By Steve Clare
This was the night the amazing ride came to an end.
The US Men’s Team departed the 2014 World Cup after an extra time loss to a star studded Belgian side. The introduction of Romelu Lukaku after the regulation ninety minutes was the turning point although it would be foolish to deny how superior Belgium were in every department of the game bar goalkeeping.
There will be uncountable memories for the 20,000 or so traveling American fans. Some of those memories were made on the pitch. Others transpired away from the glare of the cameras and in the company of fans who had come to cheer on their opponents.
Friendships were made there and goals were scored that will be played and replayed for years to come.
Clint Dempsey’s opening goal against Ghana will probably narrowly top the replay charts because it burst so many months of fear and apprehension. John Brooks’ winner will have its advocates because it stole a most unlikely victory where many were despairing of even holding out for a draw.
Jermaine Jones’ screamer against Portugal is worth seeing over and over again.
It will be many months before we fully know the effect this World Cup campaign has had on American soccer. Certainly the television ratings for the next round of MLS matches will be an early indicator. Perhaps US Soccer will let us know about jersey sales.
The USA redefined the Group of Death by emerging from it. They are at their best when written off. The American challenge may be to rise up the World rankings but never lose its own underdog status, at least not until a player of genuine world class ability once more changes the trajectory and path of US soccer.
That is longer term. The next challenge. For tonight, the mass USA support can revel in an amazing effort against a class opponent that just fell short.
The match began with Belgian domination.
Lille’s Divock Origi called upon Howard to save within a minute as the Red Devils looked very lively from the outset. Their game was fast with the Belgian individual quality evident probably dominant at least until Clint Dempsey tested Courtois. He perhaps should have tested him a little more.
Kevin de Bruyne wasted the half’s best chance after Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen powered through a backpedaling US midfield but the Wolfsburg midfielder scuffed wide with Howard grounded.
DaMarcus Beasley was next to save the USA with a spectacular clearance from under the bar inside the half hour. Vertonghen was proving to be the American’s main torturer, looking very threatening from the left wing.
The reason became apparent when US right back Fabian Johnson went down injured not to return. DeAndre Yedlin took up his club berth at right back.
Nine minutes into the second half, a wicked cross from Belgium’s left evaded Besler and luckily Origi. A cross however from left midfield did not and the Yanks were fortunate to see his header scrape the bar. Seconds later Vertonghen forced a leg save from Tim Howard, and seconds thereafter blasted over the Everton keeper’s bar.
The Belgians were knocking and the Americans found defense to be the worst form of defense and poured forward looking for their own goal. Such resistance was temporary.
Dreis Mertens put the ball wide of Howard’s post and it seemed a matter of time. To make things worse, Howard’s Everton colleague Kevin Mirallas came on to both replace Mertens and torture the US backline.
The Belgian passing was snappier and the Americans seemed to be struggling though they had overcome that impression before to survive. They began to look tired far earlier than in other games.
Howard saved the US again with his legs, Origi again being the victim. Klinsmann acted to close the gap between Dempsey and his colleagues by introducing San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski for Zusi. Wondolowski’s runs immediately made USA look more threatening on the ball.
Howard’s legs denied Belgium again after Mirallas cleverly beat the offside trap. Then his hands denied Hazard. Could his forwards make his heroism count?
Besler was next up making a superb penalty box tackle. Howard tipped Origi’s blast over the bar. Extra time arrived.
After the 90 though, another teammate of Howard’s Romelu Lukaku came on and he was to prove the difference maker.
His freshness on his first possession ran the tired US defenders ragged. His cross was deflected out to De Bruyne who finished beyond the brave Howard.
Lukaku seed to have made the match certain for Belgium with a rasping finish from ten yards after De Bruyne returned the favor. The US had collapsed in the first period of overtime.
But count them out at your peril.
Julian Green volleyed Bradley’s delivery past Courtois in the second half of extra time and mayhem ensued. Courtois was forced to dive at feet in a scramble. The white shirts battered the red thereafter and came so agonizingly close on a number of occasions.
The finish wasn’t there and the USA leave this tournament with their heads held high.
Their players and their fans have illuminated this competition in ways far beyond what I had imagined, and in ways we may not fully appreciate for some time.