SALVADOR, Brazil (AP) — They captured the eyes and hearts of a suddenly awakened soccer nation, who gathered in unprecedented numbers to watch the world's game.
But the end of the ride came at the exact same point as four years ago: with an overtime loss in the World Cup's round of 16.
Kevin De Bruyne finally beat goalkeeper Tim Howard in the third minute of extra time, Romelu Lukaku scored 12 minutes later to give Belgium a two-goal lead, and the Red Devils hung on for a 2-1 victory Tuesday.
"It's heartbreaking," Howard said. "I don't think we could have given it more."
Before exiting, the U.S. showed the spunk that captured America's attention. Julian Green, at 19 the youngest player on the U.S. roster, stuck out his right foot to volley in Michael Bradley's pass over the defense in the 107th minute, two minutes after entering the game.
They nearly tied it up in the 114th, when Clint Dempsey peeled off the ball and was stopped point-blank by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois after being fed by Bradley on a free kick.
But it wasn't enough, and U.S. players fell to the field at the final whistle in their all-white uniforms like so many crumpled tissues.
"You get to this point and these games are always about a play here and play there," Bradley said.
The Americans advanced from a difficult first-round group that included Germany, Portugal and Ghana to reach the knockout rounds of consecutive World Cups for the first time. Four years ago, they were eliminated in South Africa by Ghana 1-0 on a goal in the third minute of overtime.
Fans who had made the trek south of the equator chanting "I believe that we will win!" could hardly believe they lost, extending a World Cup winless streak against European nations to nine games over 12 years.