The USA lost to Belgium in the World Cup Tuesday, ending a tournament that showed signs of progress. But the same old weaknesses kept popping up, too.
At least those last 15 minutes left a good taste in Americans' mouths. The nation's summer fling with soccer could have ended much worse.
But where does the USA stand after its elimination? The country itself, as a member of the global soccer community, clearly took a major leap forward during the past few weeks. For the first time ever, really, World Cup excitement truly gripped the US.
But what about the team?
The USA progressed to the second round out of a group that some considered the hardest in the tournament. Would the 2010 edition have managed it? Perhaps, but we say: not likely. Scraping through the "Group of Death" in Brazil meant the USA advanced to the second round for the second consecutive World Cup – a first.
These accomplishments are obvious, but they provide compelling proof that Team USA has not stagnated. The bus is still moving forward.
But the issues that made the first 105 minutes of the Belgium game – and much of America's World Cup, frankly – an exercise in intestinal fortitude are the same issues that have defined the USA ever since it reemerged on the world stage in 1990. They can be distilled down to two main problems. The first, coach Jürgen Klinsmann can work to address before the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The second likely won't be solved until 2022 at the earliest.
This World Cup made something we have long known about the USA even more abundantly clear: They are an all-or-nothing bunch. They are a team that Mr. Miyagi would love: They are on one side or the other, but never in the middle. Either they're hunkering down in front of their goal as if taking mortar fire or they're throwing caution out the window as they drive 80 miles per hour the wrong way through a pedestrian zone with the engine in flames.
But soccer is not karate, Miyagi-san. Most of a soccer match takes place in that indeterminate middle where you are either attacking with suitable caution or defending while looking opportunistically to attack. The USA's inability to occupy this space with any conviction whatsoever against top teams means plenty of excitement, but little success.
The USA had to play about 300 of its 390 minutes in this World Cup tactically. That's the middle 80 minutes of the Ghana game, the very beginning and ending of the Portugal game, all 90 minutes of the Germany game, and the first 105 minutes of the Belgium game. In other words, in these 300 minutes, the USA didn't need to score, but it had to play effectively to get a certain result (which changed according to the circumstance).
In these 300 or so minutes, the USA never looked comfortable or convincing.
In the other 90 or so minutes, when the USA was needing a goal – when the nuances of playing for a "result" vanished – the play was at times wonderful to behold. So long as the USA is losing or desperate, it seems, it plays brilliantly. The same was true in 2010. Ask Slovenia. Or Algeria.
That's hardly a recipe for success, though. Of all the 32 teams in the World Cup, the USA was the second worst in terms of time of possession. The importance of time of possession can be overstated. But that's just plain awful, and it speaks to the discomfort American players felt during those 300 "gray" minutes of the tournament.
Reasons for the USA's lack of tactical acumen are many. Not enough American players play in Europe, where these tactics are as natural as bacon and eggs in the morning. And America, after all, has never looked too favorably on this aspect of soccer. It simply doesn't appear to come naturally to most home-grown Americans.
To some fans, that might seem a point of pride. To the soccer world, however, it is a glaring weakness.
Klinsmann said his goal in becoming coach of the American team was to free it to play soccer in a more American way. There were precious few hints of that in Brazil. Instead, perhaps he learned that first, the USA must learn to play soccer the world's way. Preferably before 2018.
This, of course, is a relative measure. The USA is ranked No. 13 in the world, and while that might be generous, you don't rise that high if you're playing with a bunch of short-order cooks and mailmen. The USA has talent, and arguably more than ever before. It just isn't world class talent.
There is not a single player on Team USA who is coveted by the top professional clubs in the world, and there never has been.
The USA's fighting spirit means it punches above its weight. This is not smoke and mirrors, it is a palpable advantage that the USA has over virtually every team it plays. But it's not enough. As we've seen, it can get you to the round of 16 in the World Cup and not much farther. There is little mystery about what needs to happen for the USA to make the next leap.
It needs to get better.
This not a switch Klinsmann can flip, but it is Klinsmann's real focus as US coach.
He's mentioned the lack of US players playing in Europe, which boasts the world's best leagues. If you were aspiring to be the best football player in the world, would you dream of playing in the Canadian Football League or the National Football League? That's Klinsmann's point. Americans won't be the best until they play with the best – all the time.
He's also bemoaned the college soccer system, which is wonderful in many ways but is not built to produce world-class players. Those college years are crucial in the development of soccer players. In other countries, top players are being groomed in soccer academies or playing for clubs' youth teams. The best are playing to the top clubs themselves.
Look at 19-year-old Julian Green. The man who scored America's lone goal Tuesday is seen as the future of American soccer. But he's half-German, and he's playing big minutes for the reserve team of Bayern Munich, which last year was the best club team in the world.
For now, he's the exception. But for the USA to seriously entertain dreams of deservedly beating teams like Belgium – much less Argentina or Germany – he needs to become the rule.
In this World Cup, the good news on this front came not from Brazil but from America. As Americans' love for soccer increases, their satisfaction with mediocrity and moral victories will decrease. Only when a generation of American youth wants to be the best soccer players in the world – whatever that takes – will the USA stand a chance of producing world-class talent.
Just maybe, America's first Great Soccer Generation will look back on Tuesday as the moment that fired their imagination.