At halftime of the United States-Ghana game, I stood outside the pub with scores of others, smoking furiously and despairing at the Yanks going behind early once again. The mood remained upbeat, however, the same mood that has engulfed this team since its fight-back against Slovenia and the stunner against Algeria. At one point, I mentioned that Ghana’s goal was a soft one, a near-post finish that Tim Howard should have been better positioned for. Cue the end of “upbeat.”
Several fans savaged me for that observation. I had crossed the line. I had become critical of a team which had become darlings of the sports landscape. Never mind the truth, that the U.S was favored to get out of the group, that they found, in the knockout stages, the easiest possible route to the semifinals, that for all their heart-stopping entertainment (Will Leitch called it “terrifying fun”), they remained mistake-prone at the back and lacked a legitimate scoring threat at striker.
Yes, we all thrilled to their exploits and, at the end of the Ghana loss, it seemed cruel to point fingers. The effort did not lack. The two-week ride exhausted our bodies, our brains and our cynicism. In the pub, as the Yanks filed off the pitch in disbelief, we applauded with genuine thanks and admiration and then exited the dim bar, blinking into the stark, afternoon sun.
In the light of day, in the darkness of our frantic minds, we see the errors. The schoolboy defending on both goals, blatant cases of being a step slow in instinct, a thought slow in anticipation. It’s not as if the U.S. team’s penchant for gift-wrapping early goals was a secret. These must be addressed and game-planned on the training ground. And not fixing that issue is a primary reason they are out.
Another was the very existence of Rico Clark on the field, where he was directly responsible for two goals in just over 90 minutes played. We see a feckless Robbie Findley, all that pace useless when you run to nowhere or into the teeth of defense that is organized, physical and every bit as fast as you are. Coach Bob Bradley did not send out his best team against Ghana (Clint Dempsey up front with Jozy Altidore; Stuart Holden or Benny Feilhaber in the midfield with Maurice Edu instead of Clark), a mis-judgement compounded by Clark’s yellow card and the need to expend a precious substitution in the 27th minute of a game that would ultimately go to extra time.
And yes, Howard, the unquestioned backbone of the team. You absolutely can not let that goal in at the near post. He was one, maybe two, strides from where he should have been when that ball was struck. In the correct position, he scoops it up harmlessly at his feet. I’ve not read a single word about this anywhere. Maybe because Clark’s giveaway was so much more glaring, as was Jay DeMerit not closing down the shooter quickly enough. Regardless, a world-class goalkeeper is the one who bails out his team and Howard didn’t do enough in this crucial situation.
Maybe it’s simply because Howard is a symbol of this team, an athlete who overcame personal odds (he has Tourette’s) to succeed at the highest level in the EPL and internationally. As soccer fans in America, we ardently wish our overseas players make a mark, give respect to the game on our shores and Howard, and others, have done that. They make us proud, as if they were our own children. Sometimes, however, children are naughty. They disappoint us, let us down, and we are forced to punish them, to break out the Parent Speech and guide them. Afterward, we may feel badly, seeing their remorse, the pain they feel at being criticized by the ones who love them most.
It hurts to play the heavy, necessary though it may be. And so it is, this team that brought us so much this summer. I’m sad to see them go. But they have lessons to learn and they can not be absolved of their failings. Until they correct them.
Four years should be time enough.