SAO PAULO — Turns out Jurgen Klinsmann was right: The United States isn’t ready to win the World Cup.
The Americans were eliminated in the round of 16 for the second straight tournament. They’ve been ranked 13th or 14th every month since September, which means their exit was pretty much at the stage it’s expected to be.
“Clearly it gives you the message you have a lot of work still ahead of you,” the U.S. coach said Wednesday, a day after the 2-1 loss to Belgium in extra time.
From Wall Street to the White House to the West Coast, Americans watched their national team on television in record numbers. While buoyed by the increase in attention, players are desperate to join the world’s elite and far from attaining that level.
Klinsmann was a World Cup champion as a player with West Germany in 1990 and coach of the German team that reached the 2006 semifinals. Having moved to California in 1998 with his American wife, he is seen as bringing the perspective of soccer’s elite to a nation that remains a new world in the sport.
His message to players is they don’t do enough. They don’t play twice a week, like Champions League stars. They don’t face condemnation from their community after losses and poor performances.
“It makes them feel accountable, not just walk away with a bad performance and nothing happens,” he said. “If you have a bad performance, then people should approach you and tell you that, so make sure that next game is not bad anymore and that you step it up.”
President Barack Obama spoke to captain Clint Dempsey and goalkeeper Tim Howard on Wednesday to congratulate the team on its performance. Obama “commended them not only for their work on the field, but for carrying themselves in a way that made the country proud,” the White House said in a statement.
Late Wednesday at the airport, Dempsey, forward Jozy Altidore and defender DaMarcus Beasley were cheered and stopped for autographs and photos before they boarded an American Airlines flight to Miami.
The Americans’ final match, which kicked off at 4 p.m. EDT on a weekday, was seen by 21.6 million on ESPN and Univision, impressively close to the record 24.7 million set for a Sunday evening game against Portugal earlier in the tournament. An average of 1.6 million watched the loss to Belgium on digital streams.
“People now start to care about it. Fans care about it. They comment on social media. They comment everywhere about it, and that’s good,” Klinsmann said.
His most controversial moves coming into the tournament were cutting Landon Donovan, the biggest star in U.S. soccer history, and taking along 18-year-old Julian Green, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin and 21-year-old John Brooks. Brooks and Green, who turned 19 on June 6, responded with late-game goals when they came in as substitutes, and Yedlin was stellar against Belgium when he replaced injured right back Fabian Johnson.
But Klinsmann’s proclamation that the U.S. would play an attacking game didn’t pan out. The Americans were outshot by a combined 92-41.
“The interesting part is every time we would go down a goal, we’ll shift it up,” he said. “I believe it’s more a mental topic that we have to work on than it is a talent topic.”
Klinsmann took over from Bob Bradley in July 2011. Last December, he was given a contract through the 2018 tournament that added the title of U.S. Soccer Federation technical director. In the next four-year cycle, he has numerous chances to integrate youth: the CONCACAF Gold Cups in 2015 and 2017, the centennial Copa America in 2016 and a possible trip to the Confederations Cup in 2017.
There also is the under-23 team that will try to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics — the 2012 team stumbled and didn’t reach the London Games, slowing the careers of more than a dozen players.
“We’ve got to do much better than the last cycle,” he said.
He defended his pre-tournament comment that the U.S. was not ready to win the World Cup, saying he didn’t want to raise “expectations to kind of a level that is over the moon.” After he arrived in Brazil, he mentioned he was prepared to stay for the entire tournament, that he had booked a plane ticket for the day after the final just in case.
But as U.S. players prepared to scatter to clubs and family vacations, Klinsmann conceded he also was leaving early.
“I changed the ticket last night,” he said.