Silver linings? Justifications? Frustrations? Deja vu?
There were so many sides of the picture swirling around in the wake of Ghana knocking the U.S. out of the 2010 World Cup Saturday in Rustenburg, 2-1 a.e.t., in the Round of 16 to I certainly needed some time to let everything soak in and try to grasp what exactly just happened.
I tried to take my mind off of things with a couple episodes from the first season of "The Sopranos."(*) There was no need to take solace in the endless string of recaps trying to make sense of it all. Nor would knee jerk reactions on Twitter lead to anything other than piling onto the frustration and despair. No need to read columnists debating the pointless argument of soccer's status in America.
(*) If anyone knows modern day Strum und Drang it might be David Chase.
The question my mind kept coming back to was ... why?
Why would Bob Bradley open himself up to such second guessing by starting Ricardo Clark? It was like Bradley was a contestant on "Jeopardy" catching fire, going through the categories with ease and then whiffing on the bet for Final Jeopardy.
It's not so much that Bradley went back to one of "Bob's Guys" in Clark. What kills me is Bradley had already made the most difficult decision of the 2010 Cup in the Algeria match, sitting down Oguchi Onyewu and rolling the dice with Internet whipping boy Jonathan Bornstein.
Clark had already drawn heat for allowing Steven Gerrard to run by him in the Group C opener vs. England two weeks prior. Bradley had turned to Jose Torres and then Maurice Edu.
Why would he go back?
And this isn't to say Clark's giveaway at midfield, which led to Kevin-Prince Boateng's fifth minute goal was the sole reason the U.S. lost.(**) Who's to say Edu or whomever wouldn't have fallen victim to a similar mistake? Sports aren't played by robots ... yet.
(**) The soccer gods have a sick sense of humor. A U.S. midfielder disposed in the World Cup paving the way for a Ghana goal. It didn't end there, as Clark, like Claudio Reyna four years earlier, left before the end of the first half. Simply cruel. If the U.S. ever meets Ghana in the World Cup again I'm moving to Antarctica.
The fact the mistake happened to Clark -- twice -- in the same Cup, each time within five minutes of the opening simply doesn't look good. There's really no way to defend the decision.
Where the problem lies, is now there is a direct line of questioning for people to cast a leery eye at Bradley or the rest of U.S. soccer the next four years.
It's going to cast a pall over the previous two weeks of goodwill.
The shame of it was that Bradley had built up a fairly bulletproof Cup resume up until that moment -- pulling Clark off to avoid the ex-Dynamo midfielder from getting a second yellow card in the first half -- only compounded matters. Why would he expose himself to a classic second guess?
Don't forget, Bradley had never won over the hearts and minds of U.S. fans, who went as far as to create a fake Twitter name in his honor, making fun of his sideline attire. (Coach Sweats.) During the Cup even the most ardent Bradley-bashers had run low on material.
Now, it's simple to look at the U.S. losing to Ghana and point to Bradley's decision to start Clark over Edu, when we all know it's not that simple.
To wit, the U.S. went through it's second consecutive World Cup without a true "forward/striker" scoring a goal.
The patchwork defense, which had all our sphincters tied in collective knots ahead of the Cup, finally put the U.S. in a hole it couldn't climb out and recover from.
Most maddening, the U.S. yet again fell behind in a World Cup match -- an unexplainable conundrum almost on par with what the island from "Lost" actually was.
Just baffling. Both in the fact it kept happening and the U.S. players and coaching couldn't adequately explain why or rectify the situation.
Amazingly, my brother Pete -- no sports fan -- picked me up to go to watch the match at a friend's house. All he said was, "I just hope they don't give up another early goal."
It was almost surreal to see within about 10 minutes of actual World Cup game time, to see Landon Donovan set off an unprecedented wave of American goodwill toward the National Team with his "Go Go USA" goal in the 91st minute Wednesday vs. Algeria only to see the game against Ghana begin with Boateng's cruel dose of neck tattooed, Berlin ghetto-born, reality.
