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.

Watch Live: Swansea City vs. Liverpool (Lineups & Live Stream)

during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Swansea City at Anfield on November 29, 2015 in Liverpool, England.
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Liverpool continues to fight for a top 7 spot as it takes on 15th placed Swansea at the Liberty Stadium live at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN or live online via NBC Sports Live Extra.

The Reds need a result to ensure themselves a place in European play next year. They’re still in the competition and could make the Champions League by winning the competition, but down 1-0 to Villareal after the first leg of the semifinals midweek, that is by no means a sure thing.

WATCH LIVE: Swansea City vs. Liverpool live online via NBC Sports Live Extra

Despite that, Jurgen Klopp has rested a number of regulars, including goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, replaced by Danny Ward in the youngest-ever starting lineup for Liverpool in the Premier League. One man not rested is Daniel Sturridge starts up front for the Reds.

For Swansea, who sits eight points above the drop on the magic 40-point mark, Andre Ayew starts at the head of the attack, supported by Jefferson Montero, who’s beginning to receive more time after spending all of January and February stuck to the bench.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski, Rangel, Amat, Williams, Taylor, Britton, Cork, Sigurdsson, Routledge, Montero, Ayew.
Subs: 
Nordfeldt, Naughton, Fernandez, Ki, Fulton, Barrow, Gomis.

Liverpool: Ward, Clyne, Skrtel, Lovren, Smith, Stewart, Chirivella, Ibe, Ojo, Coutinho, Sturridge.
Subs: 
Mignolet, Benteke, Lallana, Lucas, Brannagan, Teixeira.

MLS Snapshot: Real Salt Lake 2-1 Houston Dynamo (video)

Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando shouts during the second half of an MLS soccer match against the Seattle Sounders Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, in Sandy, Utah. Real Salt Lake won 2-0. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
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The game in 100 words (or less): Real Salt Lake are tied (with the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas) for the top spot in the Western Conference and in the race for the Supporters’ Shield (with one and two fewer games played, respectively) following 2-1 come-from-behind victory over the bottom-of-the-league Houston Dynamo at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday. Jordan Allen and Yura Movsisyan bagged the goals for RSL, not long after Miranda gave the visitors the game’s first lead nine minutes after halftime. The lasting image of Saturday’s game, as seems to have been the case on about 100 prior occasions, was the late heroics of goalkeeper Nick Rimando (below video).

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

15′ — Willis denies Burrito not once, but twice — Joe Willis just would not be beaten by Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez.

54′ — Miranda uses the deflection for the opener — Credit Jamison Olave for the deflection if you must, but failing to deal with the initial ball into the box, followed by Nick Rimando spillage were just as at fault.

62′ — Allen fires past Willis for the equalizer — Likewise, turning the ball over five yards outside your own penalty area is inadvisable. The pass (Justen Glad) and finish (Allen) were clinical.

70′ — Movsisyan turns home the near-post cross — Demar Phillips provided the pinpoint cross, and Movsisyan made no mistake on the finish for a 2-1 lead. This is pretty soccer.

80′ — Rimando’s (double-)Save of the Year candidate — Never retire, Nick . Never, ever, ever, please.

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

Man of the match: Nick Rimando

Goalscorers: Miranda (54′), Allen (62′), Movsisyan (70′)

MLS Snapshot: New England Revolution 2-2 Orlando City SC (video)

New England Revolution forward Diego Fagundez, right, congratulates forward Juan Agudelo (17) after he scored against Orlando City during the second half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. The Revolution won 3-0. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
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The game in 100 words (or less): The New England Revolution and Orlando City SC love a 2-2 draw with each other, don’t they? Two weeks after a 2-2 stalemate at the Citrus Bowl, the two sides split four more goals between them on Saturday at Gillette Stadium. Juan Agudelo came off the bench with the game tied 1-1, 70 minutes on the clock, and scored what the Revolution believed to be the winning goal, if not for Carlos Rivas’s 90th-minute equalizer. Le Nguyen bagged a pair of assists on the day, and it’s little surprise that just as he’s getting things going for the season, the Revs have picked up at least a point in five of their last six games. The draw moves the Revs (10 points) up two spots in the Eastern Conference, to seventh, while the Lions started the day in seventh and finish in fourth.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

7′ — Fagundez roofs it for the opener — Lee Nguyen and Diego Fagundez working a one-two inside your penalty area is the last thing you want to see if you’re an opposing goalkeeper. They did it to perfection here, and the Revs had an early lead.

20′ — Revs come up empty in the scramble of all scrambles — How in the world did the ball not find the back of the net here? Unbelievable.

30′ — Molino slots home at the back post for 1-1 — Molino is catching a bit of fire of late, with three goals in his last five games, after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. Right place, right time on this one.

71′ — Agudelo slots home from a cross for 2-1 — Agudelo is finally on the board for 2016, about a month and a half later than you’d have hoped. When he’s on, he’s on and he makes it look so easy.

90′ — Rivas pokes it home in the face of goal — Cyle Larin is usually on the other end of crosses into the box, but the big Canadian showed a surprising combination of speed and chance-creating ability in setting Rivas up for the late equalizer.

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

Man of the match: Lee Nguyen

Goalscorers: Fagundez (7′), Molino (30′), Agudelo (71′), Rivas (90′)

Worker dies after falling ill at Qatar World Cup stadium site

In this photo taken during a government organized media tour, workers use heavy machinery at the Al-Wakra Stadium being built for the 2022 World Cup, in Doha, Qatar, Monday, May 4, 2015. Qatar’s inability to ensure decent housing for its bulging migrant labor population was “a mistake” the government is working to fix as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, the country’s top labor official said Monday, vowing his country would improve conditions for its vast foreign labor force. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
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DOHA, Qatar (AP) World Cup organizers say a worker has died after falling ill on the site of one of the stadiums being constructed for the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

[ MORE: The latest FIFA news ]

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy said Saturday that 48-year-old Indian national Jaleshwar Prasad died after he “fell ill on-site around 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday.”

The statement says that Prasad, who was a steel worker employed on the Al Bayt Stadium project, “received first aid treatment until paramedics arrived. He was transferred to Al Khor Hospital but sadly passed away around 11:30 a.m. Al Khor Hospital reported the cause of death as cardiac arrest.”

It adds that “a full investigation is underway.”

[ MORE: FIFA panel to monitor labor conditions in Qatar ]

Qatar is often criticized by rights groups and trade unions for alleged abuses and deaths on a range of construction projects linked to the 2022 World Cup since it won hosting rights in 2010.

Qatar is relying heavily on construction workers from south Asia.

A FIFA-appointed human rights expert from Harvard University recently advised that tournaments should be moved from countries where abuses persisted.