SALVADOR, Brazil — They came flying in from all directions, and minute after minute, shot after shot, Tim Howard had something for every ball that came his way, a foot, a knee, his hands. But when it was all over, he couldn’t bat away that familiar, unsettling feeling that was suddenly sinking in.
“Gosh, we were right there,” Howard said. “We nearly had it.”
Despite the goalkeeper’s best efforts Tuesday, the United States was knocked out of the World Cup, losing, 2-1, to Belgium. For two weeks, Howard & Co. had taken a captivated audience on a thrilling ride, but their premature exit means the U.S. team has again failed to advance in the tournament’s knockout round.
It wasn’t for lack of effort, any shortage of interest back home in the States and certainly not from anything Howard failed to do. The goalkeeper stood in front of a Belgian firing squad for 120-plus minutes Tuesday, recording 16 saves, many of them heart-stopping, more than any World Cup goalkeeper since tournament officials began tracking such stats nearly a half-century ago.
“We dreamed,” Howard said, “and again, we fell short of our dream.”
For two straight weeks, much of the country — those who love soccer but also those who simply appreciate high drama — dreamed right along with them. A win over Ghana buoyed a nation. A deflating tie to Portugal resulted in a land of gnawed fingernails. And then a loss to Germany somehow became cause for celebration, as the United States managed to compile enough points in group play (four) to advance to the tournament’s knockout stage, where 32 World Cup teams had been whittled down to 16.
And with Tuesday’s loss, a nation of fans, new converts and old die-hards alike, resumed regular breathing patterns and saw their heartbeats return to a healthy pace. Belgium advanced to face Argentina in the quarterfinals and the U.S. team prepared to leave Brazil. And everyone else, who’d cheered and cried and celebrated and then cried again? They were all left asking, so now what?
For some, it’s an easy question to answer.
“You see where the game is going in the United States,” U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “You can’t stop it anymore. It’s breaking through.”
Tuesday was an opportunity to catapult it forward even further. The early tempo was promising, as the Americans held their own against the talented Belgians. The teams were scoreless for the first 90 minutes, as Howard almost single-handedly seemed to keep the U.S. team in it.
“This was definitely an amazing goalkeeper performance,” Klinsmann said. “There’s absolutely no doubt about it.”
Howard dove, lunged, flailed, stopping shot after shot.
"That’s what I signed up to do" he said, "put my face in front of balls. That’s part of the job. It hurts when you lose.”
As the 30 minutes of extra time began, the action instantly spiked. Belgium scored a goal, by Kevin De Bruyne, in the 93rd minute and then another by Romelu Lukaku 12 minutes later. Trailing by two goals with barely 15 minutes left, the Americans sensed the urgency and started playing both brilliantly and desperately. They finally began to pepper the Belgium goalkeeper with shots. Many of the announced crowd of 51, 227 at Arena Fonte Nova were rooting for the Americans, their gasps of anticipation followed quickly by groans of disappointment.
Back home, a nation tuned in, as well. U.S. Soccer Federation officials saw ratings and interest soar these past two weeks. Fans from coast to coast filled not just bars and living room coaches, but packed stadiums and public spaces, just to watch the action on a big screen.
“We’re not going to be able to continue this level of excitement and interest the day after the World Cup,” said Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. “We accept that. That’s true of the Olympics, that’s true of everything.”
What they’ll do is take stock of their successes and try to capitalize on the interest: keep the national team in the public eye, push the public into Major League Soccer stadiums, try to make year-round stars out of these summertime heroes. Mostly, they’ll try to remember that this World Cup isn’t defined by a single deflating loss to a talented European team.
Tuesday’s letdown in extra time “doesn’t change what four years looks like,” Gulati said. “It changes the perception.”
“I think this team took a giant step this World Cup,” defender Matt Besler said. “The way that we played, the teams that we played. Again, we fell up short, but the end goal is never to just get out of our group. We really wanted to make a deep run in the tournament. We’re close.”
Eight Americans on this squad are over the age of 30, but Tuesday’s match also offered a glimpse into the future. DeAndre Yedlin, 20, came off the bench in the first half and provided an immediate spark for a team that desperately needed one. And Julian Green, all of 19 years old, made his World Cup debut in extra time, scoring the Americans’ fifth goal of the tournament and lone one of the match.
When the referee finally blew his whistle Tuesday evening, as the Belgians exchanged hugs and high-fives, the American players could barely move. Some collapsed on the ground and others rubbed their eyes, that salty combination of sweat and tears that stings for an eternity.
When the U.S. team finally caught its breath, players collected themselves and made the short walk toward the stands. They clapped their hands high above their heads and thanked the fans who had traveled from so far away. Their Cup dreams dashed, the Americans in attendance waved their flags and cheered, thanking them right back.
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