US exit signals end of era
When Claudio Reyna handed the captain's armband to Landon Donovan before he hobbled off the pitch in the first half of the USA's 2-1 defeat to Ghana , he was passing a metaphorical torch to the 24-year-old, who will now have the job of rallying the United States after their disappointing group-stage exit from Germany 2006.
"The worst part is the finality of it," said Donovan after the match. "It's over, it's done. It takes a while to get over that." Those words might have been more appropriate coming from Reyna, who announced his retirement from international football the next day.
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Though no similar announcements have been made, it is probably safe to assume that a few other key veterans, such as defender Eddie Pope and forward Brian McBride, also played their last FIFA World Cup match on Thursday. That leaves the job of picking up the pieces from this tournament squarely on the shoulders of Donovan's generation, which also includes centre-back Oguchi Onyewu, attack-minded midfielders Clint Dempsey, Bobby Convey and DaMarcus Beasley, and striker Eddie Johnson.
Dempsey, for one, seemed aware of the responsibility, saying after the match: "It's a long road, four years, to get back here, but it's going to happen. We've got a lot of young guys coming up and playing well."
What went wrong?
For a team that earned only a single point, thanks to a 1-1 draw with Italy , and finished with a minus-four goal difference, there is no shortage of things that could have gone better for this US squad. It all started in their fifth minute of the tournament when Czech Republic forward Jan Koller scored with a header from close range, and they were up against it from that point onwards.
"The first result went a bad way and we were chasing ever since then and kept giving up early goals," said defender Carlos Bocanegra, who at age 27 may have another finals ahead of him.
"I don't think we played to our potential," the Fulham man added. "We played with a lot more heart and desire the last two games, but especially in this one (against Ghana), I think we could have done better as a team in general."
Beasley, who was singled out for criticism by his coach after the 3-0 loss to Czech Republic but then recovered to set up his team's only goal against Ghana, pointed to the team's attacking woes. "We only scored one goal the whole tournament, and the other goal was an own goal so that doesn't really count," he said. "We've got to get better in that department. We definitely underachieved, without a doubt."
Steve Cherundolo, a full-back known for his ability to get forward, echoed Beasley's sentiments. "I think on the whole, myself included, we weren't clever enough on the ball, we didn't create enough chances for our forwards."
Coach Bruce Arena has long been admired for his ability to manage personalities and build teams with very little in-fighting. That is no grand achievement when you exceed expectations with a run to the quarter-finals, as the Arena-led US squad did at Korea/Japan 2002, but even with the heartbreak clear as day on the faces of the players after the loss to Ghana, there was not a single instance of finger-pointing to be found.
Left-sided defender Bocanegra refused to pin responsibility on the attacking players. "You can't blame the offence if we're not giving them service from the back, and maybe they're worried about us keeping the goals out because we had quite a few goals scored on us in this tournament. I don't think it was anybody's fault, just as a team in general we didn't perform right."
Players were also quick to back up Arena, who has received some criticism in the US media. When Cherundolo was asked if he was upset at being substituted in two of the three matches, the full-back said: "It's part of the game. Bruce makes good decisions. I'm fine with all of his decisions."
Donovan, when pressed on whether Arena had perhaps not put players in their best positions, shook his head and said: "Guys were in their positions. It's on guys to perform wherever they're playing. That's never been an issue."
With the popularity of soccer in the States still lagging behind the country's major sports, questions were asked whether this set-back might have far-reaching negative effects on the sport's development. Arena was quick to dismiss the idea. "The impact is we're going home tomorrow. US soccer has a bright future," he said.
McBride echoed that sentiment. "I highly doubt that it will stop growing. I imagine that it will continue to grow." When a reporter gave him a sceptical look, the classy centre-forward gave a half-smile and emphasised: "Pretty sure."