3QD’s World Cup Analyst Alex Cooley On the US’s Last Game and Their World Cup Run

[Alex writes] Well, after the backs to the wall display against Italy, it was all bound to end tragically. I was wait-listed for “conditional tickets” for the pivotal Ghana game in Nuremberg so had to content myself to yet another day of Berlin decadence. To avoid overt match-fixing (such as the German-Austria 0-0 in 1982 with no shots that eliminated unlucky Algeria) the final games of the group stages are played simultaneously. Finding a venue for the Ghana-US game was tricky as most establishments were showing Italy-Czechs. We settled on a fine little Irish pub out in Kreuzberg that featured two screens side by side, an absolute must for any die hard fan wanting to cling to a sliver of hope and sweat over two results.

Some yanks were in the crowd, but most of the neutrals and German were firmly pro-Ghana, a sentiment underscored by pundits referring to them as the “Brazil of African football.” ughh!! In truth, the game was always going to be hard (Cooley had originally predicted a devastating defeat) but if the Italians managed to beat the Czechs, a win would see us through on 4 points. Not!

For the third time the US once again fell behind early, although this time I had drunk enough pilsners (I was prepared) to cushion the blow. The first Ghanaian goal was also symbolic of captain Reyna’s role on the US team. After receiving a backpass Reyna’s first instinct is usually to take care of the ball and calm play down rather than look for quick counter options. Unfortunately, yesterday Reyna failed to notice the really fast Dramani barrelling in on him – the speedy Ghana forward gleefully accepted Captain America’s parting gift, strolled into the box and lashed his shot past Keller. Reyna was injured on the play and after a few minutes exited his last US game.

Without him the US mounted a semblance of a spirited fightback and just before halftime the pesky Beasley nicely poked the ball away from two defenders and sent a sweeping cross for young Texan Clint Dempsey to smash home. Coupled with the Italians scoring in their Czech game, the US was now tied and, remarkably, in need of only one more goal to go through to a dream match against Brazil.

But, all too predictably, our new-found cheeriness and football fantasy lasted just 2 minutes. A shoddy clearance by Bocanegra saw the ball pop-up at the edge of the penalty area. Gooch won the ball as the smaller Pimpong hurled himself across the turf like a human cannonball. German referee Marcus Merk, probably suffering a flashback from all the designer drugs he ingested in Berlin during his student years, pointed to the spot and Stephen Appiah blistered home the penalty kick. Given our serious lack of creativity and quality forwards – note: our joint top scorer this tournament was Italy’s right back – climbing out of another deficit was simply too much for this group of yanks.

The second half was painfully predictable: the US had lots of possession but could not cross the ball with any quality while the Ghanaians, obviously having watched lots of Italian training videos, performed their best platform diving impersonations and writhed around in excruciating agony each time they were touched. Having played very well against Italy Landon Donovan reverted to Czech like form with the whole front line, with exception of Dempsey, looking pretty timid. Er, that thing with the white posts – its is called a “goal” – at some point it might be fun to actually try and shoot the ball at it..Just to really rub it in and round off a wonderful afternoon, the BBC roundtable gleefully jocked the Ghanaians while they cheerfully mused that “Even though we were egging on Ghana I suppose the Yank fans, if there are any, could feel a bit hard done by, couldn’t they..” Man, I love the British media.

Overall, we didn’t play that poorly and thought we did a decent job containing Essien (although Appiah was excellent), but its not like we came out with the passion and urgency that were needed to really take it to them. I would place most of the blame on manager Bruce Arena who I think should honorably fall on his sword in the next couple of days. 8 years is a long time, perhaps too long, and during his second World Cup Arena was exposed in the 1st and 3rd game as tactically stale and overly loyal to some veterans who were clearly out of form. And while many seem to be clamoring for a foreign mercenary-type coach, I’m not as keen unless they have significant experience working in MLS and have a prior understanding of the various quirky institutions that comprise US soccer and its player development.

Since us Yanks excel in mindless optimism, let’s think about some of the bright spots going forward into South Africa 2010. The two bright spots for me on the team were the fearless play of Dempsey and the excellent defending of Gooch. Both should be solid contributors for one or two cycles. The Nike-sponsored youth academy at Brandenton is starting to produce excellent young players. Just last year a crop of them won its “group of death” at the Under 20 World Cup, including beating the eventual tournament winners Argentina; some of these players should be vying for team places in 2010. Also, even though Major League Soccer is not competing with baseball or basketball (and probably never will), the league is in financially the best shape ever and continues to steadily expand. And over the course of this year over 18 million players will play some form of organized soccer in the United States.

So, if the above doesn’t cushion the blow, I highly recommend Berlin cocktails. Happy hours last until 9pm here and then start again at midnight. There’s no better way to start four years of hurt than with a bucket of caipirinha (see I do appreciate some elements of Brazil).

I’m now adopting Germany and England as my “next choices” (and still picks to meet in the final) as well as the spirited Aussies. Mark’s off to Mannheim with his bass to get some band back together again so I’ll be posting solo until mid-next week.