Salvador, Brazil (SportsNetwork.com) - The United States' World Cup journey came to a heartbreaking end on Tuesday as the Stars and Stripes suffered a 2-1 extra time defeat to Belgium at the Arena Fonte Nova.
Jurgen Klinsmann's side accomplished its initial goal in Brazil by advancing out of the supposed "Group of Death", but facing a Belgium side that did not look convincing during its group-stage games, the Americans had to feel that Tuesday's clash was a very winnable affair.
The Americans received some positive news ahead of the match as forward Jozy Altidore was deemed fit and available, but he played no part in the match, which was ultimately decided in the first period of extra time through goals from Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard was a man possessed between the sticks, making 16 saves to quell an explosive Belgian attack, but he could do little to stop De Bruyne in the 93rd minute and Lukaku in the 105th minute.
19-year-old Julian Green made his first World Cup appearance as a substitute for Alejandro Bedoya and scored in the 107th minute with his first touch off a brilliant ball from Michael Bradley to give the Americans some late life, but they were unable to land an equalizing blow to send the match to penalty kicks.
Belgium will face Argentina in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
"Tonight we've seen a forward-thinking Belgium team," coach Marc Wilmots said after the match. "We had 27 shots on goal, the first came after the second minute and we didn't stop attacking for the remaining 118 minutes.
"I want to congratulate Jurgen Klinsmann and the USA team, especially Tim Howard who had a fantastic game and I think we deserved to win. We played football, we were brave and we pushed ourselves to the limits. Sometimes in games like that when you have so many chances and you are denied, the result doesn't go your way but we didn't stop believing. Now we have four days to prepare for the Argentina game, which isn't long. We're not favorites but we want to win."
Klinsmann's team, meanwhile, will head home with their collective heads held high, despite suffering the same fate as 2010 in South Africa and missing out on a first quarterfinal berth since 2002.
"It's heartbreaking, I don't think we could have given any more," Howard said after the match. "We left it all out there. We got beaten by a really good team. They took their chances well. It's heartache, it hurts. But hats off to Belgium, they were fantastic."
With Lukaku struggling to make an impact during the group stage, Wilmots decided to sit him in favor of 19-year-old Divock Origi, and the moved almost paid early dividends as the Lille man got in behind the U.S. defense in the first minute, forcing Howard into his first of many saves on the night.
The U.S. fashioned its first quality scoring opportunity in the 21st minute as Bradley and Dempsey combined well in the midfield to give the captain a strike on target, but Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois got down to his right quickly for the stop.
Belgium answered with a chance two minutes later as Graham Zusi got caught in possession, allowing De Bruyne to set sail on the counter-attack. The Wolfsburg man pulled his attempt wide of the left post.
The U.S. was able to turn a potential negative into a positive in the 31st minute when right back Fabian Johnson went down with a hamstring injury and was replaced by youngster DeAndre Yedlin, who was excellent down the right flank both defensively and going forward all game.
Belgium continued to heap pressure on the U.S. net in the second half, creating several chances, notably in the 55th minute as defender Jan Vertonghen sent a cross into the box where Origi was able to get a head on it, but Howard was able to tip it over the bar.
Moments later the Americans put together a rare foray forward as Bradley released DaMarcus Beasley with a nice ball down the left flank. Beasley crossed it into the box and it fell to Zusi with a great chance, but his strike was blocked.
The Red Devils continued to dominate possession and create chances as the game reached the final 10 minutes and they almost found the opener in the 89th minute when De Bruyne played it across the face of goal from the left flank for defender Vincent Kompany, but Kompany scuffed his attempt from close range, allowing Howard to push it out of play.
Belgium finally broke the deadlock just three minutes into extra time. Lukaku got the play started when he powered past American defender Matt Besler and raced to the end line on the right flank. His low cross was blocked, but De Bruyne collected the second ball and deposited it into the bottom left corner past Howard.
The U.S. took another punch to the gut in the 105th minute as Lukaku made a brilliant run down the left flank and ripped it past Howard with a cultured left-footed strike.
They looked down and out, but Klinsmann's side got up off the mat and pulled one back two minutes later when Green got on the end of an aerial ball from Bradley and ripped it past Courtois.
The goal gave the Americans a palpable boost and they had an excellent opportunity to find an equalizer as Bradley lined up to take a free kick from 30 yards out in the 113th minute.
Bradley slipped the ball through the wall for Dempsey, who brilliantly peeled away from the wall and found the ball at his feet in front of goal, but Courtois reacted quickly to make an unbelievable stop, showing why he is regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world.
The U.S. continued to search for an equalizer as the clock reached 120 minutes. Ultimately it wasn't to be, but the Americans certainly have nothing to be ashamed of despite the defeat.