The USA exited the World Cup yesterday with their heads held high after a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to Group H winners Belgium.
The match nearly began in tumultuous fashion for the Americans as 19-year-old budding star Divock Origi had an early attempt saved by Tim Howard, which would become the theme of the night. Howard was incredible all night long, posting a World Cup record 16 saves which kept the US in the match.
An early injury to standout Fabian Johnson didn't help, but the introduction of DeAndre Yedlin proved more useful than most imagined. The 20-year-old worked hard down the right flank in both directions and his speed was a joy on the eyes as he tracked down and thwarted the likes of Eden Hazard a few times.
As the match wore on, Belgium posed more and more of a threat, as evidenced by the shot totals of the first half vs. the second: 9 to 22. Howard continued to perform miracle after miracle while the outfield players attempted to find some way to escape with a smash and grab victory. Though the Belgians seemed very non-committal in defense and willing to cede space to the American attackers, no real clear opportunities presented themselves for Clint Dempsey and co.
Until the 93rd minute. Jermaine Jones' hard-fought header fell to the feet of San Jose poacher Chris Wondolowski, who somehow managed to put the ball wide of the net from 10 yards away to Thibaut Courtois' relief. It was the best chance either side had to that point, and would have completed the smash and grab of all smash and grabs. But, it wasn't to be.
Marc Wilmots introduction of 'Chelsea' striker Romelu Lukaku at the start of extra time ultimately proved to be the difference. Lukaku let his fresh legs and physicality go to work instantly; shrugging off a challenge from Matt Besler at midfield before finding former 'Chelsea' midfielder Kevin de Bruyne, who wiggled past two defenders and breached Tim Howard's fortress for the first time. The goal seemed to be a dagger in the hearts of the Americans until the same duo switched roles and twisted the knife further as Lukaku beat Howard from 10 yards out to deflate the spirits of all donning the red, white, and blue.
With the team looking empty on gas and defeated all the same, on came Jurgen Klinsmann's final substitution: teenager Julian Green. Many have criticized Klinsmann for including the inexperienced Bayern Munich attacker in the final 23 man roster, but those critics were quickly silenced as Green used his very first touch at the World Cup to volley home Michael Bradley's 40 yard lofted pass and give the Americans some hope with 13 minutes remaining.
Team USA spent everything they had in those final minutes. Exhausted player after exhausted player made forays into the Belgian box and the first chance for an equalizer went agonizingly whizzing past the post from Jones. A few minutes later the ball fell to Dempsey from a clinically worked set piece, but the Texas native couldn't stab the ball past Courtois. It was the last good chance the Americans had and Belgium held on for a thrilling 2-1 victory.
All in all, that was one of the best extra time periods the tournament has ever seen. Though the Americans were on the losing side, they can leave the tournament with their chins up and with a good feeling about 2018 in Russia. This year's team turned some heads around the globe and made good progress for the US Soccer program. The team will likely still have a core of Green (will be 23), Besler (31), Gonzalez (29), Cameron (32), Johnson (30), Yedlin (24), Bradley (30), Altidore (28), and Johannsson (27) at the next edition.
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