SALVADOR, Brazil -- The U.S. team lined up in the shivering tunnel at Arena Fonte Nova, the Belgians towering to their left, and together they walked onto the pitch. The American flag was to their right. They turned to face it after the Belgian anthem played and it was their turn to sing. Each man placed his left hand on the left shoulder of the man in front of him. Only Jermaine Jones, at the front of the line, didn't have someone to lean on. Only Clint Dempsey, at the back, had no one behind him.
The U.S. anthem began, and the visitors in the crowd began to roar. Jones bowed his head. The son of an American soldier and a German mother, he closed his eyes and couldn't help wondering how often he would stand in the same position, at the front of an 11-man line of white jerseys. "I don't know if I will play in a World Cup again," he said after a smaller mystery had been unraveled, and his team had lost 2-1, all the goals scored in extra time. "So I was trying to take everything inside of me. You hear the people, you hear the anthem -- and I try to take everything in."
Fabian Johnson stood behind Jones. He would strain his hamstring in the 32nd minute, ending his night long before the result was anything but a long-shot prediction. He would wave away the stretcher and hobble off the far side of the pitch, around the Belgian goal, and back to the bench. He would be the first of the American dejected. But for now he was hopeful, and the man who would star in his place, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin, was in his warm-ups yards away. "Be ready," Yedlin was telling himself. "Always be ready," and he bottled up his energy like a potion.
Next in line came DaMarcus Beasley, singing words so familiar. The only U.S. player to see four World Cups, the 32-year-old didn't allow himself to imagine he was only a little more than 120 minutes from what might prove the end of his run on football's biggest stage. He would not be given the sort of extra time he was so badly wanting. After, he would lose himself in different music, his headphones his only shield from questions for which he had no answers.
Then there was Matt Besler, one of the quiet, unsung American heroes in this tournament, digging his cleats into the turf like a horse in the gate. He would have, it turned out, a strong, physical game in him, fading only at the exhausting finish. In those moments before the whistle blew, he used the anthem to steel himself for the pressure he was about to face. The Americans decided they would open up against the slashing Belgians, allowing them to attack, and in return they would resist, and then counter. Besler imagined himself playing his single best part. "We wanted to make sure we gave them a game," he said, "make sure we really went for it."
Alejandro Bedoya, the son and grandson of Colombian footballers, gripped Besler's shoulder tightly. He was another of the starting XI who would not finish the game, coming out in the middle of extra time; his replacement, 19-year-old Julian Green, stood with Yedlin near the bench. Just then, no one would have picked Green to score the goal that would make the U.S. believe again, eight minutes from the end.
Behind Bedoya stood Graham Zusi. Then came Geoff Cameron. And then there was Michael Bradley shining in the lights, the weight of the country's hopes far heavier than any hand on his shoulder. Bradley listened to the anthem and thought of big things -- "We felt like they were there for the taking" he said -- but he wrestled to turn his mind to the game's smallest details, the things he might still control. "You know that the margin between going on and going home is so small," he said. He would be proved right.
Omar Gonzalez shadowed Bradley, standing in for expectation. The son of Mexican immigrants, he had earned a second start after playing so well against Germany. After, we talked about how proud he felt to be in that line of players, "every single one of us who is on the field." He talked about trying to swallow his emotions, keeping his mind from straying to dark or cluttered corners. That would not be easy. "You start hearing the USA chants, and you start getting those chills ..."
Now Tim Howard. Who knew what he was about to do? Just 52 seconds after the opening whistle, he would make the first of his 16 spectacular saves, his hands and feet the only reasons the U.S. would have a chance in a game that should have been far out of reach. After, he would carry his Man of the Match award in a silver briefcase, a possession that would usually suggest happier results. "Thirty-one teams get their hearts broken," he said after the match. But for now his heart was still whole, and he listened and waited for everything that was ahead of him, as invisible to him as it was to any of us. He followed his usual pregame patterns and routines, and sometimes they combined for something good, or something bad, or, like this game, something harder to define, the space between.
And finally Clint Dempsey, the last man in the line, the captain still as a statue, his eyes locked onto the flag as though it were the object of his only dream. He was thinking about the moment and representing his country. He was thinking about his family who couldn't be here in Salvador, instead back home watching. He said a few silent prayers. He did not blink, but he was, he later said, "just hoping for the best."
Then the anthem ended, and the crowd cheered, and the players took their hands off each other's shoulders and ran to their places on the grass. They didn't know it, but they had stood still, and silent, and together for the final time in Brazil.
Then their last game was on.