U.S. made believers out of us
It's one thing to believe in miracles. It's another to rely on them.
For two weeks, the U.S. made believers out of the soccer faithful and converted millions of skeptics to a game that if you listen to Glenn Beck is downright un-American. The team did it by playing defiantly in the face of hideous calls, seemingly insurmountable deficits and the pressure of finally being a team that opponents could no longer take lightly.
And for three games and 92 minutes, the Americans served up a memorable brand of heart-attack soccer that was longer on heart than on attack.
But, as has been the Americans' exasperating trademark in this World Cup, they once again turned up late for the start of a match and were mercilessly punished. In the fifth minute, brawny Ghanaian midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng royally exposed the U.S. defense by first pickpocketing Ricardo Clark, then hypnotizing a backtracking Jay DeMerit and finally launching a 25-yard near-post drive that frankly, Tim Howard would have handled comfortably on another day. This was the same Boateng, by the way, who had broken Michael Ballack's ankle in a English Premier League game (keeping the German star out of the World Cup), and now looked as if he had broken the U.S. spirit. Or as well-known American soccer groupie Mick Jagger might have said to his seatmate Bill Clinton, "Here comes your 19th nervous breakdown."
Yet given that the Americans already had survived the previous 18 nervous breakdowns in this tournament, Boateng's early haymaker didn't seem that dire. One down? Heck, we don't start worrying until we're two down.
Bob Bradley, however, was clearly concerned. Although his reputation as a tactician and motivator surely has been enhanced through qualifying and the group stage, the U.S. coach was man enough to correct a lineup mistake that he had made at the start of the game. Bradley substituted Clark in the 30th minute after the central midfielder had earned a cheap yellow card following his undressing by Boateng and replaced him with the rugged and tireless Maurice Edu, who should have started in the first place. Although Edu was better able to close down the Ghanaian attackers marauding through midfield, his effort was only enough to get the U.S. to halftime down a single goal.
Once more, I don't know what Bradley puts in the team's Gatorade at halftime. Jalapeño? Ritalin? Viagra? (Hey, Pelé swears by it.) But it worked. Again.
The U.S. came out as though someone finally tipped it off that it might go home if it didn't score in the next 45 minutes. Cue another example of Warrior Ball from Clint Dempsey. (Honestly, I think he bled in this tournament as much as he sweat.) Surging into the penalty area after nutmegging Ghana's big defender John Mensah, Dempsey drew the penalty, and Landon Donovan confidently stepped up and nailed the PK off the right post.
The Americans were relentless for the remainder of regulation and looked the more threatening and fit team as the game lurched into overtime. They had come from behind for the third time in four games, but the question begged: Would they treat the first 15 like the beginning of a new game and give up an early goal?
Sadly, we didn't have long to wait for the answer. In the second minute of extra time, it was déjà vuvuzela. Another long ball down the middle froze Carlos Bocanegra and DeMerit as Asamoah Gyan sprinted between them and latched on to the pass. Ironically, Bocanegra had once been a club teammate of Asamoah's at Rennes in France, so perhaps he thought he could bump him off the ball. He couldn't, and the Ghanaian striker took Bocanegra's shoulder charge in stride before lashing a powerful shot past a flailing Howard.
Here comes your 20th nervous breakdown.
But there were still 28 minutes remaining, and the U.S. tried to jump-start the Miracle Machine again. The Americans threw everything at Ghana, including the astonishing sight of a leaping Tim Howard in the goalmouth trying to head the ball past the opposing keeper.
And so for the second consecutive World Cup, the Black Stars of Ghana shined brighter than the Stars and Stripes. The difference this time was that it was a noble defeat. No blaming the officials like they did in 2006 for a cheap penalty call, no three-and-out in the first round. Indeed, there's much to be proud of with this 2010 team. It proved to the world that if you have extraordinary resolve and players as talented as Donovan on your side, you can pull off a few miracles.
Let's just pray we don't need them again in four years.
David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."