Julian Green

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.

MLS Cup Playoffs: LA Galaxy 3-1 Real Salt Lake (video)

Los Angeles Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme (37) congratulates forward Alan Gordon (9) for scoring against the Real Salt Lake during the first half of a knockout round MLS playoff soccer match in Carson, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy are through to the conference semifinals of the MLS Cup Playoffs, where they’ll take on the Colorado Rapids beginning Sunday, for the seventh time in eight years with a 3-1 knockout-round triumph over Real Salt Lake at the StubHub Center on Wednesday. Alan Gordon put the home side ahead inside the first quarter-hour before RSL drew level seven minutes later, but Emmanuel Boateng bagged a quickfire brace to complete a pair of brilliant individual exhibitions of dribbling inside the penalty area. With Steven Gerrard unavailable and Robbie Keane only fit to feature off the bench, Bruce Arena turned to Gordon, who gave way to Keane early in the second half after picking up an injury of his own, to play the fulcrum of the Galaxy attack, and it worked to near-perfection during the opening half-hour. Landon Donovan started the game and played 87 minutes, providing the kind of defensive work rate that’s been missing up and down the flanks of LA all season. Sebastian Lletget put in a near-flawless passing performance while playing deep in midfield. Don’t look now, but those are the Galaxy’s biggest question of 2016, all just about answered as the playoffs begin. I won’t say, “I told you so” if/when they win MLS Cup 2016, but…

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

14′ — Gordon finishes from close range for 1-0 — Landon Donovan -> Giovani dos Santos -> Alan Gordon. Just like Bruce Arena drew it up in preseason midseason last month this week this morning.

21′ — Plata converts from the spot after Morales’ dive — Javier Morales was angling for a penalty from the moment he entered the penalty area. All Emmanuel Boateng had to do was look at him, and Morales was going down.

26′ — Boateng weaves through to make it 2-1 — Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Boateng took advantage of some poor defending, and the Galaxy were back in the lead.

34′ — Boateng cuts inside, blows past his man, makes it 3-1 — There’s playing in top gear, and there’s having an extra gear that you rarely have to use because no one else on the field has it. Boateng falls into the latter category.

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

Men of the match: Emmanuel Boateng

Goalscorers: Gordon (14′), Plata (21′), Boateng (26′, 34′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: Toronto FC 3-1 Philadelphia Union (video)

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): 10 years later, Toronto FC are MLS Cup Playoffs victors. For eight seasons, the playoffs eluded them altogether. Last year, they were one-and-done in embarrassing fashion at the hands of their local rivals. In 2016, it was  their year — a proclamation we’d heard plenty times before — and so far, they’ve lived up to the hype. Wednesday’s 3-1 home victory over the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round gets the monkey off the Reds’ back, but more importantly, afforded Sebastian Giovinco, who bagged a goal and an assist on the night (his second straight game with such a line), 90 more minutes of game time after missing more than a month through injuries as the regular season wound down. After 270 minutes of action, the Atomic Ant looks sharp as ever, and destined to terrorize New York City FC, whom TFC will face in the conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

15′ — Atlidore feeds Giovinco for 1-0 — The first playoff goal in TFC’s 10-year history. Poor goalkeeping, ball-watching defending, terrible touches, an overhead cross, and a strike off the crossbar. There’s a lot going on here. Watch it all right here.

49′ — Osorio slams home from the corner for 2-0 — The Union have been bad at defending set pieces all season, so is it at all surprising a set-piece gaffe effectively ended their season? No, it’s not.

73′ — Bedoya puts the loose ball home for 2-1 — Speaking of failing to effectively clear a corner kick, the Union were gifted a lifeline 15 minutes before full-time.

85′ — Altidore puts it out of reach, seals it for TFC — Ken Tribbet did not have the best night a center back has ever seen. His final blunder resulted in Jozy Altidore reclaiming TFC’s two-goal lead, and ending the Union’s 2016 season.

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

Men of the match: Sebastian Giovinco

Goalscorers: Giovinco (15′), Osorio (49′), Bedoya (73′), Altidore (85′)

Men In Blazers podcast: Mourinho’s Chelsea return; Bradley’s 1st point

Men In Blazers
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Rog and Davo break down Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea with Manchester United, another stumble for Manchester City and Bob Bradley’s first Premier League point.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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VIDEO: Altidore, Giovinco combine for TFC’s first-ever playoff goal

Sebastian Giovinco
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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It’s been 10 years in the making, and Toronto FC finally have their first-ever goal in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

After failing to qualify for the playoffs in each of their first eight seasons, 2015 saw the Reds venture into the postseason for the first time ever, only to be thumped in the knockout round, 3-0, by their 401 derby rival Montreal Impact, of all sides.

This is the year, though, or so we’ve said and been told all season long. While it remains to be seen how deep of a run TFC can muster in 2016, they’ll always have the Jozy Altidore‘s terrible first touch; Altidore’s wayward second and third touches; Altidore’s overhead cross; and Sebastian Giovinco’s strike, all of which you can watch in all its hilarity glory below.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Playoffs edition | MLS Cup predictions ]