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Jul 022014

It’s a simple question: Did the US Men’s National Team succeed or fail in Brazil?

The answer, however, is far more complicated.

Expectations for this particular USMNT were pretty low as soon as the group draw was announced back in December. The US found themselves staring at one of the world’s five best teams (Germany), one of the two best players in the world (Cristiano Ronaldo), and the one team they just could not solve (Ghana). As low as the expectations were in December, they might have sunk even lower after the announcement of the 23 man roster that would travel to Brazil. American soccer hero Landon Donovan was out while youngsters Julian Green, DeAndre Yedlin, and John Anthony Brooks were in. It seemed as if Jurgen Klinsmann was throwing in the towel for 2014 and looking ahead to 2018. After all, he had signed an extension through 2018 back in December. There was no way this mixture of veterans and youth prospects was going to get out of the group.

Then Clint Dempsey made everyone (at least, temporarily) forget about Landon Donovan.

Less than a minute into the opening game against Ghana, Dempsey managed to weave his way through the Ghana defense and secured a very early 1-0 lead for the Americans. Was this the turning point? Was this the moment the US finally took another step towards being a legitimate contender to win the World Cup?

Not exactly…

After the initial shock wore off, the game settled down and Ghana ended up putting quite a bit of pressure on the US defense for the rest of the game. Starting striker Jozy Altidore, fresh off a horrendous 2013-14 club season with Sunderland, pulled up lame and would not see the field again in Brazil. In his stead came fellow AZ Alkmaar standout Aron Johannsson, who ultimately picked the United States over Iceland for his national team loyalties. More bad news came at halftime as starting center back Matt Besler, of Sporting Kansas City in MLS, was unable to continue and was replaced by wonderkid John Anthony Brooks of Hertha Berlin. Brooks had played quite a bit for the Berlin side as they were promoted into the Bundesliga last summer and ultimately managed to avoid relegation in 2013-14. His introduction to the game, born out of necessity more than a tactical need, would ultimately prove to be the difference. Andre Ayew leveled the score at 1-1 in the 82nd minute, but Brooks would nod home with his head off a corner kick just four minutes later. The demons of 2006 and 2010 had been vanquished, despite Ghana creating far more threatening chances.

Next up was Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo, “fresh” off winning the Champions League with Real Madrid, was never really 100% and his teammates looked like a team that had been 90 minutes away from not even qualifying for the World Cup. Portugal trailed Sweden 2-0 after their first leg qualification playoff match, but were pretty much single-handedly saved by Ronaldo in the second leg. They got off to a terrible start in group play as they fell to Germany 4-0 and lost regular starters Hugo Almeida (Injury) and Pepe (Red Card) for their next game against the US. This time the US found themselves down early though as they conceded in the first couple minutes thanks to a really poor clearance from Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron. In what was likely their best performance of the tournament, the US went back and forth with Portugal trading chances until Jermaine Jones leveled the score at 1-1 midway through the first half. Clint Dempsey gave the US the lead in the 81st and the Americans just needed to hold on for roughly 10 more minutes to seal their spot in the Round of 16. They were unable to. Ronaldo served up an excellent early cross into the box in the waning moments of stoppage time and Silvestre Varela buried it with power and precision. The US would have to wait a few more days to try and escape the “Group of Death”.

Their final opponent was their most difficult to overcome. All the US needed was a draw against Germany, but the Germans would not settle for such nonsense; a draw would have sent them through as well though. Sometimes the elements can help the weaker side, but Germany were clearly the better side as torrential rain pounded the field in Recife. Thomas Mueller managed to bury a rebound in the box in the second half and that was all the Germans needed to win a game in which the US spent almost no time whatsoever in the attacking third. Fortunately, Portugal got a win against Ghana and it was on to the Round of 16.

The Americans had conquered the “Group of Death” despite going from a win (one in which they weren’t necessarily the better team) to a draw (arguably their best performance) to a loss (totally outplayed in the elements).

Next up was Belgium. The Belgians were everyone’s “dark horse” team to actually win the tournament in Brazil; so much so that by the time the game kicked off they were hardly “dark horses” anymore. Once again, the US found themselves defending more than attacking but they ultimately held out and managed to force overtime, thanks in large part to an historic 16 saves from goalkeeper Tim Howard. Despite Howard’s heroics, Belgium eventually broke through twice in extra time via Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. Youngster Julian Green came on and managed to steal one back late for the Americans, but it wasn’t enough and for the second straight tournament they were eliminated in extra time in the Round of 16 by a score of 2-1.

So the question remains: Was this a success or failure?

On the one hand, the US did get out of the group. You could make the argument this team punched well above its weight given the roster that went to Brazil.

They did just enough in their first game overcame an opponent that had historically haunted them. Then they put together their most complete performance, albeit against maybe the worst team in the group. They also got some unusually good performances from unlikely heroes like John Anthony Brooks and Jermaine Jones. Clint Dempsey seemed to be done and dusted and many questioned his desire when he returned to the US to play for the Seattle Sounders last fall, where he proceeded to struggle quite a bit initially. But his early goal against Ghana was inspirational and he did well to score the go ahead goal against Portugal. His performances throughout the tournament were commendable given how little support he got from the midfield, which at times against Germany and Belgium looked completely overrun.

On the other hand, Dempsey’s inspirational effort masked some pretty poor performances from the team overall. The Portugal game was the only one in which the US was able to control the midfield for large portions of the game. Part of those midfield struggles can be attributed to a really poor overall performance from Michael Bradley. Bradley left Roma in Serie A to join MLS’s Toronto FC this past winter and was expected to be the anchor for this team, especially once Landon Donovan had been left off the final roster. For whatever reason, Bradley’s first touch was constantly letting him down, his passes never created chances in the attacking third, and his miss against Portugal proved to be critical by the time the final whistle blew. Ultimately, the US was never able to control the midfield in three of their four games.

There are two stats I found to be particularly telling. Of the 16 teams that advanced from the group stage, only four took fewer total shots than the US (44) and none of them allowed more total shots (74). So it’s fair to say that this team really didn’t play much better than the one under Bob Bradley four years ago in South Africa.

This roster, however, was never going to make noise. The midfield consisted of Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, and an underwhelming Bradley. When Jozy Altidore, who had a horrible club season and was not exactly a sure thing, went down it forced Clint Dempsey to play alone on an island up top. The defense, which consisted of untested MLS guys like Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, was constantly stretched; especially against Germany and Belgium. To their credit though, they both played very well. And then there were the young guys like Brooks, Julian Green, and DeAndre Yedlin. All three looked more than capable of becoming regulars over the next four years when they were out on the field, but they were still just untested “kids” for all intents and purposes.

At the end of the day I’m inclined to call this a “successful” tournament. A less than stellar roster managed to come together and overachieve, Clint Dempsey resurrected his reputation among American fans, and we saw some potential future stars on display against some of the better teams in the entire field. The future is bright for the United States and I, for one, look forward to seeing how this team progresses and develops under Jurgen Klinsmann up through 2018.

Adam Uthe

VP of Content Development for GFT and proud supporter of Columbus Crew (MLS) and Liverpool FC (EPL). @AUtheGFT

  2 Responses to “Assessing The US Men’s National Team’s World Cup Performance”

  1. Simple answer: The USMNT succeeded. By any soccer nation’s metrics, progressing from the group stage is a big deal.

    For me, however, JK could have played, as promised, more proactively and performed better with probably equal success.

    • Couldn’t agree more about JK’s promise to take the game to the opponent more than in previous World Cups. But I think he’ll be able to accomplish that come Russia 2018. Exciting times ahead!

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