In the final analysis, Belgium was simply better.
Little more can be said about the United States’ 2-1 defeat in the Round of 16 against a rampaging Belgium side that could have netted a half-dozen goals had it not been for the superhuman efforts of Tim Howard in goal.
From virtually the start, the Belgians had their way with the Stars and Stripes.
Some of Belgium’s dominance stemmed from a varied formation that saw Kyle Beckerman dropped from the starting lineup. Beckerman, who had looked steady in his play at the World Cup, was replaced by Geoff Cameron while Omar Gonzalez remained one of the other central defenders alongside a dutiful Matt Besler.
Cameron was solid defensively, but did little to generate anything with the ball at his feet. Playing virtually down one midfielder as a result, the Americans were forced to endlessly defend against the runs of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne through the middle.
Howard’s performance was nothing short of amazing, as he turned away chance after chance trying to keep his team alive.
In extra time, the United States tempted the fates once too much as Romelu Lukaku escaped his defender and found a cutting De Bruyne, whose shot finally got past Howard in the 92nd minute to give the Belgians a one-goal edge.
When Lukaku made it a two-goal advantage in the 105th minute, it appeared all was lost for coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s team.
Julian Green brought hope back into the mix for the United States by scoring in the 107th minute before Clint Dempsey’s point-blank chance was narrowly stopped by Thibault Courtois just moments later to preserve a Quarterfinal appearance for Belgium.
It’s difficult to find too much fault with the Americans’ effort however. Outmanned by superior talent, the United States found a way to push Belgium right to the brink.
When all was said and done, the United States were left facing too much of a skill disadvantage. And therein lies the next step for American soccer. Making up ground in the areas of possession and skill must be the primary focus for future World Cup teams.
Through three group games, the United States were opportunistic and defended tenaciously enough to secure passage to the knockout rounds for the third time in four World Cups. But the time will come when being scrappy enough to advance won’t satisfy the home fans. Put simply, the United States needs the type of playmakers that can carry a team at its most needy moments.
So far, the Americans haven’t had them.
Will they in another four years? Certainly, the prospects appear bright. There are plenty of promising young players on this team alone. And with a little more seasoning, the Stars and Stripes may indeed head to Russia in 2018 with the right combination of offense and defense to become a realistic contender.
Until then, Americans can take pride in a squad that played with energy and heart in Brazil. The next step is adding the quality to match it.