World Cup 2014: USA & Belgium lift brilliant tournament to new high

By Ben SmithBBC Sport at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil
World Cup 2014: Belgium 2-1 USA (aet) highlights

This was the end of the road for the American dream, but a night few will forget.

From Brazil to Boston, from Brussels to Baltimore they came to a standstill as the United States and Belgium went the distance and enthralled the watching world.

In the White House, President Barack Obama watched on, while vice-president Joe Biden visited the US dressing room at the Arena Fonte Nova to wish the team luck.

At his California home, Hollywood actor Tom Hanks went through every moment of nerve shredding drama. Rihanna was watching, so too Justin Timberlake and basketball superstar Lebron James.

At Soldier Field in Chicago, the city's famed American Football stadium, they queued in their thousands to get in and watch. At Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres baseball team, they did the same. They gathered en mass in Bryant Park in New York City, in Market Square, Pittsburgh in Freedom Plaza, Washington DC and outside city hall in Boston.

USA fans
More than 28,000 US fans watched the game against Belgium on big screens at Soldier Field, Chicago

In Minnesota, the Twins baseball team put the game on the big screens at an empty Target Field so the players could watch during batting practice before their game with the Kansas City Royals. This was living, breathing, tangible proof that football is finally a matter of genuine national importance in the US - Americans were united across all 50 states by the world game.

And every one of them lived through the heart-pounding finale, the pain, the pride. Even in defeat, the home of the brave provided a lesson in courage.

At 2-0 down in extra time, the United States looked beaten. What followed defied belief, as the US team lay siege to the Belgium goal, scoring once and almost twice in the most dramatic of finales.

"Just when the Americans seemed depleted, they rallied with renewed vitality. They displayed unyielding grit and doggedness and resilience," was how writer Jere Longman described it for the New York Times.

USA v Belgium match facts
Tim Howard ended the game with 15 saves, the most since records began in 1966
Kevin de Bruyne created 10 chances vs US, the most by a player in a World Cup match since 1982 (Gordon Strachan for Scotland vs New Zealand).
Fifteen of the last 16 group winners (World Cup 2010 & 2014 combined) have reached the quarter-finals.
This is the first time all eight group winners have progressed from the last 16 in the current World Cup format.
Seven of America's 17 shots came in the second period of extra time.

But it was not to be. At the final whistle, US players sank to their knees on the field, their pain was shared across a nation. "My players went to their limits," head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said after the match. "But every one of them did their country proud."

The drama, the way it ended, was cruel but so is the game of football. "We dreamed and we fell short of our dream," Tim Howard, the US goalkeeper, said after the game. "It's heartbreaking."

President Obama Watches USA vs Belgium World Cup Game with his staff
Work is put on hold for President Obama and his staff as they support their team from the White House

In defeat, the US found pride in the heroic display of the man with the number one on his back. Howard, who plays for Everton in the Premier League, made save after incredible save, with his hands, his feet, his legs, his face.

He made more saves (15) in a World Cup match than anyone since records began in 1966 but it was not enough. "None of that really matters to me," he added. "I signed up to do that, to put my face in front of balls.

"If I had no saves or 20 it doesn't mean any more or less. It hurts. Gosh, we nearly had it. Hats off to the way we played, we are hungry, we have tasted what it's like to play against the best in the world. We will be back."

On Twitter, the social media network, #ThingsTimHowardCanSave,external-link became a trending topic. Money off your car insurance was just one of the suggestions.

"Tim Howard remains a God," Hanks would write on Twitter. His voice was echoed by many more. This was the end of a summer of soccer in the United States, a defeat that gave the many new converts to the game a taste of the other side of this sport, the immense and, at times, the cruel sense of disappointment that so many countries have experienced at some point.

Michael Bradley, the US midfielder, summed it up. "I know this is an experience I'll look back on when I finish playing and smile," he said. "Right now, the disappointment of not getting to a quarter-final is big."

