Extra disappointing: Surprising run ends as US is eliminated by Belgium 2-1

AP Sports WriterJuly 1, 2014 

  • Fans brave heat

    His right cheek painted with an American flag, Jon Watson sat sweating in the Texas heat.

    He didn’t mind the searing sun, the 90-plus degree temperatures or the lack of a breeze in Austin. He was here for a party with thousands of other American soccer fans set to watch the U.S. play Belgium in the World Cup, with the winner set to move on the quarterfinals of the biggest sporting event in the world.

    “And I’m not even a soccer fan. I’m a tennis guy. I should be watching Wimbledon,” Watson said. “But I wanted to get out and be part of the community, to come together and cheer for the same team.”

    From Texas to Chicago to California, U.S. fans flocked to public spaces, from wide open parks to sports stadiums to their favorite sports bars, to watch the game.

    Tuesday’s game was the fourth for the U.S. in Brazil as it tried to move deeper into the tournament. With every game, the crowds have swelled as die-hard soccer fans joined the newcomers. Suddenly, America looks like a soccer-crazed country, as people skip work and gather in big crowds and watch the game play out on giant screens.

    “They’re short people at work and they tried to call me in to work but I told them no way. I'll let you know on Thursday if they’re mad,” said 25-year-old Alex Sanders, who chose watching the game on a Jumbotron at Redondo Beach in Los Angeles over his extra shift at Sports Authority.

    Each game has pulled in more fans: The U.S.-Portugal game drew 24.7 million television viewers overall, and the 18.22 million who watched on ESPN were the most the network has ever attracted for an event not involving American football. The Germany game averaged 10.7 million viewers, making it the third-most watched World Cup game ever on the network.

    Associated Press

— They captured the eyes and hearts of a suddenly awakened soccer nation, who gathered in unprecedented numbers to watch the world’s game.

But the end of the ride came at the exact same point as four years ago: with a loss in extra time in the World Cup’s round of 16.

Belgium scored twice in extra time then held on for a 2-1 win Tuesday.

“It’s heartbreaking,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “I don’t think we could have given it more.”

Howard, playing the finest game of his career, stopped a dozen shots with his legs and arms to keep the Americans even through regulation and force an additional 30 minutes. He wound up with 16 saves – the most in the World Cup since 1966.

Before exiting, the U.S. showed the spunk that captured America’s attention. Julian Green, at 19 the youngest player on the U.S. roster, stuck out his right foot to volley in Michael Bradley’s pass over the defense in the 107th minute, two minutes after entering the game.

They nearly tied it up in the 114th, when Clint Dempsey peeled off the ball and was stopped point-blank by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois after being fed by Bradley on a free kick.

But it wasn’t enough, and U.S. players fell to the field at the final whistle in their all-white uniforms like so many crumpled tissues.

“I think they made their country proud with this performance,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.

The Americans advanced from a difficult first-round group that included Germany, Portugal and Ghana to reach the knockout rounds of consecutive World Cups for the first time. Four years ago, they were eliminated in South Africa by Ghana 1-0 on a goal in the third minute of extra time.

Fans who had made the trek south of the equator chanting “I believe that we will win!” could hardly believe they lost, extending a World Cup winless streak against European nations to nine games over 12 years.

The crowd of 51,227 at Arena Fonte Nova appeared to be about one third pro-U.S., with 10 percent backing the Belgians and the rest neutral. Back home, millions watched across the United States in offices, homes and public gatherings that includes a huge crowd in Chicago’s Soldier Field.

“There’s a lot to build on going forward,” Klinsmann said.

President Barack Obama joined about 200 staffers in an Executive Office Building auditorium to watch the second half.

“I believe!” he exclaimed as he walked in at the front of the hall. “I believe!”

That sparked a chorus of the chant, and as Obama took a front-row seat, he said sheepishly: “I was worried that if I walked in and Belgium scored, I’d get in trouble.”

In its first World Cup under Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. had promised to play attacking soccer. But once again the Americans had trouble maintaining possession and for much of the night it seemed as if the field were tilted.

The 35-year-old Howard kept saving his team. Belgium had 38 shots to 14 by the U.S.

But when Matt Besler lost his balance on an attack down the right, Romelu Lukaku sped in alone and crossed in front of the goal. The ball rebounded off defender Omar Gonzalez, and Kevin De Bruyne controlled it, spun and beat Howard just over his right foot in the third minute of extra time.

Then with the U.S. pushing for an equalizer, De Bruyne burst ahead and fed Lukaku. He slotted the ball past Howard, his Everton teammate, seeming to put the Red Devils out of reach in the 105th minute.

But Green, among five German-Americans on the U.S. roster and a surprise pick, woke up the team and its fans with his first touch of the game, setting off raucous chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” But there would be no final comeback this time.

“You get to this point and these games are always about a play here and play there,” Bradley said.

Chris Wondolowski had a chance to win it in stoppage time when Jermaine Jones flicked the ball to him at the top of the 6-yard box, but with Courtois coming out Wondolowski put the ball over the crossbar.

U.S. forward Jozy Altidore, recovering from a strained hamstring, did not play.

“The dream falls short, but this is an incredible group,” Howard said, “and we'll never forget this night.”

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