Despite The Loss, The Future For US Soccer Is Still Bright

Kevin C. Cox

Lets get this out of the way straight off the bat. Last night sucked. Belgium were the better team by far and deserve to be advancing to the next round. But the US had their chances, but simply didn't take them. That is what is so galling about this game. The US held on for dear life for 90 minutes. They had a chance to steal a win in stoppage time but Wondo missed his chance, ditto for Dempsey after a brilliant set piece after Julian Green gave them life when they should have died. But they didn't, and that not dying has become the trademark of America at the World Cup.

As much as this loss sucked I still think the near term future is incredibly bright for the US. From the 23 man roster at this tournament only a handful will most likely be moving on. This tournament is probably the last relevant action in a US shirt for Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Demarcus Beasley, Wondo, Brad Davis, Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimondo, Brad Evans and Jermaine Jones. That sucks, and I for one will really miss Dempsey, and Howard who have become fixtures of my sporting life since round about 2008 when I really started following the national team at full tilt. Its just part of the game.

The most important thing about the last year leading up to this world cup is that Jurgen Klinsmann has unearthed a core of young supremely talented players who will form the heart of the squad over the next cycle. Deandre Yedlin, Fabian Johnson, John Anthony Brooks, Matt Besler, Julian Green, Aaron Johannsson, and I guess Graham Zusi and Bedoya will all be around in one form or another. All of those guys are 27 or younger, Yedlin, Brooks and Green are 21 or younger and if all goes well will be around for multiple world cups.

That doesn't even take into account known quantities like Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Brad Guzan who can be written in ink into the 23 for 2018. That is certainly a better starting point than they had following 2006. That was the last time there was mass generational turnover as Kasey Keller, Claudio Reyna, John Obrien, Eddie Pope, Eddie Lewis, Brian McBride and Pablo Mastroeni all tipped their caps and departed the national side. It was Dempsey, Howard, Beasley and Landon Donovan that took up the mantle, and now they are collectively setting it down. Its the same responsibility, but things have changed and changed for the better with US Soccer.

The growth of youth academies in the United States can't be brought up enough when talking about the future of US soccer. At the U-13/14 level there are 87 programs that are a part US Soccer development academy. All of whom are being taught to play the game the same way, with an emphasis on developing skill and technique rather than producing wins and losses. At the U-15/16 and U-17/18 level there are 79 programs in the set up with the same emphasis on developing skills above winning. All of this is new and a radical departure from the way it used to be done where the end goal, the only goal, was to win enough with your high school and club team to get a college scholarship and go from there. This wholly new approach is very european, as you would expect, and it has already paid some dividends. Deandre Yedlin was the first homegrown MLS player to play in a World Cup, he will not be the last. What's happening domestically is great for the growth of the game and the development of skills that hasn't been stressed as strongly as it has been in other countries.

Now there are the Americans who are currently in the youth set ups with clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and seemingly every club in Liga MX. For Bundesliga sides there are so many that have dual parentage and will eligible to play for either the US or Germany. Its not a huge surprise that the two best outfield players for the US in Brazil are German Americans in Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones. Jurgen will continue to be aggressive in recruiting anyone who could possibly play for the US, no matter where they live now or what league they play in (see: Diskerud, Mix).

But there is another interesting trend to consider. Big clubs now compete to acquire american talent for their youth academies the same way they compete for everyone else who can play. Yeah there are older guys like Junior Flores (Borussia Dortmund) and Gideon Zelalem (Arsenal) who will probably be a part of Klinsmann's plans in the near future. But there is an awful lot of promising young talent that is ensconced in some of the biggest clubs in the world. One of the most promising young players at Barcelona's famed La Masia is a 14 year old american kid from southern california. Last year Real Madrid and Barcelona got into something of a recruiting battle to sign an 11 year old american kid from the Bay area. None of this was happening 10 years ago, at least not with the same frequency, and the fact that it is happening is one of many positive examples of the growth of talent in this country.

Looking back now it seems clear that Jurgen Klinsmann sent a flawed team to the World Cup this year, and I think he knows it. There was no like for like replacement in case Jozy got hurt as he did. There was little production from the wide areas of the mid field. They had to play their best defensive mid as an attacking mid because there was simply no one else in this vast country of ours capable of playing that role the way Klinsmann wanted it played.

Nonetheless that same flawed team got out of the toughest group in the tournament, put a hell of a scare into one of the pre tournament darlings, and they played the best game (against Portugal) the US has played in a World Cup since meeting Germany in the quarterfinals in 2002. They did it playing a quintessentially american way, by trying hard and running fast.

There has been so much talk about the inability of this particular side to play the kind of one and two touch soccer that seemingly everyone else in the world plays as if it is some kind of indelible thing. That the US will forever find the vagaries of that style beyond them. It might have been beyond this team, but that won't last. The US will never play exactly like the Dutch or the Germans or the Brazilians because we are not Dutch or German or Brazilian, at least not wholly. But there is an army being raised on fields across the country. An army of technically gifted and tactically astute american kids who will be able to play the game the way so many of us want the national team to play. Coupling the incredible fitness and athleticism that have forever been the hallmark of the US at the international level with skill and technique that have always seemed to be lacking. When those two sides of the game finally get linked together on the national team it will become a matter of when, not if the US wins a World Cup.

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