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Belgium 2, USA 1: Believing Will Only Get You So Far At the World Cup

In August 2010 a user caller “EliteStr1ker” uploaded this video about all the near misses the United States had suffered at the World Cup in the 21st Century. Fittingly it’s titled “Dying Bravely.” After 120+ minutes Tuesday in Salvador, Brazil the video will need a need to add a postscript.

“Dying Bravely,” can anything sum up the 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium any better? Not that it makes the defeat any less bittersweet.

The U.S. fought on tired, cramping legs after jetting 9,000 miles across Brazil from the rainforest to the beach and everywhere in between.

Tim Howard made a World Cup-record 16 saves, keeping the U.S. in the game by himself.

Down two goals in extra time, did the team give up? Did it start in-fighting? Did it throw in the towel? Did a goal in the 93rd minute for the second straight tournament in the Round of 16 force the team to quit? No. Julian Green converted one of the best-quality American goals we’ve ever seen, knocking in Michael Bradley’s chip in full stride to inspire belief. (At 19 he’s the youngest player to score at a World Cup since Lionel Messi in 2006.)

And, oh man, there was Clint Dempsey on the doorstep after a perfectly-executed free kick routine only to be denied by Thibaut Courtois. Hollywood doesn’t script World Cup matches, despite what we’ve seen the last few weeks in Brazil.

It was, for all intents and purposes, a performance to be proud about … but it’s over.

Belgium v USA: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

The U.S. never stop believing. The fans never stopped believing.

Belief will only get you so far at the World Cup. Team spirit and fight matters, but in the end the U.S. was undone by a team loaded with Premier League stars. A team that could bring on a fresh Romelu Lukaku to run at the weary United States defense at the start of extra time.

In a more perfect world, the U.S. “deserved” more from that performance, but in the words of Bill Munny from Unforgiven, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.” The World Cup, in the end, is won by talent and skill. Belief (and a dose of luck) will take you to a point, such as escaping from the Group of Death, but not to the finish line — that being winning the World Cup.

Either way, we’re back to where we were four years ago, eight years ago, 12 years ago … looking ahead to the future and wondering if that next step will ever arrive. We’re still asking questions about the U.S. youth system and how to get the best soccer players from a nation of 300 million.

Belief, however, will keep you hoping and coming back for more in four years.

Julian Green goal against Belgium-a

10 Talking points:

Belgium is good: The United States didn’t lose to a bunch of tomato cans in red. If you’re new to soccer, Belgium is very good. There is a reason Marc Wilmots team was rated the fifth-favorite in the tournament. Belgium, via FIFA’s stats, had an astounding 38 shot attempts, the most at the 2014 tournament — 27 on target. (The U.S. posted 14 and nine.) Belgium traveled the fewest miles of any team in the tournament and as you could see for stretches it wasn’t nearly as tired and had more options on the bench.

Eden Hazard was the Premier League’s Young Player of the Season for a reason. Vincent Kompany captains Premier League-winning Manchester City for a reason. Courtois played in a Champions League final with Atletico Madrid for a reason. The list goes on.

The U.S. hung with this team as best it could, but couldn’t sting on the counter attack … nor could Chris Wondolowski convert a wide-open chance, a miss that will be rued forever and ever. How did Wondolowski miss? Better question: how does the U.S. continually find itself in these last-second, do-or-die goal situations?

The Group winners had won the previous seven Round of 16 games at this World Cup and unfortunately the U.S. couldn’t buck that trend today in Salvador.

Thank you Tim Howard: 16 World Cup saves is a great stat … but not exactly one to trumpet since it means your team was pelted with shots. There wasn’t much he could do to stop Kevin de Bruyne’s goal or Lukaku’s, both which were squeezed through tight angles.

The future looks a little brighter: The decision to bring Green to the tournament looks a lot better thanks to his goal. DeAndre Yedlin looks like one for the future, too. The 2018 World Cup remains a long way away. Four years ago, there were still people thinking Freddy Adu would be a player come 2014. Four years ago Green was an unknown 15-year old playing for a Bayern Munich youth team.

Belgium v USA: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Saying goodbye: After playing in four World Cups, this is all but certainly the end for DaMarcus Beasley with the National Team. Jermaine Jones is 32. Clint Dempsey is 31. Howard is 35. They’ll serve roles moving forward — especially with that potential United States-based Copa America in 2016, but they’ve all probably played in their last World Cup games, too. They will be all be missed. Finding their replacements will not be easy.

Requisite Michael Bradley talking point: I’ll leave it to the outspoken Englishman Joey Barton:

Injuries: For the second time in four games the U.S. lost a player to a hamstring injury. First it was Jozy Altidore. Today it was Fabian Johnson. Was it over-training? Was is the Manaus hangover? Was it criss-crossing Brazil? The U.S.’s lack of another viable striker did hurt as the tournament wore on. Dempsey can only be expected to do so much alone.

Klinsmann did what he could: Losing Johnson inside of 30 minutes changed the game, burning off a sub early. Yedlin paid dividends, as he created chances but his inexperience was eventually found out on the defensive end. Geoff Cameron for Kyle Beckerman in the starting XI worked well enough. Wondolowski missed his chance after coming on for the ineffective Graham Zusi. Green, well, we all saw what he did scoring with his first World Cup touch, but should he have come in earlier?

The U.S., again according to FIFA had 52 percent possession to Belgium’s 48, but it sure didn’t feel that way. Why wasn’t Mix Diskerud used?

As for Klinsmann, he’s under contract through 2018. If you think the German should be gone, come up with another viable candidate for Sunil Gulati to hire.

Fandemonium: The U.S. won over the American populous over these two weeks. How long this vibe carries will be interesting to watch. Russia in 2018 is four long years away. Each World Cup, however, the vibe continues to grow and that’s a great thing. Years ago this loss would be ignored in America, now it stings.

Speed didn’t kill: The U.S., throughout its history, played many games like it did against Belgium — pinned back and then making stuff happen on the counter attack. Dempsey, for all his talents, isn’t a burner or an outlet on the break anymore. Perhaps, if Landon Donvon was included, he could have been that option. Or Green. Across the U.S. roster, Yedlin aside, there isn’t much pace, which is a mild surprise. Klinsmann is trying to build technique within the U.S. camp, but speed shouldn’t be dismissed.

The Larry David effect: This result feels like a total matter of perspective. Glass half full? Glass half empty? Was the performance enough? Was getting out of the Group of Death (via goal differential) enough? Or does a 1-2-1 record overshadow that? It’s difficult to blast the U.S. for leaving it all on the field vs. Belgium, yet at the same time it was all there for the taking if Wondolowski scores.

Alas, another what if for U.S. Soccer to add to the list.

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