… A nation was ready to believe on this Saturday afternoon. Across the United States, the hardcores and the newbies gathered alike in bars, basements, and outside viewing areas to watch their new heroes take on Ghana and try to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals.
They were ready to back their heart-filled group of 11 …
… Howard, Bocanegra, DeMerit, Bornstein, Cherundolo, Edu, Bradley, Dempsey, Donovan, Gomez, Altidore …
… and then, in a moment the newbies probably couldn’t have appreciated but the hardcores had to know spelled trouble, the lineup appeared on our TV screens with the name Ricardo Clark on it. Robbie Findley also returned, with Maurice Edu and Herculez Gomez taking seats. Findley was returning from suspension, and Gomez wasn’t particularly effective vs. Algeria, so I get that.
But Clark? I’ve never quite understood the fascination with him at the National Team level, but all that aside, the change Bob Bradley made to put him back in the lineup, and break up part of the core that worked so hard vs. Algeria before finally breaking through will leave me with nothing but confusion and anger for the rest of time. I know, Edu was subbed out vs. Algeria, but I fail to see how Clark was a better option.
Clark isn’t of the appropriate level to have played under today’s circumstances. It showed on the first Ghana goal, where when he received the ball in the midfield, it appeared he literally had no idea where he was on the field, had no clue where his teammates were for passing options, and given all of that, had no idea how he was going to beat his man to keep possession of the ball.
Predictably, possession changed, and Kevin-Prince Boateng fired home the opening goal seconds later. I cannot find any possible legitimate justification for Clark’s appearance in this game (he was cautioned moments later). If the excuse was that Edu had a knock, it’d be tough to believe given Clark was subbed out for Edu on 30 minutes, and Edu played the remaining 90 of the United States’ 2-1 loss to Ghana in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Round of 16, eliminating the Americans.
Other then re-adding Findley, there was no reason to screw with the group that worked its asses off on Wednesday. John Harkes and Ian Darke went on and on about fatigue and dead legs, but Ghana played Wednesday, as well. Yet for much of the game, they were able to keep the ball, get into open spaces, and make the US defense look silly. Only through a well-earned penalty and subsequent conversion by Landon Donovan did the US even force extra time.
There, two ills conspired to sink the American battleship. First, through much of the latter part of the second half, and early in overtime, the US refused to keep the ball. They reverted to long balls, skipping the midfield – which to my mind was the strength of this side entering the tournament. Unable or unwilling to possess the ball, Ghana took their chances on a long lead ball for the ever dangerous Asamoah Gyan, who beat Carlos Bocanegra’s would-be challenge with shameful ease, then fired past Howard to give Ghana its eventual game-winner. Bocanegra was beaten so badly on the play, he can be seen looking skyward in frustration after Gyan bounced off his “challenge,” (what we Americans like to call, a little bump) even before the shot was taken.
What was possibly the best chance the US could ever ask for to return to the quarterfinals blew apart as the result of the poor defending we expected, some strange tactics offensively, and the inexcusable lineup change that ended up leaving the United States in yet another early hole. That just can’t happen game after game, and for the US to go behind within no more than 13 minutes in three of its four matches at this World Cup is not a coincidence or bad luck. It’s a systemic problem that never was solved. It was crystal clear to the world this afternoon that Clark wasn’t ready for this game, in this moment, under these circumstances. Clear to everyone, except Bob Bradley.
Harkes and Ian Darke tried to be comforting as the final minutes ticked away, saying the US would leave this World Cup with their heads held high, and this would be good development for the 2014 World Cup. But that’s all garbage. That’s what you say to Little Leaguers who just finished their season 0-1 and the coach is too poor to take them to Pizza Hut.
The World Cup doesn’t work like that. You have to take each glorious opportunity as it comes – not fumble it away through questionable lineup decisions, poor defense, and abandoning the offense that could’ve brought you so much success. And if we know anything about the US, it might be to not expect much in 2014:
1994: Reached second round, lost to Brazil.
1998: Eliminated in group play.
2002: Reached quarterfinals, lost to Germany.
2006: Eliminated in group play.
2010: Reached second round, lost to Ghana.
See a pattern? Whoever is in control of the US program over the next two years before qualifying begins has to find players who can mark better, especially against speed. Ghana had way too much speed for the US at times today, and the Americans were lucky to not be caught out more than they were.
A nation was ready to believe. For a few sparkling moments, soccer was the talk here, and our national team was all the rage.
Now, sadly, our team will be long forgotten in what will probably be short order – the creators of one beautiful moment against Algeria that some of us will remember for a lifetime, but in the end, just another team in another year that bowed out before the stage got really big. The US leaves this World Cup having just won 1 of the 4 matches it played – about on par for its performance historically (7 wins in 29 matches played).
And while Clark had what he may well remember as his worst day as a professional, the loss doesn’t all come down to him. He, the coach, the defense, and the attack all share blame on this day. All in one form or another didn’t do their duty to the best of their ability this afternoon, and as a result, history has repeated itself with Ghana knocking the United States out of the World Cup.
To me, this doesn’t hold promise for 2014. And my head is not held high. To me, there’s only disappointment in thinking of what might have been … what probably should have been. Now, there’s only the frustration of knowing that the process of becoming successful on the world stage must start all over again, from square one. All the alleged progress in the world that the US might have made during these 16 days won’t help them at all when qualifying begins again. It won’t be worth any points, it won’t help with marking.
Maybe, someday, we’ll be able to hook all the non-believers in again. Maybe, someday, we can make the ride last a little bit longer.
Maybe, just once, we’ll finally get it right.
Until then, a painful four-year wait begins.
* So yeah, Uruguay beat South Korea, 2-1, Luis Suárez scored twice, including a beautiful second. Whatever.
Germany 3-2 England (aet)
Argentina 2-1 Mexico
Today’s Record: 1-1
Tournament Record: 26-24.