Most longtime U.S. soccer fans come out of this weekend with the hollow feeling of an opportunity lost. Coach Bob Bradley said it, Landon Donovan said it, Alexi Lalas said it. The 2-1 loss to Ghana not only sent our team home, it cut the power to the ESPN-fueled hype machine that was really starting to make some noise. Now the all the curmudgeons can go back to hating/ignoring soccer, the U.S. players go back to their club jobs, and the World Cup goes on to its conclusion. It could’ve been worse; at least we didn’t get our asses handed to us like England and Mexico. Then again, we weren’t playing Germany or Argentina either.
The seeds for this defeat were sown in October of 2009 – a terrible 24-hour sequence in which Charlie Davies decided to break curfew and ended up in that car accident and Oguchi Onyewu blew out his knee at RFK against Costa Rica. Without those two vital cogs in the team’s spine, it was always going to be an uphill battle in this tournament. Gooch looked good against England, and pretty poor against Slovenia, and obviously wasn’t 100 percent. In Davies, the Bob Bradley and the rest of us thought we finally had a goal-scorer at striker (zero goals from our forwards in the World Cup, BTW). Now all we can do is hope Charlie can make it back to his pre-wreck ability.
Team America has a lot questions for the next World Cup cycle, but for now, five points in your final USA World Cup pentagram:
- The refs cost us again. No, no, hear me out. The disallowed Slovenian goal cost us three points, which radically changed the approach and mindset going into the Algeria game (not to mention the Algerian approach). The disallowed Dempsey goal against Algeria meant we had to chase that game into stoppage time, burning up energy, both physical and emotional. Then with the two-day turn-around, the team just couldn’t recover. They looked flat and fatigued at the start, and at the end, when you’re exhausted – that’s when you make the mental mistake or miss the play that costs you. The refs in this game were actually pretty good – it was the bad calls in previous games and what they meant to the team that cost us.
- Coach Bradley outsmarted himself. It’s easy to blame that early goal on Ricardo Clark, who many (myself included) believed should’ve been moved to the end of the bench. The other odd choice was starting Robbie Findley. Sure, sure – Coach figured both guys were rested and would provide energy. But why would you pull Maurice Edu (who came in for Clark ) when he’s looked so much more composed and effective as a defensive midfielder? Why not start Benny Feilhaber, who’s also looked good (and did again this game) or Edson Buddle? Once Edu and Feilhaber came in, the USA controlled the match. This inability to get the starting lineup right, and the lapses in concentration at the start of games and extra-time are hard to reconcile. I think Coach Stoneface’s days with the team are numbered.
- Stars did not shine. Team America’s three best players – Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan – did not have great games. If just one of them has a better game, we’re probably through. Howard could’ve save both of Ghana’s goals. To get either of those shots would’ve been tough, but we’ve seen him do it before. Just not this day. Dempsey, once again, played with abandon and took a beating and didn’t finish. And Landon did not grab ahold of the game for stretches like he sometimes can and was too tentative at key moments. It didn’t help that Ghana were essentially double-teaming him the whole game.
- Strike force that wasn’t. Charlie Davies’ absence once again loomed large. Not only with Findley starting, but with Jozy Altidore toiling to exhaustion. We all have to hope that Jozy somehow develops some finishing chops in the next four years, because he has all the other attributes. Look at Miroslav Klose, as just one example. Not nearly as athletic or fast as Jozy, but he’s aces for Germany in the box. I would’ve preferred to see Edson Buddle starting this game – all he did was score two in the last friendly and generate shots in hi cameo against Algeria, but Bob didn’t see that way. Of course we all knew the strike force was the major question mark coming into this tournament, and it will be one of the prevailing questions for the next cycle.
- Extra-time woes. What can you say about Asamoah Gyan’s finish on that route-one ball in extra time? That’s what your forward is supposed to do. And yet, if Bocanegra and DeMerit aren’t completely gassed, they get to that ball most times. At least hack the guy down and risk the red card, right? The real shame of it was that Ghana was generating absolutely nothing in the attack at that point. The American defense had pretty much shut them down the second half and Ghana seemed clueless as to how to score. Even with all that, we still had a couple more chances. Feilhaber’s blast off a corner kick – that goes in and we’re in PKs. Anyone could see how tired our guys were, though, and since Bob had to burn his subs earlier with his poor starting lineup, we couldn’t bring in someone like Buddle or Holden or Beasley to run at the end.
In the end, you have to be proud of this team and encouraged by the grit and resiliency they showed. Getting out of the group was always the benchmark, and should be going forward. But for some untimely injuries and poor refereeing, what might have been. That’s soccer, though. And if some more people decide to follow the game, if a few more young athletes stick with it instead of football, basketball, and baseball, if we can build on this for the next World Cup and improve our chances to host the tournament in 2018 or 2022…