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July 02. 2014 9:32PM

United States is soccer’s version of Rocky

THE FUN is over, I suppose.

No more Tim Howard saves to gasp about. No more free parking at Jerry Jones’ stadium.

The U.S. World Cup team’s two-week grip on our national consciousness is over, its flame snuffed by a talented Belgium side 2-1.

Disappointing? Sure, it is — in a way.

The Americans’ gallantry in Brazil leaves us wanting more. More Howard, who made more goalkeeping saves Tuesday than the World Cup has seen in nearly 50 years. More U.S. goals. More watch parties. More stoppage time. More heart-stopping World Cup finishes.

More soccer?

Only time will tell us that. Clearly, though, from the announced 20,000 at AT&T Stadium, to the TV crowd scenes from places like Kansas City and Soldier Field, many had hopped aboard the U.S. team’s World Cup bandwagon.

They cheered. They chanted. And they probably asked, “Tell me the rule again about overtime?”

The end came suddenly, however, as it usually does at a World Cup. They’re not called the knockout rounds for nothing.

But if I remember correctly, Rocky didn’t defeat Apollo Creed that first time, either. In the end, like the Hollywood Rocky Balboa, the U.S. soccer team absorbed punch after punch from the Belgians, rallied bravely, but eventually lost a narrow decision to a more talented opponent.

It’s a storyline that Americans love to embrace. The flag-waving underdog. The 1980 hockey team.

Maybe, therefore, the people at U.S. Soccer had it all wrong. Instead of chanting, “I believe that we will win!” they should have aimed for something more visceral, more decidedly American.

“I believe our guys won’t quit” or something. It’s a bar that the U.S. national team can readily aspire to every four years.

But as U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said a few weeks ago — and took some heat for his candor — our lads are not at the point where we can match the Belgians, Germans, Brazilians, etc.

Too often they control the midfield. They outnumber us in goal scorers. We absorb too many punches. And their depth eventually prevails.

Case in point: Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, who substituted late into Tuesday’s match and had a hand in both the winning goals. When Lukaku joined the English Premier League’s Chelsea side in 2011, the fee was $26 million.

Klinsmann had no $26 million players to bring off the bench in this World Cup. On the contrary, injured striker Jozy Altidore’s absence haunted the Americans from the first half of the first match.

I used to be a part of that chorus that would watch a U.S. World Cup effort fall short and then wail about our national shortage of creative goal scorers. But that’s not the biggest problem, these two weeks have shown us. The U.S. program just doesn’t have enough world-class midfielders.

This isn’t another Michael Bradley diatribe. Bradley is a good player — likely to return in 2018, by the way — who had a surprisingly subpar World Cup fortnight.

The U.S. team needs midfielders, guys who can advance the ball and guys who can control the time of possession.

Until we get a few of those, we’re just Rocky Balboa, absorbing the punches.

Yet, I’m OK with that. If this is to be the U.S. team’s global soccer persona, it’s one to be proud of.

It made the past two weeks a lot of fun to follow. And to gather to watch, whether the parking was free or not.

I believe that I will watch again.


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