USMNT makes positive gains — on and off field — in World Cup run

 

The United States men’s national team took its time shuffling out of the Arena Fonte Nova on Tuesday. For the second consecutive World Cup, they had been eliminated in the round of 16, in extra time, by a score of 2-1.

So they lingered for a while, with their exhausted bodies and aching hearts and disbelieving minds, before they filed onto the team bus and out of the tournament, to disperse for their respective holidays or ongoing club seasons.

On a lovely night, this fine stadium across from a favela, newly built on the ruins of its recently blown-up predecessor in this old bay-side city, had seen how Tim Howard had made 16 heroic saves on 38 Belgian shots, the most by a goalkeeper in a World Cup game since 1966. Had seen how the Americans had hung tough with an effervescent Belgian side and held out until extra time, when Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku finally put the space between them that the vast talent gap prescribed. Had seen how even after they went down 2-0, the debutant Julian Green had poked in a goal and the Americans had made it a game after all.

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The USA was the last team knocked out of the round of 16. And so, by a quirk of scheduling, you could perhaps claim that the USA placed ninth at this World Cup. But ninth or 16th — or perhaps even 32nd and dead last — it was of little consolation to this team.

"31 teams get their heart broken," Howard said. "Sometimes you give everything you have and you do your absolute best and it doesn’t stack up, and that was tonight. We dreamed and we fell short of our dream."

While he addressed the press, Howard casually toted the man of the match award in a metal case. It is now his least-favorite award: "That’s for sure."

"We could have gotten something from this game," said captain Clint Dempsey. "It was for either team to have today. To this team a lot of respect because we went down with the fight. We pushed until the very end."

The somber faces on the players were to be expected. But even head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whose disposition is invariably sunny, looked down for the first time since taking over in 2011. "It’s a bummer for us ending on the losing side after a game of 120 minutes that gave everything to the fans, to the crowd: A real drama, a thriller," he said. "It was a game that just went to the extreme. We all are very, very, very proud of our team. Every player stepping on the field today gave everything they had. I think they made their country proud."

But with every World Cup elimination must come a diagnosis. If you accept that results at the World Cup are the only truth in international soccer, the outcome must be closely scrutinized, no matter how endearing a team is, no matter how hard you fall for its endless reserves of heart.

In his three years in charge, Klinsmann has changed just about everything. He drilled down on fitness even more than this program traditionally had. He brought in nutritionists and yoga instructors and assorted sports scientists. He talked of instituting a "proactive" playing style to anybody who would listen, to get away from the counterpunching mentality. He wanted the USA to make the game, not to chase it, as it always had.

He burned through a small army of players, gave anybody a chance if he thought he had even a remote chance of helping the cause, of advancing his vision. He challenged his stars, Dempsey and Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, and ostracized long-serving veterans Carlos Bocanegra and Landon Donovan. All in the name of progress.

But in the end, the Americans got exactly as far as they did four years ago. Yet strides have been made.

"I think that we worked tremendously over the last couple of years," Klinsmann said. "I found ways to introduce new, young players into our program and develop the game on every front of it."

The soccer has, at times, looked better, even if it’s been a painstaking process. And young players like Green and DeAndre Yedlin excelled on Tuesday.

The real gains, however, came off the field. "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.

More even than in 2010, America rallied around a soccer team it hardly knew existed not so terribly long ago. Soccer became the sport of the summer, drawing monster television ratings and dominating the national discourse.

"The number of people at home that weren’t soccer fans that tuned in, pretty incredible," US Soccer president Sunil Gulati said.

In Chicago, Grant Park filled up and Soldier Field filled up and other watch parties all around the country filled up. Bars filled up and so did people’s living rooms and conference rooms and lunchrooms, following on laptops, tablets and phones. "I believe that we will win" became a hashtag and a national creed, as well as the go-to chant. Wherever they went in Brazil, the USA enjoyed far stronger support than their opponents, which produced a tangible and useful energy at times.

"Very special," said Bradley. "Not many words to describe that."

The legacy of this tournament, like that of tournaments past, may not lie on the field. The USA did fine there, surviving the group of death against tall odds, and taking a much stronger team into extra time on grit and guts. But the real legacy is that of the impression made on a lot of people who weren’t previously much impressed by soccer.

For a while there, soccer in America became a movement. And soon enough, its consolidated momentum could push this team much further into the World Cup still.