Gerry Grogan was much like every other U.S. soccer fan enjoying the World Cup match against Belgium on Tuesday at the Mellow Mushroom in Gainesville.
Grogan, sitting at the restaurant’s bar with an American flag protruding from the back of his visor, was hanging on every bit of the action, enjoying the camaraderie with people of all backgrounds who were all cheering for the same U.S. jersey.
“I like the fact that the World Cup brings everyone together,” said Grogan, who lives in Gainesville.
The end result, a 2-1 loss in extra time for the US, spelled the end of its World Cup run, ending any hopes of making the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002.
Still, it was a summer run in Brazil for American soccer fans to remember for a long time. The U.S. made it past the group stage with a win against Ghana, tie against Portugal and loss to Germany.
The Americans, led against Belgium by an outstanding effort from goal keeper Tim Howard’s 16 saves, played a physically superior Belgium squad to the end.
Trailing 2-0 in the final 15 minutes, fans at the restaurant were still hoping for a roaring come-from-behind victory.
The US made it interesting, but fell just short in the end.
“I’m most proud of the fact that the US was able to make it out of the group stage,” said Mark Almand of Gainesville.
The spark for the U.S. came late when 19-year-old Julian Green punched it in with a strike off his right foot to keep the match within range, and hopes of advancing in the picture until the final seconds of the 120-minute match elapsed from the clock.
Still, the promise of a bright national soccer future and burgeoning fan base gives those loyal to the sport locally hope that the Americans will make it deep again in the World Cup in future appearances.
“If you measured it purely on effort, we’d be the World Cup champs,” said Ray Lee, who was a soccer coach at North Forsyth High during his teaching career. “But we still lack the skill to play with some of the more advanced soccer nations in the world.”
The gritty effort by the Americans kept local fans on the edge of their seats until the end.
The U.S. had a number of promising shot attempts miss, none more memorable than the one by substitute Chris Wondolowski in the final minute of the scoreless regulation.
With a step on the defender, Wondolowski had a clear shot on the back of the net, only to have the effort sail over the top of goal keeper’s head and also the cross bar.
“That’s what makes soccer so exciting is that you can win or lose the game in two seconds,” Grogan said while the game was still knotted up and waiting on the extra time to begin.
Going into the extra time, the faithful U.S. fans were hanging onto every ounce of hope that the Americans could scratch out victory.
During the first 90 minutes, the U.S. had Howard make a number of remarkable saves, including a leaping backhanded deflection of the ball over the top of the cross bar.
Howard’s 16 saves was the most in a World Cup match since 1966.
The first strike by Belgium in extra time finally whipped the U.S. into shape, according to Almand. Belgium’s two goals were in rapid succession, making a US comeback unlikely, until Green found the back of the net for the Americans.
“I was disappointed with our game plan,” Almand said. “I thought we played sleepy until Belgium scored the first goal.
“That was the first time we looked good the entire match.”
An outstanding performance from Howard was also likely the last for the 35-year-old goalkeeper in World Cup play. Among his many stops, Howard made two with outstretched hands, one with his foot and another on a straight-on kick he stopped dead in its tracks.
Still, the World Cup experience had to be chalked up as a successful one for the U.S., considering it survived the feared four-team “Group of Death”
“I’m happy that the US was able to make it this far,” Almand added. “(Belgium) was the best possible matchup we could have asked for.”