Postmortem

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.

endYes, 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.

Land of the Free Kick

For the last 48 hours or so, I’ve tried to craft an in-depth, meaningful essay on The Moment, on the feeling I had seeing Landon Donovan stroke it into the net, the emotion of watching the goal over and over, and perhaps most tear-jerking, the compilation of reactions from U.S. fans everywhere (the guy sliding down the stairs kills me). But I can’t. It’s beyond me in my current adrenaline-overloaded state.

cele

I wanted to talk about how the goal, and the entire U.S. World Cup run so far, has basically eliminated the stodgy bullshit from mainstream media columnists, who have never failed in the past to trot our their tired and dismissive drivel about America never being a soccer nation. Which is awesome. Because we already are a soccer nation.

I’ve long since gotten past trying to convince non-soccer fans of the intrinsic beauty of the game. I don’t care if you like it or not. I don’t need you. The U.S. team doesn’t need you. And I can blissfully skip past any ignorant comment after years of red-faced defense of this game I love. Today, I am secure in knowing those people missed out. Serves ’em right.

Ink will be spilled coast to coast about What It Means. I’m usually annoyed at that stuff, too. For every success or failure, we have to hear how it will affect soccer in the future. What other sport is faced with such repeated analysis?

Here’s what it means. It means we won a game in dramatic fashion to save our skins. It means casual sports fans have taken notice because the U.S. team’s fight and belief (and this insane ability to pull goals out of their ass in the waning minutes) is something Americans admire. They don’t need to know a set-piece from a settee to feel something for these Yanks. It means I’m going to bar tomorrow to hopefully re-live one of those scenes from the video, a bar where the proprietor suggested I get there three hours early to avoid being turned away by the fire marshal.

Ghana is a tough foe. They will be very difficult to break down defensively and they have athletes all over the park. Their ability to score goals is suspect, but their discipline and work-rate will be a huge issue for this U.S. team, as will the Yanks’ ability to recover from a physically- and emotionally-draining performance just three days earlier. The game threatens to be 0-0 for a long time, increasing the pressure with every passing minute. This game is as close to a toss-up as you will find.

But watching this U.S. team in this World Cup, would you bet against them?

Essien Out and Other Injuries

Ghana captain Michael Essien has been ruled out of the World Cup as he has not recovered from a knee injury picked up in the African Cup of Nations in January. The absence of the Chelsea midfielder, Ghana’s most accomplished player, is a huge setback to the Black Stars and they must now be considered long-shots to get out of Group D, which includes Germany, Serbia and Australia.

essien

In other injury news, Spain’s Fernando Torres returned to full training with the Euro 2008 champions after six weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury, a certain boost to the co-favorites (with Brazil) and likely also to those clubs hoping to pry the striker away from Anfield later this summer. Torres recently rubbished his agent’s statements alluding to the star staying with Liverpool after a distasterous campaign, raising red flags all over Merseyside, and also at my house.

Closer to home (home, in this case being Group C), England gaffer Fabio Capello is not yet ready to rule out Gareth Barry, who continues to rehab an ankle injury suffered earlier this month. Barry, Capello’s preferred defensive midfielder, had scans on the ankle this week that were inconclusive. Considering the middling performances of James Milner and Michael Carrick against Mexico, it’s clear Capello will consider Barry until the last possible moment.

U.S. players with questionable health include the (many times) aforementioned Oguchi Onyewu. Some pundits claimed he looked about 60-70% against the Czechs, but I’d say that assessment is rather optimistic. Centreback Jay DeMerit, with his new cornea, appears recovered from a strained abdominal muscle, as does captain Carlos Bocanegra, who underwent a recent hernia operation. Though U.S. fans will breathe easier regarding those diagnoses if both take the field Saturday for the U.S. team’s final stateside friendly against Turkey in Philly.