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


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.

Where does Zlatan rank in MLS superstar signings?

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has announced his arrival in Major League Soccer in a typically understated fashion…

The big question surrounding Zlatan’s arrival at the LA GAlaxy on a two-year deal is if he can still produce goals on a regular basis following his serious knee injury last year which kept him out for eight months and continued to hamper him this season at Manchester United.

Yet another question is intriguing to many: where does the 36-year-old stack up in terms of the biggest signings in MLS’ 23-year history?

It’s an intriguing question to ponder and despite Zlatan’s status as one of the most recognizable players on the planet, the impact he will have on MLS will be determined on what he produces on the pitch. Some of the other star names who previously arrived haven’t produced star moments, even if they remained stars after their retirement.

With the Designated Player era ushered in by David Beckham in 2007 (Zlatan reportedly won’t be a DP and will received close to $3 million per year via TAM) many stars have come and gone in MLS with varying degrees of success. It isn’t an exact science as you need big name players to buy into the different challenges MLS brings up and, in essence, almost adapt their own games and reinvent themselves a little.

Some of the biggest names have struggled massively, while others have excelled and even elevated their previous status among the U.S. and global soccer community due to their play in MLS.

Below is a look where Zlatan’s arrival currently ranks in terms of the superstars to come to the U.S., with his ranking no doubt set to rise if he bangs in goals and keeps up his impressive artistry of the English language off the pitch.

Remember: below is a ranking of the top overseas stars to arrive in MLS during the DP era, so there are no U.S. national team or Canadian national team players because Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan and others would all be in this list otherwise.

Let’s be clear, we are talking about big-name overseas stars who have arrived as much for their superstar status off the pitch as well as their obvious playing talent to help the status of the league grow. We are focusing on the star power in the list below, with current MLS players in bold.

  1. David Beckham (LA Galaxy)
  2. Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC)
  3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)
  4. Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy)
  5. David Villa (New York City FC)
  6. Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)
  7. Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
  8. Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)
  9. Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls)
  10. Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact)
  11. Juan Pablo Angel (New York Red Bulls, Chivas USA, LA Galaxy)
  12. Nemanja Nikolic (Chicago Fire)
  13. Miguel Almiron (Atlanta United)
  14. Carlos Vela (LAFC)
  15. Bastian Schweinsteiger (Chicago Fire)
  16. Federico Higuain (Columbus Crew SC)
  17. Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact)
  18. Frank Lampard (New York City FC)
  19. Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps)
  20. Kaka (Orlando City SC)
  21. Jermain Defoe (Toronto FC)
  22. Steven Gerrard (LA Galaxy)
  23. Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
  24. Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC)
  25. Rafael Marquez (New York Red Bulls)

USWNT tops world rankings, England No. 2

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ZURICH (AP) The United States remains at the top of the FIFA women’s rankings after winning the SheBelieves Cup, and England moved ahead of Germany into second.

The Americans went unbeaten in the four-team round-robin tournament they hosted this month.

England, which lost the final game 1-0 to the Americans, finished runner-up and climbed one ranking place Friday.

Germany dropped to No. 3 after a last-place finish that cost coach Steffi Jones her job. The Germans were ranked in the top two for almost 10 years.

Canada and 2019 World Cup host France each rose one place to Nos. 4 and 5, respectively. Australia fell two to No. 6.

North Korea climbed one place to No. 10, and No. 11 Japan fell out of the top 10 for the first time since 2007.

Zlatan announces LA, MLS arrival in bizarre fashion

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has arrived in Major League Soccer.

The veteran striker terminated his contract at Manchester United earlier this week and the 36-year-old Swede will reportedly signed a two-year deal worth over $3 million per season with the LA Galaxy.

He confirmed that the Galaxy will be his club on Friday by taking out a full page advert in the LA Times in typically sarcastic fashion.

Zlatan kept it short and sweet, as the Galaxy’s new No. 9 will certainly be a blast in MLS, just for his off-the-field antics alone.

VIDEO: Usain Bolt trains with Borussia Dortmund

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Usain Bolt has taken part in his first proper training session with Borussia Dortmund’s first team as he continues to chase his dream of being a professional soccer player.

The eight-time Olympic champion, who retired as a sprinter earlier in 2017 after the World Championships, is on a two-day tryout with Dortmund which many are merely saying is a publicly stunt.

Yet with Dortmund allowing Bolt, 31, the chance to train with first team stars on Friday it may be a little more than just a chance for media members to flock to watch Dortmund in an open training session. Given the fact that Dortmund are sponsored by Puma, the same sponsor Bolt has, many are connecting the dots and it was a laid back training session on Friday as Bolt spent plenty of time signing autographs after scoring a header and a penalty kick.

Remember: Bolt is a lifelong Manchester United and has mentioned many times over the years that he would like to turn to professional soccer.

Earlier this month he announced he will captain a World XI at Old Trafford in a UNICEF charity game in June 2018, with Bolt teasing the planet on social media by saying he had signed for a soccer team. With his speed, power and size, is it really that far-fetched to think he could be a good targetman if he can sort out his hold up play and work on his endurance to last 90 minutes?

Watch the videos below as the Jamaican superstar scored a pretty solid PK, took part in training and obviously had most of Dortmund’s star players, such as Mario Gotze and Nuri Sahin, in awe.

Let’s see what the future holds for Bolt, but this is probably little more than Peter Stoeger and Dortmund having a longstanding offer accepted by Bolt to train with them. Maybe he could turn out for Dortmund’s reserve squad in a scrimmage and go from there?