A bitterly disappointing 2-1 overtime loss to Belgium ended the USA's World Cup in the round of 16 Tuesday in Salvador. Here are three takeaways in the aftermath of a second straight loss in the World Cup knockout rounds.
HOWARD MAKES HISTORY.Many times in his USA career keeper Tim Howardhas bailed out his team through superb goalkeeping, yet he ascended new heights by stoning Belgium repeatedly before conceding two goals in extra time.
Howard’s 16 saves included several by his feet or diving at full stretch during a remarkable performance that wasn’t quite enough. It brought memories of a standout game from Tony Meola in a 2-0 defeat of England in a 1993 friendly, Kasey Keller’s great showing in a 1-0 shock of Brazil at the 1998 Gold Cup, and a wonderful game by Howard in a 2-0 upset of Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup. Brad Friedeltied a World Cup record in 2002 by saving two penalty kicks in the same competition.
Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Divock Origi and substitutes Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku – Howard’s club teammates at Everton – all tested Howard before De Bruyne put away a Lukaku feed in the 93rd minute and Lukaku fired inside the near post in the last seconds of the first period of extra time.
Fatigue is seldom discussed regarding goalkeepers, yet Howard considers his relentless work habits as one of his greatest assets. He dripped with sweat early in the match and needed that base during an arduous 120 minutes of blocking shots, smothering loose balls, and snagging crosses. He’s done it for the USA before, but never to the extreme, constant pressure he encountered.
“That’s my job, that’s what I signed up to do,” said Howard in his postgame interview on ESPN. “That’s part of it. In these big games, against top-quality competition, the levee’s going to break at some point if we continue that.”
The defeat soured memorable games for not only Howard, but centerbackMatt Besler and midfielderJermaine Jones, and several other players. A missed tackle by Besler allowed Lukaku to set up the first goal but otherwise the Sporting Kansas City star was excellent.
WING WORK. Eden Hazard, a rather lackluster figure in the group phase, raised his game somewhat against the USA, but De Bruyne simply terrorized the USA on Belgium’s left flank. The strained hamstring that knocked right back Fabian Johnson out of the game in the 32nd minute didn’t help the U.S. cause, yet as early as the first minute De Bruyne had scorched the back line and set up a chance for Origi that Howard saved superbly.
Hazard didn’t have as much luck running at DaMarcus Beasley, who against Belgium added some attacking forays to his stalwart work at left back. But on balance, the Americans only very late in regulation and in extra time brought anything close to the attacking influence generated by the Belgians. The five-man midfield that featured Geoff Cameron in place of Kyle Beckerman alongside Jermaine Jones, didn’t give up much through the center but Belgium overran the Americans out wide and through the channels. Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya were far less effective defensively than they were in the group phase.
PERSONNEL DECISIONS.Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to bring on Julian Green in extra time hit the jackpot when Green nicked home an excellent chip from Michael Bradley. The USA had to use up a substitution early when Johnson’s hamstring forced him off, to be replaced by DeAndre Yedlin. Klinsmann made a bold move with about 20 minutes to play when he replaced Zusi with San Jose forward Chris Wondolowski, who blazed a shot over the bar from a Jones flick in stoppage time of regulation.
Klinsmann opted for the 6-foot-3 Cameron in part to add his height and bulk into the middle as well as on set plays. The Americans struggled for most of the game to string passes together going forward and seldom established an attacking tempo, which is a key facet of Beckerman’s game. Klinsmann could have moved Cameron to right back and brought in Beckerman as a holding mid when Johnson went down but opted instead for Yedlin, who triggered a few threatening moves by getting deep into the Belgian half but left huge gaps. Lukaku steamed into space on that side to power Belgium’s second goal past Howard.
The naming of youngsters Green, Yedlin and John Brooks, who scored a dramatic winner in the group opener against Ghana, to the World Cup roster certainly proved productive and should bear fruit going forward. Yet the questions will be asked if more veteran experience might have been valuable against European foes Germany, Portugal and Belgium, none of which the Americans were able to beat.