Rea: Just one win, but plenty of worldwide respect for U.S. soccer

It has been five days since the Americans bowed out of the World Cup with a 2-1 loss to Belgium in extra time.

How did the team do in Brazil? Though the record books will show it played four games and only managed one win, I would argue that this is the country’s most important World Cup display ever.

It’s not the Americans’ best post-war performance; in 2002, they went a step further and reached the quarterfinals, but that tournament was in Asia and the matches were played in the middle of the night here. Most of the population was simply uninterested, and I remember watching back home in the UK as a British TV crew roamed the streets of Manhattan trying to find people who knew their country was in the last eight of the tournament.

But even though they exited at the same stage as they did in South Africa in 2010, this time their exploits gripped the nation. Every contest was riveting.

They scored one of the fastest goals ever against Ghana and then were forced into desperate defending until finally they gave up a goal. Just when you feared they would lose, up leapt John Brooks, whom no one had heard of, to seal the win.

Next up against Portugal, they fell behind early but dragged themselves back into the game and were on the cusp of an unlikely and historic victory — before blowing it in the dying seconds. Even though the Germany match was tame in comparison, it was still edge-of-your-seat stuff because a single goal in the other group match taking place simultaneously could have sent the U.S. crashing out.

And then the Belgium contest in the Round of 16 packed an unbelievable amount of drama into two hours.

Frantic end-to-end action, a ridiculous 56 attempts on goal, a human levee in keeper Tim Howard, a fantastic chance to win the game in injury time, a never-say-die attitude that almost brought a Hollywood comeback … if you didn’t get excited watching the U.S. team in Brazil, then soccer is not for you.

The rest of the world was impressed. All over the planet, the Americans were showered with praise both for escaping the Group of Death and sending Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal home early, and for the heart and fight they showed in pushing the talented Belgians for 120 minutes. But heart and fight only get you so far — and to take the next step, you need players with experience and skill.

The U.S. team had a fabulous work ethic and performed so much better than the sum of its parts. Most of the squad is unknown to European soccer fans because the majority plays for MLS clubs. Although in the long term the country needs a strong domestic setup to succeed, understandably it’s not yet at the same level as the major European leagues.

The USA needs to have creative players with experience at the top. It needs defenders who can be strong when it matters and attackers who do nothing the whole game but then pop up in the dying seconds to snatch the winner.

Because the World Cup is only held every four years, it breeds an organic cycle of team development. Standout players like Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley will be in their mid-30s and in the twilight of their careers when we reconvene in Russia in 2018, so coach Jurgen Klinsmann will be shuffling out the veterans and infusing the roster with new blood.

But this is reason for optimism, not pessimism, as it’s a chance for the U.S. team to rebuild in order to make a deep run at the next tournament. After reaching the knockout rounds two tournaments running, it’s time for the Americans to advance even deeper.

Interest in this World Cup exploded like no other in history. Cultural icons from Tom Hanks to LeBron James to Justin Timberlake were tweeting their support for the boys in red, white and blue. But when it went to the wire, the Americans lacked that little bit of quality and guile that would have made the difference.

But I believe the United States, both the soccer team and the nation, has the capacity, determination and belief to change that in the future. And we only have four years to wait to find out.

I’m already counting down the days.