By Dan Wetzel
RUSTENBURG, South Africa – Exhausted, if exhilarated, Ghanaians were dropping all around Landon Donovan. The victors were too tired to properly celebrate their 2-1 World Cup victory over the United States.
Donovan paid little attention to the scene. After some cursory congratulations, he walked dejectedly off the pitch, took off his jersey, threw a heavy parka over his bare shoulders and took a seat, alone, on the bench.
He was the picture of disappointment. And just as Donovan’s joy following his dramatic game-winner had been shared across America on Wednesday, so too was this feeling, this mood here Saturday night.
In two short weeks, Donovan and his U.S. teammates had grabbed the generally soccer-blasé American public by the collar and made them watch, made them care and, perhaps most astonishingly, made them desperate for more.
Their wild, if brief, 2010 World Cup run fell apart in the round of 16 when they couldn’t summon one more miracle comeback that had hidden so many of their obvious shortcomings.
This was a fun team to watch. It was an easy team to root for. Its flair for heroic comebacks and brilliant goals made it impossible to ignore.
It just wasn’t a great side. Not at this level at least.
“We feel like in all positions we have talent,” coach Bob Bradley said afterward. “But when you get to the World Cup level and everything gets challenged at that level, we know we have to be better.”
It was as honest of an assessment as you’ll find.
This team managed to get the nation behind it because of its firework finishes, its ability to overcome adversity, be it self- or referee-made, and its positive, possible spirit during a time when Americans have tired of hearing about the recession and the wars and the oil leaking in the Gulf.
What the indomitable will clouded was the reality of the club. Great teams don’t need to keep making desperate comebacks. World Cup contenders might stumble in a half or even a game, but they soon right the ship and deliver a show of force.
The U.S. just kept making the same mistakes. The Americans conceded the lead in three of their four games here. All came early: in the fourth minute against England, the 13th against Slovenia and the fifth against Ghana.
A botched goalkeeper play saved them against England. A ferocious rally from two goals down earned them the tie against the Slovenians. Another second-half equalizer forced overtime against Ghana, only to see the U.S. allow the game-winner just three minutes into the extra sessions.
“Right after the whistle blows we get hit,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “If you do that enough times you’ll pay for it. We had the good fortune of not paying for it, but we did today.”
In four games, the USA led for just two minutes.
Ghana had a better team on Saturday. It was faster, tougher and more organized. The Americans played sloppy at times. They came out slow. Their midfield attack was muted. They kept turning the ball over. They had crucial defensive mistakes. Their only goal came on a penalty kick on a questionable call – Ghana’s Jonathan Mensah kicked the ball before taking down Clint Dempsey in the box.
Yet they were in it in the end because that’s them. This was a hard-ways group and wasn’t that part of the appeal? They were procrastinators who tried to live by a simple motto: If it wasn’t for the last minute (or the 93rd), nothing would get done.
It sure was endearing and fun and strangely addictive. Across America – and with ex-pats around the globe – this was an instant sensation, a viral sporting team that went from nothing to everything in 14 short days.
And then it was done. Over in the flash of a Ghana counter attack. And now everyone is disappointed by a team that at the start of June proportionately few knew or cared about.
The U.S. players here sensed the swell of support. They saw the footage of fans celebrating half a world away. They got bombarded on Facebook. They had family members relay the excitement. Outdoor-viewing parties? Bars crowded on weekday mornings? People rushing through Saturday morning errands to get home in time for the soccer game?
That was running through Donovan’s mind as he sat on that bench and breathed into the cold African air. This hurt for him. This hurt for his teammates. This hurt because those fans had thrown their hearts into this team, too. He had cried the other night when he watched a YouTube montage of fan celebrations back home. It had hit him hard. Now this hit hard too.
It is how everyone felt.
“We know people across the United States have been behind our team,” Bradley said before pausing. “… At this moment, it’s a feeling of disappointment.”
Bradley wore the shell-shocked look of every losing coach at this tough tournament. The accents and skin tones change, but not the expression.
In some nations, falling short is a disaster with the coach soon to be hung in effigy by fans and media. In others it’s just frustration, a feeling of missing out on a dream. Blowouts are so rare in soccer; every team leaves with four years worth of shouldas, wouldas and couldas.
For the United States, the reaction should fall somewhere in the middle.
This was a team that should be celebrated for what it represented as much as what it was able to accomplish. The round of 16 was about where it belonged. In part because of a car accident that left rising star Charlie Davies out with injury, this squad lacked a striker who could finish (this was the second consecutive World Cup a true forward failed to score). There wasn’t strong depth. The margin for error was small. The team relied on Donovan to do too much.
Its greatest victory though was that back home this team had made a nation actually believe, actually care, actually wish for another chance at magic.
All over the place, from city bars and country cookouts, as the game ended and Donovan began his shirtless stroll, Americans were looking around and asking, “Is that it? Is that all? Do we really have to wait four more years for that?”
It was an entertaining, energetic, patriotic run by these Americans. They were a great story. They just weren’t a great team.
And the World Cup has always been a cruel place for sides like that.
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