Hope for future despite U.S. exit

I wasn’t initially going to write about today’s U.S.-Belgium match. But the thoughts came anyway.

Sometimes soccer is a cruel sport. But in this match, it could have been far more cruel. The U.S. created some chances, but Belgium had far more. The team that ends with 38 shots ordinarily comes out on top. At the same time, the Americans don’t have to hang their heads about taking Belgium into extra time.

A number of players stepped up in this round, not all of them the usual suspects. In fact, only one of the truly shining spots today has been a force for the U.S. in years past.

Really, what a performance from Tim Howard. It’s hard to overstate his importance to the success of the U.S. in this tournament, and especially this knockout round game. The Everton goalie only missed blocking two shots all day; neither was his fault. He did his job and then some, stopping an incredible 16 shots. It’s a World Cup record, at least as long as the stat has been recorded. As well as Howard played in goal, though, the final outcome went the right way. It’s hard to get a loss on such a stellar performance from the keeper, but the opponent was the better side.

Defensive back Fabian Johnson had to leave the game in the 32nd minute with the same hamstring injury that sidelined starting forward Jozy Altidore for all but 23 minutes of the tournament. Klinsmann had a decision to make, and he sent in the young DeAndre Yedlin. He shone. Yedlin made runs and played better ball than a number of more experienced players on the pitch. And that was the first big sign of promise for the future in the match.

No one scored until extra time, and it was Belgium first. And second. Backs against the wall, the U.S. made another substitution.

The 19-year old Julian Green entered the fray and scored on his first touch just two minutes after entering. 19 years old. The same age Bryce Harper made his major league debut. But this was on a much larger scale. He became the youngest U.S. player to enter a World Cup match. Many 19-year olds finished their freshman year in college in the last two months and are in summer work or just at home. Green? He’s scored on the biggest stage possible.

It reminds us again of the first U.S. match, and another productive Klinsmann substitution. German-American left defensive back John Brooks entered and scored the first time he suited up for the U.S. national team. That goal was crucial to the U.S. getting this far. Two improbable young scorers and two hamstring sprains. That’s quite a way to bookend a World Cup run.

I went to the gym after the match ended. I needed to blow off some steam. But the loss hasn’t turned me off to the sport. No, it was a well-fought game. It showed real promise for the future of the U.S. team. After the initial disappointment, the reality of how hard the Americans fought to come back makes me proud. It’s hard to not get excited about the future. I’ll likely pay far better attention to the sport in the coming years. And of course, I’ll be on the pitch Saturday morning.

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