The lofty place where Jurgen Klinsmann wants to take U.S. men's national team

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The next level is an esoteric sort of thing, since there are no actual and physical levels in international soccer.

Absent some kind of system of treads and ladders, whereupon national teams can step up and down, like some Italian plumber in a 2-D video game, there's no telling where the "next level" ends or begins. It's ill-defined. A notion rooted in reputation more than reality. Something that's next-level, as an adjective, is ahead of its time. A team ascending to the next level is an even vaguer construct.

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Which is all a roundabout way of saying that if – when? – the United States men's national team gets to that next level, a higher plane of performance, play and prestige, it will be hard to say when, exactly, it got there.

If it didn't already by beating Ecuador in the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario on Thursday – the first American win in the knockout stage of a major global or continental tournament since the 2002 World Cup. Let's say it didn't. Then perhaps such a seminal achievement could come in Tuesday's semifinal against Argentina, the heavy favorites to win the tournament, not to mention the top-ranked team in the world by both the FIFA and ELO rankings. This is a team of such stupefying talent and depth as to create real lineup problems for its manager Tata Martino.

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The question of the next level is a loaded one for the USMNT's building band of fans. In a country lumbered with a communal soccer inferiority complex, the next level more or less equates to belonging. To being worthy of a place among the sport's elite. It means arriving.

And it's famously what the Klinsmann era was supposed to usher in. When the German was installed as head coach five years ago – and also made technical director in late 2013 – the popular consensus was that he'd lift the program as a whole to a higher echelon, just as he'd modernized a dated German national team program and brought it back to the top.

For almost five years, we didn't see much to suggest that progress was really being made. If anything, it looked like regression. The Americans weren't any more technical than they had been, and in the meantime, their staples of defensive solidity, solid organization and can-do spirit had eroded. The Klinsmann Doctrine appeared to be DOA, if there ever was one at all.

But then this Copa America Centenario kicked off. And after a stumble against Colombia, three consecutive strong performances against very reputable opponents have turned narrative and expectation entirely on their heads. Against tough teams and in tricky situations, the Americans haven't just rediscovered their bite and poise, but they've also largely played good soccer, passing out of the back, building structurally sound attacks and generally refusing to take a total bunker mentality even when they were outnumbered or outgunned. Indeed, against some of the finest forward lines in the game, the U.S. has only conceded three goals in four games – and just one in the last three – and they came from a pair of corners and a penalty, rather than the run of play.

Most of all, they have a adopted the mindset of a team that still may not be able to compete with the very best technically, but no longer doubts that it can consistently get the results against them all the same.

On the Argentina showdown, midfielder Michael Bradley has said that his opposing captain Lionel Messi is "probably the best of all time" – a correct assertion – yet that there are ways of slowing him and disrupting the rest of his team. "Whoever is sharper and has more guys play well, compete at a high level and understand the moment, that's typically what team is going to have a better chance to win," he told ESPN.

"We are 100 percent going in with the belief that we can play with them," defender Matt Besler told the Washington Post. "We'll see on Tuesday night. But you can't go into a game conceding that belief already."

Klinsmann has framed the challenge of playing ever-improving teams as a task to be embraced, laying it out as the road to be traveled to the top. "We play one of the best teams in the world. And this is what we want," he said. "This is where you want to measure yourself and give them a real fight. All I will tell them is 'Go at them. Be courageous. Believe you can do it, absolutely.' Every team is beatable in the world."

This was the point of playing so many world powers in friendlies in recent years, and winning a fair few of those games against the likes of Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Klinsmann wanted his players to understand that even the top teams only get to field 11 men, and that they make mistakes as well, that they tire towards the end of games.

"We are not scared of them at all," Klinsmann said of Argentina to the Post. "We are ready to bite, to fight, to chase them, to be all over them. If we repeat that and add a couple more percent to it, it's going to be fun."

"We don't want to make this out to be mission impossible," added Bradley to ESPN. "It's 90 minutes, it's a semifinal, it's a chance to get into a final."

It's hard to say if this is the culmination of Klinsmann's work. Or if it's at least the vindication after a waterfall of criticism that washed over him in the last year as results and optics deteriorated. In the long and slow march to national soccer self-betterment, there were plenty of stumbles.

"I think over time we always said we want to move this program to another level – I think we did that over time," Klinsmann said to ESPN. "There will be some setbacks."

Just maybe the blind squirrel has found a nut. But either way, the Americans look better than they have in years, as good as they have since the summers of 2009 and 2010, when they made runs in the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, respectively. Whether that means a next level is now within reach, of if it's just a level the Americans were already at, only to fall away from it, is a matter of interpretation.

Because maybe the next level was a state of mind all along.

"There is no reason at all why we can't win Copa America," Klinsmann said to the Post. "Dream big. Why not?"

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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