Sunday, June 27, 2010

Late-Night Thoughts on the World Cup Exit

The cruel irony of Gyan's extra-time winner that knocked us out of the World Cup is that his world-class strike is exactly what we failed to produce in any of our four matches.

You can blame the early goals. You can blame the lineup choices. You can blame the poor luck. And that all makes sense. But at the end of the day we exited the tournament with nary a goal from our front line. Boy oh boy, think we missed Charlie Davies out there?
Déjà vu: A 2-1 loss to Ghana knocking us out of the World Cup for the second straight tournament. But what was an abomination in 2006 was playing with house money in 2010. Four years ago there was disgust. This time around there was only disappointment. It still stings, though. It stings hard. For all the silver linings, for all the talk of Bradley's breakout and Jozy's experience-pickup, I'm absolutely gutted by this loss. Gutted. Never before, and perhaps never again, was it or will it be easier for the United States to reach the semifinals, and we came up short in a winnable match. It hurts. And I feel it.

An incredible run by the boys, one that's to be commended and applauded and saluted. The individual memories will linger in our collective soccer psyche and the American sporting zeitgeist forever: Donovan's bailout against Algeria, Robert Green's howler to earn us a draw, the comeback against Slovenia. But just because we met expectations, and thrilled and captivated the world in the process, doesn't mean we should dismiss what happened today in Rustenberg. We failed today.

Ultimately Bradley's starting lineup doomed us to defeat. The need for an early sub to replace the incomparably awful Rico Clark through off the entire game plan. Robbie Findley can't finish to save his life, a tragically flawed experiment. Hindsight is always 20/20, but it's pretty clear that Edu and Feilhaber should have started from the outset, with Deuce up in the Gerrardian substriker role. Sure we evened the score at 1-1, but only one sub left in a 120-minute match left us with tired legs that precluded us from pulling off our usual late-match heroics. That second 15-minute period spotlighted a tired, tired team. We needed at least one pair of non-Gomez fresh legs, but we didn't have any because of the odd choices Bradley the Elder made in selecting the squad.

Our back line got beat badly. Twice. Howard didn't play his best game, getting beat on the near post for the first goal. And Jozy didn't show for the third time in four matches (Algeria being the exception). This one exposed some glaring weaknesses in the US squad that need to be addressed as we move ahead as one of the world's growing powers. We need a partner for Bradley. We need strength AND pace in the back. And we need to maximize Jozy's potential while pairing him with someone who can use his skills (please be a healthy Charlie Davies). We'll likely need a new manager as well, and here's to hoping that Bradley the Younger harbors no ill will if we don't renew his daddy's contract.

I'm all for being pleased by the performance. In the end, I had a better time watching this team than just about any team in any sport in my lifetime, and that includes Stanley Cup winners and World Series winners. And I will be there from now until 2014 to root for the USMNT every step of the way. But I'm also miserable thinking about what could have been an impeccable run for the ages. We coulda had class. We coulda been a contender. We coulda been somebody. Instead, I'll watch the rest of the tournament knowing just what coulda been.