After a FIFA World Cup™ that saw them hit one of the highs of their footballing history, the United States were left with a bitter taste in the mouth after their 2-1 extra-time defeat by Ghana in the second round. Although the Black Stars are certainly carrying the African banner proudly and well, USA were left to ask what might have been after topping their group for the first time since their first finals appearance in 1930.
Finishing in front of Algeria, Slovenia and heavily favoured England in Group C allowed them to avoid Germany in the next round and a possible match-up with heavyweights Argentina in the quarter-finals. But with a first-ever semi-final spot suddenly appearing a realistic possibility, coach Bob Bradley's team were unable to build on the momentum created by their dramatic last-gasp win over Algeria – a victory that captured the popular imagination in the States.
Indeed the heroics papered over some obvious lapses in concentration, which included slow starts and early goals conceded against England, Slovenia and Ghana. Looking back with FIFA.com before heading home, there was a mix of disappointment and c'est la vie among the players. "We're frustrated, and I am sure a lot of our fans back home in America are frustrated too," said captain Carlos Bocanegra. "We were on such a high of emotions. But things come quick in soccer – on Wednesday it's a high and today we're going home. In that sense it's frustrating, but overall, I think we had a good tournament. We showed what kind of team we are and that we definitely belong here."
There can be no doubt about that, and for a team that has long struggled to establish itself among the international elite, as well as among its own sporting audience, that is a significant achievement. A run to the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa last year gave the US higher expectations than perhaps ever before, and that was clear in their confident fightbacks, even against a footballing power like England. Tim Howard, one of seven England-based players in the squad, agreed with Bocanegra and others that the team's attitude was its major strength. "We never give up. It's not a cliche, we've proven it time and time again," he said before hinting at something of the crossroad that lay before them.
“The next level for US soccer is taking the opportunity like we had against Ghana," said the Everton netminder. "We need to start bossing the game and controlling the tempo and really imposing ourselves more instead of just being happy to be competing. Had we been on top of the games more, we wouldn't have had to keep fighting back." And there lies the rub. The US, who have now reached six consectutive FIFA World Cups, were often impressive in South Africa but only when their backs were to the wall – and a team cannot run on emotion through a long tournament like the World Cup. As Howard said after the match, they couldn't "just keep producing magical moments".
So why the slow starts and why the early goals? Centre-back Jay DeMerit said it was just bad luck. "We had chances in the beginnings of games as well. It happens sometimes that the goals come against you early, and this just happened to be the tournament where that happened. It's nothing you can really put your finger on." But the Watford player insisted that in the big picture the team were not too displeased with their performance. "We said early on we want for sure to get out of our group and see what happens after that," he said. "Our first goal was achieved, which is something we can look back on with pride. The way we did it, I think you can look back with more pride. And [against Ghana] we fought to the end of 120 minutes, we fought together and for each other. Unfortunately, today, it had to end."