FORTALEZA, Brazil -- Rarely has the definition of success been more muddled than it has been at this World Cup for the U.S. national team, and its manager, Jurgen Klinsmann.
Heading into the tournament, the question wasn't would the U.S. manage to get out of Group G, but how many points could it scrape together before being sent home after three games. Three losses seemed a real possibility. Yet the U.S. defied those predictions, garnering four points to finish second in the group. The seemingly impossible mission had been accomplished.
In the round of 16 against Belgium, the U.S. was presented with the unlikeliest of opportunities.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard delivered a Herculean effort, thwarting the Red Devils to the tune of 16 saves. And then at the end of normal time, Chris Wondolowski had the ball at his feet with the goal gaping and a trip to the quarterfinals in sight. Alas, he skewed his shot off target. The Red Devils, quite deservedly, prevailed 2-1.
The Americans' run in this tournament highlighted much of what Klinsmann has done right with this team. His ability to instill belief in his side remains impressive, and his decision to go with younger players on his roster was justified, as John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green all made positive contributions to the U.S. effort.
Afterward, an avalanche of praise was directed toward the U.S. team.
Howard's performance was hailed in every corner of the globe, and the heart and grit the U.S. team showed drew admiration as well. Given that the U.S. went further than expected, it was difficult to see how the tournament hadn't been a success for both the team and Klinsmann.
Which is when a sense of déjà vu kicked into overdrive.
The formula the U.S. used to get the Belgium game into extra time -- bit-between-the-teeth defending, heroic goalkeeping, inconsistent attack -- is precisely how the U.S. team has been winning and mostly losing games against the top teams for years.
The tenor of the praise in Salvador on Tuesday was reminiscent of what was said in 1994 when the U.S. lost 1-0 to eventual champions Brazil in the round of 16. It was the team's heart, and not necessarily its overall play, that impressed.
Even more concerning for the U.S., the Belgium match was not a one-off at this World Cup.
Out of the four games the U.S. played here in Brazil, it was badly outperformed in three of them, with the draw vs. Portugal being the exception.
The differential between shots for and shots against in the four games for the U.S. was a whopping minus-39. The lowest mark of any of the eight quarterfinalists belongs to Costa Rica at minus-8 (according to ESPN Stats and Information). Yes, the U.S. competed, but it was also hanging on for dear life for much of the tournament.
Viewed in this context, what Klinsmann offered up wasn't new, and it's difficult to see how this constitutes progress.
So, judging Klinsmann's performance becomes a matter of perspective. On the one hand, the U.S. was a missed chance away from the quarters. On the other, his team performed in a manner not markedly different from previous versions. It is that latter view that is tough to shake.
It's not what Klinsmann promised, either. He has long insisted he would adopt a more proactive, attack-minded approach. No surprise there. The coach saying he won't play attractive soccer has yet to be hired. But the former Germany boss has continued to beat the drum that he is embarking on a new age in American soccer.
Implementation has proven to be more difficult. The U.S. player pool -- even though it's been augmented by dual nationals -- remains what it has always been: short of creative players.
As a consequence, Klinsmann's promised style has been visible only in flashes, with the U.S. able to dictate terms against CONCACAF opponents to a greater degree, but struggling to do so at the World Cup. It's worth noting that some of the bigger results of this cycle -- the 1-0 friendly win in Italy, the 0-0 draw against Mexico in World Cup qualifying -- witnessed a pragmatic U.S. relying heavily on its defense and goalkeeping.
U.S. World Cup exit reaction:
- Jeff Carlisle: Reviewing Klinsmann's World Cup
- Roger Bennett: The future is bright
- Jason Davis: A tale of two strikers
- Chris Jones: Band of brothers go down fighting
- Doug McIntyre: Young players shine
- Landon Donovan: We need to keep developing
- Klinsmann Cam: Emotional ups and downs vs. Belgium
- Pablo S. Torre: Hey, America, where are you going?
The Belgium match saw more of the same.
The U.S. managed to play on level terms for a half. Later, in the second half of extra time it found another gear. But in between the Americans were overrun.
The fact remains that the U.S. too often struggles to keep the ball under pressure and sustain what Klinsmann has been preaching for an extended period. Is that his fault? To a degree, no. The roster cannot simply be turned over like at a club, though the inclusion of Landon Donovan certainly would have helped in this area.
Of course, Klinsmann keeps insisting that progress is being made even as his team was getting dominated.
"The energy and the commitment and the tempo and the aggressiveness that we played with kind of make people proud at home and surprised also a lot of people outside of the U.S.," he said at his final news conference on Wednesday. "'Wow, we never saw this before, you were so close to beating the so-called big ones.' And we take that compliment, but it makes us even more hungry for the next time."
Klinsmann has been criticized for using a 4-5-1 formation for most of this World Cup, with Donovan telling MLSSoccer.com that against Belgium, the U.S. "was not set up to succeed." The U.S. manager's take was that the national team is still too respectful of the bigger teams.
Certainly, the U.S. has long struggled playing with just one forward. This World Cup was just the latest chapter. But it wasn't Klinsmann's choice of formation per se that was the problem. It's that his poor roster decisions at forward -- highlighted by the lack of cover for injured striker Jozy Altidore -- backed him into a tactical corner from which there was no getting out of.
Another problem is that nearly three years into Klinsmann's tenure, the attacking identity of the team is still jumbled.
Formations, personnel, and roles were still being tweaked both before and during the World Cup. It wasn't until a few months before the tournament that Klinsmann decided to cast Michael Bradley as an attacking midfielder instead of his preferred holding role, a decision that negatively impacted the player's effectiveness.
There's nothing wrong with flexibility, but at some point Klinsmann needed to ditch the mad chemist role -- preferably much earlier in the cycle -- and decide on a concrete direction so players can get comfortable with the team's approach.
Klinsmann's game management was largely spot-on. But a man who gambled on so many decisions in the last two months was struck by a fit of conservatism in terms of when to use his final substitution against Belgium.
With the U.S. midfield clearly gassed, the insertion of any player -- be it Mix Diskerud, Kyle Beckerman or Julian Green -- would have provided some valuable energy in midfield that might have rescued the match. Instead, Klinsmann didn't act until it was too late.
Now one senses that Klinsmann's extended honeymoon is over. That's what happens when you preach revolution but deliver only a few bits of evolution. Advancement out of the group stage is now the bare minimum that is expected, accompanied by the elusive proactive style.
Will he deliver? Much hope is being pinned on the younger elements of the U.S. player pool. This happens every cycle. Irrational exuberance is attached to performers with thin résumés. The reality is the next four years will see some step up, but others fail to deliver. Regardless, more is now expected of Klinsmann, which given his hefty salary of $2.5 million per year, is how it should be.
The expectations are now clear, even if the present is a bit muddled.