Yesterday afternoon the USA was eliminated from the World Cup by Belgium in overtime with a final score of 2 – 1. Since that time I have been giving some thought as to what I should write on the blog today. There's a part of me that wants to think about what could've been; the fact that the USA was so close to winning the game with a minute left in regulation still baffles me. There's another part of me that wants to complain about the continued lack of technical ability that USA posses in international soccer; the number of poor touches, dribbles, and passes continues to be difficult to watch. Then there's a part of me that continues to be optimistic about the future of US soccer and the future of the Sport in America in general. While making it to the semi-finals would've been amazing and while complaining about the lack of technical ability would feel good for a little bit I think I'm going to take the optimistic approach and talk about the future of soccer in America: both in terms of the next World Cup and the development of the sport in general.
When the game ended and the Belgian players celebrated what their country had not accomplished in almost 30 years (a place in the quarter-finals) I couldn't help feeling bad for Tim Howard. What a performance. Howard (the USA goal keeper) set a World Cup record with 16 saves in the match. Howard was the true heart of this team yesterday evening and his post match interview is a display of class, leadership, perspective, and dignity. He truly is a standup guy and if you haven't had the chance to watch the interview please take the time to do so here. He truly had an amazing performance and which makes the loss that much more palpable.
The Path to Russia (2018 World Cup)
With that tribute out of the way, I want to take a little time to look toward the future of US soccer. Something that many casual observers may not know is that the "world cup" really started about three years ago with the World Cup qualification process. During World Cup Qualifiers over 200 countries from around the world compete for places in the World Cup through a series of complicated qualification rounds and playoff games. The general gist of World Cup Qualifications is that a certain number of countries from each region of the world will qualify (Europe: 13 teams, South America: 5 or 6 teams, Africa: 5 teams, Asia: 4 or 5 teams, North/Central America: 3 or 4 teams, Oceania: 0 or 1 teams). What this means is that the USA's road to the 2018 World Cup in Russia will most likely begin sometime in the summer of 2016 (complicated translation: USA will get a bye to round 3 of CONCACAF qualifications which will start then).
In between now and then the USA will also participate in a number of international friendlies, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and hopefully the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia!
Now, considering the overwhelming likelihood that the USA will qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, most of these matches (except for key qualifying matches) will serve as chances to figure out which players will participate for the USA in the 2018 World Cup. For example, in the 2013 Gold Cup (hosted every two years), Klinsman played mainly backup players to help him decide who would be coming on the 23 man squad to Brazil the following year. That means that next years Gold Cup and (hopefully) the 2017 Confederations Cup (if we win the 2015 Gold Cup we will go to the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia) will serve as similar opportunities for Klinsman to pick the best 23 players to go to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Youth & Development
As I stated in the opening, one of the frustrating parts of the US soccer team is a continued lack of technical skill. Like any sport, soccer consists of four aspects: 1) Mental, 2) Physical, 3) Tactical, 4) Technical. In terms of mental and physical ability the USA is usually one of the best teams in every World Cup. We are both very athletic and have a history of mental strength. Tactically the USA usually performs well too; knowing how to win games against more skilled opponents. It is in the area of technical ability that the USA continues to lag behind the more talented competition in the international tournaments.
After the USA vs Belgium game yesterday I listened to an ESPN interview with Tommy Smith (ESPN Soccer Analyst). He commented on this exact thing by pointing out the difference between the technical ability of the USA compared to that of a country like Argentina. He noted that watching Messi run with the ball compared to even the best American player is a world of difference.
One of the hopeful signs of the future of American soccer is the emergence of some young talent that looks to have more technical ability than previous generations of American soccer. Players like: Julian Green (20), Deandre Yedlin (20), Mix Dikerud (23), Aron Johannson (23), and Terrence Boyd (23), have all showed a load of technical ability and considering their youth could all be in their prime by the time the next World Cup rolls around in 2018. If these players continue to develop their skills we could be looking at a US soccer team with far more technical ability than we have ever fielded before!
The Future of Soccer in America
This is a question that is raised just about as often as the World Cup comes around. Is this the World Cup that serves as a catalyst to the growth of soccer in the US? Will the MLS become competitive with the European leagues? Will soccer become the US's most popular sport now?
While I enjoy having these conversations it can be frustrating because these questions often ignore the growth that has already taken place. One of the greatest things about the growth of soccer in the US has been the fact that it has been a grassroots (pun!) movement! While almost every other sport has been controlled by media and sponsors, soccer has slowly eked into the national spotlight with momentum that has not been generated by advertising dollars and media manipulation. The number of males aged 18 - 34 that are interested in soccer is through the roof and that sort of audience is the most desirable in terms of T.V. sports marketing.
As the sport continues to grow stateside we will begin to see the implementation of a more European development program. Currently, the goal of most youth soccer players is to play soccer in college (years 18 - 22) and turn pro after (age 22/23). In Europe, the goal of most youth soccer players is to join a professional youth team in their early teen years (age 12 - 14) and sign their first professional contract by their mid to late teen years (age 16 - 19). The gap in developmental quality between these two model is huge! As the MLS continues to expand and as MLS franchises continue to learn from their competition overseas you will see fewer and fewer local club soccer teams and more MLS developmental teams. This will speed up the process of selecting and identifying the talent in American soccer (a tall task considering the size of the selection pool!).
The World Cup Isn't Over!
With all this being said, World Cup 2014 in Brazil isn't over! Yes, the USA has been eliminated, guess what??? so has Spain, Italy, England, & Portugal (4 teams everyone thought would make it further than the USA!). There are only 8 games left in the World Cup (4 quarter final matches, 2 semi final matches, 1 third place match, and the finals). These last games should be enjoyed as a display of some of the highest talent under the most pressure! Which teams will advance and which teams will go home? Don't turn off the World Cup now that the USA has been eliminated! Continue to watch and enjoy the beautiful game now that you don't have to stress about the USA!
Food for thought!