In the end, the United States can only blame themselves for their elimination from the World Cup. Although Belgium on paper were a more talented team, this game showed the United States was actually presented with a good match-up that gave them a chance to advance. Belgium’s defense was exposed before the U.S.’s speed and if the Americans had tried to exploit that more, based on today’s play they would have had a better chance of advancing.
Rather, Jurgen Klinsmann and the team made mistakes that had been covered up in the group stage but were exposed in this match. Poor tactical decisions, one questionable substitution, and poor play by key players could not be overcome despite Belgium themselves playing poorly for long stretches in this match. Against a troubled Ghana, injured Portugal, and half-speed Germany these mistakes all were forgiven. But at this stage in the World Cup, they cannot be ignored.
Jurgen Klinsmann surprised everyone by pushing Geoff Cameron into the midfield and starting Omar Gonzalez next to Matt Besler. This formation made it apparent that the U.S. was looking to play a defensive game but the extent to which they did was dangerous. The Yanks had major problems maintaining any kind of sustained possession and were constantly on the back foot against a dangerous Belgium attack. Michael Bradley showed signs of improvement, at one point playing a great game of give-and-go with Clint Dempsey that led to a shot on target in the first half, but overall continued his poor run of misplaced passes.
A major moment came in the middle of the first half when Fabian Johnson pulled up with an apparent hamstring injury. Cameron was sitting on a yellow, or Klinsmann may have moved him over and brought in a midfielder. Instead, he gambled on talent over experience and brought in DeAndre Yedlin. Immediately Yedlin provided a spark of speed on the wing and gave the U.S. a threat going forward. On the few moments when the Yanks actually pressured the Belgium defense, it looked shaky (save for Courtois). However, throughout the match those moments were too few for the U.S. to exploit this uneasiness.
As the match continued the U.S. defense looked in danger of breaking at any minute. If not for a number of athletic saves by Tim Howard, the match would have been over midway through the second half. The fact that he set the record for most saves in a World Cup match was inspiring and saddening.
To change things up in the second half, Klinsmann gambled by bringing on Chris Wondolowski for an ineffective Graham Zusi to move the U.S. to more of a traditional 4-4-2. Initially this did little although Wondo did offer something in the way of hold-up play in the few times the U.S. ventured forward. However, the fallacy of this move soon became apparent. In stoppage time, in one of the rare moments the U.S. had possession, a pass found sub Chris Wondolowski in front of the net with the keeper off balance. Wondo, who had made this team based on his MLS form and reputation as a super-scorer, skied the shot and the best chance for the Americans all night went into the stands. This was why he had not been a lock to make this team, as he had a reputation for his inability to score in meaningful U.S. matches. That reputation will stick to him again.
With no apparent change in U.S. strategy, the Kevin De Bruyne goal in the beginning of stoppage time was inevitable. A rare mistake by Matt Besler followed by poor play by the entire U.S. defense led to the opportunity that was finally converted. With the U.S. finally surging forward Belgium picked apart their backline and substitute Romalu Lukaku scored a second goal to seemingly make the rest of extra time academic.
Except the one characteristic of every U.S. team is their resiliency and this team was no different. The final U.S. substitute was Julian Green, the controversial inclusion who made his first appearance in the U.S. shirt in extra time. Almost immediately his presence was felt as he took a pass over the top into the box and scored a goal that gave the U.S. life. They created more chances as the clock ticked but in the end Belgium held on to eliminate the U.S.
A number of what ifs come to mind even as the players sit in the locker room. What if Klinsmann had stayed with his starters from the Portugal match or even started a player in the midfield who could have helped play the ball forward more to break the Belgium pressure? What if he had brought on Aron Johannsson or even an allegedly healthy Jozy Altidore instead of a poacher like Chris Wondolowski to create some chances in the second half? What if Julian Green had been the answer to the U.S.’s offensive woes this entire World Cup? Those questions are for another day, but across the pitch the U.S. today saw a team that was talented enough to consistently make mistakes but still control the game and get a result. The United States is not there yet, but let’s hope we are closer to being that kind of team that we think.