The USA entered the final Round of 16 match of the FIFA World Cup with the desire to stun Belgium and send the European team home early. A huge plus for the American squad going into the match was the return of Jozy Altidore. Altidore has missed most of the tournament with a hamstring injury suffered in the first match of group play against Ghana. The forward has been cleared and started the game on the bench for the US. Unfortunately, Altidore never got into the game and when the US was faced with another hamstring injury, fans began wondering if Landon Donovan would have come up with a trademark game saving goal if he made the final 23-man roster.
The most important factor of this match was both team’s goalkeepers. Thibaut Courtois for Belgium is one of the top goalkeepers in the world. At 22-years of age, Courtois has displayed strong defense in the goal leading up to this game, only allowing one ball past him. On the other end of the field, the USA’s Tim Howard is also regarded as one of the top goalkeeper’s in the world. Both keepers would come up with big moments throughout regulation time.
Immediately, Belgium gained control of the ball and launched a shot at Howard, who easily knocked the ball away. The USA started in a 4-3-3 line-up, which was different from the last couple games where Clint Dempsey was the lone forward after Altidore went down. While Dempsey still played ahead of the other two forwards, the extra two players playing up were anticipated to help the American captain on the attack. The US started off a bit shaky, but quickly fell into a nice rhythm for most of the game. The main trouble that the US seemed to struggle with was the Belgium midfield. As long as the American players were able to get past the midfield, the team looked to be a threat against the Europeans. In the 21st minute, the USA showed that threat when Dempsey had a nice look at the goal for a shot that could not find a way past Courtois.
Belgium really did nothing to stun the USA or make any steps to send the American’s home in the first half of the Round of 16 match of the FIFA World Cup. While the USA had some issues with the midfield, the team still held a slight advantage in possession of the ball over Belgium through the first 45 minutes. However, the injury bug hit the US in the first half when defender Fabian Johnson was forced to leave the game after pulling up in the 30th minute. Johnson was able to walk off the pitch on his own power, but would not return. Like Altidore, Johnson had strained his hamstring and was likely out for the rest of the tournament for the US if a win would take the team to the next round. Youngster DeAndre Yedlin stepped in for Johnson and assisted in some big plays for the US, however, none resulted in a mark on the score sheet. The teams headed to the locker rooms at the half tied at nil-nil.
Just over 10 minutes into the second half, Belgium went into an offensive frenzy, sending a barrage of shots at Howard. Each shot was either just off target or turned away by Howard and the US defense. After the offensive onslaught, the second half turned into a back and forth affair with neither team gaining an advantage. After the full 90 minutes, tied 0-0, the game headed to extra time.
Belgium drew first blood in the 93rd minute of play when Kevin De Bruyne launched a shot from the right side of the box past Howard to give Belgium a 1-0 lead. Belgium added to that lead with a goal in the 105th minute off of a shot by Romelu Lukaku to the top left corner of the goal for a 2-0 lead. This left the USA 15-minutes to pull off a miracle comeback.
The player that was the focus of controversy for making the team when Donovan, the face of American soccer, did not make the final cut, brought hope back to the faithful fans of the USA. 19-year old Julian Green collected a brilliant pass from Michael Bradley and volleyed a shot from the middle of the box to the lower right corner of the goal past Courtois to cut Belgium’s lead in half at the 107th minute.
However, it was too little too late and time ended with the American’s falling short. Belgium ended the USA’s FIFA World Cup run, knocking them out of the Field of 16. While Howard did give up two goals, he made some phenomenal saves in the game that any soccer fan should respect. Belgium played a great game and while Courtois also blocked everything that came at him or was awarded with an unlucky hit by a US player, in the end, Howard had one more ball get past him giving the Group H top team the victory. While USA soccer fans are disappointed, the US men will likely have a series of international friendlies after the tournament is over and the Women’s World Cup is just two years away. And that tournament is closer to home, north of the border in Canada. Belgium will now face Lionel Messi and Argentina in the Round of 8.
Commentary by Carl Auer
Read more Guardian Liberty Voice Coverage on the FIFA World Cup Round of 16