Rea: U.S. comes so close, yet so much to be proud of in World Cup _lowres

Associated Press photo by Themba Hadebe -- U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard makes a save against Belgium's Vincent Kompany during their World Cup round of 16 soccer match Tuesday at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil. Howard had 16 saves in the 2-1 overtime loss.

At least they died with their boots on.

The Americans are out of the World Cup, but they went down fighting. Not with a whimper, not waving a white flag, not fading away with a tepid and insipid display.

Their thrilling and bloody campaign — remember, two players suffered broken noses in this tournament — ended with a brave, all-out assault that had the Belgian defenders hacking and slicing at the ball in desperation.

And it could have been so different. Oh so different.

Soccer is a game with few stoppages, the play ebbing and flowing and switching around the field for up to two hours. But at this tournament, going head-to-head with the very best countries on the planet, it often comes down to pivotal moments. The hopes and dreams of a nation can rest on that millisecond slice of action — and twice the U.S. team came heartbreakingly close to writing the greatest chapter in its soccer history.

In the final minute of injury time, with the teams still scoreless, alert U.S. substitute Chris Wondolowski pounced on a loose ball in the 6-yard box but sent his shot wide. If he had hit the target, what a different story you would be reading today.

Then, with two minutes left in extra time, a clever free-kick routine saw Clint Dempsey bear down one-on-one with the Belgian goalie, Thibaut Courtois. But for his excellent, finger-tip reaction save, it could have been the greatest extra-time comeback in World Cup history.

That’s not to blame either player but to illustrate the razor-thin margin between creating soccer history and catching the next plane home.

It was a gripping match that yielded a roller coaster of emotions.

Still think goal-less ties are boring and dull?

American keeper Tim Howard was a superhuman custodian as the Europeans continually battered the American defensive ramparts.

Time after time he leapt, dived and punched his way to the rescue, and you sensed that if the Red Devils scored once, then the castle walls would crumble completely. It was tense, nail-biting and nerve-shredding stuff.

But as the match wore on, I believed it might be the Americans’ night. You could sense the Belgians’ anxiety increase as chances ebbed away. And by extra time, I could see the U.S. team manage a goal.

But the depth of talent on the bench finally told. Belgium brought on Romelu Lukaku, a striker who has scored more than 30 goals in two seasons in England, probably the toughest league in the world. He set up one goal and then scored another.

In contrast, the U.S. substitute was teenager Julian Green, who has a total of two minutes of first-team experience in the German Bundesliga. Although the gamble paid off spectacularly when he scored on his very first touch, the difference in experience is telling.

But that lifeline breathed belief into a tiring team, and those last 10 minutes, with the Americans bombing forward in a last-ditch attempt to level the score, were some of the most frantic, frenetic and exciting moments of soccer imaginable.

You may ask why they didn’t play like that sooner, but if they had been so open and offensive from the start, then they probably would have been five goals behind by halftime.

It was only because they had nothing to lose that they were freed from the need to stifle the Belgians and threw caution to the wind. And on another day, they may have snatched an equalizer.

The Americans’ adventure on the world soccer stage has ended for another four years. They couldn’t quite write the Hollywood ending, but they leave this theatre with their heads held high.