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RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- For much of the past 18 months, the U.S. has made a habit of falling behind. In Saturday's round of 16 matchup against Ghana, it finally caught up with the Americans, as they fell 2-1 in extra time. It was the second time running that the Black Stars knocked the U.S. out of the tournament.
That the Americans achieved much in this tournament can't be questioned. The heart, courage and skill they showed in winning their group for the first time since 1930 will linger long in the memories of U.S. fans everywhere.
There is also no doubt that this loss will go down as a missed opportunity. Rare will be the times when the U.S. will have a group stage as navigable as the one it enjoyed in this tournament. Even rarer will be the World Cups where the entire bracket will break as kindly as this edition did. A place in the semifinals was not beyond the Americans.
The fact that the U.S. has only itself to blame will add to the bitterness. Coughing up early goals has long been the worst of habits for this side. Against Ghana, the Americans outdid themselves, not only conceding with the game less than five minutes old, but coughing up Asamoah Gyan's game-winner just three minutes into extra time as well.
"When you go down that early in overtime, it's just a case of you've put yourself in that spot one too many times," said U.S. manager Bob Bradley. "We had already expended a lot of energy."
In the first instance, a dreadful error from Ricardo Clark saw him stripped of the ball by Ghana's Kwadwo Asamoah, with the ball falling right into to the path of Kevin-Prince Boateng. The Ghanaian midfielder still had plenty of work to do but managed to evade the challenge of Jay DeMerit while beating Tim Howard to his near post.
The sequence was eerily similar to four years ago against Ghana. On that occasion it was Claudio Reyna who was caught in possession, leading to the Black Stars' first goal that day.
"I kind of got the ball stuck in my feet ... and I kind of got caught in my decision-making," said Clark about his mishap. "I didn't react fast enough and the guy stole the ball. It's unfortunate because it led to their goal and I let my team down. I take full responsibility on the goal."
That Clark was even in the lineup left Bradley open to some major second guessing. Maurice Edu had played effectively against Algeria and it was assumed that he would keep his place. Instead, Bradley opted for Clark, although given that the team was playing its second game in four days, there was some logic behind the decision.
"We thought that fresh legs in the center of the field would be good," said Bradley. "We felt that Ricardo against England was disciplined in the way he plugged certain holes and we thought that would be important against Ghana."
The second goal that the U.S. conceded was even more sickening for the manner in which it was scored. Andre Ayew made a blind clearance over the top of the U.S. defense that appeared to surprise central defenders Carlos Bocanegra and DeMerit. It allowed Gyan to latch onto the ball and hit a bullet past Howard. The fact it was Bocanegra that was beaten, after having delivered an otherwise error-free performance, made the tally even more unexpected.
"[Gyan] had the inside track on me, and I didn't think I could pull him down there, I had a yellow [card] already," said Bocanegra. "He's fast and I couldn't get on the other side of him to stop it. It's frustrating for it to come out of that, you know? He did well to face the goal, but for it to come right down the heart of the defense was just too easy."
Both goals highlighted one of the primary reasons the U.S. is going home earlier than it hoped, namely that the team is too frail defensively to compete with the best. Last Wednesday's shutout of Algeria was the first clean sheet for the Americans in nine months, and they conceded a total of five goals in the tournament. Contrast that with Ghana's two goals allowed, or even the one given up by quarterfinalist Uruguay, and it's easy to see that this is one area where the U.S. falls short.
It's also telling that the U.S. enjoyed a lead for just a grand total of three minutes in the World Cup. Clearly, the team had to expend a vast amount of energy, both physical and mental, to get back into the games.
Of course, this didn't stop the U.S. from mustering one of its patented comebacks against Ghana with the help of substitutes Edu and Benny Feilhaber. Edu's entrance in the 31st minute for the subpar Clark helped solidify the team defensively, while Feilhaber's halftime insertion gave the team a creative spark as well as more calm on the ball.
And it was Feilhaber who helped bring the U.S. level, as his through ball released Clint Dempsey in the box, where he was fouled by Jonathan Mensah. Landon Donovan slammed home the ensuing penalty off the post and the game looked to be there for the taking.
But even in the Americans' brave fightback another weakness was revealed -- its overreliance on midfielders to provide the bulk of its scoring. Donovan scored three of the team's five goals in the tournament, while the others were provided by Dempsey and Michael Bradley. And while Jozy Altidore has loads of potential and has improved immeasurably in terms of his holdup play and ability to link with others, he lacks polish in front of the goal.
"We feel like in all positions we have talent," Bob Bradley said. "But when you get to the World Cup, and everything gets challenged at that ultimate level, then I think we still know that we need to get better, and forward would be one of those areas."
While the U.S. has no reason to hang its collective head, thanks to the unprecedented way it pulled the entire country together around soccer, the 2010 World Cup will also be tinged with regret.
Donovan said, "I think we feel like we should have won this game. We don't feel like that's a team we should have lost to."
But lose they did, and now this gutty U.S. side is going home.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.