U.S.A. vs. Belgium in the World Cup: The Agony of Exceeding Expectations

America's loss hurts. But fans should still be proud of what the team accomplished.

It's brutally incongruous, being a U.S. soccer fan. If Christopher Lloyd had rolled up in his DeLorean four weeks ago and said the U.S. would advance out of the Group of Death at the World Cup but lose a hard-fought, 2-1 contest to Belgium in the Round of 16, my first reaction would have been pride at America's performance. But in the present, when that exact scenario has played out, I feel mainly devastation.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s team put up a spirited fight against Belgium, thanks largely to the spectacular play of U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. At one point, the match was tied 0-0 despite the Belgians having 14 shots on goal to the Americans' two. But the extra-time addition of forward Romelu Lukaku to Belgium's lineup proved the difference, with Lukaku creating one goal and scoring another himself in the first half of extra time to give the Red Devils a 2-0 lead they would not relinquish.

The U.S. will agonize over the near brushes with glory it had, particularly Chris Wondolowski's point-blank chance in the 92nd minute that ended in disaster when the second-half sub touched the ball harmlessly over the crossbar. And after Julian Green's goal in the 107th minute cut the Belgian lead to 2-1, Clint Dempsey had a clear opportunity after a clever American passing sequence off a free kick, only to see his shot swallowed up by goalie Thibaut Courtois. That proved to be the U.S.'s last, best shot to send the game to a penalty shootout.

In the end, the American performance in Brazil rates an "as expected" despite the heartbreak of Tuesday's loss. Before the World Cup, prediction expert Nate Silver gave the U.S. just a 33 percent chance to advance out of the Group of Death. But thanks to a late goal against Ghana and a spirited draw with Portugal (which should have been a win, but I digress), America’s squad reached the knockout stage in spite of a World Cup-ending injury to striker Jozy Altidore in the first half of the first game of the tournament. Then the U.S. hung tough with Belgium, the fifth betting favorites to win the whole World Cup, and could easily have advanced to the quarterfinals if Wondolowski had made good on his point-blank chance at the net. 

U.S. fans across the world are hurting at the moment, and they should be—it was a difficult loss, especially with Howard playing like the best goalie in the world (he had 16 saves, a World Cup game record). But once the bitterness fades, Americans should be proud of the run made by their young but gritty squad, from John Brooks's late winner against Ghana to the dominant performance against Portugal to Howard's miraculous effort in defeat against Belgium. The U.S. squad may have fallen short of the deep World Cup run of its dreams, but it certainly didn’t fall short of expectations.

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Jake Simpson is a New York-based writer.

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