The World Cup never let the USA breathe. From the moment they were drawn into the Group of Death and handed the World Tour travel plan, the American national soccer team couldn’t come up for air.
There was the bombshell team selection, the smash and siege against Ghana, ultimate triumph snatched away with an afterthought of a cross from a defeated team in Manaus against Portugal, agony on decision day against Germany, and a remarkable finale against Belgium that left no room for more drama.
Now, it’s over.
There would be no salvation against Belgium, even with Tim Howard turning in one of the best goalkeeping performances in the history of the World Cup and the ultimate lightning rod Julian Green scoring a sublime goal with his first touch of the tournament.
There was a moment, however brief, when the US put together an awe-inspiring free-kick routine that turned the ball to Clint Dempsey who was through on goal when you thought that maybe, just maybe, there was a little more magic left in the tank.
But Dempsey’s decisive touch got away from him, and his final shot was smothered by Thibaut Courtios. It wasn’t to be this time. There are only so many John Brooks moments in a World Cup campaign.
For what seemed like hours, the US’ ears were pinned to the stadium walls by a Belgium team that came of age in front of our eyes.
Howard saved a World Cup record 16 shots. The game finished 0-0, but in extra time, Belgium broke through.
They fought with everything they had, but the US finished their campaign gasping for air, having run every last ounce of effort and energy away into the thick Brazilian air.
That extra 30 minutes was one step too far. It wasn’t just miracles the US was out of, it was physical gusto. Never lacking for will, it was Green who fittingly made it tantalizingly and agonizingly interesting – but his goal only served in the end to push the Americans further into the Heartbreak Hotel.
Jurgen Klinsamnn, whose last trick – pushing the fitness of the obviously unfit Jozy Altidore – was particularly cruel, talked constantly about his players pushing themselves to their limit.
It was extra time that pushed them past their limit. After playing virtual knockout soccer for the better part of two weeks with games against the best teams in the world, the US was running on fumes.
Maybe after facing Cristiano Ronaldo, the looming threat of playing Lionel Messi in the quarterfinals was a step too far for even the most poetically inclined soccer gods.
There isn’t much blame to go around here. These Americans made their country proud.
Klinsmann did throw himself into the firing line by bizarrely benching the unflappable Kyle Beckerman, but as we’ve learned in unflinching fashion this summer, you live with Klinsmann, and you die with him.
The coach couldn’t help himself. He had to make a shock move – like inserting Geoff Cameron in the midfield for Beckerman. While the US was fine defensively as Cameron turned in a decent performance, the team didn’t have the awareness, balance, or calmness that Beckerman provided. The move backfired.
Klinsmann did have time to make amends and insert Beckerman – but he opted for DeAndre Yedlin and then Chris Wondolowski and then a strange waiting game with an exhausted team expiring and extra time ticking before making his final change at 2-0 down.
Of course, the US could have used Landon Donovan’s pace and experience in a counter-attacking game like this one. They could have used it all tournament long. Green’s goal and the performance of the team doesn’t change the fact that it was lunacy not to bring him.
That’s Klinsmann for you. He made this campaign a whirlwind, with plenty of misdirection and moves as bold as they were infuriating.
Will Klinsmann keep force-feeding us his narrative about being “proactive”, and “aggressive” going forward? Bob Bradley’s 2010 tactics looked reckless compared to Klinsmann’s 4-6-0 bunker.
The farce to cap it all off was when US Soccer acknowledged that they were playing a 4-5-1 in Salvador, but sent out their formation as a 4-3-3 to send an attacking message to their players.
In many ways, the 2014 campaign reflects what happened in South Africa. In both, the US scored five goals, advanced by the skin of their teeth, and had their heart wrung in 2-1 extra time losses in the Round of 16.
What effect has Klinsmann really had? What has really changed? The US played a knockout game in 1994 against Brazil that went almost exactly the same way as this one against Belgium 20 years later.
In many ways, the resolve of Klinsmann’s team bailed him out. He will lean on the results from this tournament, because they flattered far more than their performances did.
Klinsmann is a good match for the US in terms of his optimism and strength in belief – but those are traits the Americans have always possessed in abundance.
I’m not totally convinced. Klinsmann’s all but refused to attack, and his hands were tied without the likes of Donovan and Eddie Johnson. The players are the real heroes here.
In this game, Howard did more than anyone could have reasonably asked of him. But to advance, the US was going to need a lot more from Dempsey, Bradley, and Jones, who all were far from their best.
Klinsmann’s deflection of a question about the hamstring injury bug that took Fabian Johnson in this game was weak. Over-trained, under-coached indeed.
There are complaints to be had, but the truth is, we’ll look back with fondness at this crazy ride directed by this crazy coach.
The immediate aftermath isn’t about pulling back and looking at the progress that soccer has made in this country. That’s disrespecting and belittling to a team that defied Death and never met a game they didn’t have a chance to win.
It finished 0-0 after 90 minutes in Salvador against Belgium. It was the US’ last great hurrah. Extra time was too much to ask – even if the Americans refused to concede until the very end. It was a gallant, brave, admirable performance.
And to that, you tip your cap.