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.

Huddersfield seal fairytale promotion to Premier League

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LONDON — Huddersfield Town have been promoted to the Premier League.

Let that sink in.

[ MORE: Wagner reacts to “fairytale” ]

The Terriers, for the first time in their history, will play in the PL and for the first time since 1972 they will be in the top-flight of English soccer.

German-American manager David Wagner has worked a miracle to turnaround a team who finished in 19th place in the Championship last season. They beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks on Monday after a tight, tense 120 minutes of action at Wembley Stadium, holding their nerve to seal an estimated windfall of $218 million next season and up to $372 million if they survive in the PL for another season.

All day long, and perhaps all season long, it has felt like Huddersfield were destined for promotion.

Huddersfield sold out their full allocation of tickets, 39,150, and their fans made the most noise all day long. There was no contest.

In central London Huddersfield’s fans piled on to the tube heading to Wembley for their day of reckoning.

“It’s his first full season as a fan!” said a proud mother decked out in a Huddersfield shirt as she hugged her five-year-old son proudly. “What a time to start!” replied a stranger, also a Huddersfield fan.

Excited chatter filled the 15 minute tube ride from Baker Street to Wembley Park as fans “I can’t believe it,” said one fan to another, quietly. “It will hit home when we get into the stadium,” his friend replied.

Steven Sunderland stood outside Wembley with his wife Melanie and their daughter Megan.

He summed up the surprise that Huddersfield were even one game away from the Premier League to start with.

“It would be amazing to play all of the big clubs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, clubs like that,” Sunderland said. “I never thought we would make it. No chance. I just thought if we make midtable, it would be an improvement on last season because we’ve been struggling with relegation the last few seasons. This season, David Wagner has got the team playing really well, best team spirit I’ve ever seen for a long, long time. The fans are really connected. It shows today, there are nearly 40,000 Huddersfield fans here today and they are up for it.”

Oh yes. Yes they were.

Amid dissecting the struggles of Yorkshire rivals Leeds United, talk of just going up to the PL for one year and then enjoying it “no matter how we do” was rife among the Huddersfield fans. One Terriers supporter puffed out his cheeks, gripping his can of cider nervously as he walked up Wembley Way.

Tense was the word of the day.

With the future of both clubs on the line, the game itself didn’t deliver end-to-end excitement. With an estimated $218 million on the line for next season and $370 million if they manage to stay up one year in the PL, the economic benefit for Huddersfield the club, and the town, will be huge.

When Michael Hefele headed wide and Isaiah Brown missed a glorious chance early on, you began to wonder if it was Huddersfield’s day. In the end none of that mattered.

Christopher Schindler stepped up and slotted home the winning penalty kick after Danny Ward saved from Jordan Obita as Huddersfield had reached the promised land.

Huddersfield chairman Dean Hoyle summed up his emotions after taking over the club and putting in a prudent plan for promotion involving loan players and a budget less than $12 million this season.

“I’m so emotional. To say I’ve been supporting this club since 1969, to be a Premier League team now – dreams come true,” Hoyle said. “It’s huge what it means for Huddersfield, we’re on the big stage. It proves you don’t have to blow your brains to get promoted. We’ve done it the right way.”

What impact will this have on the Yorkshire town?

Sunderland and his family summed it up perfectly as yet another underdog, just like Bournemouth, Blackpool and Burnley before them, has risen to the promised land.

“It is massive. It is the land of milk and honey if you like, the place where everybody wants to be,” Sunderland said. “It will be brilliant, for the town. Just that little bit of success makes a big difference. We’ve been on TV this season more times than we have been the last 10 seasons. Next year it will be high profile very week. Match of the Day, on TV… Champions League the year after!? You never know.”

What did Wagner have to say? He told ProSoccerTalk he wants Huddersfield to keep the identity he has helped build and nurture.

“We have to be focused on ourselves and this football club has to be focused on themselves. This football club has created an identity and this was always our target, that we create an identity and a style of football where even if we wear neutral jerseys people from outside are able to say ‘okay, that could be Huddersfield.’ I think it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other small clubs. This football club has its own story and I think, we are on the way.”

They certainly are. Watch out, Premier League. Huddersfield are on their way.

David Wagner reacts to Huddersfield’s promotion

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LONDON — There will be an American coach in the Premier League next season.

David Wagner, 45, led Huddersfield Town to its first-ever promotion to the Premier League as the Terriers beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks after a tense Championship Playoff Final at Wembley which ended 0-0 after 120 minutes.

