The USMNT’s loss to Belgium showed the gap to the world’s elite is still large

After reflecting on the USA’s 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium and what it means in the bigger picture of American soccer, there’s an uncomfortable truth fans have to face.

The USMNT is still a long way from realistically contending to win the World Cup.

Don’t get me wrong, the effort put forth against Belgium was inspiring.  It was committed.  It was a team that played better than the sum of its parts.  It was everything you would hope for from a fan’s perspective and something we can all take pride in.  Tim Howard was a hero in net with something like 785 saves during the game.  The defense played tough for more than 90 minutes to shut out a talented side.  We even saw bright flashes of the future in the performances of DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green.  In fact, the American effort was so impressive it drew praise from all around world soccer, including from the likes of Belgian captain Vincent Kompany and Dutch legend Johan Cruyff.

But one can’t help but watch the game and feel that during the run of play, Belgium should have beaten the USA by a scoreline of 5-0 or 6-0.  The game was that lopsided over the course of 105 minutes.  And in fact, only in the second half of extra time did the USMNT begin to take control of the game, when it was much too late.  It was an exciting comeback attempt that was always destined to come up short.

Although the USA actually had more possession than Belgium, the other statistics were akin to what you would see when an EPL team plays a lower division side in the FA Cup.  Belgium outshot the Americans 38-14.  Shots on goal were 27-9.  Belgium had a 19-4 edge in corners and created 83 dangerous attacks compared to just 59 for the Americans.  Had Belgium not been so wasteful in front of goal, and Tim Howard not put forth one of the greatest goalkeeping performances in recorded history, the result would have been ugly.  Then what would the narrative be about Jurgen Klinsmann and US Soccer?  We’d all be singing a much different tune if Belgium had scored a 5-1 victory earlier this week.

And honestly, this is Belgium we’re talking about.  One of the World Cup dark horses and a team loaded with top talent, yes.  But… it’s still Belgium.  If the USA is run off the field by Belgium, what hope would they have of defeating Brazil or Argentina or the Netherlands in a World Cup?

After all the intrigue about being in the Group of Death, the drama between Jurgen Klinsmann and Landon Donovan, the threat of insurrection, the record winning streak, and everything else in between in this World Cup cycle, the USMNT finds itself exactly where it was four years ago.

Knocked out of the World Cup after an extra time loss in the Round of 16.

The most cynical of fans would see this as a total lack of progress.  The most optimistic of fans would see contributions from the likes of Yedlin, Green, and Brooks and argue that the talent is slowly catching up to the commitment of the USMNT.

The truth, as always, is likely somewhat in the middle ground.  It’s fair to say that Jurgen Klinsmann has taken the entire US Soccer operation forward over the past four years.  It’s impossible to ignore the team’s Gold Cup triumph and record winning streak.  It’s impossible to ignore finally getting revenge on Ghana and dominating Portugal for long stretches before snatching a draw from the jaws of victory.  But the end result in the World Cup, in its most black and white fashion, is not a step forward, but a lateral one.  The USMNT achieved the same result this year as in 2010.

Perhaps more concerning for the next World Cup cycle is the feeling that the USA is still a long ways away from reaching that next level of the world soccer hierarchy.  It was clear in displays against Germany and Belgium that the USA talent level was nowhere near these two countries.  When Belgium can bring one of the EPL’s top scorers like Romelu Lukaku off the bench to wreck havoc while the USA answered with Chris Wondolowski, you know there’s a real talent gap present.  While Belgium had the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, and Kevin Mirallas terrorizing Tim Howard, the American attack outside of Clint Dempsey and Yedlin’s crosses was nowhere to be seen.  Alejandro Bedoya, Brad Davis, and Graham Zusi offered very little throughout the World Cup and it was up to defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones (who had his best showing in a US jersey this month) to offer any sort of added attacking impetus.  With Michael Bradley failing to produce his best, the USA was seemingly always on the back foot, unable to control possession and unable to create very many dangerous scoring chances.

Although Klinsmann promised a more open, attacking style of play, the USMNT had to defend for their lives in their last two games hoping to secure a result of any kind.  The talent gap may be shrinking.  The USA may be getting closer to the rest of the world.  And certainly looking over the long-term, that is indeed the case.  However, the talent gap may be closing at a rate slower than many Americans would like to hear.  Even the projections for the 2018 roster don’t strike you as a team that should make a quarterfinal or semifinal unless some very young players take some major steps forward over the next four years.

Perhaps this discontent is a positive.  The USMNT’s goals should always be expanding, not standing still.  We as American soccer fans shouldn’t be content with a Round of 16 exit.  The entirety of US Soccer should be pushing forward, hoping for better results with each passing year.

The 2014 World Cup will ultimately go down as a time of mixed emotions and expectations for the USMNT.  Perhaps it’s appropriate considering the rising fame of the team’s motto “I Believe That We Will Win” juxtaposed with the coach’s own assessment that the USA wasn’t ready to win the World Cup.  Unfortunately, although the belief was certainly there throughout the tournament, it was clear versus Belgium that the talent level was not.  US Soccer may be heading in the right direction.  But in the end, the coach was right.