Tim Howard had the game of his career against Belgium in the Round of 16. (www.AndyMead/YCJPhoto)

By Michael Lewis
FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

The last time the U.S. men’s national team participated in a World Cup, the side reached the Round of 16 at Brazil 2014.

That was more than eight years ago.

On Monday, the Americans take on Wales in their opener in Qatar on Monday at 2 p.m. ET (FOX).

Before the match kicks off, take some time to take a look back on how the USA fared in Brazil:

A dream finish

NATAL, Brazil — John Brooks had a dream that he was going to score the winning goal and because it came true, the United States still has its dream of reaching the second round of the World Cup.

Brooks, a second-half substitute, connected on Graham Zusi’s corner kick in the 86th minute to boost the Americans to a dramatic and thrilling 2-1 victory over World Cup nemesis Ghana in Natal on June 16. The win gave the USA a fighting chance of getting out of Group G in one piece.

“It’s a great moment for me,” Brooks said. “Unbelievable. I had a dream [two days ago]. I told some teammates I dreamed I scored in the 80th minute and we win the game. And now it was the 86th minute and we won.”

After scoring, Brooks lied down on the field.

“I thanked God for the great moment,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Coach Jurgen Klinsmann might not go that far to thank a higher deity, although he might want to thank his team for putting in a gritty performance against the team that eliminated his side from the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.

“We just have to grind it out and push and push,” he said. “We have some great spirit.

“It was fun.”

Clint Dempsey, who became the first American to score in three World Cups, agreed.

“It’s a huge three points,” he. “We grinded it out. It wasn’t our best game, but we showed a lot of character.”

“Everybody played their hearts out.”

The Americans will need a draw against Portugal (June 22) or Germany (June 26) to secure a spot in the knockout round. The Germans trampled the Portuguese earlier Monday, 4-0.

They might have to play without two starters who sustained first-half injuries — striker Jozy Altidore (strained left hamstring while running down the ball on the left flank in the 18th minute) and center back Matt Besler (tightness in his right hamstring). Besler was replaced by Brooks at halftime.

“We rely a lot on Jozy,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “That’s no secret. To lose him at that point is 8difficult.”

Vice President Joe Biden joined 39,760 spectators – there reportedly was 20,000 USA fans – to watch an entertaining and physical match.

Only 29 seconds after kickoff, Clint Dempsey gave the enthusiastic American fans something to cheer about.

Beasley started the scoring sequence with a throw-in to Dempsey, who returned the ball to the left back. Beasley passed to Jermaine Jones who sent the ball to Dempsey, who faked out defender John Boye in the penalty area and launched a left-footed shot from seven yards that bounded off the far right post past goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.

It was the earliest USA World Cup goal in history and the fifth earliest goal in cup history as Dempsey became the first American to score in three World Cups.

“Jermaine Jones sent a good ball in,” he said. “I cut back on the defender. Once I cut back, I saw some space. I just tried to hit it as hard as I could at the far post and it went in.”

Dempsey was knocked out of the match when he was kicked in the face by Boye in the 33rd minute.

Dempsey said he went “as long as I could. I had trouble breathing. I coughed up blood.

“I felt fine and I kept going. I got a little tired. Hopefully I will be able to start breathing through my nose again before the next game.”

Ghana just about laid siege to the U.S. goal for most of the second half and managed to connect for the equalizer in the 82nd minute on an Andre Ayes score past goalkeeper Tim Howard at the near left post.

“To get the goal a little bit early in the game caused us to be more on the defensive,” Dempsey said. “I thought they played pretty well. I think we didn’t help ourselves at times in terms of keeping possession. a credit to our game to keep fighting.”

“I was still convinced we were going to win the game after the equalizer,” Klinsmann said. “I thought another two or three opportunities would come.”

Klinsmann was correct.

The game-winner was scored via a pair of second-half substitutes. Zusi, who replaced Alejandro Bedoya, floated in a corner kick to Brooks, who tallied his first international goal.

A tough way  to tie

So close, yet so far away.

Only seconds from registering a win over Portugal and clinching a spot in the Round of 16 in the World Cup, the United States surrendered an 11th-hour goal and was forced to settle for a 2-2 with Portugal on in Manaus on June 22.

Varela headed a a cross from Cristiano Ronaldo past Tim Howard five minutes into stoppage time to give the Portuguese a lifeline in the World Cup while leaving the Americans stunned at a hot and humid Arena Amazonia.

“Too long. Thirty seconds too long,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “We had one foot in the door, but there’s a small bit of disappointment.”

Dempsey, whose 81st-minute goal had given the USA a 2-1 advantage, agreed.

“Obviously we’re disappointed,” he said. “But at the end of the day you have to look at the positives. We got a point. We’re on four points now. This is going to go down to the last game and hopefully we’re going to get the job done.”

