A few weeks ago, I was in a Belgian pub, where everybody was six feet tall – including the women, some of whom brandished long toy spears. (The team is nicknamed the Red Devils, I was told.)
Big people. Big team.
In the World Cup Round of 16, it is not quite enough to be desperate and valiant and pretty darn good.
The Americans went up against the big people on Tuesday, unable to rely on set pieces and power as they do in the regional qualifying matches.
It was wearing to hold off the Belgians, who had skilled players from the good leagues in Europe. The U.S. could not win enough scrimmages to come up with a lot of corner kicks and free kicks. What the U.S. had was its best athlete, Tim Howard, making superb saves and keeping them in the match with probably the best match ever by an American keeper, until Belgium held on for a 2-1 victory in extra time.
Belgium had the horses -- Kevin De Bruyne who plays for VfL Wolfsburg in Germany and Romelu Lukaku, who plays with Howard at Everton of England – and they finally broke through and scored in the extra 30 minutes.
Here was the difference: Belgium could come in with Lukaku in extra time, after he did not start. The U.S. went with one man up front, Clint Dempsey, for a long time, and relied on others moving up, which is not the same as having a fast and powerful forward like Lukaku driving against weary defenders.
Ever since Jurgen Klinsmann picked his squad, I suggested the U.S. would miss Landon Donovan in a match where they needed a goal, late. This was the day. With Jozy Altidore not ready, Chris Wondolowski flubbed a chance to win in regulation time, which can happen. And Julian Green, the 19-year-old German, who essentially had Donovan’s spot on the roster, scored on his first World Cup touch, on a volley. So it’s hard to fault Klinsmann for using the kid.
The big picture is that the U.S. is still a work in progress in this sport which huge crowds keep discovering all over this nation.
The U.S. conducted itself well. Klinsmann is a good coach, and has four years more on his contract. The country can be proud. Nobody bit, nobody quit, nobody sulked. Admirable.
In my den -- no more Belgian pubs with giantesses wielding spears – the U.S. run was fun, and instructive, and exhausting. I loved Jermaine Jones and Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley, and marveled at Michael Bradley’s work rate against Belgium. But it’s over now.
Julian Green is 19, and DeAndre Yedlin, the fresh legs at right back, is 20. And Tim Howard is 35, and keepers can go on a long time, and he should. It’s a new World Cup cycle in the States, starting now.
Where is the American De Bruyne? Where is the American Lukaku? Maybe watching the World Cup with friends and saying, “I can play that sport instead of basketball (or baseball, or football.)” That is still somewhere in the future.
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