The Americans extended Belgium in a tantalizing finish after two extra-time periods to end their World Cup campaign with a 2-1 defeat.

It left a bitter taste for the players and the country that had joined them on a roller coaster ride at the 2014 World Cup.

But their reputations soared after battling back from a 2-0 deficit in which the United States barely missed on late chances to perhaps send the game to a penalty-kick shootout.

After a drama-filled four games in Brazil, American soccer is in a much better place than four years ago in South Africa.

But bottom line: the best team survived to face Argentina in the quarterfinals Saturday in Brasilia. As advertised, Belgium was far superior in the midfield and central defense. The Red Devils dictated play throughout as the Americans spent much of the time lunging for loose balls they could never quite reach.

And yet.

Belgium couldn't break through the U.S. fortress through regulation time.

Americans just joining the soccer party saw one of the best goalkeeping performances in history by New Jersey's Tim Howard.

The Everton keeper made diving saves to the right. He made them to his left. He anticipated every move potent Belgium tried in a spectacular performance that got inside the Belgians' heads. His 16 saves were the most in a World Cup game in 50 years.

But all it takes is one lapse and the outcome of a soccer game dramatically changes. All that pent-up tension can evaporate instantaneously.

Hard-working Kevin de Bruyne broke through early in the first extra time with a tremendous second effort after it appeared the United States had sidestepped another dangerous moment.

Seven minutes later a strung out U.S. defense could do nothing to stop former starter Romelu Lukaku from doubling the score.

At that point, the United States should have started packing its bags.

But that was the time the Americans showed the kind of perseverance that turned the second extra-time period into a classic.

Credit the gambling Jurgen Klinsmann for a gutsy substitution that almost elevated a non-soccer nation to rarefied heights. He called on 19-year-old Julian Green in the 105th minute to replace a spent Alejandro Bedoya.

Green was perhaps the most controversial roster move outside of cutting Landon Donovan. The German-American plays for a lower division youth team for Bundesliga power Bayern Munich. He had appeared only twice for the United States before Tuesday. Skeptics suggested Klinsmann promised the dual citizen a roster spot if he committed to playing for the United States instead of Germany.

But Green underscored why the coach wanted him. Green got on the end of a Michael Bradley serve to score the first goal against Belgium in the run of play during this World Cup.

It brought the Americans to life and if not for some misfortune, the United States could have tied the score at least twice in the closing moments.

Klinsmann and his 23-man roster gave it their all in Brazil. As disappointing as it was to lose in extra time for the second consecutive World Cup, this felt different.

It felt as if something has changed and the United States is ready to cultivate a new group of stars who can compete internationally. Perhaps even break past the second round and sneak into the semifinals on occasion.

Klinsmann leaves Brazil as the winner, though he won't feel that way because he's just too competitive.

He made a debate-worthy lineup switch to start the game by employing the versatile Geoff Cameron as a holding midfielder in place of Kyle Beckerman in a 4-3-3 formation.

Then he did it again in the 32nd minute when right back Fabian Johnson crumpled to the turf with a left hamstring strain.

Klinsmann wasted little time sending in Seattle Sounders DeAndre Yedlin, 20, for Johnson. Conventional wisdom would have shifted Cameron to right back -- a position he often plays -- and bringing on Beckerman.

But Yedlin showed no signs of nerves as he gave his team a burst of energy on the right flank. Yedlin looks like America's right back of the future with a strong performance throughout.

It was one of the many positives that unfolded Tuesday at Arena Fonte Nova.

But the United States is by no means a top echelon team yet. Getting through the so-called Group of Death does not make it so.

It looked a step too slow against Belgium's superlative talent in the middle. Midfielders Marouane Fellaini and De Bruyne linked nicely with Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens. The Americans could do nothing about it.

Realistically, the stylish Belgians should have had at least three goals before overtime. They had out shot the Americans 38-14.

But it was one delicious chance at in the waning moments of regulation that won't soon be forgotten.

None other than the Earthquakes Chris Wondolowski got a ball in front of the goal from the resilient Jermaine Jones.

The Hollywood ending had been cast.

Then.

One of America's best finishers uncharacteristically booted it over the net. It might be a career-defining moment that will haunt the Danville native for a long time.

But in the end, it will be remembered as one of many missed opportunities on a day the United States might have been luckier.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.