In the end, it was a deserving result. The universe or fate or the soccer gods or whatever didn’t mess up and wrong the United States Men’s National Team. We didn’t play better than the other team, simple as that. And yet, how do you explain that feeling in the pit of every U.S. fans’ stomach? That sick, awful feeling that things could have been different.
Soccer is a funny game. You can be clearly inferior for the entire match and still somehow win. If your defense holds and you capitalize on your lone scoring chance, then you can knock off a better side. This almost happened last night. In stoppage time of regulation, Chris Wondolowski had the ball on his foot six yards from the goal line. If he puts it in the back of the net, the United States are through to the World Cup quarterfinals. Belgium wouldn’t have deserved that, but to quote Will Munny: “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it”.
That’s part of what made your insides turn at the end of the match. To be that close after a hard-fought 120 minutes. The other part is because you recognize how unbelievably tough this USMNT performed. We’ll start with Tim Howard, because, I mean, who else. In his emotional post-game interview, he said this is what he “signed up for”. I’m not so sure. No goalkeeper should have to endure 39 total shots, with 17 on goal, but Howard did it with alert positioning, superb athleticism, and severe determination. He submitted one of the all-time World Cup goalkeeping performances in what was surely his final World Cup appearance. What a way to say goodbye.
Then there was the gutsy work put in by the defense, in particular DaMarcus Beasley. The 32-year-old, playing in his fourth Cup, did just about everything he needed to do defensively in his fourth match in the Brazilian heat. He didn’t get forward very much, but his effort and will was obvious from the opening whistle. Geoff Cameron also played wonderfully at a defensive midfield position that he hadn’t played yet at this World Cup. Elsewhere in the midfield, Michael Bradley completed his usual well-rounded and unsung performance. Working from deep, he constantly made himself available to his teammates and always tracked back on defense. Bradley didn’t ever seem to find his offensive touch in this tournament (despite an awesome assist on Julian Green’s goal), but he was still his useful box-to-box self.
Other highlights included the inspiring play from the young guns. DeAndre Yedlin subbed on in just the 32nd minute when Fabian Johnson’s hamstring came up lame, certainly not what Jürgen Klinsmann had in mind. However, Yedlin immediately made a difference with his dangerous pace. He ripped down the right flank and fired in lethal crosses that gave the U.S. some form of attack in an otherwise listless offensive performance. Then there was 19-year-old Julian Green, who, if I’m honest, I didn’t think should have even been in Brazil. Of course, he scores on his first World Cup touch. What do I know. Other than the goal though, he looked dangerous and ready to create problems for the Belgian defense.
Through all of the positives, the negatives knocked out the U.S. in the end. A complete inability to retain possession in the offensive third of the field led to limited scoring chances throughout 120 minutes of football. It also meant we had a defense that could only bend so many times before breaking. Kevin De Bruyne’s 93rd minute extra time goal was created by a fatigued Matt Besler trying to press up on a fresh Romelu Lukaku around midfield. Besler went down and Lukaku was off to the races. Then Besler (who actually had a decent game overall) was beaten again on a Lukaku run for the second goal just 12 minutes later. It’s clear that Belgian coach Marc Wilmots should have inserted him way before extra time, because Lukaku, Howard’s Everton teammate, was a one-man wrecking crew from the second he got on the field.
The USMNT didn’t have anyone like that at this tournament. With Jozy Altidore sidelined, there weren’t any offensive difference makers off the bench. Wondo turned out to be the wrong choice at forward. I could see Klinsmann’s logic: insert a guy who can put himself in a position to get his head on one of those Yedlin crosses. Unfortunately, Wondo’s two moments came when the ball was sent to his feet right in front of keeper Thibaut Courtois, both of which he muffed. It was crushing to see a hard-working MLS-lifer like Wondo come up short in such an enormous moment.
With just minutes remaining in extra time, the Americans would get just one last quality chance to knot the game. On a wonderfully designed set piece, Bradley sent a pass to Wondo, who re-directed it to Dempsey in the middle of the box, right in front of Courtois. Unfortunately, Dempsey couldn’t get the space he needed to finish off a monumental goal, potentially the biggest in US Soccer history. Maybe his first touch was a bit too heavy, or maybe it was just world-class goalkeeping from Courtois. I’ll go with the latter to make myself feel better.
And that was it. After four years of work, preparation, and anticipation, the USMNT’s World Cup was over. Belgium had to work tirelessly to break down a stout U.S. defense and then withstand an enthusiastic late comeback from the Americans, but they move on. And rightfully so, but it still stings, especially knowing that if one of those late chances goes in, we could be on our way to just our second quarterfinal since before World War II, this time against the great Lionel Messi. It’s the nature of a sporting event that only comes around every four years – every moment is amplified and recalled for generations. However, there’s no sense in playing the What If game. In reality, this is a team of full-hearted overachievers that survived the Group of Death and gave themselves a shot at knockout round glory. If only the ref had granted more than one measly minute of stoppage time, then we migh-ah, there I go again.