By Paul Kennedy
For those of us who have been involved in soccer for a long time -- I started writing for Soccer America 40 years ago when I was a freshman in college -- we've never wondered what it would be like for the USA to win the World Cup. But we have at least thought about what it would be like to get close.
In 2002, the USA got close, or as least as close as it has in our lifetime. When the USA exited the 2002 World Cup, there was a wistful feeling of what-if. What if Torsten Frings' handball had been called in the quarterfinals and the USA had somehow gone on to win the Germany game in Ulsan? A date with the hosts, South Korea, awaited in the semifinals in Seoul.
When the team departed after the round of 16 of the World Cup four years later in South Africa, there was a sense of shoulda -- the USA should've probably done better than it did against Ghana. (Even U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said the USA did not achieve expectations.)
This time? There is none of the same feeling.
A USA quarterfinal? Against Argentina. With Lionel Messi. On ABC. On a Saturday. (Even if at noon on a holiday weekend.) USA-Argentina would have blown a hole through the soccer ceiling. But it was never going to happen.
Chris Wondolowski's miss at the end of regulation will be remembered a long time -- as will the photo of Landon Donovan in shock when Wondo missed -- but not like the Frings' no-call is -- even if it was only a penalty call, and a U.S. goal would have only been the equalizer.
On merit, the USA was the better team against Germany that night in Ulsan, which is why the no-call still stings. You couldn't say that about the USA against Belgium on Tuesday in Salvador.
The USA was an overachiever in Brazil. DoesJurgen Klinsmann deserve credit for that? Of course. Does that mean other coaches before him, Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena, Steve Sampson, Bora Milutinovic or Bob Gansler, could not have achieved the same thing?Of course not. (Klinsmann had massive resources at his disposal, far greater than any other coach before him, and future coaches will presumably have even more than he had as the federation grows.)
Klinsmann was right. The USA won't win the 2014 World Cup. And Russia four years away? The USA won't win the 2018 World Cup. Trust me, it won't happen.
Like that of any politician promising change and not being able to deliver on it, Klinsmann's mistake was saying his job was to develop a more proactive style, a more exciting style, at its core a more American style. It didn't happen and probably was never going to happen in three years.
But what Klinsmann has done a good job of is using his bully pulpit, communicating what it will take for players to succeed at the World Cup, day in and day out consistently playing at the highest level. We saw the evidence of that in Belgium's Red Devils. Belgium is a country with a population of only 11 million and about the size of Maryland -- and a pro league structure inferior to MLS -- but it has players scattered on the best clubs in the world.
Belgium had about a decade's headstart on the USA in implementing a serious youth development program, but the USA is catching up quickly. I'd dare suggest that the best generation of talent the USA has ever produced is coming through the pipeline at the ages of 14, 15 and 16.
It's the first generation that's grown up with MLS. More globally, it's first generation that's grown up seeing soccer and its stars as big deals. The playing opportunities are better than ever before. The money is there. And most importantly, U.S. Soccer has done a far better job of finding the talent.
A case could be made that the talent is coming along faster than MLS knows what to do with it. Many of these players are bypassing MLS and moving abroad at a young age despite the overwhelming evidence that most teenagers who move abroad don't make it.
It's easy to get all swept up in the excitement about the young American talent coming up. But until we start seeing Americans winning MLS scoring titles at the age of 17 -- like Romelu Lukaku did for Anderlecht -- or win back-to-back MVP awards at the age of 20 and 21 -- like Eden Hazard did at Lille -- and then moving on to take on important roles at big European clubs, it's all a tad premature.
What this World Cup has shown is that the USA has taken the first step. I found it funny today listening to Tim Howard on a conference call being asked about how this World Cup would boost soccer or hear commentators abroad suggest the USA's success in Brazil will be the start of a massive upsurge in interest. Start?
Soccer is as big here as it is about anywhere else in the world -- how it is played, how it is supported, how is covered -- and we don't have to be shy about it.
The USA will win the World Cup in our lifetime. I couldn't say that before.