I'd wager that most people that are emotionally involved in the World Cup came into the tournament with some manner of hypothetical expectations for their team. The expectations would differ based on the side a person supports; fans of Brazil, Spain and Argentina would likely consider anything but a deep run to be a disappointment while those cheering on New Zealand, Algeria or or Honduras would probably consider not being run off the pitch in embarrassment and taking a point or two to be a success. I'm certainly no exception. In my mind, the United States failing to advance from the group stage would be an unacceptable outcome, while I'd have considered going out in the round of sixteen without being humiliated to be a success.
In the end, the United States not only advanced from their group, they won their group. And they did so by drawing with England (and having a real chance to beat them) and providing one of the best moments of this World Cup so far. There were criticisms of the quality of play at times, certainly, but it's difficult to be overly critical when your team performs well enough to win what turned out to be a very competitive group. Their opponent in the knockout stage were an extremely underrated Ghana team, and the US took them all the way until the end, producing dangerous chances and threatening to prolong their stay until the final whistle was blown. It certainly not what I would have considered to be an ideal scenario, but it was certainly in the realm of what I would consider to be a positive showing.
So why am I still so disappointed?Coming into the tournament, detractors and supports of the US alike were generally in agreement that the biggest weaknesses the team had were the quality of the defensive play and the lack of finishing ability of the forwards. Two weeks and four games hence, and I doubt anyone would argue that these were not the very things that undid the Americans today and threatened to prevent them from advancing in the first place. Four minutes into the match against England, a defensive lapse put the Americans behind before the match had really even begun. The "miraculous" comeback against a decidedly inferior Slovenian side was necessary only because the American back line appeared to be asleep for the first 45 minutes. Nothing could ever take away the pure joy that Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria caused, but the US wasted chance after chance after chance and had Landon not been in the right place in the right time, this post would have been written Wednesday afternoon.
The same problems were in large part what led to this afternoon's result. It was Ricardo Clark who was largely responsible for the early goal against England, and the very same thing happened again today, the only difference being that the early goal Ghana scored might have been prevented by competent defensive play. The Americans looked completely lost until Bob Bradley burned a substitution (which would come back to haunt the US in extra time) pulling Clark and putting the lineup on the pitch that should have been there to begin with. The Americans began playing as they were expected as soon as Maurice Edu entered the game, and after some tactical changes by Bradley at the half, they began to look truly dangerous. After Donovan converted the penalty to equalize, things had come full-circle from being resigned to a loss to expecting a win.
The United States that were on display in the second half of the match were the best USMNT I've ever seen. Ghana were the more talented side, and the US completely dominated them. Ghana made some tactical changes themselves after it became apparent that they were up against an entirely different beast, and great credit to them, as they were able to thwart a number of very dangerous chances (when the US weren't finding ways to thwart them on their own.)Somewhere around the 75th minute, the familiar air of optimistic inevitability began to creep in. The US would score; it was only a matter of time. It's embarrassing to say now, buy my mind began to shift toward Uruguay, to Forlan and Suarez. When the whistle blew and the match headed to extra time, my confidence was unaffected. The first half was a distant memory, and the Americans were in complete control.
I should know by now that, when it comes to matters such as these, Confident Aaron is a damned moron. And as soon as Gyan slotted the ball home, I knew the US were finished. The emotional shift was the complete opposite of that which I felt when Donovan scored against Algeria. The US of the first 30 minutes had made an appearance, and though falling behind seemed to jolt the Americans back to playing intelligent football, it was too late. I will admit that part of me expected Tim Howard to equalize when called up for the corner; he'd prevented numerous goals and been largely responsible for the build-up that led to another, so it was only natural that he put the damned thing in the net on his own.
I must say that while better defending would have prevented the winning goal, having watched the replay numerous times since, it was an absolutely amazing effort from Gyan. The ball in was a desperate one, the act of a team that felt the game getting away and desperately trying to make something happen. And Gyan did. The first touch was excellent, the adjustments made to put himself in position were deft and graceful, and the finish was world-class. The American defense breaking down made that goal a possibility, but it was remote; Gyan's brilliant play made it reality. The fitness of Ghana must be acknowledged as well; a run like that in extra time of a game that had run end-to-end for so long is a remarkable thing, and the Black Stars looked far less exhausted than the Americans all the way until the end. Several decent chances were disrupted because Ghana still possessed a gear which the Americans clearly did not. It makes one wonder whether the substitution used to bring Edu on in the first half would have made a difference had it been available late in the game.
I can accept the lack of finishing ability. I can accept the difficulty the defense had dealing with superior athletes and well executed attacking play. These are matters of skill; you can only do what you are capable of doing, after all. I'm frustrated because, ultimately, I feel like the heartbreak was preventable. If the US that played the second half of every match had shown up in the first, they would have won every time. Had Bob Bradley realized that the adjustments he makes at the half might be beneficial to make before the match begins, there's a distinct possibility that Ghana never score the early goal. If the US were capable of keeping their shape, that long-ball that Gyan turned into a miracle goal is most likely harmless.
I don't really know how to blame, and I don't even know whether it matters. I want to be clear that I think the US should be ultimately be proud of their performance. I certainly am. But it's frustrating to know that it could have been so much more. And I think that we'll see the US make a very deep run sooner than later. There's a great deal of talent on the team that came to South Africa, and there is a great deal more developing as we speak. This team will only get better. But they should have done better now, and that's never a good feeling.