Julian Green

As loss to Belgium exemplified, time is now for US to develop game-changing players, style

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Every now and again, it is fun to think about: What if just ONE of America’s greatest athletes had played soccer instead? What if LeBron or Cam Newton or Mike Trout or Adrian Peterson or Patrick Kane had chosen soccer instead of their sport?

Tuesday, I think, we saw what it might have looked like: It might have looked just a little bit like Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku.

Did you see him? Holy cow: Did you SEE him? Apparently Lukaku has been disappointing for much of this World Cup, listless, indifferent, unready for such a big stage. That, I guess, is why he was a substitute on Tuesday. Lukaku is only 21 years old, and he has spent much of his young career in the Premier League getting loaned out. He’s clearly trying to find his place.

But talent? Absurd. He’s 6-foot-3. He’s brilliantly fast – have you seen that Quicksilver scene in the new X-Men movie? Yeah, he’s like that fast. Most of all, he’s just overpowering when he runs. Like Peterson. Like LeBron. The Guardian named Lukaku one of the 10 most promising players in Europe.

And Tuesday, in extra time, he came in and he made the World Cup his own by running through a game but tired United States defense again and again – unstoppable, unbreakable, untouchable. It was mind-boggling. The United States would send one, two, three defenders at him and he would just smash through them. He set up Belgium’s first goal by simply running through a stumbling U.S. defender. He scored the second with a powerful run to the near post where he shielded off the defender and left-footed a smash past goalkeeper Tim Howard. He had various other moments that almost ended up as goals.

[MORE: Belgium sinks U.S. in extra time, advances to World Cup quarterfinals]

The United States has had many good soccer players. They’ve had scrappy defenders and tough midfielders and blazing fast forwards. Their goaltender, Howard, put on a display for the ages against Belgium with 16 saves, the most ever recorded for a World Cup game. He’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world; America has had a few good goalkeepers. Well, we’re good with our hands.

[MORE: Howard’s heroics not enough in ‘heartbreaking’ U.S. World Cup exit]

But they’ve never had a Romelu Lukaku. Or, more to the point, America’s Romelu Lukakus have spent the last few decades driving hard to the basket, plowing through linebackers and crashing into fences after long fly balls. What kind of goal scorer could Barry Sanders have been? How about Dave Winfield? What about Tim Tebow?

So far America has never had that soccer force who can scare the heck out of the rest of the world. So far America has not had a player who can take over games the way Lukaku did. And it seems that until American soccer has a Lukaku (never mind a real soccer genius like Messi or Neymar), a player capable of making magic time after time, this round of 16 business just might be their limit.

Oh, make no mistake, this was a very nice World Cup for the United States. Few thought they could escape the so-called Group of Death, with Germany and Portugal both ranked in the FIFA Top 5 and the added bonus of Ghana, the country that ended America’s last  two World Cups.

It wasn’t easy. The U.S. scored almost instantly against Ghana this time, then withstood a furious barrage, and finally scored a late game-winner. The U.S. outplayed Portugal and should have come away with a victory but took the draw after a singular bit of magnificence from Cristiano Ronaldo. Then, even in a loss to Germany, they showed will and gritty defending against a clearly superior team.

What they rarely showed, though, was brilliance. Throughout the tournament, the key word was “possession” – the U.S. gave the ball away again and again … they could rarely build any sort of sustained attack because they couldn’t keep possession long enough. A team can have some success at the World Cup with a well-organized defense and a couple of lightning-bolt goals. But sooner or later, that style runs its course.

[MORE: USA player ratings vs. Belgium  |  Signs of progress small, but clear]

Yes, the United States could have beaten Belgium on Tuesday – if Chris Wondolowski had punched home that remarkable chance in the final minute of regulation, the United States surely would have won. But talking about missed chances in soccer isn’t especially helpful; if Howard had not been Superman, the United States would have lost 6-0. The bigger point was the U.S. was thoroughly outplayed by a much more talented team. The U.S. might have stolen the game, but it would have been just that: A steal. Belgium was much, much better.

And if the U.S. is to take the next step, they cannot go into games where they are thoroughly outclassed. The U.S. needs to develop some players who go beyond tough, beyond rugged, beyond resilient and fit and hard-working. They need to develop some players who can do wizardry.

This is something people have been talking about for decades – the “when will America develop a world-class player” stories were written 30 or 40 years ago – but I suspect the time is now.

Sure, people will keep arguing about soccer’s place in the American landscape. Some will point to the extraordinary way this World Cup took hold in the United States. Others will point to the extremely low ratings of MLS. Some will see the trend of young people embracing soccer. Others will point to the many years of youth soccer dominance in America and how little impact it has had on soccer as a spectator sport. That argument isn’t stopping anytime soon.

