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Local fans hopeful for U.S. soccer despite World Cup loss (w/video)

  • Jimmy Sturla, left, Charles Handy and Ron Sicat react to a missed goal late in regulation by the U.S. men's soccer team as they watch Tuesday's World Cup match against Belgium at The Toad in the Hole in Santa Rosa. Belgium defeated the U.S. 2-1 in extra time. (Christopher Chung / PD)

United States goalkeeper Tim Howard stands 6 feet, 3 inches tall but on Tuesday afternoon, the 35-year-old national team veteran filled every inch of the goal until he could do no more.

Howard recorded 16 saves — the most by any World Cup keeper since 1966 — but it wasn't enough. The men's national team, riding high after unexpectedly emerging from the so-called Group of Death in the World Cup, lost to the highly vaunted Belgium squad in extra time to end a remarkable run from the Stars and Stripes in Brazil.

“It's heartbreaking,” said Greg Eibell of Novato, who along with scores of others jammed into Toad in the Hole Pub in Santa Rosa to sing, chant and cheer on the team in front of a massive screen. “I think we went leaps and bounds in U.S. soccer today.”

U.S. vs. Belgium World Cup Soccer

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Despite the loss, local fans said the team's run stuck a boot in the face of American fans and demanded the games be watched.

“Soccer has definitely become really big in the U.S.,” said a hoarse Ron Sicat of Santa Rosa after the game. “The fact that everyone is watching and that we had the most fans in Brazil, that just shows us how strong we are as a nation.”

Evidence of soccer's “breakthrough” is not just anecdotal.

The American embassy in Brasilia estimates that nearly 100,000 U.S. citizens traveled to Brazil for the World Cup — three times more than any visiting country's supporters.

The support was strong at home as well.

The U.S. opening match against Ghana? It set a record for most viewers for a soccer game at 16 million. The next game against Portugal? Nearly 25 million tuned in. By comparison, the NBA Finals game 5 between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat pulled in 18 million viewers.

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