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.

PL roundup: Liverpool join Arsenal at the top; Bradley’s first point

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 17:  Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool looks on during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on October 17, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in the Premier League…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Liverpool 2-1 West Bromwich AlbionFULL RECAP

Liverpool were less than 10 minutes from going top of the league — ahead of Arsenal on goals scored, the second tiebreaker — but Gareth McAuley grabbed a consolation goal in the 81st minute to upset the Reds’ pursuit of the PL summit. Instead, Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho‘s first-half goals were only enough to send Liverpool second in the league — behind the Gunners on goal differential.

Arsenal 0-0 MiddlesbroughFULL RECAP

The door was left wide open by Arsenal, thanks to the Gunners’ disappointing draw with previously-18th-place Middlesbrough at the Emirates Stadium a couple hours earlier in the day. Arsenal enjoyed a whopping 75 percent of possession, but were nullified in the final third by a dogged defensive performance by Boro. The one time Arsenal found the back of the net, through Mesut Ozil in the final few minutes, the German playmaker’s goal was (correctly) ruled out as offside.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Arsenal reacts to having his goal disallowed during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Middlesbrough at Emirates Stadium on October 22, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Bournemouth 0-0 Tottenham HotspurFULL RECAP

Speaking of underwhelming 0-0 draws featuring a side from north London with title aspirations, let’s talk about Tottenham. If not for back-to-back draws with West Brom and now Bournemouth, Spurs would be top of the league. Alas, the unbeaten start has reached nine games, though Mauricio Pochettino‘s side has been blunted since Harry Kane was lost to injury on Sept. 18. Fortunately for Spurs, Kane is back in full training and expected to return to action in the near future.

Leicester City 3-1 Crystal PalaceFULL RECAP

That’s more like it from Leicester. The defending champions had won just one point from their last three league games before racing out to a 3-0 lead against Palace. Ahmed Musa, Shinji Okazaki and Christian Fuchs bagged the goals for Claudio Ranieri‘s side before Yohan Cabaye grabbed a late consolation goal in the final few minutes. All is not well for the Foxes, though, as Jamie Vardy is without a goal in his last nine games played (all competitions). Saturday marked just the fourth time this season that Leciester managed to score multiple goals (all competitions).

Swansea City 0-0 WatfordFULL RECAP

Bob Bradley’s Swansea earned a point on the American’s PL home debut, a game which the Swans had the upper hand for most of the 90 minutes, but failed to put away a handful of key chances. Still, it’s a clean sheet for a side with one of the worst defensive records in the PL this season, and a massive improvement on the dodgy defending away to Arsenal last weekend.

SWANSEA, WALES - OCTOBER 22: Swansea manager Bob Bradley reacts during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Watford at Liberty Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Swansea, Wales. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Burnley 2-1 EvertonFULL RECAP

Scott Arfield scored a 90th-minute winner at Turf Moor, as Burnley dropped Everton to four games without a victory. Sam Vokes put the home side ahead not long before halftime, but Yannick Bolasie‘s first goal for Everton pulled the visitors level just before the hour mark. After starting the season five games unbeaten, Ronald Koeman‘s Toffees have just two points to show for their last four games and have slipped to sixth in the league table, and could finish the weekend as low as eighth.

West Ham United 1-0 SunderlandFULL RECAP

The West Ham reclamation continues, at a snail’s pace, thanks to Winston Reid‘s 93rd-minute winner against last-place (now just 2 points from 9 games) Sunderland. After an horrific start to the season, the Hammers are unbeaten in three, including back-to-back 1-0 wins, and just two points stand in between themselves, in 15th, and Southampton, in eighth. Slaven Bilic has survived.

Hull City 0-2 Stoke CityFULL RECAP

If Stoke City are winning games, chances are Xherdan Shaqiri is amongst the goals. On Saturday, Shaqiri was the goals for the Potters, bagging a brace either side of halftime to make it back-to-back wins for Mark Hughes‘ side as the ascent up the league table follows a nearly identical path to that of West Ham.

Sunday’s PL schedule

Manchester City vs. Southampton — 8:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN/NBCSports.com
Chelsea vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET, NBCSN/NBCSports.com

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern, Hertha 1-2; USMNT’s Pulisic stars again

Bayern's Douglas Costa takes a selfie after scoring his side's second goal during the German Bundesliga soccer match between FC Bayern Munich and Borussia Moenchengladbach at the Allianz Arena stadium in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
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Bayern Munich’s weekend went pretty well, with the Bavarians leading longtime rival Borussia Dortmund by six points after a win over Borussia Monchengladbach on Saturday.

Bayern has a three-point lead on the field, with John Brooks’ Hertha Berlin second after another win.

[ MORE: Bob Bradley on Swans draw ]

And it was another great day for the career of young American winger Christian Pulisic. More below…

Ingolstadt 3-3 Borussia Dortmund

Paraguay’s Dario Lezcano and the hosts looked prepared to cruise to a 3-1 win when he netted his second goal of the day, but there was still a half-hour left at Audi-Sportpark.

Adrian Ramos scored in the 69th minute, opening the door for the latest big moment for American teenager Christian Pulisic. The diminutive attacker scored his second Bundesliga goal of the season in stoppage time to propel BVB to a point.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had BVB’s other goal.

Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, right, and Lukas Pisczek cheer over  a goal during the German Bundesliga soccer match between FC Ingolstadt 04 and Borussia Dortmund   in Ingolstadt, Germany,  Saturday Oct. 22, 2016. (Andreas Gebert/dpa via AP)
(Andreas Gebert/dpa via AP)

Hertha Berlin 2-1 Koln

Anthony Modeste and Koln had less than 10 minutes to celebrate their equalizer, as Niklas Stark’s 74th minute goal lifted Hertha to all three points. USMNT center back John Brooks went the distance at center back.

Bayern Munich 2-0 Borussia Monchengladbach

What looked like a potential onslaught in the first half hour settled into a final score line, as Arturo Vidal and Douglas Costa goals were enough for Carlo Ancelotti’s crew at the Allianz Arena. Gladbach managed just two shots, none on goal, in the loss. USMNT mid Fabian Johnson went 90 minutes in the loss.

Hamburg 0-3 Eintracht Frankfurt — Another 90 for USMNT’s Chandler
Freiburg 2-1 Augsburg — Nils Petersen nets winner.
Bayer Leverkusen 0-3 Hoffenheim — Early red card for hosts.
Darmstadt 3-1 Wolfsburg — Three different goal scores in win.
RB Leipzig vs. Werder Bremen — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Schalke vs. Mainz — 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday


Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 8 6 2 0 20 4 16 4-1-0 2-1-0 20
 Hertha BSC Berlin 8 5 2 1 14 9 5 4-0-0 1-2-1 17
 1899 Hoffenheim 8 4 4 0 16 10 6 2-2-0 2-2-0 16
 1. FC Köln 8 4 3 1 13 6 7 3-1-0 1-2-1 15
 RB Leipzig 7 4 3 0 12 5 7 2-1-0 2-2-0 15
 Borussia Dortmund 8 4 2 2 20 10 10 3-1-0 1-1-2 14
 Eintracht Frankfurt 8 4 2 2 13 8 5 2-2-0 2-0-2 14
 SC Freiburg 8 4 0 4 10 12 -2 4-0-0 0-0-4 12
 FSV Mainz 05 7 3 2 2 14 12 2 1-1-1 2-1-1 11
 Mönchengladbach 8 3 2 3 10 12 -2 3-1-0 0-1-3 11
 Bayer Leverkusen 8 3 1 4 11 12 -1 2-1-1 1-0-3 10
 FC Augsburg 8 2 2 4 7 11 -4 1-1-2 1-1-2 8
 Darmstadt 8 2 2 4 8 15 -7 2-2-0 0-0-4 8
 Werder Bremen 7 2 1 4 9 18 -9 2-0-2 0-1-2 7
 VfL Wolfsburg 8 1 3 4 5 11 -6 0-2-2 1-1-2 6
 FC Schalke 04 7 1 1 5 7 11 -4 1-0-2 0-1-3 4
 FC Ingolstadt 04 8 0 2 6 7 17 -10 0-1-3 0-1-3 2
 Hamburger SV 8 0 2 6 2 15 -13 0-1-3 0-1-3 2

Confirmed: Knee ligament damage for Andres Iniesta

VALENCIA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22:  Andres Iniesta of FC Barcelona reacts injured on the pitch during the La Liga match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at Mestalla stadium on October 22, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
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Andres Iniesta’s footballing career has defined for an entire generation the words consistency and professionalism.

[ MORE: Messi scores late winner vs. Valencia; Neymar hit with a bottle ]

Now 32 years old and Barcelona’s longest-tenured servant, Iniesta has played more than 40 games (all competitions) every season since the 2003-04 campaign, back when he was a 19-year-old La Masia product quickly breaking into the first team. Part of a run like that is down to unparalleled talent and an unwavering commitment to craft, but, of course, a stroke of good luck on the serious-injury front.

It’s looking quite unlikely he’ll extend his 40-games-played streak to a 13th season in 2016-17, however, after the club confirmed fears on Saturday that Iniesta suffered knee ligament damage during a heavy challenge by Valencia midfielder Enzo Perez early in the first half of Barca’s 3-2 victory — statement from Barca’s official website:

The first team player Andres Iniesta has injured the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee. When he arrives in Barcelona the player will have more tests to find out the exact extent of the injury.

The Blaugrana also lost Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique to injuries during their Champions League triumph over Manchester City, as well as Rafinha and Arda Turan, who picked up knocks of their own in training during the week. Injury crisis at the Nou Camp.

Klopp: “Would’ve been kind of a joke” if Reds tossed away lead

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool applauds the fans following their team's 2-1 victory during the Premier League match between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion at Anfield on October 22, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
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It’s kinda funny that Liverpool nearly threw away a dominant hour by taking its foot off the gas pedal on Saturday at Anfield.

The Reds took a two-goal lead but had to hold on for their three points, eventually exhaling with a 2-1 win over West Brom.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

How would manager Jurgen Klopp have felt if his dominant side, one that failed to put away maybe a dozen chances versus the Baggies, drew?

“We had to finish the game much earlier,” Klopp said. “It would have been kind of a joke if we drew or lost today. We were unbelievable. We wasted a little energy in the second half. … Performance, really good against a team like this that were here to get somehow something.”

He’s right, of course. The Reds need to learn to kill teams off, even if star West Brom goalkeeper Ben Foster deserves plenty of credit for another starring role against a top team.