The United States lost in the round of 16 for the second consecutive World Cup. This was the third World Cup in four in which the United States qualified for the knockout rounds, but still 2002’s quarterfinal loss to Germany remains the best modern American result. Was this a good result, or is American soccer stagnating?

On the one hand, this is oversimplifying. MLS is growing, and team academies are now producing prospects such DeAndre Yedlin. The American breakout star of the Cup could be heading to AS Roma of Serie A from Seattle Sounders FC and projects to be an important contributor to the USMNT for the next decade. Further, Manager Jurgen Klinsmann has focused on bringing American stars from around the world into the team, and Julian Green, star of the Bayern Munich reserves, is likely to be joined soon by Arsenal prodigy Gedion Zelalem. We are seeing the development of world-class young talent on the American team. Building a good international side is not a two-year process, it takes many years for reforms to take hold and teams and talent to come through the pipeline.

On the other hand, the United States has not significantly improved its quality since 2002. It is hard to say that any of the 2006, 2010 or 2014 sides have surpassed that 2002 team. If the goal of U.S. soccer is to build itself into a true international competitor, the last decade has not seen tangible progress toward that goal.

So, how can we judge whether the United States is making progress in international soccer? In 2016, the United States will the 2016 Copa America Centenario. Every side from the South American federation CONMEBOL will compete. The United States and Mexico will be included, as well as several Central American and Caribbean nations. This is a tournament roughly equal in quality to the World Cup, and we can judge American progress based on the results of this tournament.

To establish a baseline for comparison, I used my game simulation engine to simulate two different Copa Americas. (Over one million iterations, each I randomly drew groups based on FIFA’s traditional methods, and then I simulated both group play and the knockout stages. For more information on the simulation method, see here under Appendix.)In the first set of simulations, I included all the best CONMEBOL and CONCACAF sides, and I simply projected the tournament based on each team’s current ratings. In the second, I did everything identically, except I replaced the United States with Belgium.

In the round of 16, the United States had chances to pull off a shocking upset, but was ultimately quite fairly beaten by Belgium. The Red Devils were then dispatched by Argentina in the quarterfinals. This reasonably summarizes Belgium’s current position in world soccer. It is a World Cup quarterfinal team. The United States should be shooting to reach that level. So in the simulations, I tested how well Belgium would project to do in the Copa America, if it were the host instead. These were the results of the simulation.

The blue bar shows how the United States project today. The red bar shows America’s projection if it can reach the goal of having a Belgium-quality side.

At its current level, the United States projects as favorites to qualify for the knockout stages of the Copa America. Given home-field advantage and an expected favorable draw as hosts, it would be a big disappointment to see the United States sent home before the quarterfinals.

The gaps begin to open up in the projections for the semifinal and final. This United States team, based its recent results, would be underdogs to reach the semifinals and very unlikely to make it to the final. If Team USA can improve to the level of Belgium, it would be favored to reach the final four with a good shot at a finals appearance or even a title. The goal for the United States in 2016, then, should be a semi-finals appearance or perhaps a spot in the finals. We expect this United States team, even without real improvement, to reach the Copa America quarters. If the USMNT were improved to the level of a World Cup quarterfinals side like Belgium, we would expect them to plow through the group stage and make for the semifinals, if not the championship match of the Copa America. That should be the baseline for America’s improvement in the next two years.

All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.

Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_AMy full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.

Be sure to listen to Michael Caley talk about the World Cup on 106.7 The Fan

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