A U.S. team that covered its flaws in South Africa with tremendous resolve and fighting spirit couldn't stretch the string of dramatic comebacks any further.
For the second consecutive World Cup, Ghana has sent the United States home, this time in a 2-1 second-round result.
Questions will be asked about coach Bob Bradley's choice of starters in the Americans' first World Cup elimination match since 2002; two changes by halftime is a pretty good sign that the lineup wasn't right initially. Sure enough, Ghana got an early goal and, once again, the Americans were left to chase the game.
Clint Dempsey earned a second-half penalty as Bradley's adjustments proved far more prescient than his original selections. Landon Donovan's goal, his third strike of World Cup 2010, was enough to send the game into an extra 30-minute session.
But Bradley's men looked heavy legged by then, as seven U.S. players had logged almost every minute of all four games to that point. The whole campaign went "poof" when dodgy positioning and flagging communication from the U.S. center backs allowed too much room for Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan. He got the better of Carlos Bocanegra in the physical battle at the critical moment and sent the United States home with a powerful half-volley past U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard.
The drain of so much drama and the physical stress imposed on the American players in three previous rallies seemed to take their toll. The United States had already come back to tie England, rallied heroically from a two-goal deficit to rescue a draw with Slovenia and then scored late to break the scoreless deadlock with Algeria.
"I really felt when we got to 1-1 there was some chance there for us," said Bradley to ESPN after the game. "But again, in overtime to go down again, at that point with everything that we put into the game physically, we just didn't have enough to come back again."
So it was Ghana's players lapping the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in gleeful celebration, dancing and waving the nation's colorful flag. The American players, so joyous just three nights earlier as they barged into the second round with Donovan's memorable injury-time goal, wore looks of disbelief and wiped away tears.
Bradley's contract ends in December and his ability to get a new deal won't be helped by yet another poor start, a notorious recurring theme going all the way back to final-round qualifying. Nor will his case be assisted by some lineup selections that will be a real talker in the aftermath -- especially considering a bracket that had fallen so fortuitously for the Americans, with the true global powers safely shielded until the semifinals.
It certainly can't have been a surprise that the United States fell behind early, this time in the fifth minute. It happened in two of three previous matches, and the Americans would have been a dubious 4-for-4 in South African early lead concession but for a cross bar against Algeria. Ricardo Clark was stripped cheaply near the halfway line and everybody looked pretty bad from there. Jay DeMerit's body positioning was askew, so he got twisted around and couldn't stop Kevin-Prince Boateng's committed charge forward. Howard made his first big mistake of World Cup 2010, caught a full step out of position as Boateng's grass-cutter slipped inside the U.S. 'keeper's near post.
"We were little naïve tonight," said Donovan, who kept his nerve on the penalty kick but was mostly unremarkable otherwise . "At this level, you can't do that. It's frustrating considering all the work we've put in. Its just sucks, man."
Clark's costly sloppiness was hardly the only bad moment in the U.S. midfield as the American central pair was overwhelmed for 30 minutes. Clark hadn't looked particularly good in his only other start, the opening draw with England, so that choice will be questioned.
Clark certainly never provided the calming influence that Maurice Edu did in his appearances. Once again on Saturday, Edu entered and made a major difference. He replaced Clark in the 31st minute, and if the coach is making personnel changes 15 minutes before the half, then the selection was iffy to begin with.
"We felt fresh legs in the center of the field would be good," Bradley said in defense of starting Clark, even though Edu had played limited minutes as well through the first three contests.
Ghana had the United States out-numbered in midfield from the beginning, which seemed to catch the American side by surprise. So did the fact that Ghana pressed higher than the Americans' last two opponents. The United States didn't respond well, struggling to move the ball into and through midfield over the game's first 35 minutes.
Edu's presence helped turn the game. So did Benny Feilhaber's halftime introduction for the quiet Robbie Findley, another one who hasn't done much to justify his inclusion among the starting 11. Overall, did Bradley believe he made the right choices initially?
"As a coach, you always look back on your decisions," he said. "You always have different things you consider. We have confidence in all our players. It is what it is at this point." Feilhaber was especially lively through his first 30 minutes as the Americans pressed Ghana after the break. Feilhaber's passing ability in the midfield finally fashioned the critical moment as he released Dempsey into the penalty area. Johnathan Mensah's lunge drew the whistle and Donovan's spot shot was about as perfect as it could be, grazing the inside of the right post.
At that point, it looked like the United States was manufacturing another "I remember when" moment. But Gyan's goal seemed to zap the Americans, who looked heavy legged against the younger Ghanaians for most of the cool evening in Rustenburg.
