There was a point during the end of the Belgium game, when Lukaku roofed that second goal, and we could see the end was nigh, that I stopped being stressed out, and started to just feel proud. The score didn’t matter, I told myself. This team has given every last iota of whatever nutritional substance is fueling their bodies. I will be fine with whatever happens. And then—of course—Julian Green comes on and buries a volley in the Belgian net to create the most frenzied final six minutes in US soccer history.
This team, friends. This. Team. Though much improved from previous iterations, you couldn’t ever seriously argue that their efforts were beautiful. This US team seemed to enjoy putting themselves in terrifying MacGyver-esque situations, usually leaving the defense, or Tim Howard, alone to figure out how to disarm the bomb using chicken wire. And yet, miraculously, most of the time they would.
This final game was a great example. We were outmatched, but—to be fair—take away experience and this young Belgian squad is arguably pound-for-pound the most talented team in this World Cup. And they pressed, and pressed, attacking with Hazard from the wing, or De Bruyne, or Origi, who is so scarily talented and physically intimidating for a 19-year-old. But yet the defense held. And still the attack pressed on, and you could see that the USMNT was throwing up every defense possible, defending as if it was a siege on their city, like they’d run out of walls, and shields, and had resorted to using car doors and particularly heavy cookbooks. And behind it all, Tim Howard sat and not-so-quietly had the best game A KEEPER HAS EVER HAD IN THE WORLD CUP. “I remember Keller in ’98 versus Brazil,” said Taylor Twellman after the match. “And kids growing up today will remember Tim Howard versus Belgium in 2014.” Unofficially, he made 17 saves, the most since they begun keeping track of this thing in 1950. That is insane.
It took until extra time for the invincibility cloak to finally crack. Then it happened again as the game got stretched. And then Julian Green was subbed in, and you could almost hear the groaning on social media, because Green had looked outmatched, and small, and lost in the friendlies leading up to this. Where was Diskerud, our new number 10? Or maybe Jozy? Or—screw it— Timmy Chandler? But then Bradley chipped the ball to Green, and he redirected a volley into the corner to give the US a fighting chance, and Jurgen again came out looking like someone who wins at Stratego without even surrounding his flag with bombs.
There will be many eulogies to this team in the coming days. To the way they overachieved in escaping the Group of Certain Death, the way they fought defensively, they way they played relentless and, at least sometimes, actually pleasing soccer, especially in the face of defeat. There will be questions about whether Landon could’ve been the guy to come in and poke a goal in the 116’ minute, and what ifs surrounding just what they might’ve been able to accomplish had they held on for 15 more seconds against Portugal, and found themselves playing Algeria in this round of 16, instead of a Red Devil squad that just appears to be gelling.
It’s heartbreaking in many ways to think that we might say goodbye to players like Dempsey, our best international striker ever, or the slide tackling legend of Jermaine Jones, or fleet-footed old person DaMarcus Beasley, or folk hero Kyle “No Officer, I don’t have any drugs on my person” Beckerman. But the important thing to remember about this side is: This is just the new baseline. There are better things to come.
We’ve all gotten a glimpse of the future, of the new American soccer, with dynamic, dangerous flank players like Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin, and, yes, Julian Green. We’ve also seen our homegrown centre backs and defensive midfielders stand up to the best strikers in the world, and, well, even if Tim Howard is 39 in 2018, he should be able to play in net until AT LEAST his early 80s. Jurgen will continue to recruit abroad, to find players with an American connection who can help get us to that next level, but he should also find comfort in knowing local talents like Yedlin exist, and our MLS Academy system (which finally sorted itself out in 2007) and Generation Adidas contracts are starting to bear fruit.
I don’t want to give it up, friends. It’s been an addicting, transfixing journey, and I’m certainly not ready to sign everyone’s yearbooks, and exchange addresses for our mom’s houses, knowing that—when we do this four years from now—we’re all but guaranteed to see many different faces. But I feel good knowing that these are the boys who’ve laid the foundation for the next class, the ones who’ll come back wearing their varsity jackets and give a speech in the locker room telling them to appreciate what they did before, but go further. I just wish we didn’t have to wait four years to see it all play out again.
Kevin Alexander, the executive editor of Thrillist, writes about soccer for Esquire.com.