But that's U.S. soccer, I suppose.
Donovan emerged as a candidate for the All World Cup team. Clint Dempsey once again proved he's an accomplished international goal-scorer, who lays his body on the line every 90 minutes. Michael Bradley (more later) is a cornerstone for the future. Tim Howard, a hero vs. England, couldn't pull out a miracle save when the U.S. needed.
Those were the four best U.S. players and they all had World Cups to be proud about. Their heroic efforts could only carry the rest of the squad so far, regardless of how much game tape the Elder could cram into his brain.
A mixed bag.
Most perplexing is certainly Jozy Altidore. On the one hand you want him to bury chances, take over games and be a general force of nature on the field. Then you realize he's only 20 and scored just once in the Premier League last season at Hull City. Jozy will need to keep producing, that's the long and short of it. It's unfair to start lumping him in with Eddie Johnson, but Altidore doesn't get a lifetime free pass even if he's one of the only media/Madison Avenue friendly USMNT players, which tends to give him the benefit of the doubt.
When you boil it down, a nation the size of the U.S. probably shouldn't need to pin it's World Cup hopes on a 20-year-old.
More immediately concerning is state of the U.S. defense. Captain Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo will be 35 come 2014. Jay DeMerit, 34. Even Oguchi Onyewu and Clarence Goodson will be 32.
There's not much in the pipeline, with a string of Michael Parkhurst and Marvell Wynne types, while a certain someone lines up for Serbia.
More than that, did we ever think we'd live in a world where the only U.S. defender we can appreciatively count on going forward to Brazil is Jonathan Bornstein, who'll be 29 in 2014?
Cue the Zinedine Zidane voice ... "the irony."
Take a moment if you need it.
If you need another, go right ahead. We've got four years.
And that's the biggest shame of it. We can take plenty of positives from the U.S.'s time in South Africa. When the immediacy of the loss to Ghana eases, we'll all probably have good memories, topped off by Donovan's transcendent goal vs. Algeria. (Aided, of course, by Ian Darke's pantheon call.)
At the same time, the team had as clear a path as its ever going to get in the World Cup and couldn't get the job done vs. Ghana, falling victim to the same type of mental mistakes which have plagued this team over the past decade.
Will it be a good thing the U.S. likely won over plenty of new hearts and minds these last two weeks in June? Time will tell.
So long as these newcomers file away the pain they felt around 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and the empty feeling Sunday morning and remember it in four years when Brazil rolls around, it'll be a building block. It'll make whenever the U.S. finally does breakthrough feel all that much sweeter.(***)
(***) This is why I hate the Florida Marlins more than any other baseball team. They have basically no fans, no history and continually sell off their best players. Yet they've won two World Series in the past 15 years while diehard fans in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles and elsewhere continue to struggle.
Winning the World Cup isn't easy, nor is it given to you -- unless you're Italy in 1934 with Benito Mussolini pulling the strings. Don't forget, only seven nations have won the thing with just 11 overall even making the final. You aren't "destined" to win the World Cup because of a string of inspired YouTube reaction videos to Donovan's goal.
The World Cup remains a true sports meritocracy.
Nothing is handed to you -- regardless of the ineptitude of the refs -- the cream ends up rising to the top. Penalty kicks weed it out and provide upsets, but usually the better teams make it through, even if sometimes there's nothing more than an eyelash or the bounce of the ball separating two contenders. That's why it retains it's status as the most important trophy in all of sports, too.
Where the real pain lies for the U.S. and its fans are in those long, seemingly impossible to conceive four years ahead of us, especially when the chance for the U.S. to do something special was so so close that we could taste the salt coming from Diego Forlan's tears.
