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U.S. has long way to go to reach soccer elite

United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann yells out

United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann yells out to players during the first half of an international friendly soccer match between the United States and Nigeria in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, June 7, 2014. Credit: AP / John Raoux

SAO PAULO, Brazil - The United States reached the Round of 16 at consecutive World Cups for the first time.

That's progress, right?

Well, it is and it isn't.

On one foot (there are no hands allowed in soccer), the Americans acquitted themselves well in Brazil, getting out of the Group of Death, exorcising ghosts of World Cups past vs. Ghana, playing the great Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal to a draw, and falling back down to Earth in a loss to semifinal-bound Germany. The USA showed grit, determination and a never-say-die attitude.

But on the other foot, those factors can take you only so far. In terms of ball possession, tactical awareness and pedigree, the Americans showed how far they have to go to reach the level of Germany and Belgium, which eliminated them in the Round of 16. In three of its four games -- except the Portugal match -- Team USA was outplayed and chased the game.

"It's a mentality topic that we have to break through in a certain way because the interesting thing is every time we go down a goal, we shift it up," coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "Then suddenly we build the pressure higher up and give [our opponent] a real good game. There's still this sense of too much respect often."

When your goalkeeper is deemed your man of the tournament -- Tim Howard was marvelous, especially keeping the USA afloat against the Belgians -- it says a lot about your shortcomings.

"Tim Howard -- it's wonderful for him and historical," ESPN commentator and former USA international Alexi Lalas told Newsday. "If I'm a defender on the team, I'm embarrassed."

If the USA wants to compete with the rest of the world at the highest levels -- at the World Cup and Copa America, which the United States will host in 2016 -- it needs more talented players, and producing them won't happen overnight.

The 2018 World Cup in Russia seems quite far away, but Klinsmann already is thinking about the future. With several thirtysomethings expected to be too old for that competition, he must turn to the next generation.

Among younger players of note are midfielders Luis Gil (20, Real Salt Lake) and Wil Trapp (21, Columbus Crew), and forward Jose Villarreal (20, Cruz Azul, on loan from the L.A. Galaxy).

"The talent pool is rich," Howard said. "This was a very young team, and even if guys didn't play serious minutes, they were a part of this experience and they'll be so much better for it in the coming years."

There is, however, no player on the horizon who has the skill, tactical knowledge, scoring and passing ability, and vision of Landon Donovan, who was not selected for Brazil. (Julian Green, 19, enjoyed a sizzling WC debut, but he still must prove himself with his club, Bayern Munich.)

The only way for the players to improve is through better competition. Major League Soccer, in its 19th year, must continue to raise its competitive level and the best American players must go overseas to challenge themselves against the world's best and try to play for UEFA Champions League-caliber teams.

"Everybody is looking for that magic bullet," Lalas said. "It's easy from people looking in from the outside -- the size of your country, and that should be a big factor. It is a wonderful asset and it can be a weakness."

While the sport has been played in this country for more than a century, there has been high-level competition for only three-plus decades, first with the original North American Soccer League and MLS.

In 1990, Team USA made a major breakthrough, qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. Twenty-four years later, the Americans have become a CONCACAF power and have qualified for seven consecutive World Cups, an impressive achievement for any nation.

That is called progress, although it might not be as fast as some 21st-century fans demand. They want an American revolution in soccer, but they probably will have to settle for evolution. There is nothing wrong with that. It's the natural course of development.

Just look how far the United States has come in only one generation.

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