Despite a performance for the ages by goalkeeper Tim Howard, America’s World Cup dream ended this evening after extra time at Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador with a draining 2-1 loss to Belgium.
This loss, and this World Cup, had all the hallmarks typical of the USA. For all of the talk of a change in style, this could have been 2010 versus Ghana, or 2009 against Spain, with Howard playing out of his mind, desperation defending by center backs Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, and with the Americans looking to hit back on the counter.
The USA also displayed the grit and never say die attitude that long-time watchers will remember from the days that Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley paced the USA sidelines.
Howard was forced to make a ridiculous 16 saves to keep this game scoreless through 90 minutes, and incredibly the USA would have won this game, but for a career-defining miss from Chris Wondolowski.
The San Jose Earthquakes’ striker made this team based on his poacher’s instincts and with the last seconds of regulation time ticking off of the referee’s wrist watch Wondolowski was presented with a chance to win the game. Jermaine Jones headed the ball to the feet of Wondolowski in front of goal. Wondolowski hit his shot on the short hop and it never came anywhere near the Belgian goal.
Had Wondolowski taken his chance, Belgium would have had every right to feel hard done by, having thoroughly outplayed the USA from the opening whistle.
Howard was first called on about 30 seconds after that whistle, denying Divock Origi from a Kevin De Bruyne set up. From there on it was a procession of corner kicks and crosses from the Belgians that the USA dealt with, with the impressive Omar Gonzalez leading the way.
The USA looked to get behind Belgium’s fullbacks early on with both DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson raiding down the flanks. USA hopes looked to have taken a blow when Johnson went down clutching his hamstring. But Klinsmann turned to 20 year old DeAndre Yedlin, and the young Seattle Sounder came on to give a fearless, and professional two-way performance.
Klinsmann had surprised many onlookers by selecting Yedlin for this World Cup roster, and the coach also turned some heads by leaving midfielder Kyle Beckerman out of this match in favor of Geoff Cameron.
When the game headed to extra time Belgian manager Marc Wilmot made a change that would decide the match, bringing in powerful striker Romelu Lukaku. Klinsmann had announced that his big man up top Jozy Altidore would be available, when Altidore went unused it was apparent that this was not the case.
Lukaku turned the game on its head soon after stepping onto the pitch, bowling over Matt Besler on his way to teeing up Kevin De Bruyne for the opening goal in the 93rd minute.
Plenty of time remained, but the USA looked spent. When Lukaku added a goal of his own in the 105th minute, walking through Besler again in the process, there seemed to be no way back for the Yanks.
But the Americans turned to an attribute long associated with the USA, an inability to admit defeat.
And Klinsmann turned to another of his controversial young selections, Julian Green, just as the first half of overtime ended.
Green showed some of the promise that prompted Klinsmann to bring him to the World Cup when he brilliantly volleyed a chipped pass from Michael Bradley into the net, to keep the USA’s World Cup hopes alive.
Revived, the Americans pressed on for the equalizer, and Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones had chances. Clint Dempsey nearly got that leveler in the 114th minute from a cleverly worked free kick, but Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois smothered Dempsey’s shot.
Time ran out on the USA, even as the Americans pushed forward. It was the familiar noble effort for the Yanks, but there were signs that perhaps Klinsmann’s promised evolution may well be in the making.
Young players like Yedlin, Green and first-game hero John Brooks showed that Klinsmann knows talent when he sees it. Possessing the ball was an all too familiar problem for the U.S., but there were signs throughout the tournament, particularly against Portugal, that Klinsmann’s “proactive” style of play may indeed be coming.
Veterans Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and Jermaine Jones excelled, and while Michael Bradley fell short of his high standards at times, his huge effort level never flagged, and he was still capable of completing that pass to Green after playing 107 minutes against Belgium.
Perhaps the most exciting development of Brazil 2014 for soccer in the United States has been the fan reaction to the game, and in particular to the U.S. Men’s Team. Television ratings set records, and plazas, parks and stadiums were filled with delirious red, white and blue clad supporters.
And they believed. That was the chant, and it swept the nation. I Believe That We Will Win. Tuesday night the U.S. Men did not win, let’s be honest, Belgium were the better team.
But from day one of this World Cup with soccer all over the media, mainstream and social both, soccer in America did win.
And I for one can hardly wait for 2018.