The United States was inches away from pulling off one of the greatest comebacks, if not the greatest, in World Cup soccer history.
Julian Green’s wonder goal in the second half of extra time gave the USA a lifeline. Seemingly a moment later, Jermaine Jones’ flick off of a cross looked destined for the back of net.
My heart literally stopped as I watched that ball head for goal and an amazing 2-2 score.
It had to happen.
Only, it didn’t.
The ball drifted wide. A couple minutes after that — and a few more highlight reel saves from Tim Howard, who was amazing — Clint Dempsey nearly grabbed the equalizing goal. A save by Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois denied him and the USA.
Just like four years ago in South Africa, the U.S. was stopped in a World Cup in the round of 16 by a goal in extra time.
So what does it all mean?
Has the USA arrived on the soccer landscape?
The U.S. definitely is gaining respect from other nations around the world. Just listening to radio broadcasts on SiriusXM, the tone has changed in three weeks from “the U.S. team is overrated and will quickly be dismantled in the Group of Death” to “I wish the England team had the fight and heart and drive that the USA does.”
I love that our national team is getting the respect it deserves and was embraced by the country in large numbers.
For every yin there is a yang, so here comes the flip side of the coin.
The U.S. was unable to get past the round of 16 for the second-straight time. The team scored one goal in its last two games and went 1-2-1 overall.
Since 1994 when the USA hosted the World Cup and made a stunning trip to the second round, the USMNT has played in five World Cups. It has managed four wins (2002-Portugal, 2002-Mexico, 2010-Algeria and 2014-Ghana).
The USA reached the quarterfinals in 2002, but beat Mexico in the round of 16 to do it. I would argue that was probably the best opponent the USA could’ve had in that stage. USA and Mexico are very familiar with each other, so El Tri did not trouble the USA at all.
Against European opposition at World Cups, the USA has won once since 1994. And that was Portugal. It has tied Italy (2006), England (2010), Slovenia (2010) and Portugal (2014).
So it is not completely dour, but it puts things into a little more perspective.
The USA still has a long way to go.
Case in point: Tuesday’s round of 16 game against Belgium.
I can honestly say that besides Tim Howard (and he might not make it considering how well respected Courtois is on the world stage) none of the U.S. players would’ve started for Belgium.
That includes Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. Belgium’s team is loaded with top-notch superstars from the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and German Bundesliga.
Both Bradley and Dempsey have played overseas too, so they would probably have a chance to make the bench for Belgium.
But that’s it.
And that is the continual problem for USA soccer.
No one can discount our national teams’ work ethic, all-out effort, patriotism, pride, heart, drive and accountability.
But eventually, the USA is going to have to produce world class talent to win a World Cup.
Because honestly the world class talent in this country plays on Sunday afternoons and in NBA arenas.
Imagine if LeBron James had played soccer instead of basketball — or Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt or Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson.
In other countries, those are the kinds of all-world talents who play soccer.
Maybe Julian Green is the start of this.
The one thing we can all hope for is the USA’s showing has inspired a youngster to try soccer instead of football or basketball.
The USA has four years now to try and build on this momentum.