When America wins the World Cup — someday sooner than our foreign friends care to believe is possible — the stars of that team will trace their glorious, unbreakable fighting spirit to the last 15 minutes of Tuesday’s round of 16 loss to Belgium. The United States already excels at teaching technique (like how to drive a golf ball 300 yards or how to hit a sinking fastball) and at producing hulking athletes with awesome power and speed (like Jadeveon Clowney when he’s trying or Jermaine Jones all the time). Before too long, that prowess will combine with the footballing technique of millions of soccer-soaked childhoods. Yet the relentless commitment of this year’s team, which rose highest in the graveyard of hope that is two-nil down in extra time, warned the world that American soccer already possesses the indomitable desire to win.
The effort against Belgium was positively Churchillian. Players weren’t just drenched with sweat; they were pumping the stuff out like lawn sprinklers. Their white uniforms almost needed pixilation they were so indecently transparent. Even the substitute DeAndre Yedlin went down with a cramp after he spent his game running an unbroken series of wind sprints between the penalty boxes. And yet at the two-hour mark of the match, U.S. players with broken noses, facial contusions and concussions still crashed forward in waves against the Belgian goalmouth.
Cowering from the assault in those final 15 minutes was a Belgian team bristling with once-in-a-century talent at every position, a team that had spent the first 90 minutes of the match adversely possessing the American half of the field. Even their substitute, Romelu Lukaku, was skilled enough to rampage through the U.S. team, setting up one goal and scoring the other. And let’s face facts: The Belgians started better players than America at every position.
The ’keeper. This tournament has seen spectacular goalkeeping performances from Memo Ochoa of Mexico, Keylor Navas of Costa Rica and Vincent Enyeama of Nigeria, and the United States boasts a world-class pedigree at this most non-soccerlike position. But in slamming the portcullis on Belgium, Tim Howard kicked and punched his way into the pantheon. The man played like a Texan defending an adobe fort. Like a Greek guarding a mountain pass. His exploits were historic: a World Cup record 16 saves. Sixteen saves! Enyeama had the most cumulative saves in three group-stage matches with 18. England’s starting keeper, Joe Hart, went home with just one.
Howard’s opposite number, Thibaut Courtois, is considered one of the very best keepers in the world and had only four saves … though, admittedly, one at the end was really good and stopped Clint Dempsey from sending the game to penalties. But 16 is a joint testimony to the brilliance of Howard and the futility of U.S. ball possession. Without Howard, the mercy rule would have halted this game in the first half. The man deserved a clean sheet and would have had one if American defenders and midfielders could pass and control with the talent Howard possesses in his hair. Howard’s performance was so stellar it convinced me not to say anything about the horrifying miss by Chris Wondolowski that would have kept Howard’s sheet clean by giving America the win in normal time.
Two other members of the squad also had memorable performances. First, Michael Bradley. After spending the first few games blootering the ball around like he had casts on his feet, Bradley shone magnificently when the tournament was on the line. He sprinted 60 yards late in regular time to defend a Belgian attack, chipped a ball worthy of Andrea Pirlo onto Julian Green’s foot for the U.S. goal, and choreographed the jewel-like free kick that almost produced a U.S. equalizer. As all the other outfield players on the pitch leaked their stamina into stagnant puddles, Bradley grew stronger and more dominant, driving the team forward in the hunt for a second goal.
Second, Jürgen Klinsmann. All tournament long, Klinsmann has made ragingly unfashionable and deeply perceptive decisions: bringing on Graham Zusi and John Brooks as late substitutes who would ultimately combine for the winner against Ghana; starting Omar Gonzalez as the stoutest defender against the German onslaught; blooding the young and dangerous Yedlin and Julian Green to immediate success against Belgium. But my favorite moments were seeing his positively Gothic ferocity both when America scored and when the fourth official added only one miserly minute to the end of the match. Perhaps as a German, he was simply bridling at a whiff of Belgian resistance, but he looked like a footballing Bismarck. An iron manager with the experience, judgment and intensity to win matches. Long may he do so for the U.S.A.
In the meantime, we might graciously support the low countries’ intrepid Tintins on their continued adventures in the Amazon.