Down 2-0 at the beginning of the second half of extra time, Jurgen Klinsmann called upon his third and final sub of the match against Belgium in the Round of 16 on Tuesday night. His name was Julian Green, and he was probably the most scrutinized inclusion to the US Men’s National Team World Cup roster heading into Brazil.
Almost instantly, Green caught a perfect flick pass, on the money, by Michael Bradley — a pass that he was hitting to perfection in the pre-World Cup games — and volleyed the ball past Thibaut Courtois, Belgium’s extremely talented 22-year-old ‘keeper, quickly bringing the American’s back within a goal.
With 12 minutes left, victory and a trip to the quarterfinals of the World Cup were still very much in reach. The game was not over yet.
Down by a pair of goals, the United States came out firing in the second half of extra time. I did not watch the first 87 minutes of the match, but from the replays, commentary and other things I have seen and heard, I can only assume we saw the same possession-less team we saw against Germany, and for most of the game against Ghana.
Careless giveaways and short, weak attacks ensued in the final attacking third for the US. Until Romelu Lukaku beat Tim Howard, who put in one of the greatest performances of any goalkeeper in World Cup history, for Belgium’s second goal of the night that is.
Minutes before the final whistle, Clint Dempsey had a chance to save his nation with nothing but the goal ahead of him, all apart of one of the best set-pieces I have ever witnessed with my own two eyes. The second goal didn’t happen, and the US lost the game, but there was nothing else for the boys to leave on the field. It was, and still is, all out there. And that’s all I can ask for.
There is nothing worse than looking back at a loss and thinking that each player on the field didn’t give it everything they had. Watching this team of underdogs, you couldn’t help but think that they had nothing left. And I’m proud of them for that.
It’s makes me sleep a lot better at night knowing that it wasn’t a lack of hustle or effort that kept the US out of the quarterfinals for the second time since 2002, but that they were beat by a better, bigger and far more talented European team.
A win would have left the US as one of the final eight teams remaining. Not that Costa Rico is, but a Top 8 team is something that the US is not yet. We finished 9th, due to some technicalities of the scheduling, which makes sense — we’re not quite in that Top 8, but we’re not far off.
There is talent on this squad that can be far better than what it was here in Brazil. I’ve bought into the Green hype, and along with Klinsmann, I think this 19-year-old German-American can be a star for the US when they step on the field in Russia in 2018. Deandre Yedlin, another curious inclusion to the 23-man squad, was brilliant in this World Cup, better than I or anybody else expected. And then John Brooks, the 21-year-old German-American that only played in one game while down here in Brazil, scoring one of the biggest goals in US history to give the team it’s only win of the tournament.
Four years from now, when we all gather again to watch the United States compete in this amazing sporting event, we’ll ask ourselves the age old question: are we good enough to win the World Cup? The answer in 2018 will probably be no, but it won’t be the stern no that we attached to us here in 2014.
The American mentality, as many have said, is that we can be the most fit team at the World Cup and the most mentally tough team of the 32, but becoming the most tactically sound and most talented team is something we have to strive four now. Belgium dominated the US in every aspect of the attacking game on Tuesday, creating more chances, shots and corners — Howard made 16 saves, for crying out loud, the most in a World Cup since 1966. The key now is to become that team like a Belgium and like Germany that can hold the ball, create space and get shot after shot on goal, and not be the team holding on a defensive stance for 90 minutes while we weather out the storm.
Finding and creating those players can be tough and that’s part of the challenge. But building a — maybe not world class — quality team that knows the game and knows how to play.
The facts are clear and the evidence is pretty damning: this nation, this great nation, is slowly but surly becoming one that appreciates the world’s game. It’ll never get past the ranks of football or maybe even basketball, from a league perspective that is with Major League Soccer, but it can and will become respectable. This World Cup was proof of that.
These last three weeks, these last four games have meant a lot to this country. The fans believed in the team and that we could win, despite what Klinsmann said before the tournament. They made us believe in not just 2014, but 2018, 2022 and beyond.
When Klinsmann put Green into the game, I honestly thought that he saw it as game over, and finally decided to give his young star some valuable World Cup minutes. But really, it was just another reason to believe when Green scored his first goal two minutes later.
Be proud, boys. You’re coming home to a new county — one that cares about soccer, and is willing to make this work.