USMNT 2014: Looking Back at a Momentous Year
2014 will hold a special place in the hearts of American soccer fans.
Coming off the most successful year in the history of American football in 2013, which saw the USMNT win 16 games, expectations were high entering 2014.
Once the specter of being drawn into the hardest group at the World Cup was made a reality, many American fans began tempering their expectations to reflect the difficult draw. However, the expert management of Jurgen Klinsmann gave many a reason to hope.
World Cup Preparation
2014 did not begin as anticipated for the USMNT. During their February friendly against South Korea, Chris Wondolowski scored both goals for the Americans, displaying yet again why he was deserving of a place on the 23 man squad in Brazil. Landon Donovan served as captain in this match. Little did we know it would be the final time he would appear in the captain’s armband before being omitted from the World Cup squad.
The preparation continued one month later, when the United States played a friendly against Ukraine. The match could not be played in Ukraine due to the ongoing conflict taking place in the country, so the match was moved to Cyprus, where it was played in a practically empty Antonis Papadopoulos Stadium. Ukraine was the highest ranked team not participating in the World Cup and took out their frustrations on the American defense from the beginning. The American defense lapsed on several occasions throughout the match, and if not for the efforts of Tim Howard, the 2-0 score line could have been much worse.
In April, the USMNT played their biggest rivals Mexico in Glendale Arizona. After jumping out to a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Michael Bradley and Chris Wondolowski, the American defense capitulated twice. The match ended in a disappointing 2-2 draw, but the match gave the USMNT confidence heading into the final preparation matches.
In the final three tune-up matches, the USMNT rattled off three consecutive victories over Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Nigeria. The United States was dominant throughout these matches, jumping out the two goal leads in all three matches. The defense conceded late penalties against Turkey and Nigeria, but appeared stable over the majority of the three match stretch. Jozy Altidore finally broke his scoring duck with a brace against Nigeria. Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson secured their place in the final 23, as did Julian Green, with one of these players being included at the expense of Landon Donovan.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to omit Donovan from the 23-man squad was controversial to say the least. The story gained traction among mainstream news outlets and sparking outrage among the American Outlaws. While the National Team traveled to Brazil, Donovan continued his MLS season and went on a scoring run, displaying why he should have been included. However, the squad brought to Brazil was of a singular mentality and ready for the challenges that awaited them.
Overcoming the Group of Death
Preparation for the Group of Death began virtually the moment the draw had been announced. Not only would the USMNT have to deal with the difficult draw, but also had one of the most difficult travel schedules of any team in the tournament. Their matches took them from the beaches of Natal, to the jungles of Manaus, before traveling back to the coast for their match in Salvador. However, the travel demands were nothing compared to the challenges the Americans would face on the pitch.
The United States wasted no time announcing their presence at the World Cup. They pressed Ghana from the opening kickoff and almost immediately caused a turnover. Following a throw in, Jermaine Jones slotted a pass to Clint Dempsey. Deuce skinned a defender while running into the penalty area, and struck a perfectly placed left footed finish off the far post and into the back of the net. The goal came only 30 seconds into the match and set fans across the nation into raucous celebrations.
The match settled into a testy affair, with both teams enjoying chances, but the goals would not come until after the 80th minute. Jozy Altidore suffered a hamstring injury and would miss the remainder of the tournament, leaving the USA without a true striker. Some beautiful interplay between Asamoah Gyan and Andre Ayew, allowed Ghana to equalize with only eight minutes remaining in regulation. Fans around the nation grew tense as it began to appear, the USA’s World Cup dreams were shattered. Four minutes later those hopes were restored because John Brooks smashed home a header from a Graham Zusi corner kick. Brooks dropped to the ground, overwhelmed by the importance of the goal he had just scored. The 2-1 victory gave the USMNT a great platform to start their World Cup.
The USA’s second match against Portugal, started in the opposite manner of the first. The villainous Nani scored in the 5th minute of the match, capitalizing on a poor clearing attempt from Geoff Cameron. Nearly an hour later, Jermaine Jones gave America hope with a thunderbolt off his right foot that leveled the score. In the 81st minute, the USA jumped out to a 2-1 lead thanks to another assist from Zusi, which was sent in with a pelvic thrust from Clint Dempsey. Celebrations lasted only about 15 minutes, because Cristiano Ronaldo struck in the final minute of stoppage time. Ronaldo sent in an inch perfect cross to the forehead of Varela, which was smashed home for the equalizer. Never before had a 2-2 draw hurt so much.
