SALVADOR, Brazil -- They fought until the final whistle, displaying the grit and courage that has defined this U.S. World Cup team and attracted unprecedented numbers of followers for the past three weeks. Goalkeeper Tim Howard gave a heroic effort, saving 16 shots, the most saves in any World Cup match since 1966.
American fans at Arena Fonte Nova and at watch parties back home had reason to believe that their team would win when baby-faced 19-year-old Julian Green, a Tampa, Fla.-born and Germany-raised kid came off the bench in extra time and scored an electrifying goal.
But when it was all over, the 90 minutes of scoreless tension, the 30 extra minutes of drama, the tired legs, and the cramps, it wasn't enough. The plucky U.S. team is going home after losing a heartbreaking 2-1 game in extra time to Belgium -- the same result and score as four years ago, when the U.S. team was eliminated by Ghana from the South Africa World Cup.
It was the Belgian fans, not the Americans, who would spill out of the lakeside stadium and party on the cobblestoned streets of this historic town, distinctive for its brightly-colored buildings, spicy cuisine, and Afro-Brazilian music.
"We played our hearts out," said Howard, who was voted Man of the Match. "Sometimes you give your best, you fight and scrap, and it doesn't work out. We had a valiant performance. It hurts, losing always hurts. But I think when we played so well, it stings that much more. Gosh, we were right there. We nearly had it."
Although the loss was painful, the 35-year-old goalkeeper said they head home with plenty of promise.
"This is a young group, we'll be back," he said. "We're hungry. We've tasted what it feels like to play against the best players in the world."
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann agreed.
"It's a bummer for us ending on the losing side after a game of 120 minutes that gave everything to the fans, to the crowd: A real drama, a thriller," Klinsmann said. "It was a game that just went to the extreme. We all are very, very, very proud of our team, of every player who stepped on the field and gave everything they had. I think they made their country proud with this performance, and also with their entire performance in this World Cup."
Despite the loss, American soccer had already been declared a winner by U.S Federation president Sunil Gulati.
"The country is paying attention in a way that it's never done before," he said. "All of the things we want to see happen for the sport get accelerated when the team does well. Obviously, we've been to the quarters before (2002), the semis in 1930. But more people are watching now. It translates into more fans, more casual fans and more kids that could turn on the sport and may turn out to want to play."
With each match, the number of watch parties around the country grew. Street celebrations erupted from Brickell Avenue to the Empire State Building, to Chicago's Soldier Field to the beachfronts of Los Angeles.
Television ratings soared. The United States vs. Portugal match was watched by 24.7 million Americans on ESPN and Univision, outdrawing the average audience for the 2014 NBA Finals and the 2013 World Series.
The United States averaged more than 18 million viewers for its three first-round games. President Barack Obama watched from Air Force One. Social media exploded with each U.S. match, including Tweets by stars in other sports, such as LeBron James, Serena Williams and Andrew Luck. And, perhaps due to the urging of Klinsmann, who wrote a letter asking employers to let their employees take extended breaks to watch their team, many people played hooky to catch the Germany and Belgium matches.
Fans in the United States bought more tickets to this World Cup than any country other than host Brazil, and tens of thousands of star-spangled Americans made the trek to Natal, Recife and even the remote Amazonian rainforest town of Manaus to follow their national team. The U.S. team is all grown up now, as is the fan base. Heck, the fan chants have evolved from just "U-S-A! U-S-A!" to the rallying cry "We Believe That We Will Win!"
It was the first time the U.S. team reached the knockout round in consecutive World Cups.
"The way I look at it is, not necessarily a pitch and a slope," Gulati said. "We're on an upward trend and we jump up. How high we jump up is determined by how well we do here. We're not going to be able to continue this level of excitement and interest the day after the World Cup. We accept that. That's true of the Olympics; that's true of everything. But clearly, there will be more interest, more people that have been following the World Cup that were casual observers that will take some interest."
Klinsmann, a German soccer legend who played and coached for Germany in the World Cup, was hired by U.S. Soccer in 2011 to elevate the sport to the next level. He has been overwhelmed with the response to the American team from fans back home.
"It means a lot to us," he said. "The energy that comes from the United States, with their thousands and thousands of fans actually in Brazil, you see where the game is going in the United States. You can't stop it anymore; it's breaking through."
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