After the United States’ heartbreaking 2–1 extra time loss to Belgium, it’s hard not to think about what could have been. What if Chris Wondolowski had put home that absolute sitter at the end of injury time? What if Thibaut Courtois hadn’t made a catlike save of a Clint Dempsey shot on that clockwork set piece in the game’s final minutes? What if Congo had never been a Belgian colony and Romelu Lukaku had followed his father’s international career path?
It’s silly to think about these “what ifs,” though, because the Belgian victory was so thoroughly deserved. The Belgians outshone the Americans in every possible aspect of the game except for goalkeeping. While it’s true that Tim Howard put in an all-time great performance—his 16 saves are the most recorded in a single World Cup game since they started counting in 1966—not even that was ever going to be enough. Howard made so many saves because the Belgians had dozens upon dozens of chances. To be exact, according to FIFA, they had 38 shots, 27 on target, and one that hit the woodwork. Oh, and 19 corners. The stats purveyor Opta, which measures differently than FIFA and counted 39 shots, says that only three teams since 1966 have had that many shots. ESPN’s stats gurus say that the Americans’ 70 clearances were also the most in 50 years, while Belgium’s 285 touches in the attacking third were more than any other team at this World Cup.
The Belgian shot chart looks like some sort of diabolical reversed map of what the European country faced at the start of World War I.
U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann spoke a bit at the end of the game about how “it could have gone either way,” and how luck was not on the United States’ side. Hogwash. When you hit 27 shots on target like Belgium did, you’re unlucky not to score on nine of them.
So, it’s probably better not to talk about what could have been. Instead, let’s focus on what was and what could be.
This World Cup was one of the most joyous, entertaining, and best performances ever by an American team at a World Cup. The U.S. has advanced further. At the first ever World Cup in 1930, the Americans reached the semifinals after beating Belgium 3–0 in the opener (just saying). The only other time the U.S. has advanced past the round of 16 was in 2002, when we reached the quarterfinals after beating Mexico 2–0. This followed a famous group stage win over Portugal and a draw with the hosts South Korea in the group phase.
Both of those were better results than the U.S. team achieved this year in Brazil. In terms of performances, though, 2014 ranks alongside 2002 and 1930 as the best in U.S. history. If you go by recent history combined with current form, the U.S. faced the toughest schedule at this World Cup. Group G was the only one with four teams that qualified for the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup, with Ghana reaching the quarterfinals four years ago and Germany the semis. All three of the United States’ group opponents also reached the knockout round in 2006, and Portugal and Germany both reached the semifinals. These things matter in a sport where experience is crucial. Given what the U.S. was up against, making it out of the group was a fantastic result.
Belgium, meanwhile, is one of the most talented teams in the world right now. To qualify for this tournament, the Belgians won eight games and drew two. They’ve won every single game they’ve played at this World Cup.
There is no shame in losing to a Belgian team that is absolutely loaded with talent. Thibaut Courtois may be a bit predictable when facing penalties, but he’s one of the few goalkeepers in the world who’s considered better than Tim Howard. Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany is the best defender on the best team in England’s Premier League. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard was relatively quiet Tuesday, with just four shots and three on target, but he was one of the leading goal scorers in the Premier League last season with 14 tallies. The substitute who set up Belgium’s first goal in extra time and scored the game-winner, Lukaku, had 15 for Howard’s club Everton. Though he might look like Tintin, the 23-year-old Kevin de Bruyne rampaged through the American backline with six shots and four on target. When he scored off of Lukaku’s gorgeous pass at the start of extra time, it felt like a long time coming.
Any one of these men would be the best player on the U.S. squad. And yet, despite being totally outclassed by a far superior Belgium team, the Americans came within one Wondolowski toe poke of shocking them and reaching the quarterfinals for the second time ever. (Sorry, no more “what ifs.”)
But this tournament was so much more than a succession of moral victories. In the first game, there was an actual, on-field victory against Ghana, who had eliminated the U.S. from the past two World Cups. In that match, Clint Dempsey scored one of the fastest goals in World Cup history, and—after losing starting striker Jozy Altidore in the first half—the team battled to an exhilarating win. They followed that up with one of the finest American World Cup performances ever against Portugal and reigning FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo. Were it not for a dramatic last-second equalizer off of a late turnover, this would have been one of the United States’ most famous wins. Instead, they settled for a draw against FIFA’s fourth-ranked team. Against Germany, the world’s second-ranked team according to FIFA, they battled to a gritty and necessary 1–0 defeat. This team made history by reaching the second round in consecutive World Cups, a feat never accomplished before by a U.S. team.
The 2014 World Cup was the end of an important era for U.S. soccer. The generation of players that led the U.S. to the quarterfinals in 2002 has come and gone, with DaMarcus Beasley representing that group remarkably well in his fourth World Cup. While Beasley’s 2002 teammate Landon Donovan didn’t get the valedictory that he deserved, it appears there are players on this team who can build off what Donovan, Beasley, and their cohort have achieved.
Howard (who is 35 years old), Dempsey (31), and Jermaine Jones (32) may not make another World Cup squad, but some of the team’s best performers in Brazil should develop into stars and starters by the time 2018 rolls around. Backup center back John Brooks, who scored the goal heard ‘round the U.S. in the opener against Ghana, will be just 25 at the next World Cup. DeAndre Yedlin, who looked against Belgium like he could play for any team in the world, will only be 24. It’s no exaggeration, meanwhile, to call Julian Green, who will be 23 in four years, perhaps the best U.S. prospect ever. Against Belgium he had a Michael Owen moment (hopefully his career goes better than Owen’s), scoring a beautiful volley on his first-ever World Cup touch to become the youngest player since Lionel Messi to score at a World Cup.
Even Michael Bradley, who set up that Green goal beautifully to give the U.S. one last dying hope, will only be 30 in Russia. Jozy Altidore, who missed this entire tournament save for a bit of the first half of the first game, has four years to find his scoring form and will be just 28. Fabian Johnson, who might have been the best U.S. player through the group stages before leaving with a hamstring injury against Belgium, will be 30. And potential role players Mix Diskerud and Aron Jóhannsson (both 27 in 2018) now have the valuable experience of having gone to a World Cup under their belts. There are also surely players who’ll feature in Russia who’ve yet to make their senior national team debuts. Don’t get too excited yet, but the United States’ under-17 squad has won three straight international tournaments. And people really love this Gedion Zelalem kid, who will hopefully pull a Julian Green and opt to play for America.
If there’s one major flaw with this U.S. team going forward, it’s the one that Klinsmann has cited continually: There are not enough players at the top levels of international club soccer. Ten members of this U.S. team play in Major League Soccer. Compare that to just three Belgian players who compete in that country’s domestic league. The U.S. does need to build MLS eventually to the point where it can field similar talent to that of the big European leagues. But we’re not there yet, and the Belgian squad proves that there’s no shame in exporting your best players so they face the top competition in the four-year intervals between World Cups. Their line-up features stars from Spanish champions Atlético Madrid, German champions Bayern Munich, English champions Manchester City, English runners-up Liverpool, and perennial Champions League contenders Arsenal and Chelsea, along with top English teams like Everton, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur.
Belgium brought on its man of the match, Lukaku, as a sub. The U.S. can’t do anything like that. But if this base of young players continues to develop, and players like Yedlin start to take Klinsmann’s advice and push themselves to play at the game’s highest levels, then the team’s landmark 2014 performance should just be the start. I can’t wait for 2018.