SALVADOR, Brazil – Tim Howard's shoulders must feel very heavy after carrying the United States for 120 minutes.
Howard was the only thing separating the U.S. from a complete implosion against a Belgium squad which fired 38 shots on the U.S. net, 27 on goal.
"It's heartbreaking. I don't think we could have given any more," Howard said. "We left it all out there. We got beat by a really good team that took their chances well. It's heartache … it hurts."
It was on the 32nd shot that Howard was finally beaten to the far post by Kevin De Bruyne, in the 93rd minute. An exhausted U.S. side conceded another goal in the 105th minute, when Romelu Lukaku fired true.
19-year-old Julian Green made his World Cup debut after Lukaku's goal, and it took him just two minutes to score his first World Cup goal, sending the Arena Fonte Nova into pandemonium. But Green's finish wasn't enough to inspire a second strike, as the Americans bowed out of the Round of 16.
"Everyone was tired on both teams but we never gave up and it's something that we can really be proud of," Omar Gonzalez said. "I think that we can hold our heads up high."
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann decided to meddle with his starting lineup for the fourth time in as many matches, and this time it cost him. Klinsmann went with Geoff Cameron over Kyle Beckerman in the center of midfield. It's a position Cameron doesn't play, and in a match that needed a strong presence capable of keeping possession in that role, the U.S. was given the miscast defender.
Things were further muddied when Fabian Johnson went down late in the first half with a right hamstring strain, forcing DeAndre Yedlin into the match much earlier than expected. Yedlin provided a much needed spark going forward, but in the end, it wasn't enough to combat the onslaught of pressure from Belgium.
"It's pretty bittersweet, you never want to lose," Yedlin said.
1. The U.S. missed Kyle Beckerman.
In a match that demanded a physical presence with the ability to pass out of midfield, Klinsmann decided to bench the one player who had provided him just that for the entire World Cup. No other player in the U.S.'s match against Germany had a higher pass completion rate than Beckerman, who maintained possession more than 90% of the time. It was Beckerman who cancelled out Bastian Schweinsteiger in that match, and Cristiano Ronaldo before him.
Yet, Beckerman was nowhere to be found against Belgium, allowing the 6-5 Marouane Fellaini to bully the U.S. midfield for 90 minutes. Cameron failed to provide the passing in attack or support in defense that Beckerman had in games past, resulting in a constant threat when Belgium had the ball.
2. Tim Howard deserved a lot better.
Howard was called on in the beginning of the match, denying Divock Origi a chance on goal from point blank range. The American goalkeeper's workload didn't slow from there, as Origi, De Bruyne, and Eden Hazard all had sensational chances turned away by Howard.
The 35-year-old from New Jersey deserved better from his defense. Without Howard in goal, the U.S. would have been out of this match – and the World Cup – much sooner. Howard was a pillar as the defense faltered around him.
"Tim played just phenomenal tonight, he was outstanding," Klinsmann said. "He kept us in the game a long time. We knew that going forward sooner or later we would have our chances, but he had an absolute amazing match tonight and you can just give him the biggest compliments in the world."
3. Klinsmann's tinkering hurt the U.S.
The tactical adjustments, the player swapping, the charmed existence of Klinsmann tok a hit Tuesday in Salvador. This was a bad performance, and it started with a bad lineup. The move to put Cameron in the midfield and keep Omar Gonzalez at centerback was flawed. Gonzalez didn't have the speed to keep up with Belgium's attacking four and Cameron didn't have the vision to play as a center midfielder.
When Johnson went down with his injury, the tenuous balance shifted, and the U.S. was forced to play catch up the entire match. When De Bruyne finally found the net in the 93rd minute, the U.S. didn't have the energy or the personnel to find an equalizer. That comes down to tactics. The gamble to start Cameron and Gonzalez didn't pan out, didn't get the attack going that Klinsmann had wanted, and cost the U.S. dearly in the end.
"They were all on their limits, every player on the field because the way we played our games with high energy through every game we knew that sooner or later the team will hit the wall," Klinsmann said. "It's just normal."
The Americans bowed out of this World Cup with a rousing finish – characteristic of the way the team has played throughout. A team that fought mightily to escape the Group of Death owed itself the finish it managed in the final 15 minutes.
"I think as fans we have admired teams who have gone for it and we said to ourselves whenever we are going home – we wanted to go home going for it, and we did." Michael Bradley said. "That is part of the progression for us, you're now able to play games like this, regardless of who you play against … to play on even terms, and I think in this World Cup, we were able to do that. Not in every situation, but certainly against Portugal and certainly against Belgium."
There are many positives to take from the U.S. run in this tournament in the weeks to come but for tonight, fans will lament what could have been.