Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: U.S. soccer team makes strides but now it’s time to raise the bar

Go ahead, America. It is July Fourth week, so feel free to continue gushing over magnificent goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was rightfully elevated to U.S. sports hero after his performance against Belgium in Tuesday’s World Cup knockout game.

His historic 16 saves during the 2-1, extra-time loss were so spectacular that Twitter exploded with comments suggesting all the things Howard could save, including Obamacare and the publishing industry.

Give a big patriotic hip-hip-hooray to the rest of the U.S. players, too, who embodied the American fighting spirit and never stopped believing they would win.

But it is time, once and for all, to put a moratorium on the discussion of whether soccer has arrived in the United States. That narrative has been ongoing for the past four World Cup cycles, and it is getting tiresome.

Yes, it has arrived. In a big way. And it is here to stay. It is no longer a niche sport with a cult following. It has gone mainstream, and it’s time to treat it like a Big Boy Sport, which means Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his team will, and should, be scrutinized just like our NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball teams.

ESPN, which largely sets the agenda for what American sports fans care about, has legitimized soccer by showing how exciting The Beautiful Game really is. So has Univision.

A combined audience of 24.7 million people tuned in to the two networks for a Sunday afternoon U.S.-Portugal game, 18.2 million on ESPN and 6.5 million on Univision. It was far more than the average audience for the 2014 NBA Finals (15.5 million), 2013 World Series (14.9) and the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Finals (5.0).

Sports fans who never paid much attention, if any, to soccer are playing hooky from work to attend watch parties. Sports-talk radio hosts have integrated the World Cup into their shows, and commentators on ESPN and Univision are asking the tough questions as the U.S. team heads home.

Are the American players any better today than they were four years ago? Did Klinsmann make good on his promise to introduce a more attacking, creative, goal-producing attack?

Both are up for debate. This U.S. World Cup team lost 2-1 in extra time of its second-round game, exactly the same result as the 2010 team. The American players had trouble possessing the ball and pushing the attack forward in three of their four matches. They hung back and were on their heels far too long against Ghana, Germany and Belgium. Only in the Portugal game did the U.S. offense look dangerous for extended periods.

As fabulous as Howard played against the Belgians, no World Cup goalkeeper should have to face 27 shots on goal. It shouldn’t take 16 saves — the most in a World Cup match since 1966 — to keep your team in the match.

Klinsmann’s team has an admirable never-say-die attitude. The players wore a patch inside their jerseys for the Portugal game with the following quote from fan Joel Humowiecki: “The American Will to Win is Stronger Than Any Opponent in Your Way.”

But the will to win, and fans believing the team will win, are not enough. The Americans have proved they can compete against the world’s best players on the sport’s biggest stage. The next step is beating elite teams and advancing in the knockout round, as the 2002 team did, reaching the quarterfinals.

Asked after the loss to Belgium what was still missing from the U.S. team, how they could close the gap, Klinsmann said: “I think it’s a little bit still the mental approach. I think that we are in that process to take our game to the opponent no matter what their name is. We wait just a little bit too long to start our game. There is still a little too much respect on our end when it comes to the big stage.”

“I don’t know how many years it takes. I think it is a process that the players need to realize that you have to take it to the opponent. Don’t back up so much. I’m screaming my lungs off on the sideline to push them higher up the field.”

When soccer players talk about “too much respect” for another team, that is code for “in awe” or “intimidated.” One way to correct that is to play against the world’s best week in and week out, and the best place to do that is in Europe. Major League Soccer is a far more competitive league than it was 10 years ago, and the MLS players on this team played valiantly, but the majority of the top players in the world make a living in Spain, England, Germany and Italy.

Of the 23 players on the Belgian roster, 11 play in England, two in Spain, two in Germany, one in Italy and one in France. The U.S. team featured 10 players from the MLS, four from England (including Howard), four from the German league and one from the French league.

Of course, it should be pointed out that the U.S. team survived longer in Brazil than Spain, England and Italy, all of which are loaded with high-paid players from the elite leagues.

Klinsmann endured some criticism by putting five German-Americans on the team, but it turned out four of the five who played had a major impact. John Brooks scored the game-winner against Ghana. Jermaine Jones was a midfield beast. Fabian Johnson defended well and made dangerous runs up the flank. And 19-year-old Julian Green scored a spectacular goal in extra time against Belgium.

Would Landon Donovan have made a difference? We will never know, but it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have helped. He has vision, creativity and, maybe most important of all, he had played — and scored — in three World Cups. He scored five goals in the past three World Cups, quite a feat considering how hard it is to score in this tournament. Just ask Wayne Rooney (one goal in 10 World Cup matches), Cristiano Ronaldo (one goal in three matches in Brazil) and Lionel Messi (one goal in 2006 and 2010 before scoring four in Brazil so far).

Klinsmann is a likable coach. He smiles a lot more than his two predecessors, Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena. He has a positive disposition. He is good with the media and fans. “He exudes confidence and enthusiasm,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. “And he has experience. He has a World Cup medal around his neck, so you’ve got to at least listen to what he says.”

All true. Klinsmann has four more years to make good on his promises. U.S. Soccer is all grown up. Time to raise the bar.