The Americans (1-0-1, four points) will have to get the job done against Germany in Recife Thursday.

They need a win or a tie with Germany (1-0-1, four) to clinch a spot in the Round of 16 in Recife on Thursday. Portugal (0-1-1-, one), which kept its slim hopes alive, will meet Ghana (0-1-1, one) on Thursday as well.

Dempsey, who played without a mask after breaking his nose in the 2-1 win over Ghana, had thought he had scored the winning goal in the 81st minute as he pushed in a rebound of a Graham Zusi shot past goalkeeper Beto.

“I just tried to stay onside and when the ball came across just put it on my chest and I was happy that the linesman kept his flag down,” Dempsey said.

The game had plenty of twists of turns from early goals to comebacks to some vital saves by Howard.

“Crazy game,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “We put so much into it.”

The USA endured a disastrous start in the fifth minute when a poor clearance gave Portugal a goal on a silver platter. Geoff Cameron tried to clear a cross and instead booted it to an unmarked Nani, who beat Howard from six yards.

The Americans plugged away before equalizing on Jermaine Jones’s 26-yard blast to the lower right corner in the 64th minute.

Dempsey’s second goal of the Cup made it 2-1 the USA in the 81st minute.

As the final seconds were ticking down, Bradley lost the ball to Varela at midfield. The ball eventually was worked to Ronaldo, held in check by the USA for most of the match, sent a right-wing cross to Varela, who headed past Howard.

“Football is cruel sometimes,” Howard said.

“It’s a bummer for a moment that you have to swallow,” Klinsmann said. “These finishes are very emotional for all of us, for the fans, the players and the bench. This is what the World Cup is about. You have to cross it off and move on.”

Dempsey tried to look on the bright side.

“We put in a good performance,” he said. “We played better than last game, moved the ball a lot better, created more chances and were just unlucky not to get three points. But, at the end of the day we got a point and we’re still looking good in the group.”

A loss, but a big win

It took about a minute for the result to become official and only a second for it to settle in.

A little more than a minute after the United States dropped a 1-0 Group G decision to Germany Thursday, the Americans discovered they had booked a spot in the Round of 16 at the World Cup despite the loss in Recife on June 26.

The scoreboard at Arena Pernambuco flashed the final score from Brasilia: Portugal 2, Ghana 1. The fans cheered and the American supporters chanted, “USA! USA!” The players hugged each other on the field.

USA center back Matt Besler said he felt “joy, relief.”

“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he added. “We’re still hungry.”

Besler and his teammates will get a chance to whet their appetites Tuesday, when they meet Belgium in the second round in Salvador. Belgium (3-0-0) secured the Group H crown with a 1-0 victory over Algeria Thursday.

The Americans experienced mixed emotions after the game, played on rainy, soggy conditions after torrential rains caused massive flooding in the area. Some of the USA players’ families, including those of center back Omar Gonzalez and captain Clint Demspey could not attend the game because they could not travel out of the downtown area.

“Last game’s a draw, felt like a loss and today’s loss felt like a win,” center back Omar Gonzalez said, referring to the USA allowing an 11th-hour goal in a 2-2 draw with Portugal in Manaus Sunday. “It’s pretty weird. But our mission from the beginning was to get to the next round and job well done.”

While it was hardly pretty, the Americans (1-1-1, four points) did accomplish their mission, finishing second to Germany (2-0-1, seven) as they survived the Group of Death by reaching the knockout round in consecutive Cups for the first time.

They edged past Portugal (1-1-1, four) on goal differential, zero to minus three. In a match played at the same time, the Portuguese defeated Ghana (0-2-1, one), 2-1.

“It’s huge for us getting out of this group that everybody said, ‘You have no chance,’ ” Klinsmann said. “We really want to prove a point.”

The Americans did not earn a point, but they managed to survive.

“It was weird conditions in terms of all the rain and not having a proper warm-up on the field,” Dempsey said about both teams warming up behind the advertising signs. “You’re having to go behind the goal, y2ou’re not even getting to do a possession game.

“Also in the back of your mind, a lot of your family not being able to make it to the game just wanting to make sure they were safe. There were a lot of factors going into today’s game that made it a difficult.”

The game, played before 41,876, certainly won’t be among the most memorable in U.S. history. The Germans enjoyed a sizable time of possession having the ball 63 percent of the time, while outshooting the USA, 13-4. The Americans had only one shot on goal — by Alejandro Bedoya in the second half.

But they persevered behind some usual and unlikely heroes.

Jones, who feared he broke his nose in a second-half collision with Bedoya, played his normal hard-edged game at both ends. Goalkeeper Tim Howard was a rock, making eight saves, although he could not stop Thomas Muller from scoring his fourth goal of the tournament in the 54th minute.