But wherever soccer ends up on the great American sports spectrum, there is no question that this is a moment for the team to build on. Two young players – DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green – had auspicious debuts this World Cup. But there’s something else, too.

You know the story of Pelé, right? He was 10 years old in 1950, when his home country of Brazil lost to Uruguay in one of the most famous matches ever played. The young Pelé saw his father crying after the loss. Pelé went up to his father and said, “Don’t worry. One day, I will win it.”

Something like that could very well have happened at this World Cup, too. This was the most-watched World Cup in American history and by far the most talked about. So maybe a 10-year-old who plays all the sports – maybe a whole bunch of 10 year olds – saw the brilliant passing of Ronaldo, the magic of Messi, the sheer physical sway of Belgium’s 19-year-old wunderkind Divock Origi and his replacement, Lukaku. And maybe they thought, “That’s what I want to be.”

The U.S. fell in the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup. They played hard, and they held up well, and they gave us a final 15 minutes to remember, and they were not good enough. But if those kids were watching … this could be the most important result in U.S. World Cup history.

Antonio in, Barkley out as Allardyce names 1st England squad

NICE, FRANCE - JUNE 27: Wayne Rooney of England in action during the UEFA EURO 2016 round of 16 match between England and Iceland at Allianz Riviera Stadium on June 27, 2016 in Nice, France.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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LONDON (AP) — Sam Allardyce dropped midfielder Ross Barkley on Sunday and called up uncapped winger Michail Antonio for his first England squad since taking charge after the team’s disappointing European Championship campaign.

There were five changes from the 23-man squad that went to France for Euro 2016, with Luke Shaw, Phil Jagielka, Danny Drinkwater and Theo Walcott all returning for the Sept. 4 game against Slovakia in 2018 World Cup qualifying.

Barkley was overlooked despite scoring twice in his first four matches for Everton this season. Antonio has scored twice in West Ham’s first three Premier League games of the season.

Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford drops down to the under-21s and Wayne Rooney was named among the midfielders. Joe Hart remains, despite losing his place as first-choice goalkeeper at Manchester City.

No captain has been named.

Antonio only found out he had been called up after coming off the field at the Etihad Stadium earlier on Sunday, having scored in West Ham’s 3-1 defeat by Manchester City in the Premier League.

“I’m overwhelmed. I got slightly emotional when I found out,” Antonio told West Ham TV, adding that he had rejected Jamaica earlier this year in a bid to keep his England ambitions alive.

“It’s just one of those things that I’ve always dreamt of, playing for England, as a kid, so now for it to happen after I’ve worked my way from non-league to where I am now, I am just so happy.”

England squad

Goalkeepers: Fraser Forster (Southampton), Joe Hart (Manchester City), Tom Heaton (Burnley)

Defenders: Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool), Phil Jagielka (Everton), Danny Rose (Tottenham), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), John Stones (Manchester City), Kyle Walker (Tottenham)

Midfielders: Dele Alli (Tottenham), Michail Antonio (West Ham), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Danny Drinkwater (Leicester), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Adam Lallana (Liverpool), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Theo Walcott (Arsenal)

Fowards: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Jamie Vardy (Leicester)

MLS Snapshot: Orlando City 2-1 New York City FC

ORLANDO, FL - JULY 15:  Kaka #10 of Orlando City SC gives directions to his teammates during an International friendly soccer match between West Bromwich Albion and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on July 15, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. Orlando won the match 3-1. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
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The match in 100 words or less: The game started amid pouring rain, seemingly a foreshadow for the home side. Yet another lead at halftime, yet another lead squandered. Then, Kaka decided he didn’t want to go home disappointed again. The Brazilian bagged a penalty – his second goal of the match – to see Orlando City back on top of Eastern Conference powers NYCFC, and the back line held under pressure through the final 20 minutes to keep Orlando’s playoff hopes very much alive.

Three Four moments that mattered:

 

32′ – Kaka did it all himself, and Orlando snatched a 1-0 lead. Bursting down the right flank, Kaka cut inside, weaved around a poor attempt by Jefferson Mena to wall him off, and took two shots on goal. The first was saved by Saunders, but the second snuck in past the goalkeeper spread-eagle on the ground.

55′ – Orlando had a glorious opportunity to putting NYCFC out of reach four minutes later as Cyle Larin and Kevin Molino isolated Mena two-on-one, but Molino’s touch was poor and the ball skittered away from Larin. With the missed chance, Orlando squandered yet another lead a minute later. A shot by Frank Lampard just outside the six-yard box forced a save by Bendik, and the rebound fell to Stiven Mendoza who crashed the equalizer into the back of the net.

