There is something oddly familiar to the sensation I am feeling. I am trying to recover from a US loss at the World Cup to a team that they should have beaten. This has happened in the past two World Cups and it's been against the same team, the score line was even the same!
Ghana's 2-1 victory over the US was an example of what has become a typical US game. An early defensive lapse allows their opponent to take the lead, the US storms back to tie it, but just can't seem to finish the game. Today, the game took a unique turn, as the US was able to push the game into extra time (since we are in the knockout stages, no draws), but they fell asleep on defense to allow the winner. The United States is, perhaps, its own worst enemy. Ghana didn't be the US today, the US beat the US.
I had a conversation with a coworker on Friday about the US's chances. I thought they US had a great shot of making it to the semifinal due to match ups against teams that I thought they could beat. I was concerned, however, that the US might make a mistake(s) that would cost them their best shot to advance deep into the World Cup. Consistently in this tournament, during qualifying and during the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, the US has allowed soft early goals (mostly due to defensive lapses, Tim Howard has rarely been the problem) that dictated the way they played the rest of the game. Is this the players? The coaching? Ultimately, I think it is a combination of the two. The players come out flat (who knows why?) and should be more prepared for the game. That preparation falls to the coaching staff.
The coaching staff (read Bob Bradley) is also responsible for putting the best team out on the field to start the game. Bob Bradley did not do that today. Why was Ricardo Clark starting? Why was Robbie Findley back in the line-up? Why mess with the success that was the Algeria win? Maurice Edu played well in the Algeria game, and deserved the chance to start. What did Bradley get for his decision? A brutal appearance by Clark. Clark was directly responsible for Kevin Prince-Boateng's goal in the 6'. He turned the ball over near the center circle, which sprung Boateng on the break. Boateng slotted the ball into the net at the near post. Shortly thereafter, Clark was yellow carded to add to his misery. Bradley said he started Clark because he wanted to put in some fresh legs after the short turn-around between Wednesday's dramatic win and today's game. That is faulty logic. First, these players are professionals, they train for this type of situation. They are used to short turn-arounds during their club season, many weeks they play multiple games. In addition, Edu didn't play the full 90 against Algeria. If he tired down the stretch, then make the switch to Clark. Bradley seemingly acknowledge his mistake, replacing Clark with Edu at the 31' mark. There is no doubt in my mind that the first goal would not have been scored if Edu had been on the field. After the game, Bradley said he made the switch entirely due to the yellow card. What else was he going to say - I made the switch because Clark played poorly; I made the switch because I made the wrong line-up call? Clearly the latter would have been the gutsy thing to say, but Bradley hid behind the yellow card.
As for the Findley start, I understand the thinking, but it wasn't the right call. Bradley likes to pair a speedy forward with Jozy Altidore, a sort of Thunder and Lightening pairing. Charlie Davies, absent due to his recovery from an October car accident, is the perfect tag-team partner for Altidore. Davies has pace, finishing ability and plays well with Altidore. Findley is, at best, a poor facsimile of Davies. While Findley is pacey, his finishing isn't as polished as Davies' and that was on display today, as he missed a clear opportunity to tie the game. Bradley has been searching for Davies' replacement since his accident, and hasn't found it. But maybe he is looking in the wrong place, the answer is already on the roster. Instead of starting Findley, start Dempsey up top with Benny Feilhaber taking Dempsey's place in the midfield. Bradley made this change in the Slovenia game and when the US needed a goal in this game. If this is a crunch time tactic, why not start the game that way? Dempsey has a nose for goal. He's unpredictable and loves to run at defenders. Why not place him closer to goal to make use of these talents? This switch would have also helped to minimize mistakes like the one that lead to the first goal. Playing Dempsey up top gets Feilhaber, one of the US players most composed when in possession, onto the field.
Not all the blame can be laid at Bradley's feet. The finishing for the entire team was poor. Richard Kingson, the Ghanaian goalkeeper, isn't likely to win any awards for his goalkeeping prowess yet the US continually put their shots directly at him, barely working him. Altidore and Michael Bradley are the two most glaring examples of chances wasted, but there were several more throughout the game. Beyond the poor finishing, the US defense made two key mistakes that lead to Ghana's goals. Asamoah Gyan's goal in extra time should not have happened, but the US defense failed to communicate allowing Gyan to get past them and put a shot past Tim Howard.
Once Gyan scored, the US never looked like they were going to level the game. Ghana was content to sit back and defend their lead. In doing so, Ghana was disgraceful in the way they dove to the ground, faked injuries and wasted time. There is a certain amount of gamesmanship that takes place in any game of soccer when you are protecting a late lead, but the Ghanaians went too far and the referee did nothing to stop it. When Ghana made their last substitution, just minutes before the end of the game, the player took his time crossing the field, high-fiving his teammates as he exited. The referee should have expedited his exit and if he refused to speed up, give the player a yellow card. Soccer writers lit up the twittersphere with comments on the Ghanaians's unsportsmanlike conduct.
In the end, though, the United States has nobody to blame but itself for being knocked out in the round of 16. They played against a beatable opponent and committed too many errors to win. Had they won the game, they would have taken on Uruguay, a 2-1 winner of South Korea. That potential match-up would have been a tough test, but one I think the US could have passed. Instead, the US will watching the next round on television, wondering what might have been and if they are experiencing déjà vu.