Soccer has caught on in America.

The evidence is in how much the 2-1 loss to Belgium hurts. The ratings will show what social media suggests -- the nation was captivated by the U.S. men's national team's presence in the knockout rounds of the 2014 World Cup.

Tuesday's match was reality catching up with America. There is an elite level of soccer we just haven't reached. The talent, skill and technique of the United States is behind the world's best. Belgium was clearly the better squad.

But it was riveting to watch the Yanks try to compensate with heart. It's how they defied the odds and made it through the group stages, in arguably the toughest quartet of the tournament. It was enough to help them hang on for a scoreless tie through regulation despite being thoroughly outplayed.

United States’ Julian Green, left, scores his side’s first goal during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Belgium and the USA at
United States' Julian Green, left, scores his side's first goal during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Belgium and the USA at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil, Tuesday, July 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham) (Matt Dunham)

And it almost brought them back from a two-goal deficit in extra time.

"It's the American mentality. It's the American spirit," said Landon Donovan, who served as an ESPN commentator after being left off the team in a controversial move by coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "That team kept going, kept fighting."

Soccer has caught on in America.

Such is clear in how goalkeeper Tim Howard is being revered as a national hero.

He embodied the resolve of the country, refusing to break under the relentless attack of Belgium. He registered 16 saves -- the most in a World Cup game in the 50 years the stat has been kept -- and many of them robbed Belgium of sure goals.

Because of Howard, the United States was spared embarrassment on a global stage. Because of Howard, soccer in America earned some respect. And America noticed.

According to Twitter, there were 1.8 million tweets mentioning Howard during the game, including celebrity shout-outs ranging from Michael Strahan to Justin Timberlake to Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

"It's heart-breaking," Howard said in a post-match interview. "I don't think we could've given anymore. ... It hurts."

Soccer has caught on in America.

The acceptance of Klinsmann is proof. The German was met with skepticism when he took over the national program. That especially increased when he left Donovan, America's biggest soccer star, off the 23-man roster. Then he publicly said the United States would not win the World Cup.

But it's turning out Klinsmann might know what he's doing. His bluntness proved truthful. His recruits played well. His tactical choices, criticized by experts and in this space, kept the United States' technical weaknesses from being too exposed. And he knew how to push the buttons of his team, from the substitutions to getting the players to believe.

As a result, the United States beat Ghana, almost beat usual powerhouse Portugal and gave Germany and Belgium -- both markedly better teams -- a real ride. In two weeks, Klinsmann has gone from a major question mark to a household name.

Soccer has caught on in America.

Because we now are on the lookout for the promising youngsters the United States unveiled Tuesday. Especially Julian Green and DeAndre Yedlin.

Yedlin looked to be the only one who could hang with the soccer studs of Belgium. Then in extra time, Green, a 19-year-old, made a sparkling debut.

Chris Wondolowski and Clint Dempsey, veteran scorers, missed close-range chances. Wondolowski's would have won it in regulation; Dempsey's would have tied it in extra time. But Green came through.

Down 2-0, he took a pass in the box and handled it with the kind of skill and instinct the U.S. side lacks. He scored the Americans' only goal on a difficult one-timer, showing off his touch and focus to beat Belgium's world-class goalie, Thibaut Courtois.

Green's goal gave hope. Not just that the United States could tie and force penalty kicks. But also hope that U.S. soccer has a bright future. Perhaps he can be the kind of player the United States desperately needs -- someone with the skills to make something happen one-on-one, to keep possession under pressure, to scare opposing defenders.

Futbol will never surpass football in this country -- or basketball or baseball. And it will likely always be most relevant during World Cup season.

Still, soccer has carved out its own place in the heart of America. That's why the United States had the largest visiting contingent in Brazil. Why fans gathered by the thousands in public venues across the country. Why ratings for these games rivaled the BCS title game and blew the NBA Finals and World Series out of the water.

And the men's national team performed well enough to justify us paying more attention to the world's game. They made us care.

"We've seen the amount of people watch the games grow," defender Omar Gonzalez said. "It's amazing to see how many people are rallying for us back home, who are cheering for us, who are feeling for us. ... It was definitely felt."

Read Marcus Thompson II's blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/thompson. Contact him at mthomps2@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on at Twitter.com/ThompsonScribe.