Although we’ve come to the end of the road, still … Sorry, fans of the United States national soccer team. Sorry, Boyz II Men. It’s time to let go.
The United States men’s national soccer team lost to Belgium in the Round of 16 of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on Tuesday.
The extra-time defeat ended the United States’ participation in the world’s biggest sporting event, crushing the hopes and dreams of those who believed Team USA could continue its 2014 World Cup fairytale and possibly win the tournament.
The United States lost to a team that is stronger than it was — one which has better players and grander ambitions than those of U.S. national team realists like head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Nevertheless, the loss stings badly. Here’s why:
Tim Howard’s heroics overshadow fatal error
Goalkeeper Tim Howard was a U.S. soccer legend before kickoff. Howard became a real American hero with a standout performance in which he set a new World Cup record by making 16 saves — most of them of the highlight-reel variety.
But Howard made one mistake that will haunt him. In the 105th minute, Romelu Lukaku’s powerful shot beat Howard at the near post for Belgium’s second goal … the game-winning goal.
Goalkeepers at any level will tell you that conceding at the near post is a basic error, and they often face intense criticism when it happens. Howard was beaten at the near post.
My criticism of him starts here. It ends here. Let the record show that the faint criticism exists.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler
Besler enhanced his reputation with assuredly intelligent performances in Brazil, which prompted this scribe to dub him “the (Fabio) Canavarro of Kansas.” Omar Gonzalez, Besler’s partner in the middle of the U.S. defense, shook off an injury and performed well for the majority of his two World Cup games.
But Belgium continually stretched the Besler-Gonzalez axis to its breaking point, pulling the center backs out of position with the astute movements of its forwards. The pairing broke down at the beginning of extra time when Besler was caught upfield, Gonzalez failed to clear Romelu Lukaku’s cross and the two U.S. defenders couldn’t stop Kevin de Bruyne from scoring Belgium’s first goal.
Klinsmann deserves plenty of credit for the manner in which he selected and prepared Team USA for the World Cup. The spirited Americans survived the “Group of Death” — an achievement worth celebrating — and proved the effectiveness of Klinsmann’s methods in the years, months, weeks and days before Tuesday’s game.
But Belgium head coach Marc Wilmots out-foxed Klinsmann during their meeting of the minds. Team USA started slowly. DeAndre Yedlin sparked a dramatic improvement when he entered the game in place of the injured Fabian Johnson. The United States played so well in the final 10 minutes of the first half, Wilmots altered Belgium’s tactics at halftime and early in the second half — pushing Marouane Fellaini further forward and moving Eden Hazard inside.
Wilmots’ tactical changes worked devastatingly well, while Klinsmann’s tactics remained static. Belgium dominated the U.S. for 45 minutes, running the Americans into the ground. Wilmots’ substitutions also had greater impact than Klinsmann’s.
Howard’s heroics are the only reason Team USA didn’t suffer a lopsided defeat.
The hope of extra time and a never-ending party
The United States’ World Cup run is (was) a big deal. Fans flocked to Brazil in record numbers, while others joined the collective viewing experience like never before. They received more attention and garnered a greater share of popular imagination than ever before.
My intentions aren’t cruel when I say this: The United States’ performance against Belgium wasn’t worthy of that teeming support.
Belgium thoroughly out-played the United States and deserved to win. The U.S. didn’t play anything resembling its best soccer for 100 of 120 minutes. The shot statistics tell the story well. Belgium had 39 shots and put 17 on goal. The United States had five shots on goal. Team USA could have done serious damage on those five. It didn’t on four of them.
The United States was fortunate to take the game into extra time, but there they were. When extra time kicked off, the dream of more street-level viewing parties in the USA was still alive. After Belgium’s goals, most gave up those dreams. Julian Green and his teammates refused to follow suit. That is, until the referee forced them to do so when he blew the final whistle.