keeper also denied Isco and Cristiano Ronaldo their chances to add to the lead.


Atletico Madrid broke a four-game winless streak across all competitions after eking out a 1-0 win at Celta Vigo. Diego Simeone’s side is fourth – a point behind Real Madrid.

Striker Kevin Gameiro scored his first goal of the season in the 28th when he swept home a poor clearance of a corner kick by Celta’s Sergi Gomez.

The much-needed victory came after back-to-back draws in the league along with a 2-1 loss to Chelsea and a 0-0 draw at Qarabag in Azerbaijan in the Champions League.

Atletico did little more than cling to the advantage as Celta tried to equalize.

“They made us wait a long time to get this win, and that was why we worked as hard as we did today,” Simeone said. “The team showed that it can dig in, and that it doesn’t mind holding up in its area if it has to protect a result.”

Celta played with a large section of its Balaidos Stadium closed due to safety concerns regarding the structure of the stands. Club president Carlos Mourino said that Celta will refund the cost of the tickets for the seats that had to be left empty.

MLS: FCD really missed the playoffs; LA finish dead last

Photo credit: Houston Dynamo / Twitter: @HoustonDynamo
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FC Dallas 5-1 LA Galaxy

The standings: FC Dallas finish 7th in the West; LA Galaxy finish bottom of the West, and all of MLS

The game: It was too little, too late for FC Dallas, who on Sunday managed just their second win during the months of August, September and October. That’s a stretch of 15 games which saw last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners tumble out of the West’s playoff places and ultimately finish seventh, behind the San Jose Earthquakes on the wins tiebreaker. Roland Lamah scored twice on the day, to go with single tallies from Mauro Diaz, Matt Hedges and Michael Barrios. Oscar Pareja’s side began the season with treble aspirations for a second straight season (the Hoops also won the U.S. Open Cup in 2016), but will be watching this year’s playoffs from the comfort of their own couches. On the other hand, 2017 could have been worse — say, FCD could have been LA, who finished last in MLS for the first time ever. Sigi Schmid, should he remain in the job next season, has quite the rebuilding task on his hands. Let us not forget: LAFC arrive in March.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

2′ — Cian heads home an early opener Things started brightly for LA.

37′ — Lamah gets a lucky bounce, pulls FCD level — Right place, right time for Lamah, who’s endured quite the rough first season in MLS.

41′ — Hedges cleans up the mess, and it’s 2-1 — Clement Diop couldn’t hold on after making the initial save, and Matt Hedges was more than ready for the rebound.

49′ — Lamah makes it 3-1 — The rout has officially begun.

68′ — Barrios adds to LA’s misery with a fourth — LA’s 2017 season was over in May (maybe June, if we’re being kind). Every one of these defenders is on a beach right now.

73′ — Diaz makes it 5-1 from the spot — The season just will not end for LA.

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Man of the match: Roland Lamah

Goalscorers: Cian (2′), Lamah (37′, 49′), Hedges (41′), Barrios (68′) Diaz (73′ – PK)


Houston Dynamo 3-0 Chicago Fire

The standings: Dynamo clinch the West’s 4-seed; Fire clinch the East’s 3-seed

The game: No one wanted to win the West, just like no one ever really wanted to claim a home game in the knockout round. In the end, the Houston Dynamo beat Sporting Kansas City to the 4-seed and the right to host the two sides’ opening-round game this week. Leonardo, Romell Quioto and Mauro Manotas bagged the goals for Wilmer Cabrera’s side which finishes the regular season unbeaten in its last six game (three wins). Chicago, recently resurgent, lose for just the second time in eight games, but in doing so fail to take advantage of New York City FC’s Decision Day draw with Columbus Crew SC. A win would have sent Chicago second in the East, allowing them a week’s rest and preparation before the start of the conference semifinals. Instead, they’ll host the New York Red Bulls this week.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

2′ — Leonardo heads home from a long throw — They don’t have to be pretty (especially on Decision Day), which is good, because this one was anything but.

68′ — Quioto goes it alone to make it 2-0 — At some point, someone should probably drag Quioto to the ground rather than let him carry the ball 40 yards into the penalty area. It never happened, and Richard Sanchez couldn’t make the save.

75′ — Manotas adds the insurance a few minutes later — Andrew Wenger’s cross found Manotas at the back post, and the finish was easy for the Colombian.

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Man of the match: Leonardo

Goalscorers: Leonardo (2′), Quioto (68′), Manotas (75′)

MLS: Timbers beat Whitecaps to top West; RSL out, SKC fall to 5th

Photo credit: Portland Timbers / Twitter
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Portland Timbers 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps

The standings: Timbers clinch the West’s 1-seed; Whitecaps fall to West’s 3-seed

The game: For the entirety of the regular season, no one wanted to finish top of the Western Conference. That lasted until the final day of the season, as the Vancouver Whitecaps, who sat atop the West for the last two months, lost 2-1 to the Portland Timbers and fell all the way to the 3-seed (and the knockout round) on the back of the Seattle Sounders’ 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids. Kendall Waston put the visitors ahead on the half-hour mark, but Liam Ridgewell quickly equalized and Darren Mattocks came back to bite his old team with the game-winning goal in the 48th minute.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

29′ — Waston heads home from a free kick for 1-0 — Waston has had himself a pretty good month or so, turning into a regular goalscorer for Vancouver and helping Costa Rica clinch their place at the 2018 World Cup.

