SALVADOR, Brazil – At the end, the Americans fell to grass because they had nothing left. They somehow had made it this far, to the Round of 16.
Spent after a 2-1 loss to Belgium, after 120 minutes, the U.S. players finally got up and exchanged jerseys. This was a game to remember, in so many imperfect ways.
When Julian Green scored in the 107th minute, the Americans had hope, but simply ran out of time. Once again they were eliminated in extra time of the World Cup.
From the start, it was clear. If the Americans were to beat Belgium and its galaxy of young stars, Tim Howard would have to be the best player on the field. Through 90 minutes, he was just that as the Americans forced Belgium into extra time after a scoreless tie.
"It's heartbreaking," said an emotional Howard after the game. "I don't think we could give anymore. It's heartbreaking. It hurts."
After all those shots, "levee is going to break at some point," he said.
"Obviously, it's a bummer," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "We were so close. I think we can all be very proud of this team. What they've done the past couple of weeks has been unbelievable, outstanding. They pushed Belgium to the limit…it could have gone either way and this is how these knockout games are.
"At the end you need a little bit of luck, that it's going your way," he said. "Today we didn't have that."
At the end of the game after 16 saves, Howard was named Man of the Match, in a performance that will be remembered as one of the best by a U.S. keeper. Belgium had 38 attempts on goal, the U.S. had 15.
In Salvador, the city of salvation, Howard almost single-handedly saved the day for the Americans. With 104 international appearances and 55 wins, both U.S. records for his position, Howard's legacy is secure. A trip to the quarterfinals would have boosted it considerably. But his 16 saves and impossible leaps and tips over the post, did the same.
"We know how important Tim is to us," Klinsmann said. "He's done a tremendous job keeping us in that game on many occasions. He was just doing his job. Everybody on the field gave everything they had. You just need a little bit of luck and we didn't have that today. But I think everybody can be proud of their team."
Howard praised the Belgians, saying they were "fantastic."
"The dream falls short, but this is an incredible group," Howard, 35, said of his teammates. "I will never forget this night."
In the opening minute, Howard made his first save of the day on challenge from Divock Origi. And so it went during a frenetic game which was riveting until the final second.
Finally, in the 93rd minute, Belgium broke through as Kevin DeBruyne found a pocket, past Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, and squeezed it inside Howard's right-hand post for the goal.
Belgium then poured in on in the 106th minute when Romelu Lukaku, still fuming for not getting the start, took out his frustration on the ball with a close-range goal. Belgium went ahead 2-0, and the Americans' hopes dimmed.
The Americans had hoped to reach the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since 2002, but on this day, the better team won. Belgium, considered a dark horse at the start of the tournament, will play Argentina, and Lionel Messi, on Saturday in Brasilia.
Though the Americans will leave Brazil disappointed, failing to capitalize on the enormous interest back home, few expected the Americans to get this far, to still be alive after the Group of Death.
To his credit, coach Jurgen Klinsmann seemingly pushed the right buttons. When he brought Green onto the roster, and kept Landon Donovan home, he was widely criticized. But in extra time, he looked like a genius.
Klinsmann never met a line-up he didn't want to jumble and Tuesday's was no exception. Geoff Cameron and Gonzalez were both in the starting line-up, and defensive specialist Kyle Beckerman sat his first game. Jozy Altidore, and his strained left hamstring, was deemed fit to play but did not see action.
In the first half, the Americans lost their best fullback Fabian Johnson, who went out with a strained hamstring. DeAndre Yedlin, all of 20 and once a long shot to make the roster, found himself battling against mega-star Eden Hazard.
The Red Devils are full of stars from big clubs around the world, from Atletico Madrid to Manchester City to Bayern Munich to Chelsea. The U.S. has a decidedly lower profile. The team's best field players Tuesday: One is in between contracts and last played for Puebla in Mexico (DaMarcus Beasley). Another plays for Sporting Kansas City (Matt Besler).
On paper, and in the number of zeros on their paychecks, the Americans were overmatched. According to Transfermarkt — a site that estimates what players' values would be on transfer market — Belgium's roster was the sixth-highest in the World Cup, the U.S. just 26th. Consider that Yedlin, with the Seattle Sounders, earns $92,000, which is about what Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini probably spends yearly on hair products alone.
Beasley, at 32, proved that he is indeed ageless. At left back, he saved the day on a probable goal in the first half and ran tirelessly as if it was 2002 all over again. He became the first American to play in four World Cups and through four games he played every minute.