Belgium Wins, but It's Not All Bad for the USMNT
It’s fair to say that labeling any USMNT performance as “quintessentially American” is - in addition to being cliche - a rather backhanded compliment. It’s a way of saying that, through sheer determination and grit, rather than skill and ability, the lesser team was able to make a go of it against their vastly superior opponent.
Well, in their loss to a very, very good Belgian team, the USMNT’s performance was quintessentially American, and for that we should all be proud, even if that conjures up images of orange slices at halftime and pats on the back.
Before a ball was even kicked, the Americans were undermanned. In fact, our own algorithms gave them just over a 28% chance of advancing.
While it’s true that everyone deals with injuries, the fact is that Jurgen Klinsmann built this team around Jozy Altidore, setting his team up around the focal point. It isn’t that Jozy is the best player wearing the American shirt - he’s not, he’s probably about fifth or sixth in the pecking order - but he's the spearhead, an irreplaceable cog in the wheel whose absence required shuffling the rest of the team around to cobble together some goals. For a team with precisely no depth, Altidore’s absence meant an uphill climb, requiring outstanding performances from the rest of the team just to get out of the group, much less beating one of the tournament’s dark horses in the knockout round.
When you throw in an injury to Fabian Johnson early in the game, the task is made exponentially harder. DeAndre Yedlin came in and played an absolute blinder, a performance worthy of man of the match, but the early substitution hamstrung (no pun intended) Jurgen Klinsmann, who was already rather bereft of options off the bench.
The rest of the starting XI was forced to play through jungle-induced fatigue and heavy legs. From there on out, every tackle involving an American player elicited heart-in-throat moments - not least of which was Omar Gonzalez landing awkwardly on his ankle, or Jermaine Jones taking a nasty studs-up tackle from Jan Vertonghen.
The U.S put in a good first half performance, with threatening spells and stalwart defending, but as the game went on, Belgium’s quality showed through. They spent the entire second half not just knocking on the door of the U.S goal, but ringing the doorbell and screaming through the window to let them in. They pummeled Tim Howard like it was an end-of-practice game of “World Cup”, totaling an eye-popping 39 shots and 19 corners. For each one, Howard, Matt Besler, and the hobbling Omar Gonzalez had an answer, stopping every single attempt as the Red Devils cut frustrated figures.
Howard made a World Cup record 16 saves, most of them coming from the lively Divock Origi, a 19-year-old rumored to be a Liverpool target, on in place of Romelu Lukaku, who up to that point had had a very disappointing tournament.
With better finishing or less competent goalkeeping, Belgium could have easily put five past the Americans, whose chances in the second half were few and far between, as Dempsey and Jones looked like shells of their normal selves. Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi may as well not have even been on the field, and aside from the latter’s constant miscues, you could be forgiven thinking that they weren’t. The U.S. attack could have been described as “Iso Yedlin”, the 20-year-old Seattle Sounder providing a lively outlet down the right flank. (He also defended very well, not looking at all out of depth against one of the Premier League’s best attackers, Eden Hazard.)
Chris Wondolowski proved exactly why Klinsmann shoehorned Clint Dempsey into the unfamiliar #9 role. The legend from Nacadoches is much more effective playing behind a striker, but had to spend the last two group games and most of this match all by his lonesome. Wondo came on as one of our two precious remaining subs and was handed a chance on a silver platter, the ball falling to him in the box in the dying embers of the game. With only the keeper to beat, Wondolowski made a train wreck of the half-volley, booting the ball well wide of the target in what would be one of the last kicks of regulation.
Ninety minutes of intense football took their toll on both teams, as Jan Vertonghen, who put in a mightily impressive performance at left back, lost his lunch immediately before extra time kicked off, spewing Gatorade all over the field. Kevin DeBruyne, the ginger-headed winger who had been a menace all game, stumbled around like a newborn deer. Balls errantly flew off of tired feet with the accuracy of tokens bouncing down the Plinko board.
The U.S. went toe-to-toe with a nation stockpiled with talent from Europe’s elite clubs, taking their best punches and offering a few of their own, but the disparity in depth would prove to be the difference. Belgium manager Marc Wilmots brought on the aforementioned Lukaku, champing at the bit to prove himself worthy of a starting role.
It wouldn’t take the Chelsea-owned manchild long, his fresh legs and sheer physicality overpowering Matt Besler, who was simply running on fumes. Lukaku got off a shot that rebounded and fell to DeBruyne, who turned the recovering Besler and fired a low show past Howard. The early goal forced the Americans to muster up what little remaining they had. They ventured further forward, leaving them without numbers at the back and susceptible to the counter. Only the otherworldly stamina of Michael Bradley and DaMarcus Beasley kept it from getting out of hand, but not long after their first goal, Lukaku would get their second, burying a one-on-one with Howard and seemingly sealing the game.
The Americans could have been forgiven if they’d thrown in the towel right then and there. Physically shattered, they should have been psychologically broken, but while some fans headed to close out their bar tab, the Americans fought on. Facing a mountainous 2-0 deficit, having run themselves ragged over 105 minutes, without the luxury of fresh legs, this team exemplified the Rocky Balboa spirit that few teams the world over possess.
Substitute Julian Green, the Bayern Munich kid with no top-level professional experience, entered the game and made an immediate impact. His inclusion in the squad was pointed at by critics as a cynical pandering to acquire his services, coming at the expense of America’s all-time great, Landon Donovan. But you can’t argue with results and Green found the back of the net just two minutes after coming on.
The remainder of extra time would be filled with chances and half-chances, the best of which fell to Clint Dempsey after a clever set piece routine. The Texan who’d come up big so often on the World Cup stage was unable to beat Courtois, and Jermaine Jones’ volley came tantalizingly close but failed to find the net. Despite a Mickey Ward-like effort, the United States fell short as the final whistle blew. Now, our odds of advancing are zero, while Belgium's sit at 27.86%.
It’s true that we’re no longer a developing soccer nation, but we should not confuse being proud of their heroic performance with a moral victory. What the United States did for 120 excruciating minutes - injured, gassed, and emotionally drained, playing one of the top teams in the world - is something everyone can take pride in. The talent level of the U.S team will continue to increase, and our never-say-die mentality is engrained into American soccer culture, something no one will ever be able to take away from us.
It’s hard to know whether this World Cup cycle is a new beginning or the end of an era. Certainly there is a new generation of promising American talent. Defenders Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, and Geoff Cameron are now seasoned vets and will be key members of the squad that heads to Russia. It’s a small sample size, but Jordan Yedlin looks like something special, and Julian Green responded to the spotlight as well as one could be expected to. Michael Bradley will likely captain the team for the next cycle and even at the age of 39, Tim Howard will be probably keep his spot between the pipes. (And if not, Brad Guzan is a more than capable replacement.)
But it must be recognized that a handful of players will be dearly missed, not least of which is Clint Dempsey, the oft-cited example of the scrappy kid who grew up playing not on the finely-groomed fields of upper-middle class suburbia, but rather on the bumpy, run-down pitches of his less-than-affluent neighborhood. It instilled in him a creativity, an audacity to try things that most American managers would try to coach out of players at a young age. He was a different player, with an unprecedented swagger and panache that we can only hope continues to pop up in American players.
It may be the great hope of American soccer to move past the point putting up a good fight, but effort and determination, resilience and resolve are not something to sell short, nor used to beat us over the brow with. Little solace is taken in putting in a good shift and losing, but the undying effort, when other teams would have looked for any excuse to quit, was a truly impressive and uniquely American display.