Belgium, man! BELGIUM!

That of course was what Zaphod Beeblebrox said when he was about to die in a particularly horrible way.  Given a loose translation, it fit the reaction of most American fans as afternoon turned to evening.

The reaction after that fell into three basic categories.  One, Belgium can't allow themselves to be held scoreless for a hundred minutes any more this tournament, let alone miss chances at the rate they did Tuesday afternoon, and if they don't get their crap together before Argentina does, that golden generation is done.

That's the point of view from those still concerned who wins the World Cup now that the US will not.  There are, oh, about 300 million people who saw this game, and are reacting to this game, from the view atop Mt. Loser.  Let's join them.

If I may oversimplify for a moment, the other two opinions can be nutshelled roughly as:

(1) The United States showed the heart and courage and pride that made this country great *series of pictures bald eagles liberating Paris and inventing the electric guitar*

(2) Klinsmann and his bumbling accomplices cost the United States glory through their incompetence and cowardice.

What is doubly frustrating, and what will fuel the arguments between the two camps, is that they are both true. 

Klinsmann made decisions that were enlightened, pragmatic, foolhardy, lucky, inspired, egotistical and incomprehensible.  Sometimes they turned out to be all these things at different times.  At least one - putting in Julian Green after Belgium took The Most Dangerous Lead - was all of them, and more.  John Brooks proved he belonged on the team in the Ghana game...then was put in an iron mask and thrown in the Bastille, or something.  DeAndre Yedlin was a controversial choice that paid off brilliantly...covering the controversial decision to take Tim Chandler.  Were Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones revelations?  They sure were...at the cost of Michael Bradley's usefulness, since not everyone benefited from last-minute changes in formations and assignments. 

Klinsmann got his team fit and inspired enough to give four very good teams everything they could handle and more - well, give or take an epidemic of Exploding Hamstring Syndrome.  Tim Howard put on maybe the greatest performance in American soccer history, at least one that more than a handful of people saw...but, and I don't know how to put this delicately...good teams don't force their keeper to make sixteen freaking saves.  If Howard were a pitcher, he'd be 3-11 with a 1.15 ERA, screaming to be traded to a contender. 

Klinsmann handled the Ghana game masterfully, in my opinion - with the exception of putting in Johannsson.  You can't blame Klinsmann for the team blowing the lead against Portugal, but what were his instructions to late substitute Omar Gonzalez, anyway?  Klinsmann started defensive lineups against Germany and Belgium, then after both games said he wished they could have attacked more.  But how, and with whom? 

Both the praise and the criticism are valid, and justified, and unanswerable.  You can tell me you're anywhere from angry to frustrated to proud to ecstatic about the US men's national team right now, and I will not only understand, but agree with you.  I think our talent pool would have frustrated the plans of any manager.  I think Klinsmann took the wrong players from that limited talent pool.  And I think he did a very good job within limitations both self-inflicted and inherent.

The United States is now consistently a soccer power of the second rank, one that can now even make an argument for a seed, depending on who else shows up to the party. 

Well, here, let's define this a little.  Teams that make the quarterfinals half the time or more are the world's elite - Brazil, Germany, Italy, France, Argentina, Holland, Spain.  The next tier are basically Mexico, England, the United States, the top couple of remaining South American teams at any given moment, the best African team that pays its bonuses, and whichever teams are having flash-in-the-pan "golden generations" at the time.  It's this last category that can be a bear - they usually beat everyone but the eventual champion, while never being the actual champion.

Anyway, I consider 9th to 16th best in the world a pretty good place to be...especially considering that we are probably the biggest, most successful, most stable soccer nation to never have produced a world superstar.

Crap, let me define that, too - a player that would finish in the top three of the Ballon d'Or voting.  I think if Hugo Sanchez had been eligible in his prime, he would have gotten up there.  Of course, not only Van Basten and fellow future MLSer Lothar Matthaeus have been in the way, but so would a fat little punk called Maradona, so maybe he wouldn't necessarily have won.  We haven't produced anyone like that.  We haven't even produced a Stoitchkov, a Drogba or a Hagi. 

Many believe that this inability to produce a superstar is a sign of weakness.  I disagree, simply because there seems to be no way of predicting where the Greatest Player in the World will come from at any given moment.  We trail them both Liberia and Northern Ireland in world idols 1-0.  Does Northern Ireland have a stronger soccer program than the United States?  Does Bulgaria?  Does, when the rubber meets the road, Belgium?

Hey, they might...but they have to show up for more than one World Cup out of every three before they can hang with Uncle Sam.

All right, look at it this way - unless you think it's for some reason genetically impossible that the US will ever produce a true soccer superstar - the One whose coming Landon Donovan has foretold - then who's more likely to do something useful when that superstar appears?  The team that needs a Barcelona star to have one good cycle out of twenty, or the one that always qualifies and frequently makes the second round with guys making six figures?

You may look at players like Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Gareth Bale and conclude that we are decades behind.  You may say, "What's holding us back?", as if there's anything in particular holding Holland or Mexico "back."  We have a smaller league and a smaller development program, especially for our size, than any of the top ten or fifteen other soccer powers.  Grow them, and when the superstar comes, we'll be ready.

The best way to do that?  Well, just as I don't believe it's a coincidence that the US team has consistently improved since MLS has been on the scene, I don't believe that US Soccer signed up with MLS and Soccer United Marketing for kicks.  Only eight players on the World Cup roster didn't play in MLS at any point - and two of those eight also didn't play in this World Cup, so now.  Maybe colleges and semipro teams would have nurtured the same talent to the same level, but they sure as hell didn't but once between 1934 and 1990.  Maybe a strong national team wouldn't have safeguarded the continuing existence of the original NASL, but there sure as hell wasn't a strong national team from the 60's to the 80's.  MLS is making the US team stronger, that stronger US team is now much more popular.  Even if the triangle doesn't close - the strong US team making MLS more popular - there are enough benefits to justify SUM linking the two for their mutual interest. 

Yes, now it can be told - MLS could play to empty stadiums, and it would still be in the best interests of USSF and its sponsors to keep it a going concern.  Perhaps the new NASL can fill this same role, if needed, but it doesn't look as if it will be. 

This World Cup wasn't lost against Belgium - it was lost when a late defensive lapse kept us from resting against Germany.  That's a micro-event, impossible to prevent by any designed structure - no sports bureaucracy can prevent sports from being sports.  It can, however, manage the aftermath.  It wasn't Klinsmann, or even the team and its heart, that took the next step - it was all the fans in all those parks, bars and stadiums that we had been missing this our whole lives. 

I would say these fans weren't won over this World Cup - they were won over in 2010 after the Algeria goal, in 2009 at the Confederations Cup, in 2006 as they watched Brian McBride battle, in 2002 for that glorious run, in 1998 as they whoops well, maybe 1998 didn't win any fans.  We've been asking for decades when soccer will arrive here.  But that's the wrong question.  This isn't an Olympic sport.  Soccer never stops.  It's not about arriving, it's about hopping on board and enjoying the ride.