SALVADOR, Brazil — The U.S. is out of World Cup 2014, but not before giving Belgium and the soccer-watching world a game until the end of a 2-1 extra-time loss in the Round of 16.
Here are my four quick thoughts on the game:
A thrilling U.S. World Cup run is over, but Belgium deserved to win
The U.S. survived a Belgium-dominated game long enough to take it to extra time, but Belgium’s quality won out in the end in an unforgettable match that provided heart-stopping moments until the final whistle. The U.S. was left for dead after Belgium went up 2-0 in extra time, but Julian Green’s 107th-minute goal electrified a crowd that began thunderous chants of "U-S-A."
You can question the Americans’ talent at times, but you can’t ever question their heart. The U.S. equalizer chances came, most notably Clint Dempsey’s late shot that was saved by Thibaut Courtois, but in the end Tim Howard could only stand on his head so long.
Howard’s 16 saves were the most by a World Cup keeper since 1966, but Kevin De Bruyne provided flashbacks of Ghana’s goal (in the same exact minute, the 93rd) that sank the U.S. in the round of 16 four years ago. That changed the game, opening up the U.S. for Belgium’s game-winner by Romelu Lukaku. But Green’s response and the U.S.’s late charge won over even more fans for this U.S. team, at home and abroad, in a game nobody will soon forget.
Jurgen Klinsmann will face some hard questions now
Every conceded goal is the result of a mistake, Klinsmann says, and while that’s debatable, it was certainly the case on De Bruyne’s goal, which began with miscues by Dempsey and Michael Bradley in possession and continued with Matt Besler’s slip while marking Lukaku and continued again in the box as U.S. players scrambled in vain to stop De Bruyne’s tremendous finish.
But Klinsmann made mistakes too. He waited far too long to bring on his third substitute (Green), who ended up scoring the U.S. goal. Klinsmann also will face questions over whether it was the right move to radically change Bradley’s position to attacking central midfielder so soon before the tournament. Bradley is more at home as a box-to-box midfielder, and Dempsey’s late move to midfield showed perhaps that’s where he should have played. Then there’s this question:
Why so many U.S. hamstring injuries?
When right back Fabian Johnson, one of the U.S.’s most important players, went out of this game with a hamstring injury, it marked the third time in this World Cup that a U.S. player had suffered a hamstring issue that we knew about. Both Jozy Altidore and Besler left the tournament’s first game with hamstring injuries, and if three instances makes a trend, you have to wonder if there was something that the U.S. training staff could have done better to prevent such soft-tissue injuries here. Did the U.S. overtrain? Was there a problem in the recovery process between games? Or was this just a horribly bad coincidence in Brazil? When it happens this often, questions needs to be asked—and answered.
This U.S. team will be remembered fondly by fans new and old
For a few weeks, this American outfit turned this into the Summer of Soccer in the United States, drawing the biggest U.S. TV audiences ever for the sport and uniting Americans behind a common cause both in Brazil and in giant public viewing parties across the country. The U.S. advanced from perhaps the tournament’s most difficult group and at times showed a soccer IQ and possession game that made the world take notice.
At other times, the U.S. relied on the time-honored American traits of athleticism, grit and an unwillingness ever to give up in the face of challenges. Johnson’s hamstring injury could have sunk the U.S. in this game, but 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin came on and had the game of his life in Johnson’s place. That kind of performance was why the U.S. fell in love with this team.