The United States is out of the World Cup in the round of 16 yet again, and it just…hurts.
My rocket-pop-clad seven-year-old cried when the final whistle blew. I'm not going to lie, I cried a little, too. The World Cup is a big deal, and losing is supposed to hurt. The more Americans that feel this way today, the better.
In some ways, this outcome hurts more than in 2010. Four years ago, the U.S. was lucky to get out of the group, and while it faced a team in Ghana that was probably more beatable on paper than this Belgian side, there was an air about the U.S. team in South Africa that felt like an ending, not a beginning.
If Jurgen Klinsmann has shown one thing during this World Cup run, it's that he has a vision for where U.S. Soccer is headed. This tournament felt like the beginning of something, and while that something will surely continue into the next cycle, that beginning is over. And that hurts to admit.
It also hurts because the longer the game against Belgium went with neither team scoring, the more it felt like something magical could happen for the United States.
Tim Howard was magical and, frankly, deserved better than a loss in this match.
I wrote before the match that Howard needed to be perfect for the U.S. to advance, and he nearly was, stopping 16 shots—Belgium had 38 attempts in all, per FIFA.com—which was the most saves in any World Cup match since the 1960s.
Despite letting in two extra-time goals, including the eventual match-winner to his former Everton teammate, Romelu Lukaku, Howard earned his second Man of the Match award this World Cup for a game the United States didn't even win.
It hurts for Howard, truly.
It hurts to think about the chances—few, admittedly—the United States had and the opportunities missed. When Chris Wondolowski put an absolute sitter over the net in the waning moments of regulation, Klinsmann put his hands to his face in disbelief. You could see the hurt.
That was the chance to steal a game his team had no business stealing. That was the moment, the "Go Go USA" of 2014. But in so many ways, Wondolowski was not Landon Donovan on Tuesday night, and the United States is out of the World Cup in the round of 16 for the second straight tournament.
All I could imagine was what that moment must have felt like at Soldier Field in Chicago or Jerry's World outside Dallas, with thousands upon thousands of fans watching and hoping for a win together. What was the reaction like in Dallas, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia or countless bars and parks and stadiums and department-store windows where millions of Americans got together in hopes of seeing the United States advance in the World Cup?
All I could picture was the proverbial air coming out of millions of red, white and blue balloons all across the country.
As the game went to extra time, it was impossible to believe the United States could hold off Belgium for an additional 30 minutes, and it didn't take long for Kevin De Bruyne to receive a ball from Lukaku and slide it past the outstretched Howard into the far corner for the lead.
When Lukaku blasted home the second in the final moments of the first session of extra time, the balloons popped.
And then young Julian Green, on a pitch-perfect assist from Michael Bradley, had a moment of brilliance, finally beating Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to get the United States back within a goal.
Over the final 10 minutes, there were nearly a dozen chances for the United States, making fans wonder why it took so damn long for the team to get out of the funk and start attacking. It was, in the clearest soccer terms, too little and too late for the United States.
The comeback could not be completed. The tournament is over for us. And it hurts.
For some fans, it will admittedly hurt more than for others. For those of us who were out at the bar in the wee hours of the morning in 2002, watching the United States lose a heartbreaker to Germany in the quarterfinals with a clear path to the finals in front of it, this match may not hurt as much as that.
Though in a way, it might hurt more. This World Cup feels different than 2002, or even 2010. Maybe it was the time of day the matches were held or social media or just a general uptick in interest in soccer over the last 12 years in America, but this tournament—and this team—has really captured the American audience unlike any other team I can remember.
These games were enormous events, and the specter of winning against Belgium, which would have set up a Saturday afternoon match with Lionel Messi and Argentina, would have been the most viewed—and potentially most important—soccer match in this nation's history.
For a generation of new fans who are just getting into the sport, this one should hurt a lot. And it cannot be stressed enough how good that hurt will be for the growth of the sport, because when losing hurts, it means people care enough to not just celebrate the wins and ignore the defeats; it shows that losing matters.
The United States will only become a true soccer power when losing matters as much as winning.
Now look, all Americans—not named Ann Coulter, perhaps—were swept up in the fanfare and pageantry of the World Cup, rooting for U.S. Soccer because that's what Americans do during international competitions in any sport. Most Americans care about the U.S.' participation in an event until it's over, and then our lives go back to normal.
It's fine to be a once-every-four-years bandwagon fan of soccer. America needs those fans in any international competition, and it's perfectly fine at this point in the history of the sport for people to watch the game and root for the United States, and then go back to ignoring soccer until 2018. (Note: Don’t forget about the women's World Cup next year.)
This loss won't hurt for all of them. But there is hope that some new fans—dare I say many of them?—might stick around and give this soccer thing a fighting chance.
Those of you reading this…that feeling of hurt sticks with you, doesn't it?
That feeling is what makes you want to follow the careers of these guys to learn more about the future of U.S. Soccer and wonder who the next Clint Dempsey or Bradley may be. What name will pop up on the radar like Aron Johannsson or Green next? If Howard was this great for the U.S., can he be that great for Everton next season, too? And can I really watch every single Everton match next year?
So, yes, losing to Belgium in extra time hurts. It should. If it didn't, you weren't doing this whole "fan" thing right.
And while losing in an international competition like the World Cup is harder than annual tournaments because many fans will have to wait four years to strap on the rocket pop again, it will hurt a lot less if you find a way to stick with the game.
Every player on the USMNT roster plays in a league that Americans can watch on television or online every single week of the season. Many of the top U.S. players compete in MLS. I've said this before, but if one percent of the audience that watched the U.S. in this World Cup sticks around to tune in to MLS matches the rest of this season, our domestic-league ratings would nearly double.
Don't stop there. Pick a team in England or Italy or Spain or France and follow it, too. Follow all these world powers in their qualifying tournaments. It makes the time between each World Cup go by much faster when the Euros are just a few years away and we're two years from Copa America landing on American soil.
The United States lost, and it hurts because of what a win could have meant for this country. But this isn't the end. That hurt means that for some, it's just the beginning. For the rest of us, it's the next step in a journey that finally feels like it's going somewhere.
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