RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
America's soccer party is over. Yesterday, at the World Cup, Belgium beat the U.S. two-to-one in overtime. That defeat ended a two-week run that saw the U.S. men's national team prove doubters wrong by advancing out of its difficult opening-round group.
The team also generated unprecedented soccer attention in the U.S. We'll hear from a crowd of fans in Kansas City in a few moments. First, though, let's go to the city of Salvador, Brazil, where NPR's Tom Goldman reports on how the game went down yesterday.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Goal-keeper Tim Howard was the last U.S. player to come out and meet with reporters after the game. He'd been held up in doping control - a random thing. He wasn't being drug tested because of what he'd just done in the field at Arena Fonte Nova. What he did earned him the Man of the Match honors. He was carrying the trophy in a silver briefcase, but all the lunging, scrambling saves - 16 of them - left him singularly unimpressed.
TIM HOWARD: That's what I signed up to do, you know - stick my face in front of balls. It's nothing. You know, I hope I can get more saves than I allow goals.
GOLDMAN: Oh, he did. The 16 saves were the most in a World Cup match since 1966. Many of them happened in a thunderous, last 10 or so minutes in regulation time when Belgium launched an all-out assault that was repelled time and again by the U.S. defense and, when the ball got through them, by Howard - increasingly exhausting for the U.S., increasingly frustrating for Belgian forward, Divock Origi.
DIVOCK ORIGI: It's not easy if you see that you try every time to score, it doesn't go in. Mentally, you have to be strong, and you have to stay calm.
GOLDMAN: Meanwhile, Howard, the guy doing all the sprawling and prompting all the ohs and ahs from both sets of fans, was not feeling calm.
HOWARD: No. I think if this continues, then we're in trouble.
GOLDMAN: Trouble came a few minutes into the first overtime period. Belgian forward Romelu Lukau had just entered the game with fresh legs. He blasted down the right side, found the teammate Kevin De Bruyne, who maneuvered into position and got a ball, finally, past Howard. The same combo teamed up minutes later this time De Bruyne finding Lekaku for a score in a two-oh lead.
Insurmountable? Pshaw. That team on the other side of the ball may have come up short on skill during the tournament, but not on heart. American character became the U.S. calling card. OK, German-American character, too. Nineteen-year-old German-American Julien Green subbed into the game, then promptly took a perfect pass over the top from Michael Bradley and volleyed the ball into the back of the net. And then, he did a very un-19-year-old kind of thing. He didn't really celebrate, just went back to the line to get ready for what he thought would be more.
JULIEN GREEN: I was sure that we would make the second goal, and we'd go to the penalty shootout, but...
GOLDMAN: The Americans had their chances - several great looks in the final, frenzied minutes of the second overtime period. But as was the case throughout the tournament, they couldn't get a goal when they really needed one. Afterwards, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann lamented that his players waited too long to take it to their opponents not just last night, but throughout the World Cup.
Now that it's debrief time, Klinsmann will be second-guessed by some for the way he assembled this team, leaving off veterans like Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson, who understand the importance of ball possession and pressing the offensive attack. But there are plenty, from Klinsmann to his players to fans trekking around Brazil, like Aaron Rockland of Austin, Texas, for whom this World Cup was more than half full.
AARON ROCKLAND: To be here in the final 16, representing the world in such high fashion, is remarkable. And while I'm sad we lost, we all have a lot to be proud of.
GOLDMAN: From the play on the field to the attention generated in the U.S. to the fact that Klinsmann's long-term contract will allow him to build on what happened over two weeks in Brazil. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Salvador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.