You don't invest in U.S. soccer for the short-term returns. Fans who jumped aboard after the 1994 U.S.-hosted World Cup and the national team's 1-0 Round of 16 loss to Brazil had to wait until 2002 to witness the next big advance -- when the U.S. made it to the quarterfinals against Germany. MLS fans who jumped on the in the league's early, star-studded days had to endure oversized venues, aging international talent and failing teams for more than a decade before the league shrunk its stadiums, developed talent and built from within. Even now, it's not a perfect system -- but it's much improved.
Such is the case with the men's team today. Making the Round of 16 in 2010 after being ushered out in the first round of 2006 seems like progress, but it's temporary. Klinsmann and his assembled group of established veterans including Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley see the potential. It was only two years ago that they got their first-ever at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. The same year, the U.S. got its first-ever win against Italy -- in Italy.
Klinsmann has said repeatedly that this year's U.S. team cannot win the World Cup. He says it because he knows it to be true, but because his goal in bringing young, internationally seasoned players into the fold such as Green, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin and 23-year-olds Aron Johannson and Mix Diskerud is because he wants it to be a possibility -- if not an immediate threat -- in 2018.
Consider that for a moment. The U.S. hadn't even qualified for the World Cup in 40 years when it made the cut in 1990. It's only made it out of the group stage three times during that span, losing twice in the Round of 16 and once in the quarterfinals 12 years ago. It has gone winless in the group stage three times since 1990 and last did so just eight years ago.
But the last seven years have been far different. It finished runner up to Brazil in the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2009 -- and only by a 3-2 margin -- and defeated Spain a year before its World Cup title run to do so. It's finished no worse than second in every CONCACAF Gold Cup since 2005, and just won last year's installment over Panama. It not only qualified for the World Cup with consecutive impressive performances against Mexico, but defeated Germany 4-3 just to celebrate. In half a decade, it defeated two of the Top 2 teams in the world -- a feat the U.S. hadn't accomplished to that point.
By gutting a nearly nonexistent soccer development system and retooling itself to not only develop top-flight talent, but streamline it right into the national team, the U.S. has finally replicated a system used in countless top soccer nations including England, Germany and Spain. It's a huge, positive leap, but the results are going to take time.
The U.S. is still only 24 years into its international soccer era. It's growth in that time has been impressive, but the leap from “entertaining distraction” to “perennial global competitor” isn't so easy. In 84 years of World Cup play, only eight nations have won the title. The most recent champion, Spain, hadn't finished higher than fourth place since 1950. England won a title in 1966, but only managed a fourth-place finish in 1990 since then.
Unless you're Germany, France or Italy, there are small windows of opportunity for nations to build talent great enough for a deep World Cup run. Klinsmann sees it now, and both sponsors and broadcasters are backing him with dollars. The least you can invest is your time, especially if the payoff is as big as U.S. Soccer believes it will be.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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