For the better part of 94 minutes, it felt inevitable that Belgium would wind up beating the USA. But for every minute of regulation, and three minutes of extra time, the Americans held on, giving their fans hope that they could pull off an upset against the star-studded Belgians.
When the final whistle blew to end regulation time, they had somehow managed to stave off Belgium’s relentless attack, with Tim Howard having the best World Cup game of his career. Unfortunately, what the Americans needed more than a hot goalkeeper and tough defence was creative players to generate chances and keep the ball away from Belgium.
Without those things, all the Americans could do was take punch after punch, for more than 90 minutes, before Belgium inserted forward Romelu Lukaku to finish off a tired defence. Lukaku helped Belgium deliver the knockout blow by setting up Kevin De Bruyne’s goal before scoring his own.
The Americans didn’t go out without a fight though, responding to the two Belgium goals with a frantic and exciting finish that nearly saw them pull off a miracle comeback. Julian Green’s volley gave them life, but Thibaut Courtois made a key late save to preserve the Belgium victory and deny the USA team’s desperate fight for survival.
The Belgium victory was a fair result, even if it was a sad one for an American team that had inspired a nation and helped boost the sport’s profile back home. The Americans needed to be at their best if they were going to beat the Belgians, but they failed to deliver until it was already too late.
The US closed out the match with a strong 15 minutes that gave Belgium all they could handle, and provided a teasing glimpse of what might have been if the Americans had played the entire match with the same sense of urgency they showed in the second half of extra time.
It was too little, too late though, and we are left to consider what this World Cup means for the US team going forward.
What we did see was the side continue to struggle against elite teams and fail to retain sufficient possession. The lack of world-class midfielders continues to be a weakness, as demonstrated in the losses to Germany and Belgium.
Unfortunately, there are no Xavi-like players or Andrea Pirlo types on the immediate horizon, but we did see some impressive young talent step up during this World Cup - especially on Tuesday against Belgium.
DeAndre Yedlin was forced into the match as an injury replacement for Fabian Johnson and he wound up having a major impact for his team, troubling Belgium with his speed and showing fearlessness that surely impressed European scouts.
Then you had Green, who came on in extra time for his first World Cup appearance. The highly-regarded teenager made a superb entrance, volleying home a Michael Bradley pass to make the score 2-1 and send a bolt of energy into the US team that nearly sparked a comeback. Though his World Cup was limited to 15 minutes, he showed enough to make us believe that all the talk of the 18-year-old being a special talent wasn’t just lip service.
Klinsmann talked recently of older players needing to make the most of their last World Cup, and one player who did that on Tuesday was DaMarcus Beasley. The 32-year-old full-back, a veteran of four previous competitions, had arguably the best World Cup match of his career, providing sorely-needed energy and defensive quality on the left side of the field.
As much as there were some bright spots, the USA ultimately lost because of players who failed to get the job done. Graham Zusi had a nightmare day for the Americans, committing turnovers and getting beaten defensively. He looked overmatched for much of the day and gave the team little when the Americans needed the midfield to shine.
Bradley stepped his game up in the extra time and did have some dangerous passes that created chances, but the final verdict on his match Tuesday will be much like the rest of his World Cup. A tournament unfulfilled and one in which he failed to meet expectations. At 26, Bradley should have another World Cup, but after starring in the 2010 tournament, he leaves Brazil having fallen well short of what was expected of him.
Chris Wondolowski had his chance to impress after waiting all tournament, but he wasted his opportunity, failing to take advantage of chances that came his way, leading plenty to wonder if Klinsmann hadn’t put his faith in the wrong forward.
So was this World Cup a success for the Americans?
Based on the attention the team was able to generate back home, and the fact they advanced out of the Group of Death, it’s hard not to call the tournament a positive. But when we talk about Tuesday and the chances the team had on this day to make history and beat a Belgium team that was talented but vulnerable, it was a wasted opportunity to keep the dream going.
We have been here before. Much like in 2002, when the Americans outplayed Germany only to lose in the quarter-finals, and in 2010, when the US lost in extra time to Ghana in a tournament where a deep run was a possibility. In each of those instances, there was a feeling that the Americans could have gone a step further, but ultimately fell short.
It will be up to Klinsmann now to work on continuing to develop the team and the development program, and working with the next generation of talent. Something he has already begun to work on. When you consider players like Yedlin, Green and John Brooks, the future is bright for the U.S. team.
It’s tough to think about that after this defeat, as the World Cup dream died, but when you look at the way this team fought against some of the world’s best teams, and you consider the impact this tournament has had back in the United States, generating unprecedented interest, there is indeed a silver lining in the only dark cloud to be found in this sunny coastal city.