Not about what but how: the US, Italy, England, Spain & Portugal exits

10 Comments

Those combing this site for opinions, answers and empathy early this morning found this strong piece from Richard Farley, which reflects on the progress of the United States soccer program after Tuesday’s World Cup ouster at the hands of Belgium in extra time.

Furthering that…

I received a Twitter reply today that charged Jurgen Klinsmann and the US team with failure, claiming that anything short of the quarterfinals is looked at as a joke performance by the world at-large.

Keeping in mind all of Richard’s points — quality of opposition, style of play, injuries, player depth — was the U.S. performance more impressive than every team that failed to make the knockout rounds? Was it worse than every team that continues onward?

In the latter case, the argument is fairly easy, but let’s rephrase the former query: Are you considering the U.S. tournament more of a success than Italy, England, Portugal and Spain?

Of course you are. But before another self high-five, consider style and what it means.

[ MORE: Analyzing Jurgen Klinsmann’s first World Cup with U.S. ]

[ MORE: Three things we learned in U.S. loss to Belgium ]

It’s hard-to-fathom whilst wallowing in the wake of a loss, but pretend Chris Wondolowski does manage to beat Thibaut Courtois and the Yanks move onto the quarterfinals. It doesn’t change Belgium’s dominance of the game, or the U.S. frittering away possession in the midfield. No one’s walking away claiming the Yanks were the better team, just that they had the better goalkeeper.

And by that logic, few would be tabbing the U.S. as favorite in a full-strength, neutral-site friendly played tomorrow against Italy, Spain, Portugal or England. That’s why these small signs of progress — committed defending, moments of dominant attack — against top competition are far more important to the growth of US Soccer than a single win or draw.

Look, beating Ghana and drawing Portugal are accomplishments, but the way the Americans controlled long stretches against Cristiano Ronaldo’s team is far more impressive than the points earned.

So let’s pull back the other four nations in question to join the United States. Italy can make some claims about a cheap red card but ultimately it was simply a disappointing attack to go with its traditional strong defense. Spain looked uninspired and sated, but ultimately is already a favorite to win its group at the next World Cup.

source: AP

Portugal and England, on the other hand, have some concerns. The former showed little outside of an injured Cristiano Ronaldo and needed gifts from Geoff Cameron and Fatau Dauda to earn any points. England looked lost outside of Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Gary Cahill, and drew send-off games against Honduras and Ecuador to run its recent record to 0W-3D-2L.

An English friend was telling me how no American player outside of Clint Dempsey or Tim Howard would play for the England team. Maybe not, but gone are the days when American starters wouldn’t make the bench for the Three Lions.

So where does the US team rank? Even if you consider the Yanks behind Portugal and England in addition to Spain and Italy, the fact of the matter is that the United States is actually in the discussion. The back-to-back Round of 16 performances aren’t viewing like the ‘miracle’ quarterfinal run of 2002, rather explained with a “The Yanks have shown they’re capable if they play to their potential.”

The States remain a rising force in soccer: not there yet, but coming. And it’s no longer silly to imagine that the US could be a team favored against Portugal, England or another European power in a full-strength, meaningful, neutral-site game at the next World Cup.