While it was undoubtedly an intense, captivating and heartbreaking final game for the United States Soccer team on Tuesday when it was eliminated from the 2014 World Cup at the hands of Belgium, it didn’t take me long to get over the loss. After all, the underdog U.S. team wasn’t supposed to make it even that far, right?
Make no mistake about it, I am no soccer expert, nor am I any sort of soccer junkie, but I must say the U.S.’s run in this World Cup grabbed my undivided attention. For the first time in my life, watching soccer became a priority. It’s been fun showing up at the local sports bar during regular office hours to watch a couple hours of soccer and, perhaps, imbibe in a few early Bloody Marys. I know there were others, at least from what I saw in Telluride and Montrose, who were having a pretty damn good time day drinking and cheering for the U.S. as well.
As sporting events go, Tuesday’s 2-1 loss was heartbreaking, yes, but it was also exciting as hell. Yes, the U.S. team was eliminated, but they didn’t go down without putting up a real fight in a game that could have been an embarrassment.
If not for the heroics of U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, the game could have been a real mess. In what will be remembered as a historic performance, Howard saved 16 shots against Belgium and set the record for the most saves in a World Cup finals match since 1966.
For the first half of the Belgium-U.S. game, the matchup seemed even. The U.S. seemed content with playing a defensive minded game, trying to keep the young Belgium team from having too many great looks at the goal. And when they did make a break and get a good shot on goal, Howard was there to bail them out in spectacular fashion.
But as the game went on, the Belgian offense began to press more and get more good shots on goal. How long could Howard and the U.S. defense keep it up? While the U.S. was very much in the 0-0 tied game going into the final minutes of the second half, it seemed like the Belgians had more of a sense of urgency to score while the U.S. seemed content at playing defense and allowing Howard to stand on his head.
As regular time expired with two halves of extra time on the way, I wondered if the U.S. defense could keep it up for another half-hour of play. Could they keep the score tied for just a little longer? Howard was playing out of his mind, almost single-handedly keeping the U.S. team in the game so far, why not see if the U.S. team could keep the score tied at zero and force penalty kicks to decide the outcome. Howard was the best U.S. player on the field that day, so why not let him work his magic during penalty kicks? The way he was playing, I’m sure the Belgians didn’t want to face him in penalty kicks as well.
The Belgians didn’t waste any more time in the early moments of extra time, with Kevin de Bruyne putting one past Howard, just inside his left post. For the icing on Belgium’s cake, Romelu Lukaku scored a second goal against the U.S. in the final minute of the first extra time period.
With only 15 minutes of extra time left, down 2-0, it seemed the U.S. fight in this game, and the World Cup, was over.
And then, a different U.S. team took the field.
Just three minutes into the final extra time period, 19-year-old Julian Green blasted a pass into the back of the goal that instantaneously gave the U.S. team a new sense of fight and urgency to score a tying goal. Now the two teams’ roles reversed. Belgium was now flat-footed and constantly on defense, while the U.S. team worked every angle to achieve any sort of goal. Their best chance came with six minutes left, when a set free kick play put Clint Dempsey free with the ball in front of the goal with only one man to beat. The Belgium goalkeeper was somehow able to stop his shot and keep the U.S. from tying the game.
The intensity of the game was unbearable. It almost seemed certain that the U.S. would score, forcing penalty kicks. But it was not to be. With Howard’s heroic effort all game long, combined with the late offensive surge, the U.S. lost the game in a respectable fashion. You could see the Belgian coach breathing a sigh of relief when that final whistle was blown.
“For my heart, please don’t give me too many games like this,” Belgium coach Marc Wilmots told ESPN.com after the match.
If there is a takeaway from Tuesday’s loss it is this: The U.S. needs to change itsframe of mind going into future World Cups. Instead of the constant belief that they are the underdogs of the tournament (which they generally are), they need to go into the tournament with an attitude that they can score and that they can win. The U.S. needed to be aggressive against Belgium during the entire match. The U.S. was aggressive in the final 15 minutes of the game and it was very, very effective. Had they gone in with that same frame of mind, the game would have ended 2-0 with the U.S on top.
I think the U.S. needs to move from a timid, defensive mindset to an aggressive, offensive mindset in the future. That’s how the great teams at that level seem to play and win.
The U.S. is slowly but surely becoming a soccer nation. The TV ratings for Tuesday’s game were out of this world. As fan support grows and as the U.S. teams continue to get better players, the U.S. will find itself at the elite level of teams in coming World Cups. Their performance in this World Cup was a step forward.
It’s time the U.S. team takes another step forward, and remove the underdog stigma from its program. The U.S. is good; they just need to play like they believe it.