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
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
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.
"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
"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
"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.
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):