If national teams are defined solely by their World Cup progress, then the United States isn't better off than it was four years ago. In fact, the Americans find themselves firmly stuck in neutral.
In 2010, the exit point was the same (round of 16). The final score was the same (2-1). Even the timing of the go-ahead goal was the same (93rd minute).
Yet the evaluation isn't so simple. Although the U.S. squad saw its World Cup end Tuesday with that second-round loss to Belgium, the evolution of American soccer carries on.
Let's remember the U.S. outlasted England. Italy. Spain. Making the final 16 is no small accomplishment. This time around, the team did so by escaping what on paper was the World Cup's most difficult group.
And let's not forget the team's unprecedented cultural footprint. It's apparent in the 25 million viewers stateside who watched the Americans against Portugal, and in the 28,000 fans who packed Soldier Field in Chicago to catch Tuesday's game on the big screen.
The passionate fan base is there. Now that the U.S. has advanced past the group stage in three of the past four World Cups, the bar should be raised. Going toward 2018, that simply begins with better soccer.
For all of the progress the U.S. has made as a possession-oriented team since Jurgen Klinsmann took over in July 2011, the players reverted to old habits when the chips were down in Brazil. Goalkeeping heroics and last-gasp defending became the norm, with the Americans' offensive hopes pinned on counterattacks and set pieces.
The statistics show the U.S. was thoroughly outplayed in three of the four matches. But the outlier — the thrilling 2-2 tie against Portugal — showcased the fruits of Klinsmann's labor.
Playing a team ranked (albeit generously) No. 4 in the world, the Americans were smooth on the ball and free-flowing in attack. They looked equally sharp in their final World Cup warm-up, a win over round-of-16-bound Nigeria. There needs to come a day when those performances are routine, and the U.S. isn't a perpetual underdog hailed for its heart and grit.
Personnel-wise, a lot can happen in four years. Just six players who helped the U.S. win its group in South Africa made the cut this time around. Of the 23 players called up when the Americans opened World Cup qualifying in June 2012, only 11 ended up traveling to Brazil.
So there's no guarantee that anyone who thrived at this World Cup will be a part of the squad that goes to Russia in 2018. Aging stalwarts Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey face murky international futures. Some players — such as DaMarcus Beasley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman — are surely near the end.
But midfielder Michael Bradley and striker Jozy Altidore can anchor the team for the next four years. The once-questionable defense looks safe in the hands of Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and Fabian Johnson. Newcomers Aron Johannsson (23 years old), John Brooks (21), DeAndre Yedlin (20) and Julian Green (19) have the talent to become national team mainstays.
Even though Russia is four years away, there are still chances aplenty for Klinsmann and Co. to prove themselves. In 2016, the U.S. will host the Copa America Centenario — a new intercontinental tournament featuring the top teams from North and South America. While it's not the World Cup, the spectacle should make for a compelling mid-cycle bellwether similar to the European Championship.
There is still plenty of progress to be made between now and 2018 — or even 2016. But the U.S. is certainly on the right track.
Now it's time to take that next step.