Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SALVADOR, Brazil — Same round. Same result.
The U.S. Men’s National Team exited the World Cup in the Round of 16 for the second consecutive time on Tuesday night, once again suffering a demoralizing 2-1 loss in extra time. But whereas there was much disappointment four years ago from not being able to capitalize on the fortuitous schedule that was present through the knockout rounds, the consensus from the Americans following the defeat to Belgium at Arena Fonte Nova was that the program had not stagnated.
That progress had been made even if the end result for Jurgen Klinsmann’s men was the same to that of Bob Bradley’s in 2010.
That there was plenty to be optimistic about going forward.
So what exactly made this finish different?
“Because the country was paying attention and I think we’re building on something,” said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. “Listen, you’re not going to have progress every tournament because otherwise whoever wins the World Cup has got nowhere to go. We’re building on something. Bob did a great job, Bruce (Arena) before that.
“Jurgen’s building on that and so we’ve got some new, exciting players. … It’s progress on the field and it’s especially progress the number of people at home that were paying attention to it.”
While that may be true, some observers will be discouraged by the manner in which the Americans played. Yes, they had a difficult group that pitted them against some of the world’s best players. But the proactive style of soccer that was promised by Klinsmann when he initially signed on to be the U.S. head coach in 2011 was largely missing.
The 2-2 draw with Portugal in Group G play was the one real exception. Other than that, the U.S. struggled by and large to take the game to its opponents until it was in need of a late goal.
Still, the feeling within the group is that it did well enough under extremely difficult circumstances — tough group, lots of travel, an injury to its top forward — to consider this World Cup a success.
“This team showed, once again, it has balls,” said midfielder Michael Bradley. “Even in a difficult group, even when a lot of people weren’t ready to give us much of a chance to get out, even on a day like today when you’re playing one of the best teams in Europe, even at the end when you’re down 2-0 and it’d be easy to just pack it in, we continued to fight and continued to have a group of guys who leave everything they have on the field.
“Just because you do that doesn’t guarantee anything, doesn’t mean you’re going to win, doesn’t mean you’re going to play well. But that is a special quality and we have that and it’s something that we’ll continue to make sure is such a big part of who we are.”
There will be plenty of Klinsmann critics in the coming days, weeks and months. After all, almost no one escapes scrutiny after departing the World Cup.
Gulati, however, likes the job that Klinsmann did. Not just in navigating out of what was declared the Group of Death in Brazil, but over the course of Klinsmann’s three years in charge this cycle.
“In some ways, I did that evaluation before the draw when we re-signed him to a contract,” said Gulati. “We had seen enough positive movement and not just in the national team, but in the whole program. This is always the swing game where we are now for the U.S. — getting to the Round of 16.
“We don’t do that? We’re very, very disappointed. We get here and it’s kind of the swing game. We get beyond here, then it’s generally viewed as very successful. This year was a little different because the group we had in the first round. That, I think, was already a success and we’ll digest it a little bit.”
Klinsmann did not want to initially defend his work as U.S. head coach when given the opportunity in the post-game press conference at Arena Fonte Nova, but he eventually did. Klinsmann, like Gulati, cited the strides he feels are being made in the entire program and the overall World Cup showing as reasons why the U.S. is headed in the right direction.
“I think that we worked tremendously over the last couple of years,” said Klinsmann. “I said at the beginning of the last couple of years that I continue on the foundation that Bob passed on to me, which was a very strong foundation with the great job that he’s done. I found ways to introduce new, young players into our program and develop the game on every front of it. If it’s on the younger level, it’s on the senior level, on the organizational side, wherever it is, I think we’ve done a lot, a lot of work those couple years.
“Now it comes to a point where you have to swallow a game like this today and have to find a way to move on. Obviously, we’re excited about some young players through the ranks, some young players that maybe were not there yet but we know now what we have with them. We are excited with building a next Olympic team cycle, which is huge for us going to Rio de Janeiro in two years. We have a very exciting competition two years from now with Copa America in the United States.”
Klinsmann also noted the amount of attention that the Americans garnered back home. From the massive watch-parties in several cities of the United States to the media attention his side received, Klinsmann appeared more than proud about what he and his players had accomplished during the build-up to the World Cup and in the few weeks that they were in Brazil.
“The way that the people, the fans, embraced the team and the sport in the last couple years will only continue to grow,” Klinsmann said. “Especially with a league that is getting stronger and stronger and with the competitions we have ahead of us next year with the Gold Cup, then Olympics and Copa America, and then hopefully the Confederations Cup and then the four year cycle goes into the World Cup in Russia.
“I think we’ve done a lot of work. We would have liked to continue longer in this tournament, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a disappointment there, it’s just normal. … I think there’s a lot to build on going forward.”