The United States are on the precipice of something big this morning as they prepare to take on Germany. On one hand, they can qualify for the knockout stage for the first time in consecutive World Cups in their history. They can do this in a group that featured two of the top teams in the world, one of the best players in the world, and they can exorcise the demons who knocked them out of the last two World Cups.
This is all done without star forward Jozy Altidore and a shaky defense that has performed above expectations. When looking back at the 2010 team, the team that inspired so much hope when they advanced to the knockout round, the differences are vast. In 2010, the US relied on long balls instead of combination play. They got a fortunate draw against England after a keeper mishap. To be fair, their defense did hold well after the early England goal but the goal was definitely a gift to the Yanks. They then had to rally to draw a weak Slovenia side and had to force a late winner against Algeria.
Fast forward four years and the differences so far are monumental. The United States are playing to their competition and matching them step for step. An argument can be made that Ghana outplayed the United States for the majority of the game but the United States was able to hold the game and score when it mattered. The United States did outplay Portugal and, despite the draw, played like they were the better team for the majority of the game.
This experience is not limited to the World Cup. It extends to the World Cup qualifiers, where the United States ran rampant in 2013, never losing at home and finishing on top of the group. They were unmatched in the Gold Cup and they won all three World Cup send off games for the first time in their history. The combination play on the attack is the best it's ever been, the midfield has been a strength and the defense has, at points, performed better than expected. This is a team that deserves to be in the spot they are at right now, a result away from the knockout rounds.
Who could have imagined this kind of success a quarter-century ago when the United States qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy? That qualification was huge in it's own right as it confirmed the United States as hosts in 1994 and the start of Major League Soccer. That would become what is known today as MLS 1.0, the original ten teams in a country beginning to embrace the sport.
Fast forward eight years to the 2002 World Cup. After a disappointing tournament in 1998, the United States went on a Cinderella run to the quarterfinals before finally losing to Germany in a heartbreaker. This run, combined with the 1999 Women's World Cup win by the United States, exploded growth in the game. New teams came in over the next several years including Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, Chivas USA, Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, Houston Dynamo and the Philadelphia Union. The league invested in soccer specific stadiums and now all but three play in soccer specific stadiums.
This became known as MLS 2.0. After the 2010 run in the World Cup, popularity of the game continued to grow larger and attendance went up across the league. People were becoming soccer fans in between the four years of the World Cups and MLS teams were seeing the benefit.
After the 2011 Gold Cup, however, United States coach Bob Bradley was fired. Jurgen Klinsmann was hired as head coach and later as director of the national program. He focused on building the academies and recruiting internationals such as Julian Green as he prepared for the future. While doing this, the United States was seeing benefits on the field for the current team, winning the 2013 Gold Cup and performing well in the World Cup Qualifiers.
All of that has led to today. The Americans are a result away from the knockout rounds and have played well in the "Group of Death." The group is a group of death because the Americans are in it, providing a dangerous team for this tournament. If the United States make it to the knockout rounds after today, it will go down as one of the greatest accomplishments in recent history.
We've seen before how the World Cup performances can impact the country in the past. This World Cup is already bringing soccer fever to the United States with huge watch parties and record TV ratings. Making it out of this group will bring the level of fandom for this national team to a fever pitch. If you thought 2010 was wild, just wait.
Next year MLS will add two new teams in two big markets. New York City FC and Orlando City will be followed by an Atlanta team in 2016, plus a future Miami team down the line. The Copa America Centario will be hosted in the United States in 2016, bringing about some of the best South American and Central American teams to the United States for the centennial of the tournament.
Soccer in America is about to get even bigger. Today is the start of MLS 3.0, a time when the domestic league is getting stronger and the national team is becoming a force on the world stage. Everyone likes to talk about how soccer in America has "arrived" but the truth is that it's been here for the past several years. As this new era of American Soccer 3.0 is ushered in, soccer will do more than just "arrive." This nation will do more than simply embrace soccer. They've done that already.
The new era will start a golden age of American Soccer. There will be a strong national team, a domestic league that is continually getting stronger and American fans coming out in droves to support their teams. We've seen it start, we've seen it grow, now it's time to see it stay.
Today, we start American Soccer 3.0.