U.S. loss ends the World Cup debuts for Sporting KC’s Matt Besler, Graham Zusi

07/01/2014 11:30 PM

07/01/2014 11:32 PM

For the fourth time in a three-week World Cup run, a United States men’s national team match drew more than 10,000 fans to a watch party in downtown Kansas City. The ESPN cameras filmed the latest gathering at the Power & Light District, the site of yet another vibrant atmosphere in a suddenly soccer-crazed city.

But the party is over.

Belgium eliminated the United States from the World Cup on Tuesday with a 2-1 victory in extra time of the Round of 16 match — spelling the end of spirited World Cup debuts from Sporting Kansas City players Matt Besler and Graham Zusi.

“We showed a lot of grit and passion throughout the World Cup, and I’m just really proud of the guys, especially Graham Zusi and Besler,” said Sporting KC goalkeeper Eric Kronberg, who attended the watch party. “They both had very good World Cups. They were on the big stage, and they didn’t flinch. Their Sporting fans should feel proud.”

Zusi and Besler both started Tuesday against Belgium, with Besler playing the full 120 minutes. Zusi was substituted out of the match in the 72nd minute.

With the two Sporting KC players playing key roles, the American reached the knockout stage for the second consecutive World Cup. But they failed to record a victory in either instance.

They played on their heels for the majority of the match Tuesday. Belgium attempted 38 shots compared to just 14 for the United States. That put the pressure on goalkeeper Tim Howard, who responded with 16 saves, the most in a World Cup match since 1966.

“Tim Howard had one of the best games I’ve ever seen a goalkeeper have at the World Cup,” Kronberg said. “It was by far the best game I’ve seen a goalkeeper have in a United States jersey. But when you’re making that many saves, sometimes it catches up to you. It’s hard to keep them all out of the back of the net.”

He kept the game scoreless until the third minute of extra time, when Kevin De Bruyne finished off a chance started by Romelu Lukaku, who took advantage of an odd-man break after Besler lost his balance. Lukaku scored 12 minutes later, pushing the Belgium lead to 2-0.

Julian Green closed the gap to 2-1 in the 107th minute, and a visibly worn-down United States team put together a frantic finish over the final 13 minutes.

“I thought we gave them too much of the field,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “I just think we backed off them a lot, and it gave them almost two-thirds of the field without any real pressure. They didn’t have to expend a lot of energy, and as a result, I think that’s why they created so many chances late in the game.”

Howard survived the constant attack in regulation — and he was aided early in the match by the back line’s ability to prevent quality touches on Belgium’s crossing attempts. But the attack became too much in extra time, with the United States showing signs of fatigue.

Vermes attributed that to the team’s travel schedule, which included more than 9,000 miles during group play — the most of any country.

“Unfortunately they had to travel way too far to go to every match, and that takes a toll on your body. I think it caught up to them,” Vermes said. “But those guys played well and worked hard. They definitely accomplished something. It’s just unfortunate they didn’t get past this round. I thought coming into the day that they had a decent chance. They let one slip away.”

To reach Sam McDowell, send email to smcdowell@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/SamMcDowell11.

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