This has been perhaps the queerest part of the entire U.S. national team’s World Cup campaign.
These exclamations from fans that “we got lots better in four years!”
In 2010 …
The U.S. drew 1-1 with England, drew 2-2 with Slovenia, defeated Algeria 1-0. In the round of 16, the U.S. lost 2-1 to Ghana in extra time.
Let’s briefly review each match.
England was/is better than the United States. They were all over the Yanks for the first hour, doing that charge-all-over-the-field thing they do in the Premier League, and the Americans were in something not far from shock at the pace. England scored the early goal, but the U.S. got even on Clint Dempsey’s goal, which was aided and abetted by England’s goalkeeper.
Slovenia was better than people remember. They defeated Algeria in their first game and took a 2-0 lead over the U.S. in the first half, and if they won they were in the final 16. The Yanks fought back behind one of Landon Donovan’s best goals (go to the 1:50 mark) in perhaps the best game of his career and got even on a goal by Michael Bradley. They should have won, but a referee from Mali ruled out a perfectly good goal by Maurice Edu. So, being down 2-0 to Slovenia, not good; coming back to get a point, remarkable.
(Also, that remains the most recent case of any team in a World Cup being down two goals and coming back to get a result. At this writing, that covers 98 subsequent games — including the third-place game in 2010 — in which a two-goal deficit meant defeat.)
Algeria, a weird game. The Algerians of 2010 had no skill, and they bunkered in as if a scoreless draw would make them heroes. It took until the first minute of added time before the U.S. finally broke through, and if you want to hear Andres Cantor’s call of Landon’s goal one more time … here it is. (Never gets old.)
Ghana in the round of 16. The Americans were generally outplayed. Ghana is a bad match for a U.S. team, because they are at least as big but more athletic; but it was not as lopsided as memory serves, as you can see on this annoying clip. (Mute the thing right off.). The first goal, in the fifth minute by Kevin-Prince Boateng on a Ricardo Clark giveaway, was a stunner. Donovan got the U.S. even on a penalty (won by Clint Dempsey) in the 62nd minute, and it stayed that way until extra time, when Asamoah Gyan scored in the 93rd minute. The U.S. had a couple of half chances in the final 27 minutes, but it ended 2-1.
In 2014 …
The U.S. defeated Ghana 2-1, drew 2-2 with Portugal, lost 1-0 to Germany. In the round of 16, the U.S. lost 2-1 in extra time to Belgium.
Ghana outplayed the U.S. for a huge chunk of time in the middle of the game. Let’s say 70 minutes, following the shock Dempsey goal 30 seconds in. Ghana finally evened things in the 82nd minute, but the substitute defender John Brooks scored in the 86th, and the U.S. won a game it rarely controlled.
Portugal was perhaps the best game of the tournament for the U.S. After giving up the fifth-minute goal by Nani (and what is it with the USMNT and conceding early goals?), the U.S. was the better team, getting even on Jermaine Jones’s goal in the 64th minute and taking the lead on a Dempsey goal in the 82nd. But all that dominance turned into one point when the Portugal substitute Silvestre Varela scored in the 95th minute.
Germany was something of an embarrassment. The U.S. bunkered in, and kept out the Germans until the 55th minute, when Thomas Muller scored. Klinsmann brought out a 4-5-1 lineup, clearly not comfortable with the idea of going forward with numbers. But conservative tactics in this one are, perhaps, defensible because managing the size of the (clearly anticipated) defeat was vital in winning a tiebreaker with a winner out of the Ghana-Portugal match, which was Portugal.
The Belgium game. Tim Howard was like the Texicans at the Alamo, heavily outnumbered, fighting off attacks from every direction. This was a more craven 4-5-1 approach, with Dempsey swallowed up by the German inside backs. Klinsmann brought on Chris Wondolowski in the 72nd minute, taking out Graham Zusi, giving the U.S. a 4-4-2 shape, and they perked up. They had the one great chance in the second minute of injury time, the one Wondolowski shanked, and it went to extra time. Belgium finally broke through, twice, in the 93rd and 105th minutes. Only then did the U.S. go to the attack, with the introduction of Julian Green as a offense-minded winger. He scored in the 107th, and the U.S. had a couple of decent chances, but it ended 2-1.
In terms of when and how, no improvement at all. In 2010, the U.S. went out in the round of 16, by a 2-1 score, in extra time. In 2014, a repeat across the board.
Let’s look at it in another way. In 2010, the U.S. scored five goals and conceded five. In 2014, the Yanks scored five and conceded six. A slight regression, this time around, from a zero goal differential to minus-1. Also, the U.S. won its group in 2010 and was second in 2014.
