When the final whistle sounded after 120 minutes, some players bent at the waist, gasping for air. Others knelt in the middle of field and some lay in the grass.
But Tim Howard, as he had all night, stood tall in front of the goal.
The U.S. soccer team's Cinderella run through the World Cup had come to a disappointing end Tuesday in a 2-1 overtime loss to Belgium. But that result won't be remembered nearly as long as Howard's performance in goal.
"I will never forget this night," Howard said.
Nor should he since he had arguably one of the best performance by a goalkeeper in World Cup history. Howard made 16 saves — many of them in spectacular fashion — to keep the U.S. from wilting under a withering Belgium attack that produced 38 shots, 27 of them on goal.
"Tim played tonight just phenomenal, outstanding," U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said. "This was definitely an amazing goalkeeper performance."
Historic, in fact. His 16 saves were the most recorded in a World Cup since FIFA began tracking that statistic.
In the end, though, it was the one that didn't go in and the two that got away that made the difference.
The first came in the waning seconds of regulation stoppage time in a scoreless game when U.S. forward Chris Wondolowski, after taking a header from Jermaine Jones, missed a wide-open net to send the game into overtime.
"This is part of the game and that's the way it goes," Jones said. "At the end of the day we're out."
The two that got away came from Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, who scored 12 minutes apart in extra time to send Belgium on to the quarterfinals against Argentina while sending the U.S. home.
"Of course it's bittersweet," defender Matt Besler said. "We're going to hold our heads high and hold our chests out because we are proud of what we did. We are proud of how we fought and left everything on the field.
"But we feel like we could be playing in the quarterfinals. And it's going to be on my mind a little bit here."
The first goal was sent up by Lukaku, who had come on with fresh legs in second-half stoppage time. Early in the first of two 15-minute extra periods, Lukaku fought his way past Besler along the right touchline, giving him an open run into the penalty area. Once there he laid the ball off to De Bruyne, who dribbled to his right to create some space, then blasted the ball by a sprawling Howard and into the net at the far post.
With the U.S. pushing hard for the equalizer, Lukaku doubled the lead seconds before the end of the first extra period, this time taking a pass from De Bruyne and beating Howard from the edge of the six-yard box.
But what looked to be an insurance goal eventually proved to be the winner when teenager Julian Green, seconds after stepping onto a World Cup field for the first time, volleyed a chip from Michael Bradley off the glove of Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois and into the net.
That was as close as the U.S. would get, though, ending an unlikely run through the World Cup. Drawn into the tournament's "Group of Death" alongside Germany, Portugal and Ghana, the U.S. was outshot 2 to 1 and lost the possession battle in all three first-round games — yet it went through to the knockout stage after finishing second in the group.
The U.S. traveled a tournament-record 11,000 miles through four games, playing in the heat and humidity of the Amazon and in torrential rain along Brazil's Atlantic coast. Its gutsy underdog effort drew more than 200,000 fans from the U.S. to Brazil to watch it play, led to record TV ratings and inspired public "watch parties" that drew tens of thousands of people nationwide.
But though that all ended Tuesday, Klinsmann insisted the disappointment will be only temporary.
"It's a bummer for us ending on the losing side," he said. "It was a game that just went to the extreme. We all are very, very, very proud of our team. Every player stepping on the field today gave everything they had.
"I think they made their country proud with this performance and also with their entire performance in this World Cup. You have to swallow this for a second, but after a little bit of a break you have to move on."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times