Speaking after the nail-biting win, Wagner was delighted that his team proved everyone wrong and came from nowhere to reach the top-flight for the first time since 1972.

“A lot of the pundits wrote us off before the season,” Wagner told Sky Sports. “Over the season I thought we could do a little bit more, I thought around Christmas when we’d played everyone we had a chance. What happened is an unbelievable story – a fairytale.”

The former U.S. national team forward has galvanized the club, linking the team and fans together with passion and a plethora of loan players from the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea.

What he has achieved this season has left Huddersfield fans stunned as the former Borussia Dortmund II boss, who left the German giants in November 2015, has built a hardworking, organized team.

ProSoccerTalk asked Wagner if he will look at any of the smaller teams who have been recently promoted to the PL — the likes of Bournemouth, Burnley et al. — to follow a blueprint of how to plan ahead.

“We have to be focused on ourselves and this football club has to be focused on themselves,” Wagner said. “This football club has created an identity and this was always our target, that we create an identity and a style of football where even if we wear neutral jerseys people from outside are able to say ‘okay, that could be Huddersfield.’ I think it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other small clubs. This football club has its own story and I think, we are on the way.”

They are certainly on their way and we will be hearing a lot about the Terriers in the days and weeks to come.

Huddersfield promoted to Premier League after PK drama

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LONDON — Huddersfield Town beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks in the Championship Playoff Final at Wembley on Monday to secure promotion to the Premier League for the first time in club history.

[ MORE: JPW on”miracle” for Terriers ]

In a tense, tight game Huddersfield missed big chances early on and Reading fought back valiantly but the Terriers won and secured an estimated $218 million jackpot for next season.

German-American manager David Wagner who got the better of Jaap Stam as his team won 4-3 on penalty kicks as Danny Ward saved Jordan Obita‘s spot kick and then Christopher Schindler scored the winner.

[ MORE: Wagner reacts to fairytale

A remarkable story as Huddersfield secured promotion to the top-flight of English soccer for the first time in 1972.

Huddersfield had the first big chance of the game as Aaron Mooy‘s free kick from the left found Michael Hefele but he nodded just wide after rising at the back post.

The Terriers continued to press and had a glorious chance to take the lead as Elias Kachunga got free on the right side of the box and his shot across goal looked destined to be tapped home by Isaiah Brown… but somehow he shinned the effort wide from one yard out.

At the other end Reading went close when Lewis Grabban dropped deep and curled towards the top corner but it flew just wide.

Huddersfield continued to pour forward in search of the opener as Nahki Wells’ cross was hooked clear and Reading, somehow, went in level at the break.

Reading started the second half well as John Swift burst into the box but his show was straight at Danny Ward who saved.

That effort sparked Huddersfield back into life as they twice surged into the box but couldn’t find the final pass at the crucial moment.

The game grew more tense as the clock ticked closer to 90 minutes with substitute Collin Quaner failing to get proper contact on Aaron Mooy’s cross.

Late on Reading pushed forward as Hefele made a wonderful last-ditch clearance with Yann Kermorgant lurking and Huddersfield lost captain Tommy Smith to a serious injury.

Seven minutes of stoppage time couldn’t find a winner, so the game went in to extra time but an extra 30 minutes failed to open up the game as Garath McCleary drilled a low shot wide and then Nahki Wells dragged a tired effort wide in the 116th minute and that was as close as either team came to scoring.

After 120 minutes it finished 0-0 and penalty kicks were needed to decide who gained promotion to the Premier League.

Huddersfield won on penalty kicks after Danny Ward saved Jordan Obita’s spot kick and then Schindler stepped up to send the Terriers into the top flight for the first time since 1972.

Marco Reus out several months with cruciate ligament tear

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DORTMUND, Germany (AP) Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder Marco Reus has been ruled out for several months with a partial tear of the cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Reus suffered the injury in Saturday’s German Cup final and Dortmund says, “Further examinations will be conducted over the next few days to determine what course of treatment is required. Borussia Dortmund will therefore not make any precise prognosis on the possible length of the player’s absence.”

Reus, who had been left out of Germany’s Confederations Cup squad after a season plagued by injury, suffered the latest blow in the first half of Dortmund’s 2-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the German season’s showpiece in Berlin.

Dortmund’s win gave the 27-year-old Reus his first title in a career of persistent injury setbacks.