U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones reacts on the pitch during a Round of 16 football match between Belgium and USA at Fonte Nova Arena in Salvador, Brazil.
It was an American dream that started way back in December 2013, after a brutal World Cup draw placed the USA in a deadly group few predicted they'd survive.
The dream was jostled by controversy in May, when USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann elected to cut American soccer icon Landon Donovan from the final World Cup roster before leaving for Brazil. In June, the dream was improbably sustained through that so-called Group of Death, despite a major injury to an important player, as the U.S.scratched and clawed its way into the World Cup knockout stage.
Then on Tuesday afternoon, the first day of July, the Americans' quest to avoid a rude World Cup wakeup ran into perhaps its staunchest test yet: The hyper-talented Red Devils of Belgium, first-place finishers in Group H and for months a trendy pick to make a dark-horse run at the World Cup final.
The stakes in Brazil had never been higher than they were on Tuesday at Salvador's Arena Fonte Nova: Win or go home; end it all or dream on and advance to the World Cup quarterfinals for the only the second time in the modern era of American soccer.
After the referee's final whistle blew following a scoreless regulation and 30 minutes of extra time, the improbable American dream had finally expired, with a 2-1 final line following a gritty effort from a USA squad that appeared outclassed until the closing minutes and a grand performance in goal that will be remembered by American supporters and fans of soccer until the end of time.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard was put under pressure from the opening kick, when Belgium's Divock Origi stole an errant pass and got a shot on goal before a minute had elapsed. Howard, as he had been throughout the World Cup, was there to stop Origi — but the near-disaster was a heart-stopping way to begin the knockout stage and a moment that would prove prophetic for the match to come.
The U.S. managed to settle down from there a bit, playing much more evenly and proactively than they had to begin their previous match, against Germany.
Geoff Cameron, a surprise inclusion in the starting lineup at the expense of defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman, got off to a shaky start playing outside of his normal back-line position, giving the ball away, mis-communicating with Howard and generally looking out of place and out of sorts to begin the game. Michael Bradley, until Brazil a rock in the U.S. midfield, continued his subpar performance that had USA fans scratching their heads in the group stage before finding his composure as the half wore on.
In the 20th minute, the U.S. was able to slightly change the tenor with a Cameron header from a corner kick. A minute later, Dempsey pumped off another shot on goal. Finally, the U.S. appeared capable of asking some real questions of offense.
Left-back DaMarcus Beasley made a heroic effort in the 25th minute, swooping in behind Howard to clear a potential score from Belgium's Jan Vertonghen. After Cameron and Dempsey's back-to-back efforts on the Belgian goal, the Red Devil attack was again coming in waves.
Star striker Jozy Altidore was forced out of the USA's first game against Ghana, and the rest of the tournament to date, with a hamstring injury. A hamstring tweak forced defender Matt Besler out of the same game. Then, nearing the 30th minute on Tuesday against Belgium, hamstring problems struck again, forcing right-back Fabian Johnson out of the game for good.
Enter DeAndre Yedlin, a 20-year-old with a surplus of speed but decided lack of professional or international experience. Another obstacle for the Americans to overcome. But the young Yedlin came in showing no fear and plenty of belief in himself.
Meanwhile, at Chicago's iconic soldier field where thousands had gathered for a viewing party, the Stateside support remained strong.
A 0-0 line entering halftime was met with sighs of relief and sweaty palms from American fans — whether in Salvador, at Soldier field or at bars and office cubicles across the country. The U.S. actually kept ball-possession for 51% of the first half, according to FIFA, but the distinct vibe was that the U.S. had been lucky to avoid a deficit entering the break.
Belgium began the second half where they'd left off, working Howard over and over again and prompting the sterling U.S. keeper to aggressively ask for more from his defense. A Red Devils score, one felt, was imminent.
Klinsmann inserted reserve striker Chris Wondolowski in the 72nd minute, the USMNT's second substitution of the game, in a late effort to inject some semblance of life into the American lineup. Meanwhile, Howard remained heroic in goal.
Wondolowski nearly became a hero in the 93rd minute, but shanked a clear shot on goal that would have delivered the USMNT an all-time classic victory. America's collective heart skipped about five beats and the moment may haunt Wondolowski's dreams for years to come.
The referee's whistle blew seconds later, ending regulation and bringing on 30 minutes of extra time. This apparent edit to Howard's Wikipedia page spoke for an entire nation.
Three minutes into extra time, the Red Devils finally broke through. Kevin De Bruyne snuck one past Howard after a typically scattered effort from the American defense. In the 105th minute, Romelu Lukaku fired another one on a counter-attack, seeming to pound a final nail in the USMNT coffin.
But, characteristic of this U.S. squad, the Americans would not go down quietly. Julian Green, the 19-year-old German-American striker of whom much is expected in the future, came on as the final U.S. sub just before the break in extra time and promptly scored a stunning volley just after the final period began.
In the 113th minute, the U.S. earned a free kick just outside the penalty box and a miracle felt possible. But it wasn't meant to be. Belgium cleared the ball following a scrum in front of the Red Devils goal. The U.S. kept pushing, Klinsmann berated the referee when just one minute of stoppage time was added to the clock and this American dream finally expired in heartbreaking fashion.
Belgium advances to play Argentina in the quarterfinals on Saturday, while the USA is left to wonder what might have been. It's a loss that will sting for much time to come, but ends a World Cup effort Klinsmann's squad should be be proud of.
This USMNT can return home with heads held high.
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