SALVADOR, Brazil — When the 121st minute expired at Arena Fonte Nova on Tuesday, ending another evening of high World Cup drama, the U.S. soccer team's players folded under the exhaustion and disappointment of a 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium. Some fell to their knees or on their backs, others stood motionless or buried their faces.
They had endured merciless duress, pushed the round of 16 match beyond regulation and fallen behind by two goals before almost executing an unfathomable comeback.
"We played our hearts out tonight," said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who finished with 16 saves — the most in the World Cup since FIFA started keeping track in 2002, according to the Associated Press, and bettering the record of 13 by Peru's Ramon Quiroga in 1978 against the Netherlands, according to ESPN. "We've been playing well all tournament. Sometimes when you give it the best and you fight and you scrap through it, it doesn't work out."
In the end, as 51,227 spectators caught their breath, the Americans were ushered out of the tournament by a Belgian side pegged to contend for the championship.
"It was a game that just went to the extreme," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "We all are very, very proud of our team, of every player stepping on the field today. They gave everything they had. I think they made our country proud."
Throughout the tournament, the Americans had talked about, in the absence of artistic soccer, grinding out the necessary results. They had displayed moments of grace in the group stage, but for the most part, they had reverted to blue-collar tenets.
On Tuesday, they were caught in one-way traffic for almost the entire second half, 45-plus minutes of near calamity. Superb saves by Howard and desperate work by a tiring back line maintained the deadlock until the third of 30 extra minutes.
Said Klinsmann: "I think they all went to their limits. They gave everything they had."
Romelu Lukaku's fresh legs and powerful upper body made the difference. Three minutes into extra time he muscled past Matt Besler and roared toward the end line before aiming a cross for Kevin De Bruyne. On his heels, Omar Gonzalez poked at it. De Bruyne gathered the ball, steered wide and fired an angled 8-yarder to the far lower corner of the net.
De Bruyne and Lukaku combined for what appeared to secure victory in the 105th minute. Leading a counterattack, De Bruyne led his teammate into the box for a 12-yard one-timer to the near side.
Five minutes later, however, 19-year-old attacker Julian Green, who was born at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, scored on a wonderful volley off Michael Bradley's pass.
"I was sure that we would make the second goal and we would go to the penalty shootout," Green told the AP.
But, on a cleverly designed and executed free kick deep in Belgium's end, Red Devils goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois made a reflex save on Clint Dempsey's open bid from close range.
"Obviously, it's a bummer for us, ending on the losing side after a game of 120 minutes that I think gave everything to the fans, to the crowd — a real drama, a thriller," Klinsmann said. "We had enough possibilities to equalize that game in the end or even put it away earlier."
Thoroughly dominated in the second half, the Americans had stirred in the final moments of regulation. But Chris Wondolowski, MLS's surest finisher, missed high on a wide-open half-volley from 6 yards. Jermaine Jones had headed Geoff Cameron's ball into a gaping pocket beyond Belgium's stretched back line.
The assistant referee raised his flag, signaling offside, although TV replays showed he was onside. Wondolowski missed anyway, averting furious controversy.
"All of the players today just went beyond their capabilities," Klinsmann said. "I told them in the locker room they should be very, very proud and take a lot of positive stuff back home after this World Cup."