U.S. Out at World Cup: Why We Lost & A Little Optimism

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After spending the first three U.S. games holed away in my living room I decided to make USA-Ghana a more social affair and head to one of the local pubs (more on that in a forthcoming separate piece). Maybe I should’ve stayed at home. Like any fan that changes a routine before a loss, I’ve already managed to convince myself that I cursed the Americans. Of course, everyone at the bar was also convinced that they knew exactly why the Americans lost (although most of their reasons probably didn’t involve curses). In honor of second guesses and armchair quarterbacks (or midfielders?), here’s my

Five Reasons Why We Lost:

1. It took Bob Bradley 30 minutes to realize what every U.S. fan already knew.

I’ll never, ever understand how Ricardo Clark managed to sneak his way back into the starting lineup for this game. He has shown nothing up to this point to indicate he adds anything to the U.S. midfield. On top of that, he had none of the momentum of the U.S.-Algeria game, because, you know, he didn’t play a single minute! If only that had been the case tonight. Bringing in Edu instead of starting him cost the U.S. an early sub, and it cost the U.S. a goal. Clark was the one who turned the ball over in the first place on Boateng’s 5th minute strike.

(On a side not, I loved the scene of Bradley talking to Clark after he removed him in the 31st minute. Except, instead of looking for a nice picture of a coach comforting a devastated player, I’m vindictive and was hoping that Bradley was secretly whisptering, Godfather-like, “I swear you will never touch the field again in a U.S. uniform as long as I live. I regret the moment I ever put you on this team, and you’re dead to me. Go ahead, cry, just go sit down and do it.”)

Just to pile on to the whole US-Algeria game, why didn’t Benny Feilhaber start also? Did Bob Bradley not notice that we played our best offensive soccer since the Confederations Cup in the game against Algeria? Feilhaber and Edu have been revelations for the U.S., and Altidore and Dempsey looked like they were forming some nice chemistry up top. This combination also appeared to allow Donovan to play his best. Simply put, Bob Bradley started the game with an offensive lineup that simply wasn’t going to score without a lucky break like the goal against England. Sorry, but in case he hasn’t noticed, our defense just isn’t good enough to post a shutout against a good team.

2. Lack of chemistry and focus on the back line.

Teams hardly ever change their defensive line during a tournament, and there’s a reason for it. Defense is about communication and consistency. It’s bad if you’re predictable on offense, but nobody’s ever complained that somebody’s defense was too boring or predicable. The U.S. was forced into a change when Bradley decided Onyewu wasn’t fit to play. The actual substitute Jonathan Bornstein wasn’t really the problem. He’s actually been quite a pleasant surprise. Instead, I just don’t think Demerit and Bocanegra got the minutes together they needed to really sew up the back. They certainly weren’t bad, but they also weren’t tested for large portions of the game. As usual, they were very good in the air, which is, strangely, the way the Ghanaians chose to attack for much of the match. However, the second goal was clearly a combination of miscommunication and plain lethargy for the two center backs.

The lack of focus is something that has haunted the U.S. for some time. Again, the U.S. gave up an early goal (actually two if you want to call the second one an early goal in OT) by losing focus for a moment. The first goal can certainly be attributed, in part, to the midfield (and Tim Howard a little), but the goal that won Ghana the game resulted from casual play on the part of Demerit and Bocanegra.

3. The U.S. panicked

This might sound strange, if not impossible, considering the number of times the U.S. has managed to score late goals and fight back when trailing. However, the U.S. looked scattered and leaderless in the OT period. I realize they were a bit rocked by Ghana’s goal, but (with stoppage time) they had a solid 32-33 minutes to get one back. That’s a third of a full game. Yet, the U.S. never put together any serious attacking sequence or patient buildup. Instead, we decided to blast long balls, which hadn’t come close to being successful all day, to two forwards up top that aren’t even particularly good at bringing down those kinds of passes. I was angry when Ghana scored, but by the end of the game I was just disappointed in the Americans.

Yes, Ghana wasted a lot of time, flopping all over the field and calling over stretchers for imagined injuries, but the U.S. team let them dictate the game and failed to take advantage of the many times they did have the ball. This could’ve been a moment when Donovan or Dempsey, or even Bradley, calmed this team down and led a composed attack. Instead, they all just looked frustrated and shell-shocked.

