Belgium knocks out United States in bittersweet World Cup defeat

They believed that they would win, even when Belgium went up 2-0 in extra time, even when the rest of the world surely had left them for dead. The never-say-die U.S. World Cup team summoned up energy, kept on scrapping, goalkeeper Tim Howard kept coming up with spectacular saves and teenage substitute Julian Green made quite an entrance with a thrilling 107th-minute goal.

But, just like four years ago, the U.S. team is heading home after a 2-1 extra-time loss. Belgium advanced to the quarterfinals, where it will face Argentina, which also needed extra time to get past Switzerland.

Both of Belgium’s goals were scored after regulation. Forward Romelu Lukaku, who was Howard’s teammate at Everton in England last season, came off the bench and the Americans paid dearly. Lukaku went barreling down the field with the ball, slipped past the U.S. defense and passed the ball to Kevin DeBruyne, who scored in the 93rd minute on his sixth shot of the night. Then, in the 105th minute, Lukaku scored one of his own.

“I think he was the X-factor for them,’’ said U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez. “Coming on so late, he is truly a force to be reckoned with.’’

Green, who turned 19 this month, made the game interesting with a goal two minutes later, but it wasn’t enough. Clint Dempsey had an excellent shot to score the equalizer in the 114th minute on a beautifully executed free kick by Michael Bradley, who passed it to Chris Wondolowski, who sent it to Dempsey in front of the goal, a tic-tac-toe-like passing sequence the team had been working on in camp.

Wondolowski, who had come on as a substitute, had a chance to score from up close earlier in extra time off a header from Jermaine Jones, but his shot sailed high.

“Games like this are so hard to digest right away,’’ midfielder Michael Bradley said. “You put so much into them physically and emotionally. There’s disappointment. We felt like they were there for the taking. This was a game we could win. You get to this point in the tournament and you know that margin of going on and going home is so small, and you need to be able to make a play at the right time. Unfortunately for us, at the end of 120 minutes, they made one more play than we did.’’

Belgium dominated much of the game, and had far more scoring chances, taking 27 shots to nine for the United States. The Belgians had 19 corner kicks, and the U.S. team took four. Time and time again, Howard punched, swatted, kicked, grabbed and pounced on the ball. Sixteen saves in all, the most by any World Cup goalkeeper since 1966. Howard kept the American hopes alive and was voted Man of the Match, a huge compliment considering his team lost the game.

“We played our hearts out ... had a valiant performance,’’ Howard said. “Belgium was a good team, we got beat by a good team, hats off to them,’’ Howard said. “They created a lot of chances. They’re top-quality players.’’

Gonzalez said that despite the loss, he is proud of how his team battled: “It is something that is ingrained in the American players that we will never give up, we will never stop fighting. I really hope the fans across the world saw that in us today; that we never stopped fighting and we almost brought it back.’’

That the U.S. players went toe to toe with the Belgians for so long was reason enough for American fans to feel proud, considering their résumés.

Unlike the American team, the Belgian squad is made up almost entirely of players from Europe’s top leagues. Twelve of the 23 Belgians play in the English Premier League. Consider that Belgium captain Vincent Kompany makes $17.4 million from Manchester City, which is right around the collective salary of the entire U.S. starting lineup. By comparison, U.S. defender Matt Besler makes $200,000 for Sporting Kansas City, and DeAndre Yedlin, who went in to replace injured Fabian Johnson, makes $92,000 for the Seattle Sounders.

Asked what the U.S. team proved in Tuesday’s game, Bradley replied: “This team showed once again, that [pause] it has [guts]. Even in a difficult group. Even when a lot of people weren’t ready to give us much of a chance to get out. Even on a day like [Tuesday], when you’re playing one of the best teams in Europe, even at the end when you’re down 2-0, and it would have been easy to pack it in.

“We continued to fight, continued to have a group of guys who leave everything they have on the field. And just because you do that doesn’t guarantee anything. Doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but that is a special quality and we have that and we’ll continue to make sure it’s such a big part of who we are.’’

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said he took solace in knowing his team showed it belonged with some of the world’s most respected squads.

“We now know that we can play eye-to-eye with the big nations,’’ he said. “The teams that we faced here are favorites to win the World Cup, and we’ve done tremendously well against them.’’

That said, U.S. defender Matt Besler said this loss will haunt him for a while.

“It’s bittersweet,’’ he said. “We’re going to hold our heads high and hold our chest out because we are proud of what we did. We are proud of how we fought and left everything on the field, but we feel like we could be playing in the quarterfinals. So, it’s going to be on my mind.”

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