SAO PAULO -- The day after the United States was eliminated from the 2014 World Cup, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann insisted that he believed his team could win the tournament -- even though he said the opposite before the competition began.
"Saying that we come into this World Cup to win it is just not right, because you would raise the expectations through the moon," Klinsmann told reporters on Wednesday afternoon, a day after his team suffered a 2-1 loss to Belgium.
"Is it possible to get through that group? Yes, because we did it," the coach said of a brutal quartet that also included Germany, Portugal and Ghana -- arguably the toughest among the eight groups in Brazil.
"Is it possible now to go game-by-game and maybe even win four knockout games? Yes," said Klinsmann, noting that unfancied Greece won the European Championship in 2004.
"But you can't go in saying we're here to win the World Cup when you have teams like Brazil, Germany and all the big countries in there. I think you have to take it just one step at a time."
Klinsmann touched on other matters on break-up day after most his players had scattered, heading for flights back to the U.S. or Europe, where several of them are based.
"The good thing about going into the next year is we have the opportunity to see a lot of young players coming into the senior team and we can give them time to show where they're at," Klinsmann said.
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That means many of the squad's established veterans might not be part of friendly matches scheduled for later this year and in early 2015, Klinsmann said. Next summer's Gold Cup will be a different story.
"We want to go with the strongest team possible," he said.
No matter how strong a team he can field, though, Klinsmann conceded that the U.S. squad must continue to improve if it is to compete toe-to-toe with the world's truly elite teams.
"When you go out [of the World Cup] in the round of 16, clearly it gives you the message that you have a lot of work still ahead of you," he said.
Part of that work involves improving the mentality of the American player, according to the coach.
"There's still a sense," he said, "of having too much respect."
Klinsmann contended that the only time the U.S. feels comfortable pressing the attack is when the team is losing. When the U.S. is even or ahead, the tendency is to sit back and play more conservatively.
"When you concede a goal you have to chase the game, and suddenly we are able to do it," he said, pointing specifically to Tuesday's loss.
"We could have turned that game around the last 15 minutes of extra time, absolutely," Klinsmann said. "We had enough chances to win it 3-2. Why not [attack] earlier? This is a constant discussion we have -- I believe it is a mental thing we have to work on more than it's about talent."
Still, personnel was a factor in Brazil. Losing target striker Jozy Altidore to a hamstring injury early in the team's first game weakened the Americans significantly.
"He's a player that keeps two center-backs on their toes, he can hold the ball, and he gives Clint [Dempsey] more space and more freedom and he gets the game played higher up the field," Klinsmann said of Altidore. "Injuries happen to other teams, as well, so it's not at all an excuse. But definitely it had an impact."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.