Where do I start after a game like that? The U.S. may have lost, but they did so in the most American way possible. They fought until the final whistle, clawing back into the match at the most unexpected moment. Belgium was clearly the better side, but for much of the game, that didn’t matter, as the American defense played the game of their lives. Omar Gonzalez hardly put a foot wrong alongside Matt Besler, who himself was immense for much of the match. And then there was Tim Howard, who made more saves today than any keeper had in a World Cup game in over 50 years.
Regulation was a defensive exposition for the United States, who had to deal with Belgian pressure from the very first minute. When Fabian Johnson went down with a hamstring injury, few would have expected the Americans to keep a clean sheet, however every single member of the squad stepped up on the defensive end. Gonzalez and Besler made clearance after clearance, and Tim Howard backed them up with what had to be the best performance by an American goalie ever. His positioning and balance were excellent all day. Many will criticize Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya for failing to make an impact in Brazil offensively, but they provided vital cover for DeAndre Yedlin and DeMarcus Beasley on the flanks. Zusi and Bedoya’s efforts on the defensive end should not go unheralded. Without them, the center backs would have been left exposed far more often.
Once the game went into extra time, and the USA began to push forward, a Belgian counter-attack goal seemed inevitable. Besler could have done better with Romelu Lukaku, but he shouldn’t be put solely at fault for the opener. The big Belgian’s physicality changed the match, and he set up Kevin de Bruyne for a deserved goal. It has to be said though that the U.S. got unlucky there, as Gonzalez got to Lukaku’s cross first, ultimately stretching too far to get the ball away. The second goal was much the same, as Lukaku simply was too good. The Americans needed to press forward then, so a counter attack was always going to be killer.
After Belgium’s two extra-time goals, most teams would have given up. But not these guys. In his final brilliant move of the tournament, Jürgen Klinsmann played his wild-card, Julian Green, who had been deemed by the media and fans alike to be utterly useless to this particular team. I guess he was ready after all. His run was impeccable and the pass from Michael Bradley was perfect, and suddenly with a wonderfully taken volley, Green had the USA within reach. This goal surpassed even John Brooks’s goal in the category of unexpected scorers.
The final ten minutes were agonizing, yet beautiful. For the first time all tournament, we watched a United States team unafraid to get forward. Nearly everybody was in the box, fighting for headers and usually winning them. Were it not for Thibaut Courtois, who himself proved his worth as a world-class keeper, Clint Dempsey would have found the equalizer. It seemed a goal was destined to come, but alas, we were all left stunned at the improbable comeback our team nearly pulled off. My sadness at getting knocked out almost immediately turned to pride.
This game might well be a springboard for the United States soccer program. Players from all ages stepped up to play the game of their lives, and while ultimately the lack of a number 10 proved fatal, the USA proved they could compete with the top nations in the world. Belgium is certainly a step up from Ghana in 2010 quality wise, and while the scorelines from the round of 16 losses are the same, today marked a big improvement from the red, white and blue. Jürgen Klinsmann has breathed life into what was an aging squad, and made us play like winners again. If kids aren’t inspired to kick around a soccer ball tomorrow, I’ll be shocked.
Losing in extra-time is always going to be heartbreaking, but don’t be disappointed too long, for this team should make you proud. They beat death after all. And today, without Jozy Altidore and Fabian Johnson, they nearly took the game from a top-class Belgium side. For all the fun I’ve had watching this team’s World Cup campaign, I say thank you to Jürgen Klinsmann and to all the players. You guys were amazing.
I’ll have player grades for the tournament tomorrow, with some final thoughts on the American odyssey in Brazil.