Same opponent, same score, same maddening, agonizing conclusion.
Four years later, so much about American soccer is different, yet so little has changed.
The U.S. soccer team is going home, ejected from the World Cup by Ghana, which slammed American hope into reality and in an instant silenced our national roar.
Moreover, the anticipated U.S. soccer boom now goes bust. After gaining considerable momentum in recent weeks, the sport is assured of returning for at least another four years to its customary place on the periphery of major American sports.
Favored to beat Ghana and reach the quarterfinals, which would have equaled our deepest World Cup run in 80 years, the United States on Saturday was outplayed in all phases in a 2-1 loss to the African nation with two-thirds the population of California.
And to think, we had so much going for us. There was the momentum of a “miracle” win against Algeria a few days earlier. And the evident increase in domestic fascination and interest. And the motivation provided by facing the team that eliminated the United States in 2006 when a controversial foul led to the game-winning penalty kick.
Though 90 minutes weren’t enough for Ghana to reclaim superiority and victory, 123 minutes were enough to validate both. The Ghanaians were conspicuously faster and quicker, played with more smarts and savvy. The Black Stars, one of the weakest teams in the second round, deserved this triumph.
Which reminds us that the world’s most recognized superpower continues to lag well behind the competition in the sport about which the world is most passionate.
American TV ratings are up. Way up. Soccer discussion rages. Landon Donovan, previously vaguely familiar to most in this country, is a household name. We were engaged in international soccer at an unprecedented level; we bought more World Cup tickets than any country outside South Africa. As we have learned more about soccer, we care about it more than ever. As a nation of fans, we have made a giant leap.
Indeed, it’s conceivable our national interest is coming along at a faster rate than our scouts and coaches can identify and develop a deep and imposing roster.
The result was almost predictable after the U.S. team fell behind less than five minutes in. We had zero comeback wins in 28 previous matches. In this 29th such match, we rallied to tie – on a penalty kick – but never appeared to be the better side.
So it was for most of this World Cup. Yes, the United States clearly was robbed against Slovenia, when what should have been a 3-2 win ended up a 2-2 tie. But who knows where the team would have been if Donovan had not sprinted into the perfect position at the perfect time to score in the 1-0 victory over Algeria?
The United States has not won consecutive Cup games in 80 years. Despite our hype and swagger, we’re still trying to build a team capable of contending for a championship. With talent such as Clint Dempsey and Donovan – and Tim Howard in goal – there were quality players on our side.
But we were neither fast enough nor deep enough. The United States, the home of the world’s fastest man for 34 of the past 42 years, couldn’t keep up with the men from Ghana, which only occasionally offers a world-class sprinter.
A textbook example of our lack of quickness came on the winning goal by Ghana’s Asomoah Gyan. He used speed and balance to split Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit and, maintaining ball control, left behind both.
Gyan confronted a defenseless Howard, who had too much territory to cover, and booted the goal.
In the end, nothing suggests that we got any less than we earned. It was a good showing, hardly impressive.
We own American football, dominate international basketball and are outstanding at hockey. In the realm of soccer, though a highly popular youth sport, we’re a cut above ordinary.