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Analysis

World Cup: U.S. still lags behind soccer world powers

The U.S. is still behind but closes the gap on soccer world powers
USA's 2-1 loss to Belgium at World Cup shows the U.S. still has a long way to go before joining soccer's elite

Turns out, Juergen Klinsmann was correct after all. The U.S. was not ready to win it all. Not even close.

His blunt assessment during the World Cup lead-up, which goes against the grain of standard coach-speak that drips with irrational optimism, was validated Tuesday when the U.S. was eliminated with a 2-1 overtime loss to Belgium.

The U.S. was 1-1-1 in a so-called "Group of Death" that, in hindsight, was not so deadly. Then it was subjected to a clinic by the Belgians, who might have approached double digits in goals if Tim Howard had not produced an ever-expanding highlight reel.

American soccer remains a few rungs below the world's elite programs, a reality that has been evident to Klinsmann, who hails from one of them. U.S. Soccer's gains have been incremental, perhaps at too slow a pace, which is why the German-born U.S. coach negotiated a contract that carries him through the 2018 World Cup. He had no desire to be judged on the basis of one appearance.

The collective skill set of the American team, compared to those from countries where an infant's crib is stocked with a pacifier and a dimpled ball, is lacking. Statistics can mislead, especially in this sport, but the disparity in shots Tuesday was telling: Belgium 38, U.S. 14, with half a dozen of the U.S. attempts born out of desperation in the back half of the overtime.

They can bemoan the injury to Jozy Altidore that robbed Team USA of some serious flash and dash from their its game. But the unavailability of a worthwhile understudy at striker provides a screengrab for where America ranks in the soccer hierarchy.

There is talent sprinkled about the roster, just not enough to make a deep dive into the bracket.

One box on the U.S. to-do list has been checked, twice over, and that is playing with heart. The U.S. holds the patent on hustling until the referee's final whistle, and the trait was never more evident than in the last 15 minutes against Belgium.

Two goals down, with none scored through 105 minutes, the U.S. might have surrendered, its chances of catching up seemingly infinitesimal. That is not its nature; nor would it have been fair to Howard, who doubles as an on-field coach.

The U.S. scored once, the first goal against Belgium at the Cup outside of a penalty kick.

Several times, the U.S. missed scoring again by that much. What might have been a victory lap for the Belgians in the closing 15 minutes became something else entirely. The Belgians were locked in a sauna at full blast. This was a victory sweated out to the end.

Continued, if not accelerated, growth for the U.S. will come with improved identification and procurement of prospects for the developmental pipeline that Klinsmann oversees. With gradual upgrades of Major League Soccer, the World Cup's prep school for many Americans, and proper placement of worthy players overseas, plus more coaches on the youth level who can knowledgeably instruct and are not just the well-meaning parents of the left midfielder.

The heart is already there. It's the feet and the mind that need nurturing.

Of more immediate concern, while Team USA players justifiably can pop their shirt buttons out of pride, those aiming for the next World Cup must consider a sobering thought.

Their totally awesome goalkeeper, Howard, will be 39 by then and on the downside of his career, if not done. The U.S. cannot figure to lean on him anymore.

sports@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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