Another World Cup year has come and gone for the United States men's national team. The determined underdog side stuck to a defensive mindset to advance to the tournament's last 16 despite being overwhelmed at times by superior talent, while millions back home got swept up in the every-four-years futbol fever like a true soccer-mad nation.
Those words applied to Bob Bradley's American squad four years ago after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The same could be said about Jurgen Klinsmann's USMNT after this summer's World Cup in Brazil. Therein lies the problem with the state of the U.S. men's national team.
Under Klinsmann, the U.S. has made very little progress.
This isn't about fretting over results of international friendlies, even one as ugly as Tuesday's year-ending 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Republic of Ireland's "B" team. No, this is about objectively looking at how much the U.S. senior team has improved since American supporters celebrated the exit of Bradley and welcomed the arrival of Klinsmann in July of 2011.
Klinsmann was supposed to be the breath of fresh air that the U.S. desperately needed. The hope was that he could be the football visionary to guide the national team into new territory, much like he did with Germany in laying the foundation for the 2014 world champions, by injecting new ideas (hopefully new, radical ones) to show the Americans how to be fearless and stand toe-to-toe with the world's elite.
That approach, the popular belief suggested back then, was necessary after the methodical (read: boring) and predictable (read: conservative) ways of Bradley. And in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup, there were times when the U.S. looked like that swashbuckling side we've never seen in the Red, White and Blue. The commitment to attacking soccer in friendly victories over Germany and Bosnia were sights to behold for American fans.
But that mentality of taking the game to opponents, big or small, disappeared like lost luggage by the time the U.S. landed in Sao Paulo last June. In Brazil, we only saw glimpses of that confidence: The first 30 seconds of the opening match when Clint Dempsey scored his glorious goal against Ghana … the immediate push for John Brooks' match-winner after Ghana equalized … a 20-minute stretch that produced both goals in the 2-2 draw against Portugal … the last 10 minutes of extra time against Belgium in the round of 16 when the U.S., down 2-0, had no choice but to press forward.
That was it – less than one half's worth of attacking soccer. The rest of the time the U.S. fell back into a defensive shell, absorbing wave after wave of opponents' attacks and relying on goalkeeper Tim Howard to save the day – or the same blueprint for success under Bradley in South Africa.
The level of competition in Brazil had something to do with it, of course. Most teams would find themselves back on their heels against the likes of Ghana, Portugal and Germany. But let's not confuse the success of getting out of the Group of Death with the minimal progress made under Klinsmann. Sure, it was a great accomplishment to survive such a difficult group, but if Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't lead Portugal past Ghana to help the Americans secure second place in Group G (after losing a must-draw game to Germany), we could be talking about a very different outcome for the U.S.
The fact is, Klinsmann was supposed to instill an attacking flair to the Americans' game and we didn't see it when it mattered most.
Klinsmann's best trait as a coach arguably is his ability to motivate. He borrowed tactics from good friend Pete Carroll to coax the U.S. to beat the odds. But after the Germany and Belgium defeats, an exasperated Klinsmann said he implored his players to go forward but they simply refused to do so. It could've been fatigue. It could've been the simple fact that the U.S. was outmanned. But a shrug of the shoulders by a master motivator is not an acceptable answer.
In defense of Klinsmann, one could make the argument that he made the most of the talent he had. He also made all the right moves with his substitutions in Brazil. And it's not his fault Chris Wondolowski couldn't bury a golden chance at a game-winner against Belgium.
But it's time for Klinsmann to stop pointing fingers. Since the World Cup, he has deemed Major League Soccer not challenging enough for America's top players and criticized his USMNT veterans for slacking off with their club teams. The ranting was incessant as the U.S. went winless in its final five games of 2014 to close out the year with a 6-5-4 record having scored 20 goals and conceded 20.
Klinsmann is expected to use the January training camp to get a look at more promising talents (Los Angeles Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes definitely deserves a call-up). But perhaps Klinsmann should stop scouring the globe for players with American passports and start focusing on building an actual team. This year, he had 50 players wear the U.S. shirt for 15 games. Next year, or by the time the March international date rolls around, he should settle on a core to play in the 2015 Gold Cup and be the foundation for the U.S. squad in the 2016 Copa America.
The reality is that, with any American side, the sum of its parts will always be greater. The chances of a world-class No. 10 emerging before the 2018 World Cup are slim. And surely, Landon Donovan is not walking through that door.
After the drubbing in Dublin, Klinsmann said Tuesday that the U.S. still has "quite a way to go." Three years into his reign, that shouldn't be the case. The USMNT should be going forward, literally and figuratively in its tactical approach. Instead, it is perpetually stuck in neutral, the way it was when Bob Bradley was in charge.