Muller converted a rebound of a shot a two-handed Howard save as he fired a shot from 20 yards into the lower right corner.

“As I was closing down Muller, I decided not to slide,” said Besler, a member of Sporting Kansas City. “I tried to stand up and make myself big. He hit to a spot where no one could get to it.”

Alongside Besler in the Starting XI was Gonzalez, a surprise selection in place of Geoff Cameron, whose mistake led to Portugal’s first goal. Gonzalez, who has been hampered with a left knee injury, acquitted himself well, heading at least three dangerous balls out of harm’s way, including a left-wing cross that was targeted for Mesuit Ozil’s head in the 15th minute.

“He got thrown into the firing line, but he did well, had some good clearances, read the game well,” Howard said. “It was just about managing it. Between him and Matty trying to manage the back line and the guys in front of them and really not allow Germany to open up and get in a flow.”

Howard’s end, and the team’s as well

Howard played a game of a lifetime on Tuesday night, but even his extraordinary performance could not give the United States a lifeline in Salvador on July 1.

Howard made 16 saves, some of them spectacular, to keep the Americans alive in their Round of 16 match at Arena Fonte Nova, but even the 35-year-old is mortal.

He could not stop a relentless Belgium team from scoring twice in extratime to register a 2-1 victory and eliminate the Americans from the competition.

The Belgians will play Argentina, 1-0 winners over Switzerland Tuesday, in Sunday’s quarterfinals.

Howard put one of the most brilliant goalkeeping displays in Cup history. He made 16 saves, the most in 48 years, or since records started to be kept at the 1966 World Cup.

But that fabulous performance could not wash away the bittersweet taste of defeat from the team.

“We played our hearts out tonight,” he said. “Sometimes you give your best and fight and scratch and it doesn’t work out. Tonight we gave a valiant performance. It hurts.

“We dreamed. We fell short of our dream.”

So the Americans exited the World Cup at the same stage and under similar circumstances as in 2010 — losing in extratime, 2-1. This time they survived the Group of Death, but they felt they could have gone further.

“We can be proud and we can be sad,” center back Omar Gonzalez said. “Our journey ends tonight.”

“Of course it’s bittersweet,” Besler said. “We’re going to hold our heads high and hold our chest out because we are proud of what we did. We are proud of how we fought and left everything on the field, but we feel like we could be playing in the quarterfinals. We feel like we have the team to do that.”

Dempsey: “Credit to us. We never gave up, going to 2-0 down. Kept fighting. To this team, a lot of respect because we went down with a fight and we pushed to the very end and I think they knew that we were the ones who were pushing to get the equalizer.”

Howard, 35, did just about everything in his power he could to keep the USA afloat, whether it was parrying the ball over the net or making one of his spectacular kick saves, probably his best was on Kevin Mirallas in the 76th minute.

“None of that really matters for me,” Howard said. “That’s what I signed up to do, my face in front of balls. It’s part of the job. It hurts when you lose. Whether you had no saves or 20 saves it doesn’t mean any more to us.”

Besler said Howard played “unbelievably.”

“Tim played tonight just phenomenal, was outstanding,” Klinsmann said. “You can just give him the biggest compliments in the world.”

After surviving a barrage of Belgian shots – they outshot the USA, 38-14, while placing 27 on net – the Americans finally cracked in the two 15-minute extra-time periods.

As it turned out, Howard was done in by an Everton FC teammate – forward Romelu Lukaku, who replaced Divock Origi at the start of extra time and who created the first goal and scored the second.

“He was the X-factor for them,” Gonzalez said. “Coming on so late, he is truly a force to be reckoned with.

“For him to come on so late and for guys who been working their [butts] off, having to chase him around was definitely tough on us.”

Kevin De Bruyne, frustrated by Howard several times, scored three minutes into the first extra period. Lukaku got around Besler, who slipped at midfield. He raced down the right side and crossed the ball into the middle. It went off a defender to De Bruyne, whose right-footed effort beat a diving Howard to the far left side. Howard fell onto his back in stunned disbelief.

“I’d like to have that first one back,” Besler said. “I thought I could make a play on the ball. I took a shot and missed and lost my balance.”

Lukaku took advantage of those fresh legs, connecting off a counterattack in the 105th minute.

USA midfielder Juilian Green, the 19-year-old who has seen action on the Bayern Munich reserve team, made his Cup debut in spectacular fashion, scoring off a nine-yard volley via a MIchael Bradley feed two minutes after replacing Alejandro Bedoya.

“It was just phenomenal how he came in and scored that goal and gets us back,” Klinsmann said. “It’s fun to watch that kid grow,”

But for the USA, it was too little and too late.