On paper, losing in extra time of the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup isn't progress for the U.S. But this team wasn't supposed to make it out of a group that included Ghana, Portugal and Germany, nor was it supposed to take Belgium to extra time and then have a chance at a late equalizer after going down 2-0. This was the first time the U.S. has reached consecutive World Cup knockout rounds. This grew an already large fanbase in the U.S. and brought a new level of international respect and praise. This was progress.
So even though the loss to Belgium was painful, there's a lot to look forward to for U.S. fans new and old as sights move to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Of course, as this team proved, predicting what's going to happen 90 minutes from now is impossible, so trying to predict what will happen four years from now is downright silly. And with that in mind, here's what to look for come 2018...
"We eat groups of death for fourth lunch, of course we'll qualify for 2018!" shouts U.S. superfan Dwight D. Soccerhower. But as Mexico learned, World Cup qualification in CONCACAF is never guaranteed and the region has proven at this World Cup that it's getting stronger. Surviving the qualification process along with two Gold Cups, the 2016 Copa America and possibly a return to the Confederations Cup in 2017 will be an accomplishment in itself.
Everyone loves Klinsmann right now, and just like players who do well at the World Cup, he's likely to attract some tempting offers from clubs around the world and maybe a few other countries too. Klinsmann did sign a contract extension with the U.S. through the 2018 World Cup in December of last year, but that doesn't mean he has to stay until then. If he does, expect the U.S. to complete the transition to Total Klinsball. His often controversial comments and decisions were widely questioned by fans, media, and even players during his first World Cup cycle with the U.S., but he's been proven correct almost every step of the way.
The second time around, there will be far more trust in Klinsmann, which should continue the team's growth and development.
JULIAN GREEN A.K.A. GERMAN-AMERICAN MESSI
His goal against Belgium made him the U.S.'s youngest ever scorer at a World Cup and will surely serve as the basis to anoint him the country's great hope to be its first true international footballing superstar. Green will be 23 years old in 2018 and if he continues his development at Bayern Munich, he should be starting for Germany's biggest club then. And though Lionel Messi had already been named the World Player of the Year by that age, a lot can go wrong in a promising young player's career, too. In other words, Julian Green could be the reason the U.S. has a shot at winning its first World Cup or he could be riding hoverboards with Freddy Adu in obscurity somewhere. Because hoverboards will definitely be real by 2018.
LANDON DONOVAN WILL NOT GO QUIETLY INTO THE NIGHT
Landon Donovan was stunned by his omission from this World Cup squad, but that didn't stop him from constantly reminding everyone of his existence during the team's campaign in Brazil. He starred in funny videos about being left home and he signed on as a World Cup analyst for ESPN — even taking over SportsCenter's Twitter account during the Belgium match and turning it into LandonCenter. Donovan will be 36 years old come the 2018 World Cup, but he will be out for revenge as he seeks to pry that last World Cup appearance that he was denied this time around. He will make the team whether Klinsmann likes it or not.
Meanwhile, current U.S. captain Clint Dempsey will be 35 in 2018. He will be a Grammy winning rapper by then and will likely be on the South American leg of his world tour during the tournament.
TIM HOWARD FACING HIS OWN IMMORTALITY
At 35 years old, Tim Howard set a World Cup save record against Belgium. It's fairly reasonable for a goalkeeper to still be playing (and playing well) at 39 years old, so Howard could still be leading this team in Russia. Albeit with a bit more gray in his formidable beard. Maybe he wouldn't make 16 saves in a single match again, but hopefully the backline will be stronger by then and that won't be necessary. But if Howard decides to deny his immortality and finally give backup Brad Guzan a chance to play in his first World Cup after 12 years with the team, then the U.S. will be in very good hands (pun intended).
[Related: Howard stands tall in defeat]
Again, a lot will happen over the next four years and very little of it can be accurately predicted. U.S. fans didn't know Julian Green would ever play for the team, let alone at this World Cup, six months ago. In a time when more and more players with diverse backgrounds have options at the international level, some will decide to play for the U.S. and others won't. Some players will have serious injuries and others still will exceed all expectations. The entire team might come from MLS or the most vital players will be developed by top European academies. Or maybe — just maybe — NASA is working on a top secret project right now to develop the world's first robot footballer to bring the U.S. a historic title won on Russian soil and make a shamed Vladimir Putin retire to a quiet life of always wearing a shirt and working the fryer at Siberian KFC. Keep that quiet, though.
With the 2018 World Cup in Russia, there will be so many Rocky IV references. Training montage mash-ups, the "If I can change and you can change" speech, photoshopping Ivan Drago into the Russian national team. Whatever 2018's social network of choice is, it will be flooded with all of this stuff. Consider this your warning and pace yourself on the Rocky IV viewing between now and then.
So that will be 2018. But no U.S. fans should be counting the days until then just yet. Because if you like the U.S. men's team, you're going to love the women's team. Their World Cup is next summer in Canada and it's going to be fantastic.