SALVADOR, Brazil – The assault was relentless. The pressure was unrelenting. Shot after shot, attack after attack, these Belgians just coming and coming at Tim Howard, just teeing up until they could eventually break through.
Howard had been amazing but in the end it was not enough, the United States' World Cup dream ending here Tuesday in a 2-1 defeat to Belgium. The story of the night was how Howard's greatness – "absolutely amazing" Jurgen Klinsmann put it – combined with a roster full of signature heart and unrelenting effort forced extra time and then made the Belgians white-knuckle their way into the quarterfinals.
[Photos: Heartbroken Team USA fans]
Beaten at the end, Howard summoned the energy for a postgame lap around the field to wave and thank the American fans who trekked here. As he finished, he ran into the Belgians themselves, exhausted but exhilarated, and what unfolded was a scene of honor among warriors.
Howard had tested the Belgian's will, and they wanted him to know it. So Marouane Fellaini came and gave him a hug and some words of respect. Eden Hazard put an arm on the goalkeeper's shoulder. Kevin Mirallas just patted him on the back. A small group of other Belgium players stood and clapped in his direction.
They'd survived. They'd moved on. But in Tim Howard, they had met their equal.
It was a scene that U.S. Soccer craves on this stage, elite recognizing elite. It also underscored the national team's reality.
Howard was the only player who could match the Belgians in ability. He was the only one as good as they were. Belgium was bigger, faster and more precise. Its bench was deeper, its options more robust. It controlled the game. It dominated. It was 27 to nine in shots on goal and 19 to four in corners, and Howard's 16 saves were the most in a World Cup game since 1966, because World Cup games are usually more evenly played.
The Americans relied, as always, on ferocity and fight. That can take you a long, admirable way in sports. It just can't get you into the late rounds of a World Cup, where eventually the best can just grind you into a pulp.
"This team showed once again it has balls," Michael Bradley said.
It did. It just didn't show it has the players to do much more than give an elite team a scare.
Across the last three World Cups, the U.S. has won just two games, compiling a 2-5-4 record since its surprise quarterfinal appearance back in 2002. For the second consecutive tournament, the Americans lost in extra time in the round of 16, although this game was more lopsided than the 2010 loss to Ghana.
Here in 2014, the U.S. wound up completely dominated by the top teams it faced. Shut out by Germany at the end of group play. Shut down by Belgium on Tuesday.
There should be immense honor in the way the U.S. competes. "I think they made their country proud," Klinsmann said.
They did. But what's next? What's possible without an influx of athletes that can play with the best of the best?
"The talent gap is difficult to discuss," said Klinsmann, who brought in a slew of dual nationals and still was playing short-handed. "We're trying at every level and every corner of the country and outside the country to develop more players for our team, our country.
"I think we've done well over the last couple of years," he continued. "We've found a lot of good players. We just need to let them grow."
This is the key for the Americans as they limp out of Brazil. U.S. Soccer is well-run. It's well-funded. It's well-coached. It's well-supported. It has built a core culture that all operations crave. It's all in place. At some point there are just limitations, though, where eventually you only have a great goalkeeper and the hope that something bounces in on the other end of the field.
Klinsmann spoke to finding not just a great American player but also one that will stand across from the world's best and believe he is better. One that doesn't go into these games thinking about just surviving or rising to the challenge, but instead that he'll impose himself on the other side.
The U.S. needs its alpha dog – a few of them, actually.
"It's not only physically and technically but also mentally," Klinsmann said. "It's a completely different ball game [at this level] … we still give it a little bit too much respect in our end when it comes to the big stage. This is something they have to go through; no matter how many years it takes."
Perhaps the most promising sign of this tournament came in the furious final 15 minutes here Tuesday. Trailing 2-0, Klinsmann inserted 19-year-old Julian Green for his World Cup debut. Rather than be intimidated by the moment, the German-American scored almost immediately, on a beautiful finish, to keep the outcome in doubt.
"Nice first touch for a World Cup," said Bradley, whose chip set up Green.
That's the level of skill that has to be the future for the U.S. to finally break through. That's the presence. That's the seizing of opportunity. Only they need a bunch of those guys.
It is Klinsmann's chief task as he continues to oversee all of America's soccer development.
Soccer has arrived in the United States. It's here for good. Kids playing. Fans watching. The national team is an engaging and enjoyable group. There is no questioning the commitment of everyone involved.
Yet once again, the Americans trudged out of a World Cup bitterly disappointed, stuck on the Round of 16, with no viable answers.
They gave everything they had. It's just once again they didn't have enough players capable of playing with anyone on the planet.
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