It’s best not to dwell in the past. But two days after the U.S. lost to Belgium in the knockout round of the World Cup, I can’t help but imagine a fantastical world in which the U.S. men’s national team is getting set to play Argentina on Saturday. After holding Belgium to a scoreless draw in regulation, the United States fell behind 2-0 in extra time before 19-year-old Julian Green got one back with a brilliant right-footed volley. And then, in the 114th minute, the U.S. pulled off an absolutely brilliant set piece that nearly tied the score 2-2.
This replay, shown a minute later on the ESPN broadcast, offers the best view of what was nearly the most brilliant maneuver of the 2014 World Cup.
First, Jermaine Jones streaks in front of Michael Bradley, helping to camouflage the Americans’ true intentions. Bradley then taps a diagonal ball to the cutting Chris Wondolowski. The Belgian wall, which had been primed for a Bradley shot, busts apart as five players scatter aimlessly. As the Red Devils scramble, Clint Dempsey races to the front of the goal, and Wondolowski’s pass hits him in stride. At this point, the Belgians have been thoroughly beaten. The men in red are standing, watching, and hoping that the play breaks down, somehow.
It does. Dempsey’s first touch is heavy, perhaps because Wondolowski struck his pass with a bit too much pace. Instead of gathering it smoothly and smashing it into the net, Dempsey now races to control the ball.
There’s also one Belgian player who’s not absolutely dumbstruck. To his credit, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois comes off his line quickly. It’s a world-class move by a world-class player: Courtois is just fast enough to slide in and dispossess Dempsey before the American forward can regain possession.
If Courtois had stayed in place, Dempsey would have slotted the ball in and tied the match 2-2. Instead, the Belgians held on for a deserved victory. In the end, this play stands as a microcosm of the Americans’ performance at the 2014 World Cup. It was surprising, thrilling, and not quite good enough to beat one of the best teams in the world.