SALVADOR, BRAZIL —
They captured the eyes and hearts of a suddenly awakened soccer nation, who gathered in unprecedented numbers to watch the world’s game.
But the end of the ride came at the exact same point as four years ago: with a loss in extra time in the World Cup’s round of 16.
Belgium scored twice in extra time then held on for a 2-1 win Tuesday.
“It’s heartbreaking,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “I don’t think we could have given it more.”
Howard, playing the finest game of his career, stopped a dozen shots with his legs and arms to keep the Americans even through regulation and force an additional 30 minutes. He wound up with 16 saves — the most in the World Cup since 1966.
Before exiting, the U.S. showed the spunk that captured America’s attention. Julian Green, at 19 the youngest player on the U.S. roster, stuck out his right foot to volley in Michael Bradley’s pass over the defense in the 107th minute, two minutes after entering the game.
They nearly tied it up in the 114th, when Clint Dempsey peeled off the ball and was stopped point-blank by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois after being fed by Bradley on a free kick.
But it wasn’t enough, and U.S. players fell to the field at the final whistle in their all-white uniforms like so many crumpled tissues.
“I think they made their country proud with this performance,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
The Americans advanced from a difficult first-round group that included Germany, Portugal and Ghana to reach the knockout rounds of consecutive World Cups for the first time.
Four years ago, they were eliminated in South Africa by Ghana 1-0 on a goal in the third minute of extra time.
Fans who had made the trek south of the equator chanting “I believe that we will win!” could hardly believe they lost, extending a World Cup winless streak against European nations to nine games over 12 years.
In its first World Cup under Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. had promised to play attacking soccer. But once again the Americans had trouble maintaining possession and for much of the night it seemed as if the field were tilted.
The 35-year-old Howard kept saving his team. Belgium had 38 shots to 14 by the U.S.