RUSTENBURG, South Africa – Grim-faced American players filed one by one on their way out of Royal Bafokeng Stadium. Their World Cup was over.
They’ll have four long years to dwell on what might have been, how the most-talented team in U.S. soccer history saw its World Cup hopes extinguished by the last hope of Africa.
So much felt familiar about Saturday’s match – an early goal surrendered, a furious push late – but as time ticked away, the U.S.’s chances did not multiply, its energy did not increase.
The miracle goal did not come.
Life on the World Cup edge came to an exhausting and crushing end against a familiar foe, when Ghana – led by Asamoah Gyan’s goal 3 minutes into overtime – posted a 2-1 victory that ended a thrilling tournament for the United States in the second round just when it seemed the Americans had a navigable path to the semifinals.
“We felt like we had a great opportunity,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “We just gave ourselves too much of a mountain to climb. We just couldn’t come back.”
Kevin-Prince Boateng put Ghana ahead when he capitalized on Ricardo Clark’s turnover in the fifth minute and beat Howard from 16 yards. It was the third time in four games the U.S. had fallen behind early, and once again the Americans rallied.
Landon Donovan tied the score on a penalty kick in the 62nd minute, his record fifth goal for the U.S. in World Cup play, after Jonathan Mensah pulled down Clint Dempsey streaking in the box.
But that was it.
“The finality of it is brutal,” said Donovan, who spent several long minutes alone on the U.S. bench after the final whistle. “When you realize how much you put into it, not only for the last four years, but for your whole life.”
There would be no saving goal this time, like Donovan’s memorable injury-time goal against Algeria that lifted the U.S. into the knockout phase.
“We tried to push and push,” U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “I don’t know if we just didn’t have anything left because we had been pushing so much the entire tournament.”
Ghana, the only African team to advance past the first round of Africa’s first World Cup, eliminated the Americans for the second straight World Cup following a 2-1 win that knocked out the U.S. in the group phase in Germany. The Black Stars joined Cameroon (1990) and Senegal (2002) as the only African teams to reach the quarterfinals and will play Uruguay for a berth in the semifinals, a round the U.S. has not reached since the first World Cup in 1930.
“A stinging, tough defeat,” said Bob Bradley, who faces an uncertain future as U.S. coach.
With former President Bill Clinton watching and Mick Jagger sitting next to him, the U.S. was done in by a porous defense and forwards who failed to score a single goal in four games.
“When you give up this many goals, you’re not going to go very far,” Bocanegra said.
All five U.S. goals in the tournament came from the team’s midfield backbone: three by Donovan, one by Dempsey and one by Michael Bradley, the coach’s son.
In the first extra time World Cup game for the U.S., Gyan got the winning goal when he took a long ball from Andre Ayew over the defense and beat Bocanegra, his teammate on the French club Rennes.
Gyan let the ball bounce, took a touch with his chest, and with Jay DeMerit vainly trying to catch up, scored over goalkeeper Tim Howard with a left-footed blast from 16 yards.
“I had my angles right there. There no question about it,” Howard said. “He absolutely crushed it.”
DeMerit gave credit to Gyan’s brilliant play.
“The flight of the ball was a bit strange,” DeMerit said. “I remember looking at it kind of looping. Those balls are hard to run onto sometimes. It was a bit of a foot race; we knew their forward was very sharp. He got there first – sharp forwards, they wait for balls like that.”
The goal set off horn-honking celebrations in Ghana, a West African country nearly 3,000 miles away.
“We’ve made everybody proud,” Gyan said. “Not Ghana alone, but all of Africa.”
The closest the U.S. came to tying it again was in the 98th minute, when Maurice Edu’s header off Donovan’s corner kick went wide.
With Howard pushed up, DeMerit’s desperation long shot in the final minutes went over the crossbar. Then Dempsey sent a header wide.
At the final whistle, Howard consoled Bocanegra and Edu collapsed to the ground. Donovan exchanged jerseys with a Ghana player and walked off the field, put on a coat, sat on the bench and hung his head.
“If we’re a little less nave tonight, we would have advanced,” said Donovan, at 28 in his prime and the best American player ever. “I said all along this was a young team and a relatively inexperienced team at this level.”
After Donovan tied the score with his American record 45th international goal, Jozy Altidore had the best opportunity. But he went wide in the 81st minute.
No American forward has scored in the World Cup since Brian McBride in 2002.
“Let’s face it, you count on your forwards,” Bradley said. “We need to get better at forward.”
While the U.S. came from behind to draw England 1-1 and Slovenia 2-2 in the first round, the Americans looked ragged this time. They go home pondering a World Cup that could have been so much more. They thrilled the large number of Americans who were the largest group of overseas ticket buyers, but failed to do as well as the 2002 team, which reached the quarterfinals in the best U.S. finish since 1930.
An upset of European champion Spain in the semifinals of last year’s Confederations Cup in South Africa had raised expectations.
“We always understand the responsibility we have as a national team to show how far the game has come in the United States, to fight for respect,” Bradley said. “We certainly felt we moved things along with our performance in the Confederations Cup and as we went through the first round we felt that we were continuing to go in that direction.”
Because a growing fan base watched on television in record numbers, the loss was even more painful for a team still struggling for recognition both in the soccer world and among sports fans in America.
“Soccer can be a cruel game,” Donovan said. “Sometimes you’re at the top and sometimes you are at the bottom of the mountain.”
Ghana’s only two goals in the first round had been penalty kicks by Gyan, but Boateng, whose half-brother Jerome Boateng plays for Germany, quickly put the Black Stars ahead from the run of play.
Clark turned over the ball in a dangerous spot, just short of midfield. A few seconds later, Boateng had the ball on a run-out, shifting speeds, outflanking DeMerit and slotting a left-footed grounder past a diving Howard.
Clark, who hadn’t played since the opener against England, was given a yellow card and was replaced by Edu in the 31st minute.
“He felt badly about the ball he lost. And I simply said, ‘That’s part of soccer,’” Bob Bradley recalled.
Benny Feilhaber replaced speedy but ineffective forward Robbie Findley at the start of the second half, with Dempsey moving up. Feilhaber immediately had a chance when Altidore tipped the ball to him, but a sliding goalkeeper Richard Kingson, who also foiled the U.S. four years ago, got a hand on it.
On his penalty kick, Donovan kneeled behind the ball in concentration, then clanked it in off the far post. With his third goal of the tournament, he surpassed Bert Patenaude (1930) as the American career World Cup leader.
“I thought we had a good grip,” Michael Bradley said “We were pushing the tempo. We were the ones getting chances.”
Herculez Gomez came in for Altidore at the start of extra time. But nothing worked. The supporters in red, white and blue wigs and Uncle Sam hats were as deflated as the players.
“It’s a feeling of disappointment for the team,” Bob Bradley said, “and also all our fans.”