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On Soccer

US men eager to take the next step

Tim Howard and the United States men’s soccer team couldn’t advance past the second round for the second straight World Cup.

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Tim Howard and the United States men’s soccer team couldn’t advance past the second round for the second straight World Cup.

They kept coming after all appeared lost, attacking and daring and risking as if it were the last match that they ever would play. “It is something that is ingrained in the American spirit,” said defender Omar Gonzalez. “We will never give up. We will never stop fighting.”

The US men’s soccer team, two goals down to Belgium with 15 minutes to play in overtime of Tuesday’s second-round World Cup duel, came within a bounce of drawing even and going to a penalty-kick shootout that could have put the Americans into the quarterfinals against two-time champion Argentina. But time ran out on them, just as it did four years ago when Ghana terminated them in South Africa.

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“We’re close, but this is the second World Cup where we make it to the exact same place and it goes into overtime and we give up an early goal,” said defender Matt Besler. “That’s eerie.”

It’s also a pattern that has driven their star-spangled supporters daffy over the past dozen years. The Yanks don’t start playing all-in until they’re almost out. They rarely take the lead and when they do, they give it away. They can’t close out matches and they have no idea how to play for a draw. Until they can do those things against the global elite, they’ll be going home with the Nigerians and Algerians and Greeks.

“There is still a little too much respect on our end when it comes to the big stage,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann observed after the US had lost to a European rival for the 11th time in Cup play since 1990. “Why not really play? It is something that we have to go through. I don’t know how many years it takes.”

Klinsmann, who comes from a country where going out before the quarterfinals is an unthinkable disgrace, was shouting to his players and waving them upfield in every match. Playing defensively is not in Uncle Sam’s nature and the US players do not yet have the skills, as we saw in Portugal’s last-gasp goal, to lock things down in their own third of the field.

While the Americans did escape from the Group of Death, albeit with ample outside help, the fact is they were dominated in three of their four matches. The Belgians, who are considered dark horses at best to win the tournament, had an enormous edge in shots (38-14) and corners (19-4). Had Tim Howard not submitted the tournament’s best goalkeeping effort (16 saves) in nearly half a century, his mates easily could have been drubbed by four or five goals.

The difference in quality was evident all over the field. Most of the Red Devils play for top clubs on the continent. Vincent Kompany has captained Manchester City to a couple of Premier League crowns. Romelu Lukaku, who scored the killer goal against the US, is Howard’s teammate at Everton. Thibaut Courtois, who stuffed Clint Dempsey’s would-be equalizer, backstopped Atletico Madrid to the Champions League final.

The US can’t fill its lineup with homegrown players of that stature, which is why Klinsmann recruited seven dual citizens, five of them from Germany, all of whom play in Europe. “We’re looking for Americans around the world, no matter what dual background,” said Klinsmann. “We have more coming through and that’s just part of globalization.”

The duals, most of whom were unknown in the States, stepped up impressively in their global debuts. John Brooks scored the winner against Ghana, Jermaine Jones the equalizer against Portugal. Julian Green brought the US back to life against Belgium with his first touch of the tournament. And Fabian Johnson played superbly at right back.

If Klinsmann had his way all of his players would be drawing paychecks from the Manchesters and Madrids and Munichs, where they would be much more likely to develop the world-class skills required to claim the Cup. While Klinsmann was criticized for saying that it was unrealistic for his team to win it this time, he was on the money. This US team couldn’t possess or pass the ball well enough. It didn’t have a defensive anchor or a midfield orchestrator and only one true sniper in Dempsey. They need one of each if they want to be serious contenders.

Now begins the cycle for 2018, with Klinsmann in charge of the entire pipeline. Qualifying for the next tournament in Russia out of a much-improved region will be a challenge. The Gold Cup comes around next year with a ticket to the 2017 Confederations Cup at stake. And the Olympics, which the US missed last time, will be in Rio in 2016.

The Americans grabbed the attention of their country and the world during their three weeks in Brazil and exceeded expectations. Yet they felt that they coulda, if not shoulda, kept playing, as their Costa Rican rivals still are. “It’s no longer the case that we’re happy just to be in the second round,” said US Soccer president Sunil Gulati. “We want to advance, the players want to advance, and they know they’re capable of it.”

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jpowizglobe.
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