32′ — Ridgewell responds quickly, and it’s 1-1 — The initial shot was saved by David Ousted, but the rebound didn’t fall very far and Ridgewell was quick to pounce.

48′ — Mattocks beats his former club, makes it 2-1 — Vytautas Andriuskevicius (Vytas) cut the ball back for Mattocks, and the Jamaican picked out the 40 square inches that weren’t completely obscured at the near post.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Darren Mattocks

Goalscorers: Waston (29′), Ridgewell (32′), Mattocks (48′)


Real Salt Lake 2-1 Sporting Kansas City

The standings: Sporting KC clinch the West’s 5-seed; RSL finish 8th in the West

The game: On the bright side, RSL’s revival, which began after three games when Jeff Cassar was fired and Mike Petke was named the new boss, is complete. On the not-so-bright side, so is their season. Petke galvanized a young RSL side over the course of six months and turned them into legitimate playoff contenders, only to come up short on the final day of the regular season. Luis Silva and Brooks Lennon each bagged a goal in Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Sporting KC. Speaking of not-so-bright sides, Sporting’s regular season ends with three losses and two draws from their final five games. In that span, they went from competing for the West’s no. 1 spot, to something of an afterthought with a trip to the Houston Dynamo in the knockout round on tap.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

3′ — Silva slots past Dykstra for 1-0 — You could count the number of major mistakes made by Ike Opara this season on one hand, even after this early blunder.

41′ — Lennon gets two chances, makes it 2-0 — Silva drew the attention of four defenders and managed to move the ball wide to Lennon. Andrew Dykstra did well enough to make the initial save, but the rebound fell right back to Lennon, who left no doubt about it with his follow-up.

89′ — Opara heads home a free kick to the near post — Graham Zusi’s free kick was low and where only Opara could get to it. Opara’s header was low and where Nick Rimando couldn’t get to it.

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Man of the match: Nick Rimando

Goalscorers: Silva (3′), Lennon (41′), Opara (89′)

MLS: Toronto FC set new points record; NYCFC clinch 2-seed

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Atlanta United 2-2 Toronto FC

The standings: Toronto FC finish 1st in the Eastern Conference, and all of MLS — Supporters’ Shield winners; Atlanta United clinch the 4-seed in the East

The game: TFC’s bid to set a new all-time single-season points record was fulfilled on Sunday, as the 2017 Supporters’ Shield winners came from behind twice to secure a 2-2 draw with Atlanta United and finish the season on 69 points, moving one point ahead of the old record which they matched last week.

Yamil Asad and Josef Martinez (19th of the season) scored either side of Jozy Altidore‘s equalizer (15th) right on the hour mark. Sebastian Giovinco, as he’s well known to do, delivered a world-class free kick to bring TFC level again in the 84th minute. Having already secured the regular-season title and home-field advantage for the duration of their playoff journey, TFC had only the points record to play for. Atlanta, on the other hand, came so close to leapfrogging the Chicago Fire New York City FC in order to claim the East’s second spot, and the knockout-round bye that comes with it, but ultimately finish fourth. Miguel Almiron made his return from injury after missing the last month, getting a half-hour of work as he rebuild fitness and sharpness ahead of the playoffs.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

31′ — Asad beats Bono from the spot for 1-0 — Atlanta are at their terrifying best with a lead in hand.

60′ — Altidore brings TFC level with a quick finish — Sometimes all you have to do is be a pest, and good things will come. Altidore stuck with what appeared to be a hopeless ball, and pulled his side level.

74′ — Martinez finishes at the near post for 2-1 — If not for his early-season injury, Martinez would have wound up MLS MVP, I’m almost 100 percent sure of it.

84′ — Giovinco’s latest free kick masterpiece — For the 100th time, free kicks : Giovinco :: penalty kicks : everyone else.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jozy Altidore

Goalscorers: Asad (31′ – PK), Altidore (60′), Martinez (74′), Giovinco (84′)


New York City FC 2-2 Columbus Crew SC

The standings: NYCFC clinch the East’s 2-seed; Crew SC clinch the East’s 5-seed

The game: NYCFC limped over the finish line, having won just one of their final seven games, and so nearly coughed up the second seed in the process, if not for that late bit of brilliance from Giovinco. David Villa remains in scintillating form through all the ambient noise, though he remains but one (and a half, maybe) man. Spain’s all-time leading scorer bagged two more on Sunday to take his season tally to 22. Villa, however, was denied from the penalty spot during second-half stoppage time.

While Patrick Vieira’s side allowed two clear-cut chances all afternoon, Ola Kamara and Josh Williams each converted to help Crew SC pick up a resolute result following the most tumultuous of weeks.

[ MORE: MLS at Week 34 — it all comes down to this ]

The goals

11′ — Higuain picks out Kamara, and it’s 1-0 — The chipped ball from Federico Higuain, playing his final game for Crew SC, is just delightful. The finish from Kamara is unstoppable.

18′ — Villa heads home from a corner to make it 1-1 — 21 on the season for Villa, who’s got a great case for back-to-back MVP awards.

45′ — Villa beats Steffen near post, and it’s 2-1 — Zack Steffen should definitely be making this save, and not allowing a rebound opportunity. 22 for Villa, who doesn’t exactly need them gifted to him.

58′ — Williams heads home a corner, and they’re tied — Set-piece service doesn’t get much better than this. (It helps when the goalkeeper does whatever it is that Sean Johnson does here.)

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: Kamara (11′), Villa (18′, 45′), Williams (58′)