62′ – The home side having coughed up yet another lead, Orlando City restored their advantage. Julio Baptista snatched the ball off Jason Hernandez on the left flank deep in NYCFC territory, and he fed Kaka who was felled by Maxine Chanot, forcing the referee to point to the spot. The Brazilian deposited the ensuing penalty past a wrong-footed Saunders, and Orlando went back on top.

70′ – Desperate to stay in the match, NYCFC’s defense caved, then saved the match. Molino beat the offside trap and ended up one-on-one with Saunders, but when he rounded the keeper, it allowed time for Ronald Matarrita to race back and make a desperate clearance at the very last moment. He paid the price, slamming into the post as he slid to clear the ball, but he would return with the game still 2-1.

Man of the Match: Kaka

Goalscorers: Kaka (32′, 63′), Mendoza (55′)

Serie A roundup: Fiorentina edges Chievo, Roma coughs up lead, Inter held

ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 20:  Kevin Strootman of AS Roma in action during the Serie A match between AS Roma and Udinese Calcio at Olimpico Stadium on August 20, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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An early header by Aston Villa loanee Carlos Sanchez gave Fiorentina its first win of the season in their home opener, a 1-0 result over Chievo Verona.

The Villa midfielder rose high above Dario Dainello to smash home the only goal of the match. Unfortunately, there was a catch as starting goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu was forced off just before halftime with an injury. The 30-year-old Romanian international took a kick to the head and could not continue.

Roma was left highly disappointed after coughing up a 2-0 lead, finishing 2-2 on the road at Cagliari. Diego Pierotti gave the visitors the lead at Stadio Sant’Elia just six minutes in by slotting home a penalty. Just after halftime, Kevin Strootman doubled Roma’s lead with his first goal since February of 2014 by poking in Edin Dzeko‘s headed assist from point-blank range.

However, it would come undone. Marco Borriello would pull Cagliari back within one just 10 minutes after Strootman’s score by tapping in a rebound, and Marco Sau poked one in at the far post to equalize in the 87th minute, sending Roma back with just a point.

Frank de Boer’s debut at the San Siro ended in a 1-1 draw with Palermo as Mauro Icardi headed home completely unmarked in in the 72nd minute to cancel out Andrea Rispoli’s opener just after halftime.

Torino pummeled Bologna at home 5-1 behind a hat-trick from Andrea Belotti. The trio is the first hat-trick of the 22-year-old’s professional career. Josef Martinez and Daniele Baselli also found the scoresheet for Torino who earned their first points of the season.

Elsewhere, Udinese used a goal in the first five minutes and another late in stoppage time to beat 10-man Empoli 2-0. Genoa scored three goals in an 11-minute span early in the second half to top Crotone 3-1. Sassuolo grabbed all three points at home with a 2-1 defeat of Pescara. Finally, Sampdoria came back from an early deficit to top 10-man Atalanta 2-1. Fabio Quagliarella scored from the spot to level things up and Sampdoria grabbed the winner a minute before halftime behind Paraguayan Edgar Barreto.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona squeaks out win, Villarreal and Sevilla ends scoreless

SEVILLE, SPAIN - AUGUST 14:  Ivan Rakitic of FC Barcelona in action during the match between Sevilla FC vs FC Barcelona as part of the Spanish Super Cup Final 1st Leg  at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on August 14, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
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Barcelona rode a first-half header by Ivan Rakitic the whole way to their second win in two league matches with a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Arda Turan delivered the all-important assist, lofting the ball in from the left as Rakitic came streaking in to trail the play and climb high to meet the ball. Marc-Andre ter Stegen stood tall in goal for the visitors to San Mames, making four saves including one off his face to keep a powerful shot by Benat out of net following an embarrassing mistake from the German that opened up the chance.

Sevilla failed to keep pace with Barcelona and the rest of the teams at the top, slumping to a 0-0 draw at Villarreal. The Rojiblancos couldn’t even muster a shot on target, weathering five from the hosts among 12 overall attempts on net. Both sides wasted chances with sloppy crosses and missed shots, with Villarreal coming closest on a goal called back for offsides just before halftime. A Mateo Musacchio header found substitute Rafael Borre at the back post but the young Colombian was just past his defender.

Nabil El Zhar scored a double and Kevin-Prince Boateng found the scoresheet as well as Las Palmas hammered Granada 5-1 at Estadio Gran Canaria. The 2015 promoted side has now won two games in two after finishing 11th last season.

Deportivo Alaves and Sporting Gijon played to a 0-0 draw at Estadio Mendizorrotza in a match that featured just three combined shots on target.