This time, the U.S. has a World Cup foundation to build on

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The United States aren't exiting this World Cup covered in concern about the future. It's already clear that they're heading in the right direction.

The United States' World Cup ended in the round of 16. Again.

Just as was the case four years ago, extra time got the best of the Americans and they couldn't make it to the quarterfinals. With the final eight so tantalizingly close, the U.S. fell short.

And so the U.S. has to settle for being one of the World Cup's 16 top teams. That's one of the last 16 out of the 203 teams that started qualification four years ago. Of all the teams in the world. In the world's most popular sport.

As disappointing as it is to see the U.S. go out of the World Cup, and as easy as it is to wonder where the progress is after going out in the same round as four years ago, there's plenty to celebrate in what they achieved in Brazil. The Americans outlasted 187 other countries, got a result at the Azteca, topped the Hex, beat Ghana, escaped the Group of Death and took one of the world's most talented teams to extra time.

The United States' run to Brazil began in the summer of 2012, a mere 13 months after Jurgen Klinsmann took the reins of the team. He promised change, and while it was slow to come, he did bring change. Exactly how much the U.S. changed under his stewardship is up for debate, but this isn't the same U.S. team that went crashing out of the Gold Cup in 2011.

It wasn't always smooth, with the U.S. needing a result on the final day of the semifinal round of qualifying just to stay alive. But they got it. A horrible looking loss Honduras brought about near mutiny and cast doubt upon Klinsmann's leadership, but the U.S. bounced back with a win in a snowstorm and an improbable draw in Mexico City.

From then on, the U.S. built to the World Cup. They got better and better, brought in new, young talent and even when the draw put the Americans in a brutal group, there was reason to believe.

The U.S. made good on that optimism when John Brooks' delivered the winner over Ghana, the opponent who'd knocked them out of two straight World Cups. Next were Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. Even against one of the world's best players, the U.S. acquitted themselves well and disappointing last-second draw aside, for 90 minutes the Americans were the better side.

The U.S. played their way into the knockout stages. They had survived, if not conquered, the Group of Death, and did it with the backing of an American fan base that had never existed for the team before. As the Yanks thrived, their following grew and they went into the round of 16 believing they had a real chance.

In the World Cup round of 16, against a team full of Premier League stars, the U.S. believed. That, in itself, was revolutionary.

Unlike four years ago, the draw didn't have to open up for the Americans to have high hopes. CONCACAF, better than it has ever been, threw everything it could at the U.S. in World Cup qualifying. The draw hammered the Americans further and there wasn't a group stage upset that gave the U.S. a clear path in the knockout stages.

The world threw its best at the U.S. and the U.S. kept fighting back.

In the end, Belgium were simply too good for the Americans. After all, they are a team with world class players from front to back. They are a team that brings Romelu Lukaku, Moussa Dembele and Adnan Januzaj off of the bench. They are a team that some think have a chance to win the World Cup.

That the U.S. isn't on that level yet isn't a surprise. The U.S. is simply good, not great. But they have plenty of upside.

The Americans' goalscorer was a 19-year-old yet to get significant time at the senior level. Their first substitute was a 20-year-old bred in the MLS developmental system. The man who secured their lone win is a 21-year-old fresh off of his first Bundesliga season. The manager has instilled a new system predicated on the youth that shined this World Cup, and he is signed on through 2018.

For all of the talk about what the U.S. isn't, there should be more about how good they are and what they can achieve going forward. Because if the World Cup taught us anything, it's that there is a lot of good in U.S. soccer right now. There's even more to come.

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