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HOUSTON – Minutes after Lionel Messi and Argentina had finished a 4-0 mauling of the United States in the Copa America semifinals, Jurgen Klinsmann was asked to assess the size of the gap between his team and soccer's elite and how long it will take to close it.
"Oh, that's a tough one," the coach said, smiling and chuckling. "I don't have that answer right now."
Having returned to the World Cup in 1990 after a 40-year absence, the U.S. is among only seven nations to have qualified for the sport's top tournament the last seven times, joined by Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain. During the past four years, the Americans have won at Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.
But those are exhibitions. In matches that matter, the U.S. often remains outmatched.
Walking out of the stadium after Tuesday night's loss, the Americans looked wide-eyed and shell-shocked.
"We let them dictate the pace of the game. We let them get into a flow, and we weren't physical enough. I think we respected them a little too much," defender Geoff Cameron said. "We've played big teams before and we seemed to show well against them, but for some reason we didn't put our best foot forward tonight."
The U.S. has vastly improved over the last quarter-century, and Americans now are regulars with clubs in England, Germany, France and Mexico. But, as Klinsmann often points out, none of them is a starter with the big clubs who dominate the Champions League. And the high points for the national team over recent decades remain the 2002 World Cup second-round win over Mexico and the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal victory over European champion Spain.
"Today is a good day to judge where we are in program overall," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said outside the locker room. "We're obviously a long way off. We knew that going in. But we knew we were a long way off when we beat Spain in 2009 or Germany or Holland last year."
American youth teams have not made great steps forward and have lagged behind other nations in rate of improvement. The U.S. under-23 team has failed to qualify for consecutive Olympics. The U-20 team has been a World Cup quarterfinalist just twice since 1993 and the U-17s haven't reached the quarterfinals since 2005.
Other than defenders DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks, and midfielder Gyadi Zardes, all the American starters against Argentina will be 29 or older when the 2018 World Cup begins.
Klinsmann says younger players need to be given a chance to fail and improve, yet in the Copa America he went with the strongest roster to win games now.
"We need more. We struggle," he said. "Here in the U.S., you call a younger player a rookie at the age of the 22. Well, 22 in Europe, if you're not broken through yet, you're done. They move you down to the third or fourth level."
At soccer's top level, players train as many as weeks a year. Klinsmann has pushed Major League Soccer to extend its season, and the league's top teams now play from early March until the championship at the start of December. He urges young talents to push themselves to better and bigger clubs, pointing out that starting for Everton and Stoke is not nearly the same as starring for Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
"We always tell them talent is not even 50 percent of what you've got to do," he said. "The other 50 percent are more important than your talent, is what you make out of it."
Christian Pulisic, a 17-year-old midfielder from Hershey, Pennsylvania, made his Bundesliga debut for Borussia Dortmund this year, scored twice and earned a Copa America roster spot. He played the second half against Argentina.
But he is a rarity. There are not enough Americans making similar progressions. Yedlin's career benefited from his 2015 transfer from Seattle to Tottenham, which in turn loaned him last season to Sunderland. He was forced to grow on and off the field.
"I'm not saying that the MLS wasn't challenging for me. I'm saying that in Seattle I was comfortable where I was," he explained. "I was around my friends. I was around my family. If I needed anything, I could always go to my mom's house, you know what I mean?"
For all the good nights U.S. soccer has experienced — four straight 2-0 wins over Mexico in home World Cup qualifiers, the 1-0 victory over Algeria at the 2010 World Cup, the opening victory win Ghana at the 2014 tournament — there have been disappointments of equal or greater magnitude. The 1-0 defeat to Germany and the 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium in Brazil two years ago displayed the gap Messi exploited.
"There will be always a step backwards, and then we will go two more forward. That is a part of our process," Klinsmann said. "So I told the guys, heads up and just swallow it."