SALVADOR, Brazil — You thought the Picket Fence might work, didn’t you? That’s not what the U.S. called its training-ground free-kick that nearly came off in the most glorious of fashions on the world’s biggest stage Tuesday night. But it was basically the same thing, a play that almost became a modern sports miracle: A designed set-piece that put the ball on Clint Dempsey’s foot with the chance to complete a two-goal comeback in World Cup extra time against Belgium.
For a moment, as the play unfolded, you marveled at the intricate execution of it all. So much had led to this scene: the 90 minutes of scoreless soccer; the 16 saves by Tim Howard, the most by a World Cup goalkeeper since 1966; the two Belgium goals in extra time that would have sunk most nations; the defiant strike back by 19-year-old Julian Green; and the desperate courage of the U.S. as it made one last Herculean push, one final improbable surge to secure survival.
The ball was on Dempsey’s foot in the six-yard box. The Equalizer to End All Equalizers was within tantalizing reach. And then Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois, 22, the best young goalkeeper in the world, made a remarkable play to snuff this American World Cup dream.
“I thought I had a great touch on it,” Dempsey said. “It was one of those situations that he was aggressive on the play, he came out and made it difficult.”
It didn’t, however, quash the spirit that defined a U.S. team that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
“This team showed once again that it has balls,” said U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley afterward. “And even in a difficult group, even when a lot of people weren’t ready to give us much of a chance to get out, even on a day like today when you’re playing one of the best teams in Europe, even at the end when you’re down 2-0 and it would be easy to just pack it in, we continued to fight and to have a group of guys who leave everything they have on the field.”
Last year, before the U.S. had even qualified for this World Cup, I asked U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati how he thought we should evaluate Jurgen Klinsmann’s performance as the U.S. national team coach. Gulati’s response was simple: Ask me after the round of 16 game in Brazil.
On Tuesday night, after the U.S. had gone out in the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup, I asked Gulati how he viewed the performance of this U.S. team.
“In some ways, I did that evaluation [last November] when we re-signed him to a contract, that we had seen enough positive movement in not just the national team but in the whole program,” he said. “[The round of 16] is always the swing game. Getting to the round of 16, if we don’t do that we’re very, very disappointed. We get beyond here and then it’s generally viewed as very successful.”
For the U.S., going out in the round of 16 is basically meeting expectations, not quite matching the quarterfinal feat of the 2002 U.S. team, but not a failure like going out in the group stage in 1998 and 2006. For Gulati, at least, advancing from the Group of Death this year provides bonus points.
“This year was a little different because of the group we had in the first round, so that already was a success,” he said.
Let’s be honest: The U.S. was outplayed in Tuesday's game, and if Howard hadn’t stood on his head the scoreline would likely have been different. That said, Bradley, like his teammates, was deeply disappointed.
“We felt like they were there for the taking and this was a game that we could win,” he said.
Yes, there are questions about what could have been better. Were the three U.S. hamstring injuries in this tournament in any way preventable? (“Klinsmann: “What leads to injuries is fatigue and playing at the highest intensity.”) Why did Klinsmann wait so long to make his third substitution? (“You don’t want to give a substitution away too early because then suddenly another player goes out with an injury or cramps.”) And is it possible, after Klinsmann radically changed Bradley’s position two months ago, that Bradley works best as a box-to-box midfielder with Dempsey as the attacking central mid? (TBD on that one.)
And yet, if you’re going to question Klinsmann, as you should, you also have to give him some credit for his selections to this World Cup team. It was a mix of young and old, and the standouts here in Brazil included the old (Howard, 35; DaMarcus Beasley, 32; and Jermaine Jones, 32) and the young (DeAndre Yedlin, 20, Green, 19; and John Brooks, 21).
On Tuesday it felt, ultimately, like the end of one era and the beginning of another. Howard was relentless in the goal, keeping the U.S. in the game, somehow increasing his degree of difficulty on saves as the night went on. Beasley, playing in his fourth World Cup, was dialed in from the start, attacking down the left, defending Belgium’s strong wing play and making himself a nuisance to players bigger and stronger than he is.
Three months ago, almost nobody suspected that Yedlin, Green and Brooks would even be on this U.S. team. But not only did they play here in Brazil, they excelled. Brooks saw the field in only one game, the opener against Ghana, but he merely scored the game-winner in the only game the U.S. ended up winning. Green came on in extra time on Tuesday for his first appearance of the World Cup, and he scored the goal that kept this game tight until the end.
As for Yedlin, what more can you say? European clubs will no doubt come calling for the Seattle Sounders youngster after his brilliant two-way performance in relief of the injured Fabian Johnson. What were Yedlin’s first thoughts when he realized he was coming into the biggest game of his life?
“At first it was kind of a shock, because I didn’t really realize that Fabian went down,” Yedlin said. “It can happen that quickly. Then I was just calming myself, telling myself to be composed.”
Klinsmann instructed Yedlin to attack, not just to wait for Eden Hazard to attack him. “I actually think it helps my defending when I attack well,” said Yedlin, and that’s exactly what he did all night, winning a legion of new fans.
“It’s huge for the future,” Yedlin said of the U.S. rookies. “Julian did great tonight, and John obviously did great against Ghana. It’s amazing. I’m excited for what the future will be like.”
One era ends, a new one begins. You don’t get many cracks at the World Cup, and you have to make them count. Losing in the round of 16 will never be satisfying, not for the U.S., not anymore, and there’s no such thing as moral victories at this point. But this team established a benchmark here in Brazil.
U.S. soccer is going places. It’s just not there yet.