Photo by Kieran McManus/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SALVADOR, Brazil — The U.S. Men’s National Team’s latest attempt at a World Cup rally fell short, and its run at the World Cup is over as a result.
The U.S. were eliminated from the World Cup on Tuesday night at Arena Fonte Nova, suffering a 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium in their Round of 16 match. The Americans found themselves down two goals at the start of the second half of extra time, but a quick strike from substitute Julian Green gave Jurgen Klinsmann’s side a shot at finding an equalizer.
It never came despite the Americans having a few quality chances, and they were knocked out for the second straight World Cup in the first round of the knockout stage.
That the Americans even made it to extra time without conceding was largely down to the spectacular play of Tim Howard, who made 16 saves en route to delivering one of the best performances of his career in front of 51,227 fans. The total was the most a goalkeeper has made in a World Cup match since 1966 and saw Howard named the official Man of the Match.
“Obviously, it’s a bummer for us ending on the losing side after a game of 120 minutes that gave everything to the fans, to the crowd, a real drama, a thriller,” said Klinsmann. “We had enough possibilities to equalize that game and we meant to put it away earlier. But big compliment to Belgium and congratulations to them to move on into the quarterfinals.”
Howard was peppered with shots and came up big time and again before Kevin De Bruyne struck a low shot to the far post in the 93rd minute. Substitute Romelu Lukaku helped make that play happen and he made it 2-0 just before the end of the first half of extra time.
Trying inject some life into his team after it struggled to keep possession and create chances, Klinsmann inserted Green with the U.S.’s final substitution. The move paid off rather quickly, as Green wonderfully volleyed home a gorgeous ball from Michael Bradley in the 107th minute to score his first international goal.
The Americans had chances afterwards to pull level, but Jermaine Jones sent an acrobatic effort wide right and Clint Dempsey was denied from close range by Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
“I thought I had a great touch on it,” said Dempsey. “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. It was one of those where you try your best and no regrets.”
Belgium was the better team for much of the 120 minutes in Salvador, and it did not win the match in regulation because of the heroic performance from Howard and some poor finishing.
Howard was called immediately into action, denying Divock Origi after the Belgian forward raced past Omar Gonzalez and fired a low shot from the right in the first minute. Howard also negated De Bruyne in the 24th minute and late in the first half.
“This was definitely an amazing goalkeeper performance,” said Klinsmann. “There is no doubt about it. He should be very proud of himself and we are proud to have him with us.”
The U.S.’s only real chance in a first half that saw it lose Fabian Johnson to a hamstring injury in the 32nd minute came through Dempsey, whose 21st-minute effort was too weak to trouble Courtois.
Belgium went right back to work in the second half, but Howard continued to make impressive stops to keep the game scoreless. He smacked away a Dries Mertens header in the 48th minute, denied substitute Kevin Mirallas on a one-on-one opportunity after the hour-mark and stoned Origi on a great look in the 72nd minute.
“It was incredible, the amount of saves that he had,” said centerback Matt Besler. “Sometimes it’s hard to realize what’s going on because it’s Tim Howard and that’s what we expect of him. He’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world and it’s comforting as a defender knowing you have a guy like that behind you. He played incredible tonight.”
While the Belgians were frustrated by their inability to beat Howard, they also wasted some opportunities. Mertens hit a back heel from close range wide after receiving a pass from the left flank and Vincent Kompany failed to cleanly connect on an open shot inside the penalty area that Howard parried.
U.S. substitute Chris Wondolowski could have been a hero in the dying seconds of the game, but he sent a shot from close range over the crossbar despite being unmarked. The linesman on the near side incorrectly had raised his flag for offside, so a goal likely would not have counted even if Wondolowski had found the back of the net.
The match went into extra time, and Belgium finally beat Howard through a well-hit shot from De Bruyne. The play started when Dempsey was stripped of the ball in Belgium’s half and continued when substitute Romelul Lukaku mustered off a challenge from Besler before sending in the ball that wound up at De Bruyne’s feet.
Lukaku then put the Belgians up by two goals by hitting a hard shot past Howard from the left of the penalty area.
“Don’t give up. They scored two goals, we can score two goals,” said Besler on what the U.S. players were telling each other when it was 2-0. “At that point in the game, it’s tough to manage because everyone’s running on tired legs. We’re obviously down a goal so we want to put numbers forward, but they have fresh legs up top and credit to them they were able to find him out on the break and it was a tough assignment once he came on.”
The Americans looked gassed and all but finished, but Green gave them a lifeline two minutes after entering the match. Dempsey could have equalized a few minutes later after getting on the end of a drawn-up free kick that saw the U.S. pass instead of shoot, but his effort from eight yards out was blocked by Courtois in one of the final plays of the tournament for the Americans.
The U.S. finished 1-2-1 in Brazil.
“It was a game that just went to the extreme,” said Klinsmann. “We all are very, very, very proud of our team, of every player stepping on the field today, gave everything they had. I think they made their country proud with this performance and also with their entire performance in this World Cup and you have to swallow this for a second but after a little bit of a break you have to move on.”
Belgium will now move onto the quarterfinals, and will face Argentina in Brasilia on Saturday.