It takes something special for a goalkeeper to play just four games at the World Cup but still win the coveted “Golden Gloves” award.
The last time that happened was 20 years ago when Belgium’s Michel Preud’homme took the honor despite his team’s premature elimination at the hands of Jürgen Klinsmann and Germany. Could the United States’ goalkeeper Tim Howard follow suit? His goalkeeping performance on Tuesday against Belgium were the best goalkeeping performance of the World Cup.
In defeat, it was a cruel reminder that not all champions come remotely close to winning a medal.
Unlike the cruel ending to America’s game against Portugal, few can claim that Belgium deserved anything but their 2-1 victory. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne tormented the U.S. defense, Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel bullied the midfield, and Vincent Kompany was as solid as usual.
This was a dominant performance from a team pulsing with quality that could have got ugly had Howard not been between the sticks. Put simply, the Everton goalkeeper didn’t pull-off a record number of saves at a World Cup match because his opponents failed to turn up.
The Belgians were dominant throughout the first-half, hardly giving their opponents a sniff at goal while constantly throwing waves of attacks at Howard’s goal. As Michael Bradley yet again struggled to assert his authority on the game, the U.S. was overwhelmed in midfield and had very little coverage for their under-siege goalkeeper.
Both Divock Origi and De Bruyne wasted great opportunities to put the Belgians ahead while Tottenham Hotspur’s Jan Vertonghen tested Howard from distance. Fellaini probably thought he had done enough to give Belgium the lead before his finish was cleared off the line by the impressive DaMarcus Beasley.
In the second half, the United States still struggled to control much possession, but did get some better opportunities. Bradley started to emerge from obscurity, but it was fairly clear that Klinsmann’s decision to drop Kyle Beckerman was leaving a massive vacuum in midfield that the Toronto star was struggling to fill.
Belgium continued to press forward, and Howard made impressive stops from Origi, Kevin Mirallas, Fellaini and even the defender Kompany. With minutes to go, the Americans thought they might even win it, only Chris Wondolowski sent his shot over the crossbar from six yards. The linesman saved the San Jose Earthquakes’ forward some embarrassment, however, when he wrongly flagged him for offside.
As the Americans continued to scrap, the Belgians made a crucial substitution when they switched the wasteful Origi for Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku. The impact was immediate.
Lukaku outmuscled his marker and charged down the right-wing before his blocked shot teed-up the impressive De Bruyne. The Chelsea midfielder who played for Everton last season twisted and turned before finally breaking the deadlock — nestling a sweet finish beyond Howard. Just twelve minutes later, De Bruyne returned the favor as he threaded a ball through to Lukaku, who powered a shot past the American goalkeeper. Job done. Or so it appeared.
With the U.S. appearing dead and buried, Klinsmann took the surprising step to introduce Bayern Munich starlet Julian Green, who immediately rewarded his coach’s faith. Green volleyed a perfectly lofted ball by Bradley past Thibaut Courtois to give the Americans a lifeline with just 13 minutes remaining. Rather than Howard, Courtois was the busier goalkeeper, pulling off an impressive save from Clint Dempsey while Jermaine Jones spurned a glorious chance. It was not to be. The Belgians held on and sent the U.S. packing.
What we learned about … the United States: Other than the last 15 minutes of extra time, things just didn’t quite click for the United States Tuesday. Bradley was yet again inconsistent, while the Belgians took advantage of Beckerman’s absence by dominating the midfield. Beckerman, who has been on the World Cup’s star performers, was benched in favor of Geoff Cameron, who was tasked with defending Hazard. The switch didn’t work.
On the positive side, youngster DeAndre Yedlin looked lively and put in a fantastic performance when he replaced the injured Fabian Johnson at right back. Omar Gonzalez and Beasley were also impressive, while Howard played the game of his life. Whether he will play for the United States in four years remains to be seen — he’ll be 39. The United States have only seen the start of Julian Green — who is 16 years Howard’s junior.
What we learned about … Belgium: Even if they were slightly wasteful at times, the Belgians answered their critics by putting in an impressive performance against stubborn opposition and deserved to win. Their opponents in the next round, Argentina, have been far from impressive and will hardly be too eager to face the attacking prowess of De Bruyne, Hazard, Mirallas, Origi and Lukaku. It’s also worth mentioning that Kompany, who has suffered some injuries this past season, continues to impress at this tournament, showing yet again why he is the greatest defender in the world.
Ewan Watt writes extensively on state and national issues in the U.S., covering the 2012 presidential election for both print and online publications. He is providing commentary for the Daily Caller on a regular basis throughout the World Cup. He writes strictly in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewancwatt