It was valiant, it was inspiring, it was everything expected from the USMNT, and it was not enough.
After rallying back from a fifth-minute disaster — a Ricardo Clark turnover that led to a Kevin-Prince Boateng fast-break goal — the U.S. made it to extra time. Landon Donovan scored the only goal of the USMNT-dominated second half, converting a penalty, but no second goal would come. The energy and ferocity evaporated. Both teams staggered to extra time.
And, almost immediately, Ghana made magic of nothing. Asamoah Gyan, the only one Ghana had up front, struck a volley just beyond Tim Howard's outstretched hands. It was 2-1. Ghana controlled the game again. And the Black Stars would not let go, playing a possession-based, clock-draining game for the better part of extra time, and withstanding the last American salvos at the end.
They earned the extension of their dream by killing the U.S.'s hopes.
For the U.S. players who were so resilient for so long in preparing for and playing in this World Cup, this may not just be the end of this dream, but all World Cup dreams. Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Howard: All are over 30. Landon Donovan is 28, near the end of the typical soccer player's peak. The midfield is full of mid-20s players.
There is still a bright future for the U.S., behind Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore and a slew of talented, if unpolished, offensive-minded players. But rare is the occasion that a nation can send essentially the same team to the World Cup twice. In 2014, in Rio de Janeiro, the Americans will play anew, without the magic that had been spun in South Africa in the group stage.
In 2014, these Ghanaians, the youngest team in this World Cup, might be favorites. As it is, they carry the only African standard still aloft into the quarterfinals for the first time in their nation's history. And they will do so with brilliant offensive players in Gyan and Boateng, who in this game got Ghana's first two goals from open play, and a superb keeper in Richard Kingson, who has conceded just two goals from field play in this Cup. (But, alas, without man of the match Andre Ayew, who received a second yellow card on an abysmal call.) The physical, fast Black Stars should give Uruguay all it can handle — and might just break through to become the first African nation to reach the semifinals.
For the U.S., the semifinals, and the truly rarefied air in international soccer, are out of reach once again. (In 1930, the U.S. made the semifinals in a 13-team World Cup; the best American performance in a post-World War II Cup came in 2002's run to the quarterfinals.) "One day, you're at the top of the world," Donovan said after the game, "the next, you're at the bottom of the mountain."
The U.S. is much, much closer to the pinnacle of international soccer than the pit. Perhaps feeling this emptiness after this loss will chase away the casual fans who hopped on the USMNT bandwagon for this dramatic run. But the way the U.S. played at its best — winning a group without Charlie Davies, and a game without Davies or Oguchi Onyewu — and the progression of the U.S. soccer plan, those are footholds on the mountain.
They won't slip so far.â†µ
This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.