Now we get into trickier territory. Strength of opponents.
In 2010, England was a seeded team. English media, anyway, were convinced their team was a cinch for the semifinals. But the U.S. won the group, on five points (the most won by a U.S. team in group play), ahead of England on goals scored (4-2). Slovakia was a decent team, though not a scary one. Algeria couldn’t score, but gave up two goals in 270 minutes, shutting out England in a scoreless draw. Ghana was pretty good, second in their group to Germany; they beat the U.S. and should have reached the semifinals — they ran into Uruguay and Luis Suarez’s handball on the goal line and lost in a shootout.
In 2014, Ghana was perceived to be a good team, and was for its first two matches, but hardly showed up for the third match, when the side was riven by dissension. Portugal was ranked No. 4 in the world, but Cristiano Ronaldo never seemed healthy, and after the 4-0 blitz by Germany in their first game, they seemed to know they were doomed, and the Yanks outplayed them for long stretches. Germany is good, of course, but since the Portugal romp they had to fight like mad to salvage a point from Ghana, beat the U.S. by one and in the last 16 were taken to 120 minutes by Algeria and won 2-1.
So, slight edge for difficulty to the 2014 team. But they also conceded an extra goal and didn’t win the group.
One more round of comparisons. Squads in 2010 and 2014.
Tim Howard was the keeper both times. He was better in 2014, almost entirely because of the epic Belgium game.
The back four … shaky both times. Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit played throughout and were pretty solid, but Oguchi Onyewu was in the middle of both of Slovenia’s goals, and gave way to Jonathan Bornstein in the final two matches, and Bornstein was better. This time, the back four was less impressive. Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron were always in trouble (Besler’s fingerprints were on both Belgium goals). Omar Gonzalez was OK. DaMarcus Beasley was steady and Fabian Johnson was effective until his hammy went out. John Brooks scored the winning goal as a sub but never appeared again, and you have to wonder why. (Not trusted to play 90 minutes at center back?) DeAndre Yedlin got two appearances as a sub and impressed both times. Coaches are loath to play kids in the back, but Yedlin and Brooks perhaps should have played more. And then there is this: Tim Howard was bombarded by shots in Brazil, far more so than in South Africa, and that is about the back four, mostly.
Progress in defense? No.
Midfield. In 2010, the U.S. played with Donovan, Bradley, Dempsey and Somebody Else — Clark, Juan Francisco Torres or Maurice Edu. Clark was awful, the other two kinda were just out there.
In 2014, it was Jermaine Jones, Bradley and Graham Zusi, with Kyle Beckerman in the first three matches — though he was essentially a fifth defender, he played so deep. Jones was maybe the third-best U.S. player. Most people believe Bradley had a terrible tournament (I disagree; he played out of position), and Zusi was nearly invisible. He put in a nice corner on the Brooks goal, but otherwise he was just north of awful on corners, which is vital to team like the U.S., which is most dangerous in restarts.
The 2010 midfield was miles better. Miles. I mean, Donovan, Dempsey and Bradley?
Forwards. In 2010, the U.S. played with Jozy Altidore and Somebody Else for a Half — three times it was Robbie Findley, once it was Hercules Gomez. Edson Buddle came off the bench twice, Edu once, Benny Feilhaber once.
In 2014, it was Clint Dempsey and Altidore, but when Altidore went out in the first half of Game 1, Dempsey was partnered with Aron Johannsson (invisible for 70 minutes), and then nobody and nobody and nobody as Klinsmann played with just Dempsey up top for three consecutive games, twice bringing on Wondolowski late, and we know how that turned out.
Call it even. The 2010 second man was pretty much useless, but the 2014 second man was back in the defensive end.
No. Can’t see it. Not on the pitch.
The notion of progress can only be found in the idea that “the 2014 team was younger and has more promise going forward.” Well, that is a leap of faith. Julian Green, Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin are all stars of the future! Well, maybe. But Dempsey and Jermaine Jones likely will not be back (the former would be 35, in 2018, and the latter 36), and neither will DaMarcus Beasley, and maybe not Howard, the key to the team. And does anyone believe Alejandro Bedoya and Besler and Beckerman and Omar Gonzalez are suddenly going to get better?
For those who believe this was progress, it mostly is investing in the unknown.
Tournament over tournament, it was a wash. The U.S. didn’t last one more minute, it didn’t win more points, it conceded more goals.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s team was no better than was Bob Bradley’s. Actually, if we could pit those teams, I would think gambling houses would make the 2010 side something like a 7-5 favorite.
So progress? Get that out of here. Unless you are assuming reinforcements from Europe.