As close as the USMNT came to dragging Belgium to penalties during its second half of extra time fury, we have to remember that our team had no business being in that position. With the quality of chances Belgium created throughout the match's 120 minutes, they should've scored early and often. They did not, only because of the brilliance of our goalkeeper, Tim Howard.
There's not much else to say besides that Howard's masterclass in goalkeeping was likely the best many of us will ever see. In a tournament replete with amazing goalkeeping, Howard's performance topped them all. In total, he laid in wait while 39 Belgian shots flew at his goal. Thirty-nine! Twenty-five inside the box! Seventeen of those shots were on target, and Howard kicked, punched, smacked, tipped, nudged, or caught 15 of them, the most any keeper in a World Cup has made since they started keeping track in 1966. (Also: there are a number of shot stats going around, claiming Howard made anywhere from 12 to 17 saves. I'm going with FourFourTwo's stats.)
That number, 15, is probably ridiculous enough already, but the way he made those saves was even more impressive. So many times he found himself one-on-one with a Belgian attacker—and remember, that team is second to none when it comes to attacking players—bearing down on him, with maybe one U.S. defender on his hip. In those situations Howard shuffled his feet to cut down the shooter's angles, slightly leaned his upper body to block any near post effort, and positioned his fit just so, so that he could then kick away any ensuing far post shot. Or he'd watch Belgium passing the ball from side to side in his third of the field, sliding left in right in response, always in position to parry out a low drive looking for one of his corners or to palm over a belter destined for the upper reaches of his goal. At every moment, all his bases were covered.
Even on their two goals, you can't find fault with Howard. Kevin de Bruyne found just a sliver of space from a nearly impossible angle to pass the ball through, which barely rolled wide of the keeper's outstretched leg. Romelu Lukaku's goal was bludgeoned so hard that even if it would've caught Howard in the chest, it probably would've taken the man with it into the net.
It was a perfect performance, and not just because Who Scored gave him a 10 for it. The best part about the stats from yesterday's match is that they reinforce what we believed we were seeing in real time. Sports have the tendency to feel meaningful—special, even—in the moment. That last shot was the hardest you've ever seen, coming from the best performance by a striker you've ever seen, until you reflect on it and realize that that's always how it feels.
Numbers like these prove that yes, what felt unprecedented actually was without peer, and it really did take a superhuman day in goal to allow us to come so close to survival. The U.S. didn't waste a once-in-a-lifetime performance by losing; they were only able to compete in the first place because of what Tim Howard was able to do.
We've mentioned before how the World Cup, this one included, is often decided by razor-thin margins brought about by the individual talent of the world's handful of truly elite players. This makes the USMNT sort of an anomaly. We haven't had one transcendent star to pull us toward success. Even in the heyday of our best approximation of a dominant force, Landon Donovan, we were never the team to get the ball to our best player and let him go to work.
Coming into this tournament, it looked like Michael Bradley was finally the American to at least pull all the strings out there, if not quite hit Messi levels of total control over a match. While Bradley didn't play as poorly as many insisted, he nevertheless was a disappointment in terms of being "the guy" for the USMNT. Jozy Altidore was robbed of the chance to star this summer with his hamstring injury, though his club form didn't augur well for a breakout anyway. Jermaine Jones came closest of all the outfield players, storming forward and backward and side to side in each match, but more as a peak version of what we've come to expect of an American player rather than reaching a new plateau.
Still, it would be a misnomer to say the USMNT didn't have individual greatness in Brazil. It came from the very back of our team, from the player who moved the least but influenced the most. Without Howard's displays in every game, and especially the last one, we wouldn't have had a shot to come close to accomplishing anything. With him in the team, we got to enjoy at least three iconic USMNT performances, and up to the very end, we still had a fighting chance. Unless you're one of the real soccer bluebloods, that's as much as you can ask for.