SAO PAULO -- It's only natural that any World Cup cycle, when it's finished, gets compared to the one that preceded it.
Usually it's not hard to make a definite judgment. That has been the case for United States squads ever since the Americans returned to the global stage in 1990 following a 40-year absence.
The national team was just happy to be at Italia '90; few expected anything other than the three losses they were dealt.
Expectations were higher when the U.S. hosted the event in 1994; progress was confirmed when the Yanks advanced to the second round. There was an embarrassing step backward four years later in France, followed by a memorable quarterfinal run in 2002, followed by the disappointing first-round exit at Germany '06.
But in the wake of the Americans' round of 16 exit here in Brazil, it's harder to quantify how much -- or even if -- the program has evolved since 2010.
The U.S. was eliminated at the same stage in South Africa and in the same fashion: a 2-1, extra-time loss to a physically and technically superior foe.
There's no question that advancing to the second stage was harder this time around. On the other hand, the U.S. won a group that included England four years ago.
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?
Clearly, a more nuanced look is in order. So we decided to examine things from three specific angles to help us figure out what exactly transpired since the last cycle ended. Because we can't know where the program is going until we understand where it has been.
Despite leading the country to its first-ever group win four years ago, the lingering sense remains that Bob Bradley's 2010 squad underachieved. The U.S. fell behind early in three of the four games they played at that World Cup -- a recurring theme under Bradley -- and because they needed a win against Algeria to advance from the first round, they spent almost the entire tournament chasing.
Several of Bradley's personnel decisions backfired, too. He badly miscalculated striker Robbie Findley's ability to fill the injured Charlie Davies' role, starting the woefully inexperienced Findley even though the Real Salt Lake man had entered the tournament in the midst of a prolonged slump. He started another out-of-form player, Ricardo Clark, in the second round loss against Ghana even though Clark had made a goal-causing error against England. Clark promptly made two more costly mistakes as the Yanks were eliminated.
Meantime, most of Klinsmann's controversial calls paid off, as youngsters John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green all shined in limited minutes. But Klinsmann's decision to deploy Michael Bradley in an attacking role severely compromised the effectiveness of perhaps his best player, and the German's all-world ego absolutely played a part in his decision to drop Landon Donovan, to the detriment of his team. (Not that Donovan is blameless -- the onus is always on the player to conform to the coach, not the other way around.)
Any discussion of the 2010 team has to start with injuries, as Bob Bradley's squad lost several potential difference-makers in the months leading up to the event. We'll never know how things would have turned out had Davies, midfielders Stuart Holden and Jermaine Jones and center-back Oguchi Onyewu been healthy. True, Jozy Altidore went down just minutes into the Yanks' first game of this tournament -- which Klinsmann acknowledged Wednesday "definitely had an impact" on his side's ability to create scoring chances -- but overall not much separates the ideal lineups in 2010 and 2014.
The big difference with the current squad is depth. Competition for places this year was far fiercer than four years ago, a hugely positive sign that speaks to the natural progression of the program more than anything else. Making the 2018 team (and the ones that follow) will become exponentially tougher, as MLS academies continue to professionalize and churn out better players at younger ages; as more young Americans receive better opportunities overseas; as Klinsmann keeps recruiting more dual-nationals into the U.S. fold; and as the profile of the sport in the country continues to increase.
When Klinsmann replaced Bradley three years ago this month, he was hired on a platform on change. But for all the new boss' bold talk of playing a proactive, high-pressure style, his team didn't look much different than Bradley's did in 2010 -- defending for their lives at times when tied or ahead, and pushing the game furiously when down a goal or more.
There were subtle distinctions, though. While Bradley was content to keep his lines deep and try to find goals on the counter-attack, Klinsmann deserves credit for insisting they keep forward and always try to go toe-to-toe, even at risk of getting burned on the other end. It worked well in the near-win against Portugal, the best game a U.S. team has played at a World Cup since Bruce Arena's team stole a point against eventual champions Italy in 2006. But old habits die hard, and in the knockout round of the toughest competition in the sport, the more talented team usually ends up imposing its will.
"I'm screaming my lungs off on the sideline to push them higher up the field," Klinsmann said immediately after his team's run in Brazil ended in defeat to emerging powerhouse Belgium. "There is still a little too much respect on our end when it comes to the big stage."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.