[MY VIEW] In the wake of the USA's 1-0 loss to Belgium, a final score that mercifully spared the Americans from what could easily have been a more embarrassing result, many questions remain, but one resounds. How can Belgium, a country with a population of only 11 million people, have so many more bright and talented young players than the USA?
Belgium is hardly a superpower in the world of soccer. If anything, their failure to qualify for a World Cup final since 2002 puts them firmly outside the realm of even Europe’s second tier squads. Yet, watching Eden Hazard dance circles around American defenders and show glimpses of a Messi-esque ability to take over a match, one can’t help but wonder why the USA doesn't have one of those?
The most recent census puts the U.S. population at roughly 311 million people, a round 300 million more than little Belgium, and yet the talent on the field doesn’t lie. Hazard (20), Axel Witsel (22) and Vincent Kompany (25) were clearly in a class above any U.S. player on the field, with the exception of the aging Clint Dempsey (28) and Tim Howard (32). Howard managed to keep the score line bearable, but Dempsey could not make up for the painful efforts of the American strikers.
Not even featured in the match were Fulham’s Moussa Dembele (24), FC Twente’s Nacer Chadli (22), Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen (25), FC Porto’s Steven Defour (23), Ajax’s Jan Vertonghen (24), Chelsea’s Thibault Courteous (19), Manchester City’s Dedryck Boyata (20), and Genk’s Kevin De Bruyne (20), all regular starters or up-and-coming “world class” talent from Belgium.
U.S. fans can point to the equal ineffectiveness of Belgium’s strike force, but what most fail to realize is that Igor de Cammargo, Belgium’s man up top for the first 63 minutes, is the sixth choice striker at Coach George Leekens disposal. The same cannot be said for Jozy Altidore (21) and Juan Agudelo (18), neither of which challenged against a depleted Belgian defense. In only 27 minutes on the pitch as de Cammargo's substitute, new £18m Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku (18) came closer to scoring than any American player, and he appeared to be having an off night.
Bright displays from emerging MLS star Brek Shea (21) and rediscovered 2010 World Cup attendee Jose Francisco Torres (23) could not hide the obvious lack of talent fielded by Jurgen Klinsmann.
Sadly, help in the form of fresh blood doesn’t appear to be on the horizon. The Americans only managed the round of 16 at the 2011 U-17 World Cup, and the U-20 squad didn’t even qualify for the first time since 1995. Couple that with Mexico’s title winning display at the U-17 level and two consecutive Gold Cup wins at the senior level and the USA looks like a side in decline surrendering Concacaf to their bitter rivals from the south.
In what would appear to be a game of numbers, the laws of probability continue to defy convention. Bigger countries should produce more world-class talent than small ones, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The argument that the USA should be producing more talent strictly based on population is a flawed one, but it sure doesn’t hurt to have a wide crop to pick from.
So, what to do?
In 2001, the Belgian federation restructured its development system by providing domestic clubs with detailed documentation and instruction on how to oversee player development. Belgian national director Michel Sablon suggests that 95 percent of the clubs in Belgium have complied, and now play a 4-3-3 system with a focus on fostering talent rather than winning. Ten years later, whatever the Belgians are doing, it’s working.
A “Golden Generation” may very well be blooming in Belgium, but with more than 30 times their population, shouldn’t the USA always have one on hand?