When a cycle or era of life ends, it is good to look back on the accomplishments and memories made in that time. It is also natural to look forward to the future phase of life and what it may bring, with new goals now in reach.
The United States Men’s National Team now moves onto this next phase in their life. Last Tuesday’s loss to Belgium not only signified the end of the United States’ time in Brazil, but it also closed the book on a four year cycle that began the second the final horn sounded in the United States’ extra time loss to Ghana in South Africa. While the FIFA World Cup is certainly the marquee event for the national team, the four years building up to the world cup include drastic changes and important events that shape the team’s identity and look for the upcoming World Cup. The United States endured a roller coaster of four years that included historic friendlies, important World Cup qualifiers, and battles for regional supremacy in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. In addition, the United States made a key coaching change that altered the course of the future for the national team. Before moving our eyes to Russia in 2018 and labeling important markers for this new cycle, the key events of the past four years deserve one last look for the memories they provided fans and the impact they had on the United States moving forward.
On July 28th, 2011, the United States fired Bob Bradley, the manager of the national team and father of current midfielder Michael Bradley. Bob certainly had some notable achievements, such as defeating first-ranked Spain 2-0 in the Confederations Cup semifinals in 2009 and winning the group in the 2010 World Cup. However, Sunil Gulati and the U.S. federation were not satisfied with the progress being made on all levels of United States soccer. The U.S. failed to earn a single win in their first eight friendlies after the World Cup, and Bob’s last match in charge was a Gold Cup final match against Mexico in Los Angeles with a Confederations Cup berth on the line, where the United States fell to their rivals 4-2. He was fired soon after and replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann, a man unfamiliar to the average U.S. soccer fan.
Bringing on Klinsmann to take control of the U.S. national team is quickly proving to be one of the most influential decisions in U.S. soccer history. While Bradley was a serviceable manager, he seemed content with the status quo of the American soccer system and what it had brought to the table. While many fans were not happy with a German manager, it proved to be what the soccer system in the United States needed. Coming from a country that has been a powerhouse in soccer, Klinsmann realized the need for a massive overhaul to the system in order for the United States to take the next step on the world stage. He has transformed everything from the youth levels on up, putting a system in place that does not show immediate dividends but has set up the United States to reach new heights in 2018 and beyond. His controversial decisions, while alienating certain people, have shown his stress on doing what is best for the future rather than doing what will be seen best in the public eye. Despite his eye towards the future, Klinsmann has already had several notable accomplishments.
In 2012, he picked up his first two signature victories in friendlies. The first came in February in Italy, where the U.S. defeated the Italians 1-0, their fist win over Italy in eleven tries. In August, the United States won 1-0 in Mexico, where the Stars and Stripes had been 0-23-1 in seventy-five years worth of games. These two victories were a sign of even better things to come in 2013. The year before the World Cup featured a 12-game win streak over the course of several months that included a win over Germany and an undefeated run to the 2013 Gold Cup title. And let’s not forget that the tournament that takes place in Brazil is actually the World Cup Finals, not the World Cup (Yes, the United States made it to the World Cup finals, but unfortunately not the finals of the World Cup finals.). The United States did not just receive a free pass to Brazil. The U.S. clawed their way out of a group of four teams to reach the “hexagonal”, the final six teams of qualifying for CONCACAF. In what has proven to not be the easiest of regions, the United States not only secured one of the spots for Brazil but also won the group by four points after dropping their first match.
Although Klinsmann produced multiple consecutive strong years that silenced his critics, they would be soon to return just before the World Cup. When Klinsmann cut the World Cup roster to the final twenty-three members in May, he made the decision to leave off American soccer icon Landon Donovan, whose most famous moment was a stoppage time goal against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup that vaulted the United States from elimination to first place in the group. Many accused Klinsmann of letting his personal feelings get in the way of the decision, and he only angered the American public further by criticizing the American sports system as well as basketball star Kobe Bryant. Many still believe that Donovan would have made a difference in Brazil, but most serious American soccer fans understand why this was a smart decision. Klinsmann sent a message to the future that no one is above the system; players should not be taking sabbaticals, such as Donovan did in 2013, and the players should be fully committed to the program that has been put in place. If United States fans want to see the national team take the next step, decisions like this must be made to benefit the future. Even without an eye to the future, the United States proved themselves to be a quality side without him in the World Cup.
That controversy led the United States into Brazil. With the World Cup so fresh on our minds and with over a week left, not much needs to be said. However, there are two things that happened that served as a glimpse into the future for U.S. soccer and a reminder of the progress we have made. The first thing is the win over Ghana, our nemesis from Africa that had knocked the Stars and Stripes out from the past two World Cups. While the win was not pretty, it indicated that the team is getting over a hump in the road and moving on to the next one. The other thing was not a game, but rather a moment. In the 107th minute against Belgium, down 2-0, baby-faced sub Julian Green put the ball into the back of the net on a beautiful volley that was his first touch ever in a World Cup match. The play was a perfect cross of present and future; it wasn’t enough, as the loss proved the U.S. has not taken that full next step yet, but that moment may have defined what the future will look like for the team.
What does that future hold? For many Americans, only the World Cup can capture their attention, and they will have to wait four years to tune in again. However, for those who really bleed the red, white, and blue, there will be several exciting opportunities for the United States over the next few years. Next summer, the United States will defend their Gold Cup title with a chance to clinch CONCACAF’s berth to the Confederations Cup in 2017. In June 2016, the United States will serve as host of the Copa America Centenario, a 16-team tournament featuring all 10 squads from South America in addition to the United States, Mexico, and four other CONCACAF teams. This tournament will be a chance to see where this team stands at the halfway point to the next World Cup, and opens up the possibility of competitive matches against some of the world’s best teams in Brazil and Argentina on our home turf. In addition, the U-23 team should qualify for the 2016 Olympics, a testament to Klinsmann remodeling the youth program. Finally, the summer of 2017 will hopefully be highlighted by a trip to the Confederations Cup, where the U.S. would get key competitive matches in Russia to prep for the all-important summer of 2018.
Other activities and actions outside of the program will certainly have an impact on the future beyond 2018 as well. The continued growth of Major League Soccer, which has recently added stars such as Kaka and David Villa, will only continue to benefit American players playing domestically. Looking far beyond the near future, the 2022 World Cup may find a new host depending on the current investigation into Qatar’s winning bid to host.
The United States just completed one of their most successful cycles in the team’s history, and the upcoming cycle is filled with promise, hope, and opportunity. If the United States end up as host in 2022, and Klinsmann’s development of the program continues, the future stars of United States soccer will not have to walk off the pitch in their final match with their heads down, but rather with their arms lifted in triumph.
Next week, I will examine the chances of each player on this year’s squad returning in 2018, plus some new faces to look for in coming years.
United States Men's National Soccer Team Writer. I am currently a student at the University of Virginia. I was raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I dream of a major league sports team coming to the area. I love all UVa athletics, Old Dominion football and men's basketball, the Green Bay Packers, whoever is playing the Miami Heat, and, of course, the USMNT. Follow me on Twitter @nathanalevy.