And then they were done

Real sports fans are never satisfied or happy when the team they support goes home without winning the competition. The heart wants what the heart wants, no matter what the head may say–you may not expect to win but that’s a different thing altogether.

So I’ve mixed emotions after Saturday’s round of 16 loss to Ghana. Four years ago we left Germany after the group stage with one point, a serious disappointment after nearly reaching the semi-finals in 2002. Winning our group for the first time in 80 years was great and after the Algeria win my hopes were raised for a deep run as in last Summer’s Confederations Cup. Ghana seemed beatable and if we did that, well, the Uruguay-South Korea winner was a decent possibility.

All that was dashed in six minutes after kickoff. Ricardo Clark gave up the ball inside the USA half and there went another early hole to dig out of, which he complimented with a useless, well-earned yellow next time he was on defense. If Bob Bradley made one obvious mistake in South Africa it was starting Clark in this match; Alexei Lalas (I think) said in the pre-game that Bradley must have seen something in the last practice we don’t know about because his first stage play didn’t earn him the spot. Maurice Edu, who came on for Clark after 30 minutes anyway, should have started.

Anyway, back to the opening topic. We won our group, got a result against England and overall had a stronger tournament than several perennial powers*. Landon Donovan was outstanding and Michael Bradley had, statistically, one of the best group stage performances of any player and both should make big money transfers after the tournament. We suffered (for the third straight Cup) from several astoundingly bad referee calls. We weren’t 100% healthy, with the fire power of Charlie Davies and Brian Ching missing out.

All good things or reasonable explanations for why it isn’t us playing Uruguay later this week.

Yet I’m still not satisfied since we could’ve and should’ve done better. There were no terrible decisions by the referee Saturday, except he might have more aggressively policed the time wasting. Ghana earned their goals and we couldn’t break through for the winner after Landon’s PK evened the line. It may have been his first significant mistake of the tourney but Bob Bradley put Clark out in place of Edu. Frankly I would’ve been okay with Clark if Bennie Feilhaber also started and Robbie Findlay sat.

In the post-match press conference a reporter asked Bradley if he thought he’d be at the helm in Brazil in four years. The answer was the usual ‘not my decision’ mishmash, of course, but that some people think seriously that Bradley’s six years are enough surprised this fan. I would not replace him. Bob has delivered a lot, certainly done a better job than his predecessor Bruce Arena, and has worked well to bring along younger players. The team’s average age is just under 27 (26.8) and when you consider that Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundulo, Jay Demerit and Marcus Hahnemann are well over 30 (Howard, actually is still considered young for a keeper) the future looks bright. Bradley is barely 50 years old himself.

* France were a bad Jerry Lewis joke. Italy lacked the creativity in attack and finishing up top that brought them the 2006 trophy. England were mostly a collection of stars, quite surprising after running through their qualification group. Denmark, Switzerland, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Japan are not perennial powers but expected at least by many to do better than USA.

My Tournament Grading

Jonathan Bornstein played above expectations for the second straight match after Oguchi Onyewu missed out apparently due to injury (at least according to Ives, as I’ve yet to see any official explanation) and Carlos Bocanegra had to shift into central defense.

Other than JB the American defense was just not good enough in the last match. Tim Howard should have stopped at least one of the two goals, if not both, and (Clark’s giveaway aside) Bocanegra and Demerit were inadequate on both. Steve Cherundulo was very good going forward and very good at clogging up his side of the width the first three games but couldn’t deliver what was needed Saturday.

Landon and Michael Bradley were our two best players and both scored very nice goals. Clint Dempsey was pretty good but perhaps the constant fouls on him and the long Europa League run with Fulham took too much as he didn’t show enough energy in the loss. Ricardo Clark was a disappointment, I was a big fan of his when he played for the Earthquakes and Dynamo in MLS. Feilhaber and Edu should always have been playing instead of him. Jose Torres was given minutes and the coach was right to not give him more.

Jozy Altidore–our youngest player, remember–showed he learned a lot about being the target man at Hull, poor as his results with that club may have been, and I think a Premier League team will buy his contract next month. Hercule Gomez was good but whether it was lack of service or opportunities didn’t live up to his supersub reputation. Other people seem more impressed by Findlay than me and Buddle never got stuck in, though plenty of people expected him to start against Ghana instead of Findlay and they may have been right.

Bottom line: Just getting out of group next time around in Brazil won’t be good enough, the Yanks will need to make a deep run. The four American games got about the highest TV ratings for men’s World Cup matches in US history and the buzz was nearly as loud as the vuvuzuelas so you know expectations will be piling on. Experience will be there since Jozy Altidore, Charlie Davies, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden and Jose Torres will be getting into their prime playing years, Landon and Dempsey will probably still have more than enough gas in the tank and Tim Howard will have four more years of top club experience, not to mention half a dozen young players who didn’t make this squad.

I’ll be watching. Only winning the big ugly golden trophy will make me happy.

ps – Can you imagine the pressure on the Brazilian players playing at home?!?!