USA shows its promise in 15 minutes of fury against Belgium

The USA was knocked out of the World Cup, 2-1, in extra time against Belgium. America was on its heels for most of the game, but the final 15 minutes were heart-stopping.

Marcos Brindicci/Reuters
Julian Green (2nd l.) of the USA scores in the 107th minute of the World Cup game against Belgium to set up a barnstorming finish in Salvador, Brazil, Tuesday. Belgium held on to win, 2-1.

In the end, America's proudest moment of this World Cup came in defeat.

Should the United States even have been in the position to make the last 15 minutes of their knockout-round game against Belgium some of the most heart-stopping of the tournament? Probably not. No one will leave this 2-1 extra time loss dreaming that the USA was the better team.

But oh my goodness those last 15 minutes.

It was soccer distilled to its most American essence – tactics thrown into the blender, all hint of caution tossed into the blazing dumpster of an almost certain loss. But in that moment, blood thundered through American veins like war paint, and the will to believe – to always believe – so nearly conjured the unthinkable.

The USA down, 2-0, with 15 minutes of extra time remaining.

With 13 minutes to go, teenager Julian Green pulled back a goal with the first touch of his World Cup career. With 12 minutes to go, Jermaine Jones shaved the left post with a nifty flick. And then, with six minutes to go, the USA worked one of the cleverest free kicks you will ever see to put Clint Dempsey through alone on goal, only to have Belgian keeper Thibault Courtois race off his line and deflect the shot to safety.

It was a reminder of what American soccer could one day be, played out before an entire nation in an eternity of aching seconds.

No one has ever questioned the American heart, and certainly no one will question it after this game. But what if that spirit could be united with Brazil's flair or Germany's technical ability or France's class?

For the first 90 minutes of Tuesday's game, that heart was enough to stop a steamroller dressed in Belgian red. But only just. And it required American goalkeeper Tim Howard putting on a one-man Cirque du Soleil act behind a creaking defense. At one point, as Belgian winger Kevin Mirallas sliced though the American back line, Howard ended up somehow pirouetting in midair, stopping a certain goal by a feat of dexterity that required an viewer advisory: Do not try this at home. 

He finished with 16 saves, the most on record for a World Cup match.

For the most part, this was the story for the 2014 World Cup for the USA. Three-hundred and ninety minutes of valor. Often, it wasn't so pleasing on the eye, but never – never – was it anything less than a clenched fist of determination.

Yet in those last 15 minutes of America's Brazilian adventure, there was the hint of what soccer's American revolution might look like – when that clenched fist might unsteady the world's great soccer powers.

Yes, the first 105 minutes of the loss to Belgium underscored indelibly the gulf in skill between the USA and the world's top soccer nations. America does not have a single player of the caliber of Belgium's Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, or Vincent Kompany, much less Argentina's Lionel Messi or Holland's Arjen Robben.

In the end, a chance to face Argentina in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup dropped out of the Brazilian night onto Chris Wondolowski's shoe five yards from goal with only the keeper to beat. And he missed it. Badly.

But the last 15 minutes underscored how utterly captivating the USA could be if it ever produces such players.

This World Cup has been one of the best ever because, even in its dullest moments, it has been positive. Four years ago, actually scoring a goal seemed one of the last things on Algeria's to-do list. It came to the 2010 World Cup to defend. ESPN could have petitioned to have its games broadcast on C-SPAN. It was complete gridlock, soccer-style.

But this year? Algeria was wonderful. Yes, it defended in depth, which was only wise. But when it broke forward, it did so with purpose and verve. The Algerians were a joy to watch – and a handful for Germany, which barely scraped through against Algeria Monday.

In that way, this has been a most "American" World Cup, filled with attacking intent and a brilliant spirit. World soccer would only be enriched by what a truly elite American team would bring.

That was already apparent in the stands, where Americans – really for the first time – became a seamless part of the global soccer community. No country sent more fans to Brazil for the World Cup than the US, and they sent a distinctly American ripple through soccer's sense of identity.

One of US Soccer's traveling supporters clubs, the Outlaws, "is a genuine movement, and it is one that has found its identity," writes Martin Rogers of Yahoo Sports. He continues:

They are just as loud and enthusiastic as their counterparts from overseas, and, in a very American way, they have taken the best bits from elsewhere. The Outlaws don't have the historical arrogance of England or the fatalist pessimism of Italy. They are short on the more abusive and insulting chants that soccer fans indulge in (although a couple have crept in) and a lot of the cheering blends things taken from Europe or South America, but even American college sports. Their optimism is refreshing.

It reflects what went on back home, where the World Cup drew record ratings, and USA jerseys became hot tokens of pop culture. There was the unmistakable impression that, for a sport that has long sulked with an inferiority complex, seeking to be loved for what it is, that moment of acceptance had arrived. People were watching soccer and – gasp! – enjoying it.

Of course, the path from acceptance to world domination is not a straight line. The American Messi either hasn't been born yet or is probably just mastering long division. But not only might he might have been watching Tuesday, the next generation of fans was watching, too.

On the floodlit field of Salvador, Brazil, they will have seen a soccer team that has taken impressive strides during the past 20 years.

All around them, however, they will have seen something perhaps more important to the USA's development as a true soccer power: a country that finally is coming to love the world's game.

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