What other soccer fans around the globe don't realize is that unlike the European teams, who start Euro 2012 qualification next year or the South Americans who get the Copa America or even the Africans who have the biannual Cup of Nations, the U.S. has to wait a long time for some meaningless matches, no disrespect to the Gold Cup, but we all know it's not the same. The only way for the U.S. to prove it belongs on the fringes of the elite is the World Cup. Waiting four years, then watching the tournament end in the blink of an eye is part of what sets the World Cup aside from everything else.
So yeah, the fact that in a matter of hours (from this writing) either England or Germany; or Mexico or Argentina will join the U.S. on the way out of the 2010 tournament. It's nice company to keep, but it's not like the U.S. has the track records of those nations. It doesn't mask over the fact the U.S. had a chance, but maybe ran out of gas after four grueling, high incident matches.
And if we boil it all down, the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup did a lot to establish goodwill in America. Fans all across the globe will respect it's grit, determination, heart and never say die attitude. Casual American fans leery of soccer finally have a positive memory about the World Cup and old media types can't deny nobody in the States cares about soccer.
People had fun following this "cardiac kids" type team and rooting for the one of the few American teams you can truly consider an underdog -- a team that shook off not one, but two perfectly good goals disallowed by the refs. Don't discount this, people were having fun during at their desks at noon. The American public was starting to realize why the world shuts down during the month-long World Cup.
Yet for all the gains and traction made by the USMNT off the field, the team on it still remains a few talent cycles away from being real contenders. The rah-rah attitude, while admirable, can only take you so far. The magic in the feet of Donovan can only conjure something from his bag of tricks so many times.
Thanks for the memories, it was two weeks of thrilling soccer. Yet that lingering "what if" will probably cloud over everything the U.S. achieved. It felt like the team could have done so much more if it didn't consistently shoot itself in the foot with the same mistakes.
The U.S. didn't embarrass itself like in 2006 or 1998, but with the 2010 World Cup marked by the early exits of power soccer nations, this feels like an unfinished novel with the Third Act lost somewhere across the sea.
A minute on Ghana:
Maybe I didn't put too much stock into it, but Ghana certainly played with the pep in its step of a team which had the hopes of an entire continent on its back. That's not the only reason the Black Stars won, but it couldn't hurt.
Obviously any team that scores in the first five minutes is going to look good, but Ghana had a good game plan that utilized its team speed and defensive organization.
Don't discount the fact, either, that Ghana had a run to the African Cup of Nations final less than six months ago, with essentially this entire squad intact. The mere fact this team had that much more cohesion, practice time, etc. than most other World Cup teams certainly showed Saturday.
And Ghana got some good fortune, too. The Black Stars lost Michael Essien, but gained Boateng who played admirably as a soup-kitchen version of the Chelsea star. It's unusual, right, that a European team -- in this case Germany -- loses a would-be player to an African country.
It's crushing, too, that Asamoah Gyan runs down a long ball from the back and hits a picture perfect volley through the defense of Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit. It was something Altidore and Findley, et al couldn't do all tournament.
Ghana was a good side. The assumption the U.S. could step on the field and cruise by them is silly. Yeah, Ghana wasn't Germany, Brazil, Argentina, etc. but the Black Stars were good, organized and had a sting in the tail with Gyan.
And for anyone to assume the U.S. would stroll through Ghana then brush aside a gritty Uruguay team hasn't watched enough international soccer, frankly. Winnable games, yes, but no automatic locks.
The worst part about losing to Ghana -- again -- is that the Black Stars couldn't handle Egypt in the 2010 African Cup of Nations final, yet the U.S. handled Egypt at the 2009 Confederations Cup.
No more diapers:
The nickname Baby Bradley is officially retired.
Michael Bradley had a World Cup to remember, but let's collectively hope its the start of two or three more standout showings on the world's stage.
Going forward, Bradley needs to be the fulcrum of this team. As my friend Mike put it, he could be our Michael Ballack, albeit much less East German ... and less hateable.
