U.S. soccer gets upended against Ghana at World Cup

The United States loses 2-1 to Ghana in a round-of-16 match at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa.
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Having forced overtime with yet another heart-stopping rally, the U.S. soccer team found itself in arrears again at the World Cup. Ghana had retaken the lead on a masterful left-footed strike, and with a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals at stake and only three minutes to claim it, U.S. Coach Bob Bradley pushed his goalkeeper forward in a last, desperate assault on Ghana's goal.

But time finally ran out Saturday on a U.S. team that had grown oddly accustomed to thrilling fans with its last-act heroics, as Ghana hung on for a 2-1 victory and a berth in the quarterfinals against Uruguay, a two-time World Cup champion.

The U.S. squad went one round further than it had in the 2006 World Cup. And it did so by finishing atop its foursome, which included England, the country that's quick to take a bow for inventing the modern game, in first-round play.

But the Americans were sent packing Saturday knowing that they were capable of much more.

"It's a tough lesson to learn when you don't get a chance to redeem yourself," said U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan, whose goal on a penalty kick in the 62nd minute tied the score. "The warning signs were there: getting scored on early. And it came back to bite us."

The Americans' disappointment was Africa's joy.

This World Cup, which concludes July 11, is the first to be contested on African soil, and Ghana was the lone African nation among the six that advanced to the second round. Its players arrived at the stadium for Saturday's match against a favored squad of Americans aboard a motor coach emblazoned with the phrase "The Hope of Africa."

But instead of withering under the weight of a continent's hopes and aspirations, Ghana's Black Stars, as the team is known, drew strength from them. They danced as they disembarked from the team bus, and they danced at lightning speed throughout the match.

"We fought for the continent and fought for Ghana," midfielder Andre Ayew said. "I just pray that the African continent is proud, and we have made a lot of Ghanaians happy."

It was more difficult to assess the Americans' achievement following a World Cup performance that improved on 2006 yet fell short of its potential.

Said Bradley: "We always understand the responsibility we have as a national team to show how far soccer has come in the United States and to fight for respect. It comes down to: Every match, that gets tested over again. Tonight, all we can do is look hard at ourselves and continue to improve."

There was a surreal quality to the setting of the match, with soccer fans bundled in scarves and mittens against a damp and chilly South African winter night. Roughly 7,000 seats sat empty in the 42,000-seat venue. But what the game lacked in density it compensated for in star wattage, with rock icon Mick Jagger, dressed in dapper topcoat and scarf, looking on from a suite alongside former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who wore a Nike-issued U.S. team jacket.

The Americans' expectations had been tempered from the start, at least publicly, with Bradley setting a round-of-16 appearance as the minimal standard of success.

But after the squad's gritty arrival at that stage, players clearly expected more. The Americans opened with a 1-1 draw against England, aided by goalkeeper's muff on a stoppable shot.

Then they clawed back to tie Slovenia after falling behind 2-0, earning more supporters in the process after getting wronged by a referee's botched call that denied a potential game-winning third goal.

Then, on the brink of elimination, they got a late goal from Donovan against Algeria to send them on to the knockout round and Saturday's date with Ghana -- an opportunity to avenge a loss to Ghana in the 2006 World Cup, one than knocked the United States out of the tournament, and make a powerful statement about U.S. soccer in the process.

But just five minutes into the match, the Americans surrendered a goal.

All tournament long, Donovan had steadied his team like an anchor, never more reliable than when hope seemed lost. And he came up huge again, with a brilliantly composed and ruthlessly struck penalty kick that tied the score.

With no draws allowed in the World Cup knockout round, the match would have to be settled by a goal one way or another. Ghana got its go-ahead score in the third minute of overtime, and the Americans simply ran out of comebacks.

When time finally ran out on the Americans Saturday, one after another dropped to the ground as the backups who had watched from the bench trudged out to console them.

Jay DeMerit, the defender who had a hand in surrendering the first goal, strode instead toward the stands, where thousands of American fans had spent the night cheering, and applauded the team's supporters.

"There's always disappointment when a great tournament like this comes to an end," DeMerit explained later. "But I think it's a really special time for U.S. soccer. There's a reason that the United States sold more tickets than pretty much any other country to come here: These people care; these people want to be a part of these environments.

"To show our appreciation as players, win or lose, is the important thing. And when disappointment is at its highest, that's probably the time to show the most appreciation."

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