"It's been our mantra," Donovan said of the team's ability to rally. "But you can only do that for so long. Eventually you're gonna pay."
Player ratings from Saturday's 2-1 loss to Ghana (scale of 1-10, 10 being best):
GK, Tim Howard, 4: Made his first mistake of 2010 as he appeared to be a full step out of position on Ghana's early goal. As with before, chose the safer punch option liberally and cleanly collected everything he tried to catch. Howard was aggressive off his line and rarely tested other than the two that got by him.
D, Steve Cherundolo, 5: The rock of the U.S. back line up to now in South Africa had his first wobbly performance. He was beaten right away by Andre Ayew in an indication of things to come in the first 45, as they engaged in lively battle. Cherundolo was caught in possession early and forced to take a yellow card. The second half was far better as he looked a little more like the rampaging right back seen in three earlier matches.
D, Jay DeMerit, 4: He was one of at least three U.S. players who didn't look very good on Ghana's early goal. Some communication and footwork issues contributed to a sub-par first half overall, although things improved after intermission. Some critical second-half interventions helped keep the United States in matters, but his positioning relevant to Bocanegra on the game-winner must be questioned, too.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 5: Preferred once again in the center over Oguchi Onyewu, he wasn't quite the commanding influence that he had been against lesser-class Algeria. He was mostly calm and composed in defense, and usually sure with the ball. But he did look something less than completely comfortable a couple of times in the second half. And he needed to better recognize the danger and snuff it out by any manner on Gyan's winner.
D, Jonathan Bornstein, 5: The left back finally gathered his World Cup footing in the second half of his second consecutive start. He never really looked confident getting forward in the first half and never got behind anyone in the attack. He was night-and-day better in the second half, although he still failed to find the precision and authority needed at this level on his crosses.
M, Landon Donovan, 5: Outside of his cool, well-hit penalty kick, probably his worst game overall in the campaign. He wasn't bad, but he just wasn't anything special -- and fairly or not this U.S. counts on him to work a little magic each time out. He had some atypically heavy touches, especially early. He drifted inside centrally more often to find the game after about 30 minutes.
M, Ricardo Clark, 3: His bad giveaway started the collective downhill tumble. A minute later, clearly frustrated, he collected a yellow card on a nasty tackle, so it was an absolutely awful start. From there, his passing was too predictable. Truly, Bradley's choice to start Clark over Edu does not look good at all.
M, Michael Bradley, 5: He looked tired, having played centrally and worked hard over three previous matches. He was not good enough in possession in the first 15 minutes, although his passing was faster and better after the break as Feilhaber provided extra help centrally. Bradley had a wonderful chance in the 76th minute but probably needed to take one more touch toward goal; his left-footed effort was hurried and meek. His presence diminished after about 75 minutes, surely running low on fuel from playing every minute so far.
M, Clint Dempsey, 6: Probably the best U.S. attacker for the night, as he usually found something useful to do with the ball. He looked confident, starting on the left and then moving up to striker after halftime. He drew the critical penalty kick.
F, Robbie Findley, 4: Just not enough at this level. He needed to finish his runs consistently, and the inability to do so took some punch from the attack. He was put clean through in the 35th and really needed to be better from 16 yards (on a shot from about the same spot as Kevin-Prince Boateng's successful effort for Ghana). Truly, his body of work at South Africa 2010 was quite ordinary, and he never really showed why he deserved another start.
F, Jozy Altidore, 4: He was busy all night, but just didn't seem to have the same spring in his legs. He struggled to win any battles with Ghana's back line, lacked quality touches throughout and didn't connect well with a 13th-minute opportunity that fluttered harmlessly wide. He tried to run at defenders but never got by them. He did get put through once in the second half but lost his balance and shot wide with the goal gaping.
M, Maurice Edu, 6: Made an immediate difference upon his 31st minute introduction, calming the midfield with smart positioning and tidy ball work. Still had stores of energy late.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 6: You have to wonder what the game might have looked like if he had started, as he immediately enlivened the attack. He got right into the action with a near-miss in the 47th and had a nice pass to create another chance immediately afterward. He played on the left but seemed to know just what the U.S. effort needed, moving inside regularly to give the U.S. more bodies centrally and more of the possession it needed so desperately. He was the best player on the field for the second half, although his influence dropped dramatically in the 30-minute extra time.
F, Herculez Gomez, 4: Bradley's final sub never really made an impact. He's not really a target presence and the U.S. lack of one hurt the comeback attempt when Route One work was required late.