Four years after Howard's saves and Wondo's miss, U.S. has regret about the past, hope for the future
On July 1, four years ago, Belgium bulldozed the United States men's national team in the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup. The final scoreline, 2-1, did not reflect the match that millions watched; Jurgen Klinsmann's side was outshot 38-15 with Tim Howard forced into 15 saves, the highest number in a single game since at least 1966 when FIFA started keeping track of the statistic.
The U.S., thanks to its goalkeeper's heroics, miraculously hung on through regulation before conceding to Kevin De Bruyne in the 93rd minute and substitute Romelu Lukaku 12 minutes later. While Julian Green's volley provided a bit of solace near the death, it was a comprehensive beatdown.
Yet the red, white, and blue nearly won the thing in regulation, when Chris Wondolowski's half-volley in the third minute of second-half stoppage time skied over Thibaut Courtois' crossbar and into the Salvador night. The U.S. was inches from the quarterfinals.
While the Americans were clearly second best -- despite that miss -- the tournament as a whole gave reason for optimism. Klinsmann led his team out of a brutal group after the squad defeated Ghana in dramatic fashion and dominated Portugal for long stretches before finishing with a 2-2 draw against the soon-to-be European champions, then lost 1-0 to eventual champion Germany.
And it wasn't merely the results that were exciting; so too was the fact that young talent played key roles. Twenty-one year old John Brooks scored the game-winner vs. Ghana and looked poised to establish himself in one of the starting center-back roles. DeAndre Yedlin, 20, offered tantalizing speed on the right wing, and Fabian Johnson, Jozy Altidore, Omar Gonzalez, and Michael Bradley provided a solid spine in the 24-to-26-year-old range. Green was the youngest goal scorer at the World Cup.
Although they were not in Brazil, players such as Cameron Carter-Vickers, Matt Miazga, Kellyn Acosta, Rubio Rubin, Paul Arriola, and Gedion Zelalem were close to breaking through and led the U.S. to a quarterfinal finish at the 2015 Under-20 World Cup. There was hope and excitement.
Then, well, we all know what happened: Four years of fits and starts, featuring some highlights -- the emergence of Christian Pulisic, the 2016 Copa America Centenario -- and many more low points -- 4-0 in Costa Rica, "Couva" entering the U.S. fan lexicon -- that resulted in the squandering of almost half a decade.
In retrospect, the signs were there in Brazil. According to WhoScored.com, the Americans played 34 percent of the tournament in their own third, more than any other team. Klinsmann's side spent just 22 percent in their opposition's third, tied for fourth worst behind Algeria, Iran, and Italy, a trio that went out in the group stage.
The U.S. conceded 23.5 shots per game, five more than the two teams tied for the second most: Ecuador and Switzerland. FIFA.com's statistics credited 27 saves, 21 tackles won and 19 blocks, a World Cup high of 67 attempts some 50 percent more than the tournament average of just under 45. Being the best defensive team is hardly the proactive soccer Klinsmann promised.
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But while optimism about prospects following 2014 was misplaced, so too is any pessimism four years later. In Pulisic, the Americans have a talent more accomplished at an international level than any young player in the history of the program.
Meanwhile, 19-year-old Weston McKennie, a vital cog in the midfield of Bundesliga runner-up Schalke, is not far behind his close friend. Tyler Adams covers enough ground for two players, and Tim Weah shows tantalizing flashes of game-breaking creativity, and Josh Sargent could break out in Germany next season. The teens can ball.
As can the slightly older generation. Miazga, still just 22, dominated while on loan to Vitesse in the Eredivisie and possesses the line-breaking passing that has required from an elite center back. Brooks, Carter-Vickers, and Erik Palmer-Brown will challenge for spots. Major League Soccer continues to produce young player with potential while Yedlin's development continues in Europe, as does that of Benfica's Keaton Parks, Andrija Novakovich at Fortuna Sittard, Anderlecht's Kenny Saief and more.
Even Green is back in the mix after a couple of years wandering the soccer wilderness. There is plenty of work to be done, questions to be answered, leaders to be found, but these are good places to start. They are building blocks that make a far stronger base than the Americans had following the 2014 World Cup.
But, while all that is true, the fact remains that a so-far excellent and exciting tournament is going on in Russia without the U.S.; that's tougher to take than Wondo missing that sitter.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.