4. Ghana’s speed and ability in the air.

The speed of Ghana’s back line threw the U.S. off their game for most of the first half, even when the Americans did make one of their rare forays into Ghanaian territory. We knew Ghana was a speedy side, but most of the talk was about their attackers like Asamoah Gyan. What we didn’t talk about was their ability to close down attackers and make quick recoveries, which Donovan, Dempsey, Cherundolo, and Finley learned a lot about in the first half.

On top of that, Ghana was extremely solid in the air today. Even when the U.S. is passing the ball well, as we did for the first 30 minutes of the 2nd half, we still rely on a lot of balls in the air pegged at Jozy or another attacker. The U.S. is a very opportunistic team that’s really good at pouncing on the second ball (as Bradley’s goal against Slovenia showed), but Ghana never gave the U.S. a sniff at these types of goals with their solid aerial clearances.

5. The Altidore substitution.
I don’t know if Bradley would still make that substitution if he knew we were going to go down a goal less than two minutes into overtime, but I doubt it. Maybe Jozy was just absolutely gassed after 90 minutes, but the U.S. are a notoriously fit squad that spent a lot of time training to prepare for moments like this. Look, Gomez is a fine player. He’s a poacher, and if he gets a chance to score he usually will. But he’s not going to create a goal from nothing, and, honestly, that’s what the U.S. needed in OT. I already talked about the pitiful way they played in the final 30 minutes, and even if he was worn out, Jozy would’ve been able to contribute just with his size and ability to fight for the hopeful balls the U.S. midfield kept sending through the air. Plus, I would’ve felt a little more hope, even squeezed between my sweaty bar compatriots, knowing Jozy might pull out one last-minute moment of brilliance.

All right, now that I’ve got all that off my chest, let’s go to something a little more encouraging. Here’s why the U.S. team should be optimistic looking forward, despite this devastating loss. One, we’re a young team. Two, these young guys play with more speed and creativity than any U.S. squad has before.

Although the U.S. wasn’t an extremely youthful side in terms of its overall age, we’re very young in some key areas. We also appear to have a generation of players between 20-25 that have some real skill on the ball and actually look creative in the attacking third. Guys like Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore all performed well in this tournament. Plus, Jose Torres is a solid player that just had a bad half against Slovenia. We’ll definitely see more from him. Stuart Holden is also a nice up-and-comer who didn’t get to see the field because of a roster crowded with midfielders. Don’t forget Alejandro Bedoya, the 23-old-midfielder who came out of nowhere to challenge for a spot on this World Cup roster. Finally, I hate to even invoke the name, but the hero of the 2007 U-20 World Cup Freddy Adu is still, amazingly, only 21 years old. Just saying.

Oh, and by the way, we also just played the entire World Cup without our best overall forward Charlie Davies. True, the jury is still out on Davies’ injury recovery, but, despite the fact that he didn’t make the U.S. roster, he did return to full training with his club team. Davies is only 23 and Jozy, who really showed some flashes of the player he’s capable of being during this tournament, is only 20. We could finally see a real, threatening strike partnership develop for the U.S. over the next four years. Both of these guys will be in their prime for the 2014 World Cup.

Unfortunately, the U.S. back line isn’t nearly as youthful. Demerit, Bocanegra, and Cherundolo are all over 30. Onyewu’s 28, and his knee injury appears to have added at least two years. He looks more like Greg Oden everyday. Still, Jonathan Bornstein looked better in this tournament than he ever has in a U.S. jersey, and he’s only 25. Jonathan Spector, Cherundolo’s backup who played well at least year’s Confederations Cup, is only 24. We also haven’t gotten a good luck yet at Edgar Castillo, the 23-year-old defender that plays in Mexico’s Primera.

Overall, I have to admit the U.S. player pool looks deeper and more entertaining than it did after the Americans’ exit in 2006. I’m kind of excited just thinking about. Oh wait, we just lost, and the World Cup isn’t for another four years. Ok, I’m depressed again.

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