U.S. Out of World Cup

American soccer fans spent too much time worrying about whether the Italians would show up and do their part today on behalf of the U.S. World Cup team. Sure, for the United States to move on to the next round the team required an Italian win over the Czech Republic to go along with its own victory against Ghana. But you never have to worry about the Italians; they take care of business when they have to—and did so handily in a 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic.

We should have instead spent all our time worrying about our lads. They couldn’t do their part and are now homeward bound after losing to Ghana 2-1. The U.S. team did finally score its first goal of the tournament—on a beautiful DaMarcus Beasley feed and Clint Dempsey finish—but they still appeared offensively challenged, as they have throughout this tournament.

There will be plenty of blame to go around for what appeared a lackluster effort that was not sufficiently urgent until too late in the game. Coach Bruce Arena will be questioned like never before in his long, largely successful tenure that has now stretched through two World Cup cycles. The U.S. looked pathetic in its opening 3-0 loss to the Czechs, a thrashing that was explained away by the opponent’s prowess as the No. 2-ranked team in the world. But the Czech Republic proceeded to lose its next two games against Ghana and Italy without scoring a goal, making that explanation rather suspect.

But most of the questions for Arena will center on the absent offense and the coach’s decision not to give Eddie Johnson his first start. The 21-year-old was a prolific scorer in the early stages of World Cup qualification before he apparently lost Arena’s confidence. His speed might have created more pressure on Ghana’s defense, as it did when he was, finally, inserted in the 60th minute. But while Johnson played fine, his addition was too little, too late.

There will be blame, too, for captain Claudio Reyna, the veteran star who was named to the all-tournament team in the 2002 World Cup. Reyna appeared cautious and tentative, setting a tone for the team, throughout the tournament. And his defensive error, getting stripped of the ball, resulted in Ghana’s first goal (and Reyna’s subsequent departure with an injury resulting from the play).

But the biggest culprits, to my eye, were the tandem of Landon Donovan and Beasley, the pair that was so brilliant and fearless in Korea four years ago. In that tourney, Beasley always seemed to be going forward, exploiting his exceptional speed. But with the exception of the lovely goal against Ghana that he created with a steal, he showed little control of the ball, usually surrendered it backward and was only an asset, if he was one at all, getting back on defense.

Donovan’s disappearance was even more mysterious. Long the great prodigy of American soccer, Donovan was expected to have outgrown the precocious kid stage and emerge as a team leader as well as the offensive linchpin. Going into the game against Ghana, Donovan had scored 25 goals in 84 matches for the national team. But he entered this match scoreless in his last 17 games, a drought that left the team without its best weapon. Arena will be blamed for putting Donovan in the wrong place in the wrong formation—with a single forward—but Donovan’s next appointment should be for a very long look in the mirror.

Americans will also blame the referee for a questionable penalty kick that was the winning goal for Ghana. Arena certainly did in his comments to the press following the game. But that’s like blaming the post for stopping Brian McBride’s header late in the game. Sure, it was a very marginal call that one might hope would be avoided in such a critical game. But the referees have been calling virtually all contact in all games in a fairly even-handed fashion. (Ghana also took a grievous blow, losing its $47 million man, Michael Essien, for its next game against Brazil to a questionable yellow.)

The penalty kick certainly made the American task more difficult. But the team was never going to advance to the next round without scoring a second goal and it never could pull that off. Ghana was the better team for most of the match and, for the U.S., one intense, gritty effort against Italy is hardly enough to merit any success in a tournament of this caliber. Ultimately, the U.S. team got exactly what it deserved.

Given the underdog mentality of the American soccer fan, there is some consolation in the success of Ghana, the only African team to survive to the second round. Ghana has long been a standout in the world junior competitions, but the talent has never produced at the next level. This was Ghana’s first World Cup, and it was exciting to see them make the most of it. Hopefully, the Black Stars can bring their exciting brand of soccer to the quarterfinal with Brazil and turn it into a showcase game.

As for the U.S. soccer establishment, it will have a few years to assess the World Cup breakdown and figure out what changes are required. Finger-pointing is inevitable, but it is also a waste of time. Perhaps everybody involved in this disappointing World Cup performance—from the coach to the players to honchos at the U.S. Soccer Association—should spend a little time with a mirror. After all, South Africa 2010 is a scant four years away.