Four years after a loss to Ghana ended America's World Cup dreams, the two teams squared off again—and the U.S. felt the devastating sting of a repeat loss to the African team.
It was always too close for the U.S. The Americans snatched draws against England and Slovenia to stay alive. They could not have waited longer against Algeria to win their group. And, after a tournament spent living on the edge, their luck ran out against Ghana.
Ghana’s goal in the third minute of extra time wrote the Americans’ ticket home, putting an end to a four-game run that had the U.S. dreaming of quarterfinals and semis to come. It was the second time in four years that a 2-1 victory by the African side sent the U.S. out of the World Cup, but this one will sting more. What was supposed to be the team’s coming of age, with a groundswell of support back home, ended meekly. They filled the final moments with a few disorganized long balls to tired strikers at the end of extra time.
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“We felt that as we went through the first round, we had gotten to the point where we were ready to go deep in this tournament,” U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said.
It was not to be. Through Landon Donovan, they showed flashes of what they were capable of doing, moments of crisp passing and quick movement. But they looked slow at the back, tuning out just long enough to let Ghana in. They lacked the creativity to really trouble their opponents—Ghana’s goalkeeper only had to make one outstanding save—and the legs to outmatch them physically. This time, there is no referee to blame for stealing goals. Ghana earned both the old-fashioned way.
• Full coverage of World CupThe problems began early for the United States as Kevin Prince-Boateng struck in the fifth minute, beating Tim Howard at his near post. And, all of a sudden, the U.S. was playing from behind just as it had done in two of its previous three games.
“Once they had the goal, they could pass the ball and tire us out a little,” Donovan said.
The Americans sputtered for most of the first half, with Ghana beating them for speed and muscle all over the pitch. Bradley tried mixing things up by bringing in the more physical Maurice Edu after half an hour, but it wasn’t enough to spur them into action before the half-time break.
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Early in the second half, the Americans suddenly showed some signs of life. Clint Dempsey burst into the Ghanaian box, only to be brought down. The referee awarded a penalty kick—much to the excitement of Mick Jagger and Bill Clinton, sitting in a private box—and Landon Donovan stepped up. With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, he squatted for a moment, collected his thoughts, and then whipped in an unstoppable shot. The ping of the ball caroming off the right post cut through the vuvuzelas for an instant.
The chances were there for the United States to take the lead late in regulation, but the finishing was not. The game would be decided in 30 minutes of extra time, though it only took three for Asamoah Gyan to find the decisive blow. Splitting the defenders, he volleyed home and made sure Ghana would continue to fly the flag for Africa.
“At that point, with everything that we put into the game physically, we just didn’t have enough after that,” Bradley said.
After the final whistle, the Ghanaian players danced on the field, celebrating their quarterfinal date with Uruguay. The American players stood silent, realizing they had no part left to play in this World Cup. Donovan went back to the dugout alone and hung his head.
“We were a little naïve tonight, and at this level you can’t do that,” he said. “It was frustrating after all the work we’ve put in. It just sucks.”
Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.