Clint Dempsey was another who couldn't hide his feelings. Did he think this experience could influence the record number of Americans who have watched this World Cup in the way 1994 did on him?

"Yes it can," said the former Fulham and Tottenham striker, who now plays for Major League Soccer team Seattle Sounders. "We are taking this to the next level, it looks good for the future.

United States keeper Tim Howard
Despite Howard's record-breaking form the US keeper could not prevent a "heartbreaking" defeat

"There is a stat about the average age watching the World Cup being 38. That shows that people who have played the game, have grown with the game are passing it down to their kids. That is going to help us, it is great to see that the game is on the rise."

The United States is still trying to work out where football fits into the fabric of their vast and varied country. The hope is that even in defeat, this will be a significant moment for the relationship.

President Obama: "What you guys accomplished is really, really significant"

"We've showed the world that the USA is growing, and everybody who plays against us from now on in, knows we're for real," midfielder Jermaine Jones said.

The US may have won respect, but they have not won a place in the last eight. The World Cup goes on without them. It goes on with Belgium, the better team, a side brimming with vast talent, a team that may yet push Argentina all the way and more in the quarter-final in Brasilia.

In Salvador, Belgium's golden generation threatened to deliver on the promise and expectation that has accompanied them in recent years.

"For my heart, please, don't give me too many games like this," Belgium's coach Marc Wilmots said after the game. At Arena Fonte Nova they produced a performance that gave the world a glimpse of what might be possible, if they found more precision in their passing, more accuracy in their shooting.

Wilmots' team had 35 shots over the course of 120 minutes and they played with flair and fluency thanks to Divock Origi, Eden Hazard and the excellent Kevin De Bruyne. But some questions remain unanswered.

Why have Belgium's last eight World Cup goals come after the 70th minute? And why have four of Belgium's six goals at this tournament been scored by substitutes?

USA fans watching the 2014 World Cup match between USA and Belgium
USA fans in Chicago can hardly bare to watch during extra time

Once again in Salvador, the substitutes made a huge impact. Winger Kevin Mirallas, an Everton team-mate of heroic American keeper Howard, brought dynamism to the attack and Romelu Lukaku - who spent last season on loan at Goodison Park from Chelsea - made one goal and scored the other.

Wilmots deserves credit for altering things but the starting XI may need to put Belgium in front earlier in the game if they are to challenge Argentina.

After the game, the feeling was this is a team that must be considered credible challengers. "You've got to start taking Belgium seriously now," Rio Ferdinand, the former England captain, told BBC Sport. "The manager is making good substitutions and from the bench they have got better players than any team in this tournament."

Twitter messages of support for Team USA
"Go Team USA" - USA President Barack Obama
"Tim Howard remains a god" - Actor Tom Hanks
"Let's Go! Best of luck to USA" - Basketball star LeBron James
"Heart breaker. Proud of how our guys battled at the end. Tim Howard. WOW" - Singer Justin Timberlake

That the Belgium team is rich in talent is not in question. They may be unbeaten in 14 matches but this is a country trying to remember what it feels like to be at a World Cup, let alone play in a quarter-final, which they last did in 1986.

Seventeen members of the Belgium squad were not born the last time the country got to this stage of the tournament.

"It is a dream," Marouane Fellaini said. "A quarter-final against Argentina, they are a great team, they have great players and we will see what happens in Brasilia on Saturday."

The US, meanwhile, will fly home to a country energised by their success and a country that has fallen for the sheer entertainment value of a World Cup that has brought goals, drama and one dramatic twist after another.

Don Garber, commissioner of United States' domestic Major League Soccer summed it up best. "The country has changed. This is a new America," he said.

USA fans watch USA v Belgium 2014 World Cup
Fans gather at Freedom Plaza in Washington to support Jurgen Klinsmann's men
Clint Dempsey and Geoff Cameron of USA
Clint Dempsey (centre) believes following their performance, the USA team can take football to the next level in America
jurgen klinsmann USA Mananger
USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann feels his players went to their limits and every one of them did their country proud

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