The United States would now have to produce a result against Germany or receive some help from Portugal. A goal from Thomas Muller gave Germany an insurmountable 1-0 lead, but a Ronaldo goal in the 80th minute, gave Portugal a 2-1 victory, which saw the United States qualify for the Round of Sixteen. It may not have been the preferred method of qualification, but it would serve the United States well.
Loss to Belgium
Belgium was always going to be a difficult opponent for the United States. They possessed a supremely talented squad in the midst of a Golden Generation, and the Belgians had at least one superstar in all areas of the field. This did not deter the United States from mounting a challenge. The American defense was buffeted from the start and the Red Devils racked up 38 shot attempts during the match. Tim Howard cemented his status as an iconic figure that day, making 15 incredible saves. In the final minute of stoppage time, the United States had a prime opportunity to score, but Chris Wondolowski sent the shot high over the net, squandering the Americans’ best chance of the match.
The match went into extra time and Belgium manager Marc Wilmots substituted Divock Origi for the mountain of a man, Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku had an almost instant impact on the match. He drew back a pass which found the feet of Kevin De Bruyne, who smashed home the opening goal of the match.
Things would grow worse for the United States 12 minutes later, when Lukaku latched onto the end of a KDB pass and blasted the ball into the back of the net for a 2-0 lead. However, the USA refused to go down without a fight and Julian Green delivered a spectacular volleyed strike off a lofted ball from Michael Bradley to give the USA hope at 2-1. The USA nearly made an equalizer with an intricate set piece routine that found Clint Dempsey, however Thibaut Courtois made the crucial save, seeing the Red Devils through and eliminating the USA.
Rest of the Year
Following the bittersweet end of the USA’s World Cup run, American enthusiasm in soccer has seen the significant drop like in previous World Cup years. Interest in the National Team remained high, while players went about rejoining their respective clubs. Speculation was spent over the future of emerging stars like DeAndre Yedlin and Mix Diskerud, while Jermaine Jones made a blockbuster move to the MLS.
In their three matches since the World Cup, the USA managed a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic and 1-1 draws against Ecuador and Honduras. The match against Ecuador served as a testimonial match for Landon Donovan, who was given a final chance to don the captain’s armband and receive the cheers of the American Outlaws. Donovan nearly scored to commemorate to occasion, but narrowly missed on a couple opportunities.
The United States now has two matches remaining, friendlies against Colombia and Ireland, taking place in London and Dublin respectively. Klinsmann’s latest squad includes several new faces including MLS players Lee Nguyen and Miguel Ibarra, with Jurgen continuing to plan for the future.
Next summer the United States will host the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which they have to be considered favorites to win. Much of the squad from Brazil will be available for the tournament, but with another generation of talented young soccer players emerging, there will be pressure to include a youthful influence. The United States is still lacking a world-class striker, with Jozy Altidore unable to secure regular playing time with Premier League cellar dwellers Sunderland. Altidore’s injury during the World Cup highlighted the lack of depth at the striker positon in the national talent pool.
There is also the ongoing debate between Jurgen Klinsmann and the powers that be in the MLS and US Soccer, that have conflicting opinions concerning American based players. Klinsmann believes young players should move overseas, seeking Champions League football at Europe’s elite clubs. MLS Commissioner Don Garber believes the MLS to be a sufficient incubator of talent. Garber has been an opponent of promotion/relegation, which would significantly expand the American talent pool. This debate will continue over the next few years, while the future of soccer in America continues to appear bright.
Overall 2014 can be considered a B+ year for the United States Men’s National Team. There were some spectacular and satisfying results, but ultimately fans were left slightly disappointed and wanting more. 2015 is another year in which the USA will assert their dominance in CONCACAF; however success outside of the region is still needed. If America is going to take full advantage of their massive youth talent pool, significant reforms in US Soccer are necessary. Until then, the United States will continue to squander the massive advantage they have over other footballing nations. Just less than four years from now, 23 men will be selected from over 3 million active American players, the race is on to see who those men will be.