It all seemed so simple for U.S. soccer supporters in the 90s and into the next decade: the national team was marching inexorably forward. The boys in red, white and blue weren't "there" yet, but they were en route, speeding down the highway toward a bigger place in the global order.
But lately it seems more like the U.S. is sitting on the side of the road, stalled. Maybe even missing a tire, gazing backward to spot the next truck that might roll by with valuable replacement parts.
This moment of realization has become something of an annual rite. It seems like every year now objective observers are arriving upon the same conclusion, that the U.S. program has reached plateau status. The program is hardly in a terrible place -- but stalled progress is never something to hang your hat on.
We had this conversation during the ups and downs of the 2009 Confederations Cup, when many observers arrived at the conclusion that the United States was susceptible to wild swings of form, a side capable on any day of big prosperity or rank poverty. We saw it in last summer's World Cup in South Africa, where heroic rallies distracted us slightly from those slow beginnings. We sure saw it during the just-completed Gold Cup.
And for all the Bob Bradley critics out there, here's some bad news: It's not his fault.
Nor is it USSF president Sunil Gulati's fault. As principals at the top of the organizational chart, they certainly share some blame. But the issues are bigger than two men. Everybody wants simple solutions because it's comforting to believe "easy buttons" exist. But these are complex issues with roots than run much deeper.
It's about player development, about the continued effort of to take all that raw talent and affix a higher functioning soccer brain.
And it's cyclical, too. Likes waves on a beach, the superior crops of talent will roll in and recede regularly. If we're honest, the reason this conversation has reached a fever pitch is because Mexico is currently enjoying the fruits of its "up" cycle, where a generation of sensational young attackers threatens to create a yawning gap between the two countries.
This is really nothing new. Everyone paying attention has long said the mechanisms that identify and cultivate U.S. youth talent are deeply flawed. But it's hard for media and supporters to accept the reality in the big picture: establishing the beachhead was one thing, while getting our troops off the beach, moving inland and taking some ground in world soccer, will require more complex solutions.
"Well, we're Americans," said Alexi Lalas, former U.S. defender and current ESPN analyst. "I guess on this July 4 weekend, all the good American attributes, in terms of wanting things quickly and not being satisfied with things are apropos. I don't think it's unwarranted to take look now, to see where we are, and not to be satisfied. At the same time, I also think we should look over years and, while pushing ourselves to go forward faster, we need to recognize how far we've come and how fast."
As Lalas points out, we should all feel OK about the cold water plunge into tough conversations that examine progress. That means having potentially difficult discussions and disagreements on players, coaches, infrastructure, etc. But the discussions need to be balanced with the reality of a growth curve, which is certain to level off after those initial days of hard-charging progress.
Blessed with athletes and a solid organizational structure, the U.S. has shown that it can stand alongside any opponent on a given day. A massive win over Spain two years ago in the Confederations Cup, all those timely rallies in World Cup qualifiers and some big moments in last year's World Cup fan the flames of hope.
On the other hand, the U.S. has shown that it can shrivel like fruit in the hot sun on a given day, too.
We saw it in a sluggish, flawed night against Panama in the Gold Cup first round loss. We saw it two years ago, when the U.S. couldn't hold a 2-0 lead over Brazil. We saw it repeatedly in World Cup qualifying, as so many sluggish starts left matches in bad places. We saw recent friendlies against Argentina and Spain where the U.S. was utterly overwhelmed, never mind playing at home.
The real pressure point, of course, came at the final Gold Cup whistle, as U.S. players remained forlornly on the field while Mexico danced around its well-deserved 4-2 Rose Bowl triumph. It was a result that removed all doubt about whether Mexico had regained its lost regional dominance (for now, at least). And ... cue the latest moment of U.S. Soccer self-awareness.
It's the annual moment where realization lands heavy, that perhaps athleticism, tenacity and mentality have taken the program as far as possible.
What's missing now is a higher level of understanding of the game. Former Germany coach Jürgen Klinsmann told us so last year, in those pointed and biting post- World Cup comments. And I remember a conversation earlier this year with New York Red Bulls coach Hans Backe. He was speaking about American players, about a missing ingredient. "There is just something missing sometimes with the American player," he said. "I can't always put my finger on it."
Lalas calls it the nuances and subtleties of the game. It's those "final steps," invariably the trickiest.
It's that higher level of understanding, that game management on a big level and problem solving on an individual levels. It's that quicksilver speed of thought, when action no longer is reaction, when it's merely instinct, like moving your finger off a hot stove. But the useful cultural immersion of soccer other countries just isn't available here, not in most communities, anyway.
So, that's the big lesson from the Gold Cup. There were other, smaller, individual lessons for the taking.
First, the U.S. needs Tim Chandler, the promising German-American right back. Steve Cherundolo, 32, won't be around forever. He will be 35 by the next World Cup in Brazil. And those transatlantic trips for qualifiers will be increasingly difficult. No one wants to see right back join left back as a problem area.
Bob Bradley's choice to use Jonathan Bornstein rather than Jonathan Spector as a replacement for the injured Cherundolo was the moment of greatest consternation for most fans, who have grown weary of Bradley's continued trust in Bornstein. But it also says something about Spector, because a one-for-one swap would have been an easy choice if Spector was the real deal as heir apparent at right back.
So, whatever issues Chandler has in freeing himself for further U.S. integration, it would be great if he can resolve them and get on with it.
Eric Lichaj shows some promise as a left back, even though he will probably be on the right when he returns to Aston Villa later this summer. The pool of U.S. strikers remains somewhere between distressed and alarming. Something's got to give there.
There are plenty of promising candidates in the pool at center back, but someone other than Carlos Bocanegra needs to put a choke hold on a starting assignment.
On the plus side, there's fresh hope swirling around Freddy Adu. File that one under "monitor closely." And Clint Dempsey may not have reached peak performance just yet. Blunders near goal aside, he had a great Gold Cup.
Jermaine Jones established himself as a more important cog, an important asset in upcoming World Cup qualifying, apparently.
Those are the micro pieces, some healthy elements mixed with others that need improving. The key to success in the bigger picture, of course, is shifting the balance, getting to a place where there are more suitable options and fewer trouble zones. That's a complex task, all about creating better player development mechanisms, about improved youth soccer environments (that emphasize development over winning) and about more thorough identification processes.
All that takes time.
"The problem is that, as Americans, once we grab hold something we never want to take a step backward," Lalas said. "But sometimes steps backward are part of the process, and that scares the living bejesus out of all of us."