Tim O’Sullivan: ‘Dream falls short’ for U.S.
Fans react as they watch the World Cup on the lawn of the Long Center, Tuesday July 1, 2014 in Austin, Texas. The USA soccer team was playing Belgium in the World Cup. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Ricardo B.Brazziell) AUSTIN CHRONICLE OUT, COMMUNITY IMPACT OUT, INTERNET AND TV MUST CREDIT PHOTOGRAPHER AND STATESMAN.COM, MAGS OUT
The game held the stuff of fairy tales and legends. An epic effort from the grizzled leader. Repeated adventures on the cliff’s edge. A burgeoning power showing itself on the global stage. Upstarts that refused to surrender. A conclusion that twisted and turned until the last.
Even the setting seemed pulled from a dream – a Brazilian peninsula at humid dusk. Everything the world loves about soccer was on display in yesterday’s match between the United States and Belgium in the port town of Salvador. But it might be hard for the Americans and their fans to feel that love after Belgium eliminated
them from the World Cup with a 2-1 win in extra time in the Round of 16.
“It’s heartbreaking,” exhausted U.S. goalie Tim Howard told ESPN after the match. “I don’t think we could have given any more. What a great game of football.”
Howard’s use of the word “football” is important. Every four years the United States Soccer Federation hopes the World Cup will elevate its sport into the conversation with football and the other mainstream sports in this country. And there is no doubt that large swaths of the U.S. have been gripped by World Cup fever. There are probably more Americans calling soccer football right now than ever before.
But whether or not this team, this tournament or last night’s classic on the Brazilian coast can truly push soccer to the next level remains to be seen. The U.S. lost a heartbreaker in extra time in the Round of 16 at the last World Cup. In 2002, the Americans reached the quarterfinals. Maybe the cumulative effects of those results helped create the fever pitch this year, and the sport will finally get over the hump. Or maybe soccer will once again be looking for its place at the adult table when the 2018 World Cup rolls around.
But if the soccer dream does remain deferred, it’s not because Howard and his teammates didn’t try.
“We left it all out there,” Howard said. “We got beat by a really good team. They took their chances well. Heartache. It hurts.”
Howard, 35, is the oldest player on the U.S. team. He is considered one of the top goalies in the world. He has played in more international games, 104, than any goalie in American history. And yesterday, he made more history with 15 saves, the most saves recorded at the World Cup since the globe’s biggest sports tournament started keeping records in 1966.
Howard worked his magic from the start. The match wasn’t a minute old when he made his first save, stopping what looked like a certain deflating goal. Belgium’s 19-year-old striker, Divock Origi, sped past the American defense, but he couldn’t beat Howard, whose right foot flashed just far enough to make the save.
It was a prophecy of things to come. All night Howard stood his ground until the last instant and then stopped shots with his legs or feet or the tips of his cleats. He mixed in a few leaping or diving saves with his hands when needed, but it was his lower half that spared the Americans time and again.
Belgium was the popular dark-horse pick before the tournament began. So popular, in fact, that it became difficult to really consider the team known as the Red Devils a dark horse. The Belgians are loaded with world-class players, they won all three of their group stage matches and were 8-0-2 in qualifying play.
The Red Devils looked that dominating for most of the first half, but thanks to Howard, they couldn’t turn that advantage into goals. The Americans slowly pulled themselves back into the contest, and, despite Belgium’s 9-3 shot advantage, went into halftime with a 0-0 score.
The shooting discrepancy continued in the second half, but so did Howard’s brilliance. By the 64th minute, he had seven saves, more than any other goalie in this World Cup had posted.
But the game wasn’t as lopsided as the final shot total (39-17). The Americans were dangerous when they went on the counter-attack, playing with the guts and belief that has characterized this team.
The U.S. has always been a physical, gritty side. What it has lacked is the high-end technical skills of the game’s elite teams, and that lack showed up at just the wrong time in Salvador.
The Americans were pressing in the final minutes of regulation, a pressure should have translated into a goal when a loose ball landed at the feet of Chris Wondolowski, a few yards in front of an open net. But his shot sailed over the cross bar and the game was forced into extra time.
The Belgians finally broke through Howard’s brick wall just two minutes into the extra session when Kevin De Bruyne, who had been the best player on the field for most of the game, calmly slotted a shot past a sliding U.S. defender and a diving Howard.
Twelve minutes later, with the U.S. gambling forward, the Belgians struck again. This time it was Romelu Lukaku, a teammate of Howard’s in England, striking on the counter attack.
The Americans could have folded there, but that’s now the way with U.S. soccer. Instead, there was a beautiful goal created by Michael Bradley, who underperformed through the first three games, and finished by 19-year-old Julian Green, who didn’t play in the first three games. It was a goal of redemption and hope.
After that score, the Americans pinned Belgium against the ropes for the final 13 minutes. They created several near-miss chances and nearly pulled off a comeback for the ages. It was riveting, gut-wrenching drama. It was the reason we watch all sports, soccer included, even if it didn’t have a fairy-tale finish.
“The dream falls short, but like I said, this is an incredible group,” Howard said, “and we’ll never forget this night.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)