Right now the members of Team USA are gathering themselves, making post-tournament plans and finding their way home as a group and then as individuals. The USA lost 2-1 after extra time last night to Belgium and, for them, the World Cup is over. The fact is, the entire team can hold their heads very high as they make their way back to their MLS clubs and homes across the US.
Team USA left an indelible mark on the 2014 World Cup, showing an incredible depth of passion and effort and no little skill too.
Pre-tournament, the United States were not meant to escape the dreaded Group Of Death, Group C. Portugal, Germany and even Ghana were meant to battle it out for the top two spots, with the USA seen as a team in transition. The USA were written off by all the soccer pundits and the bookies marked them up as major long-shots to qualify into the knockout rounds. Those odds increased as coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced legendary star Landon Donovan would be left off the squad.
Little did everyone know, Klinsmann had a master plan.
The USA travelled to the World Cup with an incredibly young, vibrant squad with a sprinkling of veterans mixed in to key positions. The plan was always to build for the 2018 World Cup, sure, but Klinsmann had an ethos and a system, and he asked his young players to buy into it. Goodness did they completely follow that desire.
The USA stunned Ghana with a late winner, played Portugal off the park for most of their 2-2 encounter and lost narrowly to one of the tournament favorites, Germany. Their qualification from Group C was an absolute triumph on many levels. The USA showed they could hang with the best, in qualifying ahead of European powerhouses Portugal and a Ghana team absolutely chock-full of stars. To put their qualification in perspective for any Irish fans reading this, the USA were clearly superior on the day to Portugal, the same Portuguese team that absolutely annihilated Ireland in a friendly pre-tournament.
Then came the knock out round, and last night’s epic encounter with Belgium. Star Wars saga epic. Lord Of The Rings epic. Game of Thrones epic. You get the picture. In all my many, many years watching soccer, I have never seen an extra-time in particular like last night’s. Belgium and the USA gave us a sensationally thrilling encounter, including the 0-0 match itself. Both teams are known for being big, fit, fast and physical, yet they played out a wonderfully sporting encounter, all guts and guile, none of the rubbish that many of the other teams have shown during the tournament (I’m looking at you, Brazil and Germany, who should be embarrassed by the pathetic diving of their players). Belgium v USA was soccer played right.
Back to the USA.
The States fought hard against a wonderfully talented Belgian team. The Belgians are many people’s dark-horse pick to win the tournament, on the basis that this is a Golden Era of Belgian soccer, with some incredibly talented players all across the park. They have a brilliant keeper (Courtois), a majestic center-back (Kompany) a gifted midfielder (Hazard) and a striker on top of his game (Lukaku). In short, they are legit.
The States rode a bit of luck and some heroic goalkeeping by Tim Howard to push Belgium to extra-time. They then went 0-2 down and commentators started to write the eulogies. Incredible, the USA was not done. Not by a long shot. As Belgium clearly started to celebrate on the sidelines, the USA knuckled down one more time and produced one of the most stirring 15 minutes of football anyone could imagine.
First came the goal.
Midfield maestro Michael Bradley produced one of, if not the, finest passes of the tournament and youngster Julian Green skilfully guided it past Courtois. Cue an incredible 15 minutes, as one of the best teams in the World were forced back on their heels, digging their heels in against a ferocious American assault. Belgium looked out on their feet, as the USA swept forward time and again, searching for the 2-2 they possibly deserved.
One moment encapsulate everything this team is about. The USA were given a free kick just outside the Belgian box. They produced a stunning, sophisticated free kick routine that very nearly led to 2-2, only a brilliant, brave save from Courtois denied Dempsey. The routine was pure genius, and showed the USA to be a well drilled, well coached and very well prepared team.
Chances came and went, and Belgium held on.
Vincent Kompany is one of the finest defenders in the World right now. As the final whistle went, he slumped to the ground, absolutely exhausted from defending against the American onslaught. The Belgian manager said after the game that the last 15 minutes were ‘bad for my heart’.