If you’re a newcomer to soccer who’s been taken with the ecstasy and agony of Team USA’s World Cup run, let me be the first to welcome you to life as a U.S. soccer fan. It’s maddening, but it’s seldom boring, and it has some amazing moments.
If you want to pick over the pluses and minuses of USA’s Round of 16 loss to Ghana, let me direct you to Jonathan Wilson’s analysis for CNN-SI and Zonal Marking’s tactical breakdown of the game. These British writers assess the game coolly and dispassionately, without any of the disappointment coming from the American soccer press, and without any of the patronizing that you sometimes get from Euro pundits when they discuss American soccer. Wilson and ZM give the U.S. team their due, but they also point out where it went wrong.
I don’t have much to add. I will say that in the run-up to the game, I thought about who might partner Michael Bradley in midfield against Ghana’s midfield power. I figured Maurice Edu might be able to bully them back, or that Benny Feilhaber would be a viable option to counter strength with finesse. José Francisco Torres could have performed that latter role, too, if he hadn’t had such a bad game against Slovenia. The only selection that didn’t make sense to me was Ricardo Clark, an elegant positional defensive midfielder whose slight build made him vulnerable to the bigger, stronger Ghanaians, and who didn’t offer enough on offense to threaten them. Of course, Clark is the one whom Coach Bob Bradley elected to start, and he did badly enough that he was given the hook after 30 minutes. Bradley’s tactical substitutions were superb throughout this tournament, and it’s admirable to be able to recognize one’s mistakes and correct them. Still, it’s even better not to make those mistakes in the first place. Having gone to his bench twice before the second half started, Bradley couldn’t freshen up the team when the game went into extra time, and several of USA’s players were visibly out of gas by the end. (Subbing out Jozy Altidore for Herculez Gomez was a rare mistaken change for Bradley as well. With the U.S. still aiming long balls for the strikers up front, Altidore’s strength and physical presence were needed, even if Gomez is a more accurate finisher.)
Some of the U.S. writers are looking at our part of the bracket — which didn’t have any of soccer’s superpowers — and calling this a blown opportunity for a rare World Cup semifinal berth. That’s not wrong, but we should remember that three of the four teams in this quadrant were always going to fall short, and they’d all have reason to rue their missed chance when that happened. The South Koreans are now feeling the same regret as us, and whoever loses that Ghana vs. Uruguay quarterfinal match will be feeling it as well later in the week. And it’s not as if USA were miles better than the other three teams. Had USA failed to progress out of a group that included Algeria and Slovenia, that would have been a major disappointment. There’s no shame in losing a close game to Ghana in the round of 16.
Speaking of whom, let’s give the Ghanaians some credit. They aren’t spectacular like some of the other teams at this World Cup, but they are smart and well-drilled as well as strong and skilled. The stereotype of African soccer is that they always fail to play as a team at this level. The Black Stars have defied that stereotype with their disciplined performances under their astute Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac. For all the articles here about how great the chemistry has been among Team USA’s players, the Black Stars are a pretty together bunch as well. The country of Ghana is one of Africa’s few success stories; after being ruled for decades by a military dictator, they’re now a stable democracy with a productive economy. The soccer team has made history with this win over us — only two other African teams have ever reached the World Cup quarterfinals (Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002). If Ghana beat Uruguay on Thursday (doable, I’d say), they will become the most successful African team ever. Their play-acting to waste time during the late stages of Saturday’s game made them a bit less sympathetic, but they’re still worth rooting for.
(By the way, if you’re curious about the team’s nickname, the Black Stars, it’s a reference to the black star at the center of Ghana’s flag, which in turn refers to the shipping line started by Marcus Garvey. It’s not a reference to the players’ race, though how cool would it be for a World Cup held in Africa to be dominated by a team calling themselves the Black Stars?)
One other note of consolation: At least we lost our game fairly and squarely. If you thought the NBA playoffs were badly officiated, check the two terrible refereeing decisions that turned the tide in both England’s 4-1 loss to Germany and Mexico’s 3-1 loss to Argentina. Late in the first half, England had just pulled back to within 2-1 when their midfielder Frank Lampard launched a speculative shot that beat German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, hit the crossbar, and bounced down clearly over the goal line. Yet Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda said “no goal,” denying England the equalizer. Then Italian referee Roberto Rosetti awarded Argentina the first goal of their match to Carlos Tévez. TV replays showed Tévez to be offside when Lionel Messi launched his shot on goal, which Tévez redirected into the net.
The error in the Argentina game was marginally less egregious; the ball was shot onto Mexico’s goal, bounced back, and was shot on again in less than two seconds, and it’s hard for the human eye to keep track of everything when that happens. Yet officials catch this sort of thing all the time. The frustrating thing about the mistake in Germany’s game is that it could have been prevented months ago. A proposal was put in front of FIFA to help referees determine “goal” or “no goal” decisions by using video replays or Hawk-Eye technology (used in tennis to determine whether serves go over the service line). This proposal was shot down, with FIFA’s Luddite president Sepp Blatter sayng that it was just too expensive. (At this point, I should mention that FIFA took in over $1 billion last year.) Had this system been in place, England would have gotten the second goal they deserved.
You can look at the scorelines and say that one goal didn’t make the difference in either game, but each goal changes the complexion of a game. When a team is down by a goal, they play differently from when they’re even. After conceding the early score, Mexico came apart mentally (as they unfortunately tend to do at World Cups) and gave up more goals before pulling back a late consolation goal. The way the other game played out, as England threw more players forward to try to get the equalizer, the Germans picked them off expertly on the counterattack. If Lampard’s goal had been awarded, who’s to say what psychological damage it would have inflicted on a young German team, playing with the knowledge that they threw away a two-goal lead in the space of a few minutes? It’s possible and maybe even probable that the Germans would have won anyway, but this game could have been a classic. A completely avoidable officiating error helped turn it into a rout.
I guess we should recognize German referee Wolfgang Stark (who worked the Uruguay-South Korea game) and Hungarian ref Viktor Kassai (the USA-Ghana game) for not screwing up the matches that they worked. The Argentina vs. Germany quarterfinal game should be amazing, provided that the officials don’t get in the way.