Steven Goff (c) 2014, The Washington Post. SALVADOR, Brazil — When the 121st minute expired at Arena Fonte Nova on Tuesday, ending another evening of high World Cup drama, the U.S. soccer team’s players folded under the exhaustion and disappointment of a 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium. Some fell to their knees, others stood motionless or buried their faces.
They had endured merciless duress, pushed the round-of-16 match beyond regulation and fallen behind by two goals before almost executing an unfathomable comeback.
“We played our hearts out tonight,” said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who finished with 16 saves. “We’ve been playing well all tournament. Sometimes when you give it the best and you fight and you scrap through it, it doesn’t work out.”
In the end, as 51,227 spectators caught their breath, the Americans were ushered out of the tournament by a Belgian side pegged to contend for the championship. The Red Devils, perfect through four matches, will face Lionel Messi and Argentina in a quarterfinal Saturday in Brasilia.
“It was a game that just went to the extreme,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “We all are very, very proud of our team, of every player stepping on the field today. They gave everything they had. I think they made our country proud.”
Throughout the tournament, the Americans had talked about, in the absence of artistic soccer, grinding out the necessary results. They had displayed moments of grace in the group stage, but for the most part, they had reverted to blue-collar tenets.
On Tuesday, they were caught in one-way traffic for almost the entire second half, 45-plus minutes of near calamity. Superb saves by Howard and desperate work by a tiring back line maintained the deadlock until the third of 30 extra minutes.
Said Klinsmann: “I think they all went to their limits. They gave everything they had.”
Romelu Lukaku’s fresh legs and powerful upper body made the difference. Three minutes into extra time he muscled past Matt Besler and roared toward the end line before aiming a cross for Kevin De Bruyne. On his heels, Omar Gonzalez poked at it. De Bruyne gathered the ball, steered wide and fired an angled eight-yarder to the far lower corner of the net.
De Bruyne and Lukaku combined for what appeared to secure victory in the 105th minute. Leading a counterattack, De Bruyne led his teammate into the box for a 12-yard one-timer to the near side.
Five minutes later, however, 19-year-old attacker Julian Green scored on a wonderful volley off Michael Bradley’s pass. Then, on a cleverly designed and executed free kick deep in Belgium’s end, Red Devils goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois made a reflex save on Clint Dempsey’s open bid from close range.
“Obviously, it’s a bummer for us, ending on the losing side after a game of 120 minutes that I think gave everything to the fans, to the crowd — a real drama, a thriller,” Klinsmann said. “We had enough possibilities to equalize that game in the end or even put it away earlier.”
Thoroughly dominated in the second half, the Americans had stirred in the final moments of regulation. But Chris Wondolowski, MLS’ surest finisher, missed high on a wide-open half-volley from six yards. Jermaine Jones had headed Geoff Cameron’s ball into a gaping pocket beyond Belgium’s stretched back line.
The assistant referee raised his flag, signaling offside, although TV replays showed he was onside. Wondolowski missed anyway, averting furious controversy.
Klinsmann shook up the lineup by inserting Cameron into Kyle Beckerman’s place in defensive midfield. This was surprising on two fronts: Beckerman had performed well in the group stage and Cameron’s primary position is central defense, where he started the first two matches before being dropped in favor of Omar Gonzalez against Germany.
Aside from Jozy Altidore (hamstring), no U.S. players were carrying significant injuries, U.S. Soccer Federation spokesmen said.
Forty seconds into the festivities, Divock Origi, a 19-year-old forward making his first start for Belgium, nearly struck. Led into a gaping channel, he beat Omar Gonzalez and fired an angled 10-yarder toward the far corner. With the near side covered, Howard extended his right foot to deflect the low effort.
After that scare, the Americans were comfortable on the ball and assertive in possession. Belgium yielded time and space to work out of the back. The Americans looked to liberate Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley on the flanks. Bradley and Dempsey worked a combination beyond the box, culminating with Thibaut Courtois’ routine save.
The U.S. effort suffered a blow in the 32nd minute when Johnson left with a strained right hamstring — the third American to have hamstring issues in the tournament. Enter DeAndre Yedlin, a 20-year-old Seattle Sounder who had shown well in two previous substitution assignments.
Almost immediately, Yedlin won a corner kick. He served a dangerous cross in transition. He lifted the ball to himself beyond the box to avert an opponent. And, after gathering Bradley’s gorgeous long ball in stride, crossed to Zusi, who shanked a shot.
Belgium’s frustration grew. Captain Vincent Kompany was yellow-carded and Marouane Fellaini exchanged words with Algerian referee Djamel Hammoudi.
The Americans reached intermission on level terms, both on the scoreboard and in possession.
The Red Devils seized initiative after the break, hoarding possession and probing for opportunity. Howard pushed Dries Mertens’ header over the crossbar. Besler nicked Vertonghen’s cross just enough so Origi could not bash it into the back side. Origi’s 12-yard header, set up by Toby Alderweireld, skimmed the crossbar.
The Americans were playing with fire. How long could they absorb such unrelenting pressure?
After 15 minutes, they began to find their way by playing through Yedlin but failed to mount a proper threat. In its quest to unlock the hardening U.S. resistance, Belgium resumed pinging the ball around.
Yedlin countered with an ominous cross. Belgium answered with additional pressure. The U.S. midfield strained to come up with new ideas. Howard made a leg save on Origi. Klinsmann summoned forward Wondolowski and removed Zusi in the 72nd.
Howard came to the rescue again and again, getting a foot on Kevin Marallas’ clear bid, punching out Eden Hazard’s shot and touching Origi’s blast over the bar. Yedlin caused disruptions and a sliding Besler blocked a shot in the box.
After De Bruyne broke the tie, Howard prevented further damage with multiple saves. Lukaku appeared to end the suspense — and the Americans’ ambitious campaign — with a goal of his own. But after the extra session’s midway break, Bradley chipped the ball into the box, where Green volleyed past Courtois.
“It’s fun to watch that kid grow,” Klinsmann said of Green.
Remarkably, the Americans had been reborn. Jones’s stab missed the target and Howard made a spectacular foot save on Lukaku.
“All of the players today just went beyond their capabilities,” Klinsmann said. “I told them in the locker room they should be very very proud of them and take a lot of positive stuff back home after this World Cup.”