Despite the heroics of Tim Howard, the U.S.'s World Cup campaign came to a dramatic and heartbreaking end thanks to Belgium in a 2-1 extra-time defeat. ESPN FC blogger Jason Davis gives his verdict on the brighter points of the campaign as well as what went wrong.
One sentence, World Cup recap:
Although the United States bowed out of the World Cup at the first knockout stage, the fight and determination of a team overmatched by superior talent throughout its run made a country believe in the future of American soccer.
Star man: Midfield dynamo Jermaine Jones
Over the course of four matches, no American player poured more of himself into the effort than Jones. Finally given the responsibilities that took most advantage of his abilities, Jones was everywhere for a team that needed his energy to overcome a deficit of talent across the field.
Through the group stage, Jones handled varying responsibilities with little complaint and boundless determination. He played a key role in preventing Ghana from putting away the Americans in the crucial group opener, scored a marvelous goal in the draw with Portugal and helped stymie the German attack for long enough to allow the U.S. to keep it close and advance.
While some of the criticism lobbed at Michael Bradley is unwarranted, considering the immense job he was asked to do, there's little argument that of the established midfield duo of Jones and Bradley, it was the German-American who made the most of his World Cup opportunity.
The U.S. did not lack for amazing moments in a tournament that required them for any success.
Each goal the Americans scored provided its own healthy dose of drama and hope, from Clint Dempsey's stunning first-minute tally against Ghana to Julian Green's clever goal in the abortive comeback against Belgium. John Brooks' winner in the opener will long be remembered, not just for the win it provided, but for the emotion that poured out of the young center back after his leaping header went in.
Tim Howard's performance in the loss to Belgium stands out as well. Forgetting what it says about the American approach and how utterly dominated they were in the match, Howard's 16 saves was among the best goalkeeping performances in World Cup history, and only adds to the lore of American keepers.
All team assessments
Group Stage: Australia | Bosnia-Herzegovina | Cameroon | Croatia | Ecuador | England | Ghana | Honduras | Italy | Iran
Ivory Coast | Japan | Portugal | Russia | South Korea | Spain
Round of 16: Algeria | Chile | Greece | Mexico
Nigeria | Switzerland | Uruguay | United States
Quarterfinals: Colombia | France | Belgium | Costa Rica
Semifinals: Brazil | Netherlands
Simply put, the style the Americans played left a lot to be desired. It made for dramatic games, and was likely part of the reason they were able to stay competitive, but it's difficult to be enthusiastic about so much defending.
At its worst, it reflected a team not good enough to do much more than pack it in and hope. The stance the U.S. took only shines a harsher light on the few moments of failure that might have changed their tournament.
Because they advanced, it's easy to look past Geoff Cameron's early gaffe against Portugal and the fuller defensive failure on the Selecao's added-time equalizer, but both of those moments were heartbreaking. Matt Besler, who otherwise had a great tournament, provided his own lowlight when he slipped while attempting to defend Belgium's Romelu Lukaku. That mistake led to Kevin De Bruyne's extra-time goal.
Most painful of all was Chris Wondolowski's miss against Belgium in the closing minutes of regular time, a chance that came so late, it might have been the goal that qualified the Yanks for the quarterfinals.
Again, the Americans learned that their growing soccer nation still does not have the talent to play on even terms against more established nations, but that the spirit they bring to the tournament can sometimes help them overachieve.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann learned that asking his most important player (Bradley) to do too much can drain him of the ability to be at his best. The campaign also proved that MLS players (Kyle Beckerman, Matt Besler, DeAndre Yedlin) can compete at the highest level. It also proved there is exciting young talent in the American ranks that should bode for a bright future.
Finally, for the American fans swept up in the wave of World Cup excitement, the run by the U.S. taught a lesson that so many who followed this team already knew: This team is always certain to give you dramatic, enthralling moments before they eventually crash against an impenetrable glass ceiling.
Jason Davis is a writer from Virginia covering American soccer. He also hosts a daily soccer podcast that covers the beautiful game. Follow him @davisjsn.