Despite a great effort and a Herculean performance from Tim Howard, the United States fell short Tuesday night in Salvador, losing to Belgium 2-1 in extra time.
Jurgen Klinsmann started the game with the U.S. in a 4-3-3, utilizing Geoff Cameron to handle Belgium's speed and benching Kyle Beckerman.
The United States began the game trying to attack Belgium, perhaps an unwise decision considering Belgium are a team with speed that struggles to break down defenses. The U.S. nearly paid for it with several early Belgium chances, but each time Howard was up to the task.
Things took a turn for the United States when Fabian Johnson went down with a hamstring injury. Faced with a decision to either slot Cameron in at right back and bring on Beckerman in the midfield or do a straight right back-for-right back swap, United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann opted for the latter, bringing in the youthful DeAndre Yedlin. Despite only being 20-years old with a grand total of 18 months of professional experience, Yedlin was capable of holding his own defending against Belgian superstar Eden Hazard.
With the U.S. unable to generate much offense except for a few quality opportunities on the counter-attack, Tim Howard found himself peppered with shots from the Belgian attack. But Howard stood his ground, save after save. He ultimately finishing the game with 16 saves, a new World Cup record.
With time winding down at the end of normal time and the match still goalless, the U.S. nearly had a break through. With Belgian goalkeeping superstar Thibaut Courtois already beat, 2nd half substitute Chris Wondolowski had a chance to create a moment American soccer fans would never forget. Instead, he sent it over the bar
, though it would not have mattered anyway as the linesman had (wrongly, per the replay) raised his flag signaling offside. The assistant referee had raised his flag for a goal kick, not offside. Had Wondo placed the ball in the net, it would have properly counted.
The start of extra time saw Romelu Lukaku enter the game as a substitute and he would make all the difference Belgium needed. He sliced the U.S. apart and created the first goal of extra time, a shot by Kevin De Bruyne who snuck it into the far post. The air would seemingly be let out of the U.S. sails for good minutes later when Lukaku scored in the 105th minute, putting Belgium up 2-0.
But as they have done all tournament long, the United States rebounded, this time when extra time substitute Julian Green unearthed a sublime finish in the 107th minute to give the United States a renewed hope and time enough to mount an equalizer. And mount an equalizer they nearly did. The Americans dominated the second half of extra time and generated numerous opportunities, but each time Courtois was up to the task or the chance went begging in other ways. Unable to get a second goal before the Algerian referee blew for full time, the Americans left Salvador defeated.
Despite the numerous criticisms that will be lobbied Klinsmann's way, he had himself an impressive debut opening cup. It was not perfect (Julian Green probably should have come on earlier than he did), but given all the vitriolic criticisms lobbied his way, it is certainly fair to say the former Germany manager was proven more right than wrong in Brazil. The U.S. did fantastic to get out of this year's Group of Death and all of his at the time controversial roster decisions panned out about as well as anyone could have asked. If the future of U.S. soccer was on display in 2014, then the future is in good hands.
As for the rest of the World Cup, two off days will be followed by the quarter-finals spread out over Friday and Saturday. Friday will see France play Germany and World Cup hosts Brazil play sentimental favorites Colombia. Meanwhile on Saturday, American usurpers Belgium will clash with Lionel Messi and Argentina while America's CONCACAF brethren Costa Rica battle Netherlands in a match where the Ticos will attempt to become the first North American country to reach the World Cup semi-finals since the United States in 1930.