World Cup: American epitaph

BOSTON — It may seem a case of stating the obvious, but recent converts to both the U.S. soccer team and the World Cup may not yet have fully grasped some of the implications of the American defeat.

After all, we are a “wait till next year” sports nation. But what makes the World Cup so singular and compelling is that it is an event that requires you to wait an eternity — four more years — for your next fix. There will be four Super Bowl champions crowned before the American soccer team again takes the field in the World Cup (and in a worst-case scenario perhaps eight years or even longer).

That means teams have to live with — and in many cases live down — their performances in this World Cup for a considerable time. Teams like France and Italy now bear a stigma of shame as their countries enter what is essentially a period of national mourning. By comparison, the American team, having reached the round of 16 before being knocked out yesterday by a talented Ghana side, has nothing for which to apologize.

Yet it is hard to assess what exactly it does have now that it is coming home from South Africa. After all, the U.S., with a favorable draw, was always favored to reach the second round. What wasn’t expected, though, was the riveting drama the team delivered along the way. Absent a longer run in the tournament, it is hard to imagine a better story arc for American soccer.

We have just witnessed what was, arguably, the best performance by an American team in World Cup history.

While the U.S. may have progressed further in World Cup 2002, that effort was far more ragged and inconsistent. And back then the U.S, with its fate in its own hands in the group stage, got hammered by winless Poland — and only advanced to the knockout stage courtesy of a late goal by South Korea against Portugal.

This time the U.S. earned its spot — against long odds, made even longer by a woeful officiating decision. Amid the emotional overflow it should never be forgotten that the U.S. team played the mighty English even and finished ahead of England in their group.

Fans in this country could certainly recognize the team — if not the game — as distinctly American. Nobody would confuse our lads with the Spanish or the Brazilians when it came to ball skills. But they were even more relentless than they were careless, refusing to quit when down and hurling their bodies about with total abandon until the final whistle.

Newer fans, perhaps attracted to the World Cup for its spectacle and by the early U.S. success, may have discovered that the perennial American complaint — not enough scoring — doesn’t always equate to not enough excitement. And in a low scoring, high-stakes tournament, almost every game can feel like sudden-death overtime from the start.

The U.S. team somehow defied the death part, coming from behind in its first two games to salvage ties, then scoring in the final seconds of its third game when all appeared lost. But soccer, especially World Cup soccer, is not a game of ninth-inning rallies or two-minute drills with Peyton Manning at the helm. In the world’s game, you can win without scoring, but playing from behind is ultimately an exit strategy.

Against Ghana, the American team’s inexplicable penchant for surrendering early goals dug it another hole. And though it mustered one more comeback, the effort was physically and emotionally draining. In the end, Ghana rose to the occasion with a brilliant overtime goal to send the Americans packing. Newly minted soccer sophisticates here should be able to muster a healthy talk-radio fury about why coach Bob Bradley reverted to Ricardo Clark in the starting lineup.

If American soccer fans went into the tournament obsessed about England, it may be time to turn our attention to Ghana, which, after all, gave the U.S. team the boot for the second consecutive World Cup. Ghana, like the United States, is part of soccer’s new wave that is challenging the game’s traditional power structure. How wonderful to see these teams, along with South Korea and Japan, win while playing creative, attacking soccer, even as disinterested and dispirited teams like France and Italy went home to lick their wounds.

In forging its soccer future, Ghana may not be blessed with America’s population or economic advantages. But it has a surfeit of talent. It is the youngest team in the tournament, not so surprising after Ghana defeated Brazil to win the Under-20 World Cup just last year.

The senior Black Stars have played on soccer’s biggest stage only twice and, for the second World Cup in a row, were the sole African team to survive round-robin play. With their victory over the U.S., they have now become only the third African team to reach the quarterfinals; one more triumph and, for Africa, it will be traversing completely new terrain.

The considerable freight that Ghana carries — the weight of an entire continent’s dreams — makes it far easier not only to accept the American defeat, but to embrace our worthy conquerors. After all, America has always loved the underdog. Ghana has now advanced into the round that has always been ruled by the Brazilians, the Germans, the Argentineans and a few, select others. In keeping with the American spirit — perhaps even with an emerging American soccer spirit — it is easy to imagine that right now we are all Ghanaians.