SALVADOR, Brazil — When the final whistle sounded at Arena Fonte Nova on Tuesday, ending another evening of high drama for the U.S. national soccer team, players folded under the exhaustion and disappointment of a 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium in the World Cup’s round of 16.
Some fell to their knees, others stood motionless or buried their faces.
They had endured merciless pressure and pushed the match beyond regulation. They had received a record-setting performance by their veteran goalkeeper and invaluable contributions from their two youngest players.
They had fallen behind by two goals before almost executing an unfathomable comeback.
In the end, as 51,227 spectators caught their breath, the Americans were ushered out of the tournament by a Belgian side pegged to contend for the trophy. The Red Devils, not the Americans, will face Lionel Messi and Argentina in a quarterfinal Saturday in Brasilia.
“We can be proud and we can be sad,” defender Omar Gonzalez said. “Our journey ends tonight.”
Tim Howard made 16 saves, the most in a World Cup match since FIFA began keeping records in 1966. He blanked the Belgians through 90 minutes before Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, his teammate at Everton in the English Premier League last season, partnered on both goals.
The Americans answered on 19-year-old Julian Green’s wonder volley with about 13 minutes remaining and threatened several times to force a penalty-kick tiebreaker.
Given Howard’s form, they would have liked their chances.
“It was a game that just went to the extreme,” U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “We all are very, very, very proud of our team. They made their country proud with this performance and also with their entire performance in this World Cup.”
After escaping Group G, the so-called Group of Death, the U.S. squad pushed Belgium (four victories in four matches) to the limit. It was not an unjust outcome, however. The Red Devils manufactured three times more shots and a 19-4 advantage on corner kicks.
“Sometimes in games like that when you have so many chances and you are denied, the result doesn’t go your way,” Belgium Coach Marc Wilmots said, “but we didn’t stop believing.”
The Americans believed that, in the absence of artistic soccer, they could grind out results when necessary. They had displayed moments of grace in the group stage, but for the most part, reverted to blue-collar tenets.
On Tuesday, rather than employ conservative tactics against a technically superior foe, Klinsmann decided to play with the Belgians. It worked for a half, but the second 45 minutes turned into one-way traffic. For a long stretch, the lone U.S. hope was DeAndre Yedlin, 20, who replaced right back Fabian Johnson (strained hamstring in the first half) and crackled with energy and pace.
Unable to create many chances, though, the Americans leaned on Howard’s gems and the back line’s work to force the extra period.
“The last 10 minutes were tough on us physically,” center back Matt Besler said, “and we were holding on there to get into overtime.”
The U.S. team did threaten near the end of regulation. Chris Wondolowski, MLS’s surest finisher, missed an open half-volley from six yards. The assistant referee had signaled offside, although TV replays showed he was onside.
The Americans’ task grew more difficult when Lukaku, a powerful striker, entered at the start of extra time. “For him to come on so late, for guys who have been working so hard and now have to chase him around, it was definitely tough on us,” Gonzalez said.
Lukaku’s fresh legs made an immediate impact. He muscled past Besler and roared toward the end line before aiming a cross for De Bruyne. On his heels, Gonzalez poked at it. De Bruyne gathered the ball, steered wide and fired an angled eight-yarder to the far lower corner.
De Bruyne and Lukaku combined again in the 105th minute. On the counterattack, De Bruyne led his teammate into the box for a 12-yard one-timer to the near side.
Two minutes later, however, Julian Green volleyed in Michael Bradley’s pass from 12 yards. Three weeks after celebrating his 19th birthday, he became the youngest U.S. player to appear in a World Cup match.
The Americans weren’t done. On a cleverly designed and executed free kick deep in Belgium’s end, Clint Dempsey slipped behind the Belgian wall for an open bid from close range. Thibaut Courtois intervened.
“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, made the goal small with his reaction.”
Later, Jermaine Jones’s stab missed wide and the Americans fired crosses into the box, bidding for one final chance to prolong their Brazilian odyssey.
“Dream fell short,” Howard said, “but this is an incredible group and we’ll never forget this night.”
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