In four years time -- I'll assume the U.S. navigates CONCACAF qualification -- whomever is the coach of the U.S. has to build around Bradley. Donovan and Dempsey will be four years old. Alitdore has proven to be an enigma.
Bradley looks like the real deal. A midfield engine, who says Roy Keane is his inspiration.
Bradley is much more than Keane, a classic midfield hardman. Bradley is at his best darting forward, adding to the attack. A tireless midfield beast, with an improving first touch. We need to start thinking of him in more of an attack mode, or box-to-box than a straight holding role. Why waste his energy and legs breaking up attacks, when he's just as apt finishing them off?
What's best about Bradley is he's done it the right way. Started in MLS, moved to Holland, scooped up by a mid-tier Bundesliga team and poised for a move to a glamor European league. He's a proven commodity and won't sit the bench after someone (Arsene Wenger) snaps him up after the Cup.
Like Obi Wan Kenobi, Bradley going forward, is our collective best hope.
This and That:
* It's easy to kill MLS in wake of the unproducitvity of Herculez Gomez, Edson Buddle and especially Robbie Findley. Remember, the U.S. lineup to start Saturday had nine of the 11 players with MLS experience. Only Cherundolo and DeMerit hadn't played in MLS. Substitute Bennie Feilhaber also hasn't played in the league.
* It's minimal solace, but the U.S. did finish ahead of England in Group C.
* No disrespect because they're a good side, but if South Korea had beaten Uruguay earlier Saturday, this loss hurts even more. The U.S. would have been a clear favorite to make the semifinals paired with Ji Sung Park and the boys. South Korea is much more beateable on paper, at least, than Uruguay.
* Cue the Zidane voice again ... the irony that the U.S.'s lost its one normal advantage -- goalkeeping. Tim Howard couldn't dig down and make another set of heroic saves, blocking away either Boateng or Gyan's efforts. Meanwhile Richard Kingson was absolutely immense for Ghana.
* Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger watched this game. 'Nuff said.
* Don't really have anything to say if Bradley the Elder should be retained as coach. Both arguments have plenty of fuel right now. One thought on Jurgen Klinsmann, though. His whole talk during the World Cup on ESPN is "mentality." Perhaps now, after a bitter exit there are enough players in the U.S. camp who will be driven the next four years to rectify Saturday's heartbreak. Perhaps Klinsmann is the man to channel those thoughts into a world class team.
* Okay, one thought on Bradley. Despite his cool, stoic veneer, he did the best with what he had. Is it indictment on Bradley that his pool of forwards was Gomez, Buddle, Findley, Brian Ching and Eddie Johnson?
Is it Bradley's fault the team kept leaking early goals? I don't know, and neither does he.
* One thing the U.S. truly needs, at a youth level especially, is developing players who know how to play center back from a positional, mental standpoint. Far too often at the youth level coaches probably stick the tallest kid in the back of defense, or play a sweeper/stopper combination. Remember, Fabio Cannavaro was 5-foot-9 when he was the World Cup's most outstanding player in 2006. Elite, cultured defenders make building the rest of the squad so much easier.
The way in which the U.S. went out to Ghana is supremely disconcerting.
In the long run, this tournament did make it possible, though, that come 2014 you wouldn't be laughed out of a bar anywhere on the globe suggesting the U.S. as a darkhorse Cup contender.
Then again, a lot can happen in four years.
Who would have thought four years ago when we were breaking down, gnashing our teeth and despairing over a loss to Ghana in Germany that Charlie Davies would have emerged as a viable standout striker. On top of that, who would even imagined perhaps the American's biggest cause for optimism in 2010 would see his World Cup end before it started with a horrific, life-threatening car crash.
With the World Cup, you just don't know. Four years is a long time.
And all I know as I write this Sunday morning I'm feeling empty -- it's hard to here the ESPN African intro music and not feel a little dead inside. Maybe that's a good thing in the long run, but it won't make it so the U.S. plays Uruguay on Friday. A few more days on this magic carpet ride would have been nice.