By Kelly Whiteside, USA TODAY
RUSTENBURG, South Africa — In the end, the U.S. team was undone by what had haunted them throughout this World Cup. By giving up early goals, the Americans fell to Ghana, 2-1 on Saturday, and were knocked out of the tournament.
"Going home, certainly it's an opportunity missed," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "In the second half, typical us, we get ourselves behind the eight ball then push and fight and scratch."
Tied at 1-1 at the end of regulation, the game went into extra time, befitting this team's penchant for drama. But once again, the USA's slow start resulted in giving up the game-winner. In the 93rd minute, Asamoah Gyan beat out Carlos Bocanegra, finishing with a pretty left-footed volley to take the lead.
BOX SCORE: Ghana 2, USA 1 (ET)
REPORT CARD: No higher than a C for USA
UP IN THE AIR: What is coach Bradley's future?
SCHEDULE: Games, results and TV times
PHOTO GALLERY: Moments from South Africa
"We hit heads," Bocanegra said about Gyan, his teammate at French club Rennes. "I couldn't grab him, I already had a yellow card. It's one of those things — he had an inside track to the ball, it was difficult for me to get on the other side of him."
The rest of the way, Ghana's defense held and the Black Starsate up plenty of time with some award-winning acting on exaggerated slights.
Though the USA had staged magnificent comebacks throughout the tournament, this time the Americans couldn't muster any magic. Not even Mick Jagger, who was sitting in the stands near former President Bill Clinton, could provide an emotional rescue.
After 120 minutes, after Ghana celebrated and headed to the locker room, several U.S. players remained frozen as they sat on their bench and stared into the disappointment. It was really over.
Underneath a full moon with smoke wafting above from nearby veld fires, the game started ominously for the Americans. Five minutes in, Ghana capitalized on a Ricardo Clark turnover at midfield when Ghana's Kevin Prince Boateng raced left and beat Howard on the near post. It was the third time in the team's four games in which an early goal was surrendered.
"Look, it's certainly something that we're aware of," coach Bob Bradley said. "You try to manage games early. Once again, I think in the early part of this game, we felt that we were doing a solid job. But we paid the price for the turnover. So we recognize it, but just talking about it doesn't always change it. It's a hard lesson and hopefully one that we'll be able to improve upon."
In their much-anticipated first game against well-heeled England, they fell behind in the fourth minute. In their second match against Slovenia, the USA trailed after 13 minutes. Now this.
"The warning signs were there, being scored on early, and it came back to bite us," midfielder Landon Donovan said. "We didn't come out flat, we made a mistake. … When you make mistakes at this level, you get punished for them. I thought we started well."
But Ghana's start was better. The Black Stars dominated the first half. The Americans looked like they left their game and their emotion back in Pretoria following their thrilling win against Algeria last Wednesday. Clark, in the line-up for the first time since the England game, struggled and was replaced with Maurice Edu in the 31st minute.
Entering the second half, the USA didn't have history on its side; the Americans are now 0-14-1 when trailing at halftime in the World Cup. Still, in the second half, the team showed the cohesion and energy it was lacking in the first 45 minutes. With midfielder Benny Feilhaber in for Robbie Findley, Clint Dempsey moved up front making the Americans much more dangerous on the attack.
When Dempsey was taken down in the box by Jonathan Mensah, the stage was set for Donovan to save the day yet again. In the 62nd minute, as Donovan approached the penalty kick, he crouched low to the grass and composed himself. He looked assured and relaxed when he struck the ball with his right foot, making it seem that he knew all along that it would end up in the back of the net. With the goal, Donovan became the team's all-time leading scorer in the World Cup with five goals in 12 games.
Perhaps the goal was a bit of poetic justice. Four years ago, in their only previous meeting, the Black Stars knocked the Americans out of the World Cup with a 2-1 win. With the score tied, a questionable foul was called on U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu in the box and a penalty kick was awarded in first-half stoppage time. The Americans never recovered.
The USA began the game with the same back four that started against Algeria, keeping Onyewu on the bench with no chance for payback. Unlike at the Algeria game, the U.S. fans among the 34,976 at Royal Bafokeng Stadium were a bit unnumbered. Though American flags waved throughout the stadium, Ghana, the only African team remaining in the tournament, had the crowd behind them. "We felt the whole continent was behind us," said Ghana midfielder Andrew Ayew. "And that gave us energy."
Ghana will next meet Uruguay in the quarterfinals in Johannesburg on Friday after Uruguay defeated South Korea, 2-1, to advance. "Ghana is a very good team," Howard said. "Because it isn't Brazil, Argentina and Spain, don't be fooled."
EARLIER: Suarez, Uruguay sink South Korea
That said, Howard said he believed that the Americans should have won the game. The U.S. team certainly had its chances. Forward Jozy Altidore seemed allergic to the goal, especially in the 80th minute when he failed to connect as he shot while falling.
This is the second consecutive World Cup in which the U.S. forward had failed to score.
"You count on everybody for goals, but let's face it, you count on your forwards," Bradley said. "I think Jozy played well in this World Cup. I think that he will continue to be an important part of the national team. Sometimes you go through a stretch where you do a lot of good things for your team, but you don't score. That's how I would size it up for him."
When the final whistle blew after 120 minutes, Donovan exchanged shirts with Mensah and then headed to his bench. There, the loss sank in. "The finality of it is brutal," Donovan said. "And you realize how much you put into it, not just four years but your whole life and there's no guarantee there's another opportunity at that.
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