The USA could have won their game against Belgium. Chris Wondolowski nearly scored in stoppage time, skewing his shot wide with only the goalie in front of him (though he may have been called offside); after falling behind 2-0 in extra time, Julian Green scored for the USA, and gave the Americans hope of tying the game and winning on penalty kicks, which Clint Dempsey nearly pulled off from a set piece.
It all could have happened. Tim Howard was massive in goal, making 16 saves, the most of a keeper in recorded World Cup history. Belgium dominated the game, for sure, but the USA refused to break for all of regulation, and we got to hope.
Heart-breaking? No. Belgium deserved the win, deserved the two goals they got in extra time, and deserve to play Argentina this weekend in the quarterfinals. But heart-stopping? You had better believe it.
It is possible to find small moral victories all over the field in the USA's performance - Howard, Green's goal, everything DeAndre Yedlin did. And it is also possible to dismiss the Belgium win as a simple equation: Belgium is better than the USA because they have better players, all over the field, and a win for America would have been an upset. And it is also possible to appreciate the Americans' tenacity to come back, after being dead and buried in extra time, to manage to haul themselves back into the game one more time.
Nevertheless, it's disappointing to be here, again, as an American fan. With four years between World Cups, when another one rolls around, it's tempting to believe that this is the year of the breakthrough. This is the year that America finally finds itself, and begins to realize the promise that the team has showed for years. Even when all evidence is to the contrary - we are still short on good players - it's always worth a hope that somehow the team can come together and find that missing something to make a run.
It all seemed possible in 2002, when the USA outplayed Germany in the quarterfinals but lost 1-0. 2006 was a horrible disappointment, and 2010 was one late Landon Donovan goal away from going the same way. Twelve years on, American fans were looking for some idea that things were on the upswing.
We'll have the days and weeks to come to unpack that, of course. We can remember valiant defeats to Germany and Belgium, two awfully good teams, and the draw against Portugal that should have been a win, and the Americans overcoming Ghana despite being outplayed.
Or, we can remember that the USA was second-best against Ghana, Germany, and Belgium, and wasn't good enough to hold on against Portugal. We can remember that, though the team got through the Group of Death, they did so with the second-worst possession statistics of any team in the tournament. For all of the hope of America finally asserting itself offensively, they really only did so in the middle hour of the Portugal match.
This World Cup was going to be a referendum on head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a chance to judge the controversial coach. After this World Cup, it's still unclear, and your opinion on the team as a whole may be geared to match your opinion on Klinsmann.
Ultimately, though, perhaps the best summation came from the goalie. "I don't think we could have given any more," said Howard after the game, and he was dead right. Talent aside, coaching aside, luck and hope and breakthroughs aside, ultimately that may be all that we as fans can really ask for.