SALVADOR, Brazil — It felt as if Tim Howard would never go down. As if the United States would never go down, standing there, taking shots like an undersized fighter clinging desperately to a puncher’s chance. Howard saved with his hands. His feet. His legs. His knees. At one point, Howard even had a shot bounce off the crest over his heart.
Trying to figure out where soccer fits into the fabric of America is a popular topic but, for one afternoon at least, there was this unexpected truth: All around the country, from coast to coast and through the nation’s belly, sports fans of every kind were inspired by the performance of a soccer goalkeeper. In a loss.
The ending was cruel, but then so is the game. The United States’ captivating run in the World Cup stopped here, on the coast of Brazil, as Belgium beat the Americans, 2-1 after extra time, to eliminate the United States in the Round of 16. A win would have sent the Americans to a quarterfinal against Lionel Messi and Argentina; a loss, instead, sent them home.
“It’s heartbreaking,’’ Howard said afterward. “It just hurts.’’
Of course it does, if only because the U.S. somehow managed to tiptoe along the precipice of glory even as it endured an unyielding Belgian barrage. Howard, who grew up in New Jersey and played in Major League Soccer before moving to the English Premier League in 2003, made 16 saves, the most by a goalkeeper in a World Cup game since 1966.
Yet even with that incredible imbalance — the U.S. managed just 14 shots to Belgium’s 38 — the Americans will rue a missed opportunity to win in regulation (when Chris Wondolowski missed an easy chance, although there was lingering confusion about whether there was an offside call) and a golden chance to force a shootout in extra time (when Clint Dempsey was stopped from 5 yards out by the Belgian goalkeeper).
Ultimately, there was just not enough from the Americans. Three draining group games in far-flung locations — including a trip to the stifling heat of the Amazon — left the team gasping for air at the finish. Romelu Lukaku, a substitute, scored for Belgium in the 105th minute, and his goal proved to be the difference.
“We were running on fumes,’’ defender Matt Besler said.
When it was over, the fans at the shimmering Arena Fonte Nova applauded knowingly, as if paying tribute to the ride this team provided. Americans purchased more tickets to games at this tournament than fans from any country other than Brazil. Television ratings in the U.S. blasted through ceilings, surpassing those of the NBA finals or the World Series.
Watch parties, too, popped up in places far more varied than just craft breweries in New York, with fans gathering everywhere from Hermosa Beach, California, to a library in Birmingham, Alabama, to the Tulsa Drillers minor league baseball stadium in Oklahoma. A gathering at Grant Park in Chicago was moved to Soldier Field to accommodate a crowd reported to have exceeded 25,000.
World Cups have been growing in popularity among Americans for some time, but this tournament has felt different. Explanations for the surge vary, with some pointing to Brazil’s time zone being favorable for U.S. viewers, especially compared to South Africa four years ago. Others say soccer’s spike is simply the result of a growing Hispanic population in the United States as well as the inevitable aging of millennials. A great number of soccer-loving children have now become consumer adults.
“These are all young people who grew up with the game, whether it be the English Premier League or Major League Soccer, and they don’t need to be convinced that soccer is a sport that is worthy of their attention,’’ said Don Garber, the commissioner of MLS. “The country has changed. This is a new America.’’
Statistics seem to support that claim. Fourteen percent of people between the ages of 12 and 24 said professional soccer was their favorite sport, second only to the NFL, according to Rich Luker, who runs a sports research firm. That means a greater number of fans are more likely to continue following the sport even when the pageantry of the World Cup is over.
“Fans are connecting the dots,’’ said Jeff L’Hote, who runs a soccer-focused management consultancy. “One of the great things about the continued maturation of the sport is people know that Messi plays for Barcelona, not just Argentina.’’
Whatever the theory, the sheer entertainment value of this tournament has piqued interest even more. Including Tuesday’s games, 154 goals have been scored, which is more than the total for the entire 2010 World Cup.
Also, for casual American fans who find watching games end in ties about as appealing as doing their taxes, the past few weeks have been a revelation: There were only nine draws in 48 group stage games, or four fewer than the average over the past four World Cups.
The grittiness of this U.S. team was an attraction, too. Drama, in one form or another, has followed the team ever since its pretournament training camp in May, starting with the uproar over coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to leave Landon Donovan at home.
Then came concerns about whether the Americans could win a must-have game against Ghana (yes, barely); whether they could get a decent result against Portugal (yes, agonizingly); and whether they could avoid a blowout against Germany (yes, mercifully).
“I think every player went to his limit,’’ Klinsmann said.
Tuesday followed a similarly tense script. Belgium, which won all three of its group games with late goals, was the aggressor from the start, neutralizing Klinsmann’s attempts to open up the U.S. attack.
Divock Origi and Dries Mertens had early chances for Belgium, and things got worse for the United States when Fabian Johnson, one of the most reliable players on the outside, pulled up with a hamstring injury after half an hour.
The Americans spent most of the rest of the game buckled in, holding off an onslaught from the Belgians, with Howard standing squarely in the middle. Making it to extra time felt like a small victory on its own, but Lukaku’s fresh legs led to Kevin De Bruyne finally lashing a shot past Howard from close range. Moments later, Lukaku followed with a goal of his own, and the American fans slumped. The players, though, gathered together during the short break between the two 15-minute halves of extra time and steeled themselves for one last burst.
“If we were going home,’’ midfielder Michael Bradley said, “we wanted to go home going for it.’’
And they did. Julian Green, a World Cup rookie, provided a flicker of hope with a smooth volley two minutes into the final period, and Howard made another slew of important saves to keep the game in range while the United States pushed and pushed and pushed.
The chances were there. Jermaine Jones blasted a shot over the net. A header went awry. Dempsey, at the end of a gorgeous passing play from a free kick, had his attempt smothered just yards away from the goal.
It was tantalizing and teasing. But this time, the miracle never came.
When the final whistle sounded, many of the American players simply collapsed, as if the strings holding up their legs had just been cut.
Howard was not one of them. He bent at the waist, only for a moment, his hands on his knees and his mouth open. Then he stood up tall and walked forward with his chest out.
It was fitting: Even in defeat, his tournament over, the American goalkeeper refused to tumble.