Members of the United States men's soccer team signed autographs for fans and posed for pictures at Los Angeles International Airport after returning from the World Cup early Thursday aboard a flight from Brazil.
The flight left Brazil for LAX late Wednesday night and touched down around 6 a.m. PT. Defender Omar Gonzalez, a member of Major League Soccer's LA Galaxy, was among the first to clear customs and greet a group of fans dressed in red, white and blue gathered inside the terminal.
"It was a long flight, but I'm happy to be back," Gonzalez said. "I think we gave it everything we had. We left everything on that field."
The team is returning home after a World Cup in which they escaped one of the most competitive groups to qualify for the knockout round. Despite 16 saves from goalkeeper Tim Howard, the U.S. fell short in extra-time Tuesday against a skilled Belgian side, 2-1, and was eliminated from the tournament.
Howard, who plays for top-flight English club Everton, called the loss "heartbreaking." His 16 saves in front of 51,227 people inside Arena Fonte Nova are the most in the World Cup since 1966.
"I think we did very well," Howard said after signing autographs at LAX. "We're proud of what we did.
Howard will return to English club play in mid-August. Teammates with MLS clubs must get back to work immediately.
In former German international star Jurgen Klinsmann's first World Cup as coach of the Americans, the team cast off past disappointments by opening the tournament with a win over nemesis Ghana, which eliminated the U.S. from the past two tournaments. After tying Portugal -- a game the Americans led until a late equalizer -- the United States lost to powerhouse Germany in the final group stage game, but still qualified for the Round of 16 when Portugal defeated Ghana.
"I think they made their country proud with this performance," Klinsmann said.
The intrepid group certainly captivated U.S. soccer fans. The Nielsen company said Wednesday that 16.5 million people watched the Belgium-U.S. weekday afternoon game on ESPN, with 5.1 million more seeing it on the Spanish-language Univision network. In addition, nearly 1.7 million people watched an online stream of the event, Nielsen, which does not measure viewership in bars, offices or other public places, said.
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The record U.S. television audience for soccer is the 24.7 million who saw the United States play Portugal on June 24, which tied the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands.
Tuesday's game exceeded the average viewership for the most recent World Series and NBA Finals, events that took place during prime-time when more people were home to watch.