Two weeks ago, the U.S. announced their arrival at this World Cup with a thrilling, last-gasp victory against Ghana. On Tuesday, after battling Portugal to a draw in the Amazon, surviving the Group of Death and engaging a nation, the Americans finally ran out of gas against Belgium.
Of course, it took a pair of extra-time goals by Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku to bury the U.S., though even then, they nearly clawed out of the grave. Nineteen-year-old Julian Green's score in the 107th minute made it 2-1, and moments later, team captain Clint Dempsey slipped through a set piece, only to have his point-blank shot snuffed out by keeper Thibaut Courtois.
But the Americans could not find the equalizer, and after 121 minutes, the referee's whistle blew and Belgium was through to the World Cup quarterfinals, where they'll take on Lionel Messi and the Argentines.
Once again, the U.S. bowed out in the round of 16, though they didn't go down without a fight. They were on their heels for the majority of the match, routinely bailed out by keeper Tim Howard, who was spectacular throughout, making a staggering 16 saves and single-handedly keeping his side in the match. Through all that, and the loss of Fabian Johnson to a hamstring injury, they still had chances – Chris Wondolowski missed a gimme in injury time (though he was incorrectly flagged for offsides) – and willed this game to 30 minutes of extra time, where, finally, their luck ran out.
The Americans leave the tournament battered, broken (unofficial count for the Cup: two busted noses) and bloodied, but unbowed; they were the Jason Voorhees of this World Cup, the team that just kept coming. It's somewhat fitting that it took a team known as the Red Devils to deliver the finishing blow.
And while there is honor in that effort, and solace to be found in the fact that the U.S. wasn't even supposed to make it this far, this one hurt, plain and simple. And it probably will for some time. But it's supposed to; this is the World Cup, after all.
And to that point, there's no question this was a defining tournament for the United States. They advanced to the round of 16 for the second-consecutive World Cup, the first time they'd ever accomplished that feat, and served notice that the future of the national team is bright. This was almost certainly the final international appearance for stalwarts like Howard and DaMarcus Beasley, and the futures of stars like Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are uncertain. But the foundation is in place; you saw it in the tournament play of Green, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin and 21-year-old John Brooks. We have the coach. We have the plan. And we've got the talent. It's a good thing Belgium got us today, because they won't get us four years from now.
But above all else, there's the pain you're probably feeling as you read this. It's the sting of disappointment, the kind only World Cup contenders know. For the first time, U.S. fans believed that their nation had a legitimate shot at winning this whole thing, and that's the most important takeaway from this team's improbable run. So savor it, no matter how crazy that concept seems. Because it means we've arrived. The time for moral victories is over; the future is now.