There are a lot of people on Twitter, on message boards, and on talk radio this morning trying desperately to sort out some semblance of meaning behind the US Men's National Team's 2-1 loss to a far superior Belgium side yesterday with varying degrees of success.
While it's true that the USA 23 showed heart what they didn't show was a competitive level of talent, athleticism and skill. Of the 10 best players on the pitch yesterday only 1 (Goalkeeper Tim Howard) was on the USMNT roster. Players like Kompany, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Mirellas, Origi, Hazard and Mertens were just too big, too strong and too fast for the United States side to control. And while players like Julian Green and Yedlin had outstanding moments of joy, these were entwined too deeply with moments of heartache (Yedlin not getting back on Lukaku's goal for instance) as to make them too high a hill to over come.
What still remains for the US side is their long-term bugaboo: No reliable offensive attack, and an inability to gain and maintain possession from top-tier teams. The USMNT is one that relies on brilliant goal play first, good defense second and then a set-piece, hit 'em and hope style of offense. As ESPN commentator Ian Darke put it "the US is looking for a searchlight robbery here".
Such has been the case with all USMNT's dating back to the start of the so-called "soccer turn-around" of 1994. The US hosted World Cup saw a fundamental changing of the laws of the game to make the sport more "US Friendly". This was the beginning of the "no kick-back" rule that prevented the goalie from handing a ball played back to him by his own teammate unless it was struck by the head. Even the ball during that WC was redesigned to be more aerodynamic in a hope that it would lead to more scoring.
This World Cup also led to the formation of Major League Soccer which was a condition of the US getting the games, and was designed with the mindset of creating a future generation of US players who could compete at the highest levels of the world stage.
So we find ourselves, 20 years on, looking at pretty much the same level of talent comparatively that we saw in 1994. Back then the names were Meola and Lalas and Jones. Today the names are Howard, Beasley and Dempsey. Through the years the US has trundled along with a cast of characters including Donovan, Keller, Caligiri, Onyewu, Johnson and Wynalda. All of these players and still, very little in the name of advancement.
Part of the reason is the MLS itself. Instead of modeling a league such as the Jupiler in Belgium, the club has decided to make use of glorified club level players interspersed with some name US and aging European stars. The game is slow, plodding, and there's little encouragement for the team owners to improve their lots due to the absence of a system of promotion and relegation as one finds in almost every serious football league around the world.
The biggest mistake that MLS bigwigs made was choosing to copy the NFL league model and not, as they should have, the International football model that fans have grown to love. Make no mistake about it, the Barclay's Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga are bigger TV draws in the USA right now than is MLS. And there's rising interest in smaller leagues such as the NASL and the USL Pro.
This is not to say that Pro/Rel is the be all-end all for an American football ascendency. There has to be a total revamping of how the game is handled from the youth leagues on up. Player development at EVERY level is lacking in the US, as youth teams teach too much structure and strategy and don't focus on the important bits like scoring and creativity.
There's a reason some of the worst players on the USMNT this World Cup, Bradley (who had a horrible Cup) and Brad Davis (Who might as well have been invisible) were MLS players. They struggled because they've not faced the best players in the world on a consistent basis.
Don't get me wrong. Both of these players are very good, top-flight players at the MLS level but, when you ask them to play above, they are out of depth. This is not their fault as much as it is the fault of the league and it's shoddy development system.
So, the USMNT is out, American soccer is stagnant, and a majority of the Country has just tuned out of the game for another four years. The good news is this means the rebuilding and infighting will occur outside of the public eye. The bad news is no one will really understand what it all means.