What happens every four years like busted clockwork happened again Tuesday in Salvador, Brazil, when the U.S. men's soccer team raised its country’s World Cup hopes just high enough to devastatingly dash them.
In a round-of-16 game that glued many American sports fans to TVs and smartphones in the middle of a workday afternoon, the delightful U.S. soap opera ended with a painful, dramatic mugging in a 2-1 loss to Belgium in Salvador, Brazil.
“It’s heartbreaking,’’ said goalkeeper Tim Howard to ESPN afterward. “It hurts.” It was heartbreaking indeed to watch the U.S. team play the technically superior Belgians to a scoreless tie in regulation, only to quickly fall two goals behind during the first half of the 30-minute extra-time period.
It hurt, truly, to watch the U.S. come back with a goal by young sub Julian Green on his first touch of his World Cup career in the first moments of the second half of extra time, yet be unable to score again despite a couple of last-gasp chances. And it just plain stunk to watch Howard dive and leap and punch his way to 16 saves, a U.S. World Cup record, yet still end up on his back and in tears.
“I don’t think we could give anymore,” Howard said. “We left it all out there.” Howard is right, the U.S. team couldn’t give any more, which is both inspirational and frustrating.
It’s inspirational in that, for the last couple of weeks, the American effort pushed soccer into the forefront of this country’s national conversation like never before. Soccer became our favorite sport. Soccer became our national anthem. The matches were watched in record numbers, followed with previously unimaginable fervor, huge crowds celebrating in giant spaces around the country, creating the sort of soccer cheering mob scenes that usually only occur in South America and Europe.
It is frustrating, though, in that for all the hype, the Americans again failed to improve the result. In attempting to reach the quarterfinals for only the second time in history , the U.S. wound up advancing no further than the last time it tried this in South Africa four years ago. The truth is as simple and pained as the Tuesday afternoon cries from American fans everywhere.
The U.S. team is getting better. The connection between the sport and the country is getting stronger. But for now, the Americans simply aren’t good enough to go farther.
“Sometimes when you give your best, it doesn’t come off,” said Howard. “Dream falls short.”
The U.S. team indeed showed progress in that, it somehow hung close even though it was outshot 38-14.
But early in the extra time, in a goal that typified the Belgians' technical and physical superiority, Romelu Lukaku knocked down Matt Besler, gained control of the ball, and made a run that resulted in a pass that Kevin De Bruyne knocked past Howard for the goal to give them a lead they never lost. Once the Belgians took a two-goal lead, it was too much even for the most typical of furious U.S. comebacks.
“We kept playing, we kept fighting,’’ said Michael Bradley.
For two weeks, the U.S. team showed us big heart. The hope is that, in four years, its can begin delivering more big victories. Perhaps for the first time ever, the U.S. World Cup appearance captivated the nation with a wild and memorable ride. But once it again, it was a ride that ended far too soon.