Placing the blame
NUREMBURG, Germany -- When the final whistle blew, Bruce Arena wanted no part in sticking around. As his players traded jerseys with the victors from Ghana, as they walked into the corners of Franken Stadium to thank the throng of red, white and blue-clad U.S. supporters, the U.S. manager headed up the stairs, through the tunnel and into the U.S. dressing room.
But first he expressed his displeasure for what he had seen on the field before him. With one dismissive wave and a shake of the head, he told anyone who was paying attention exactly who he thought decided Thursday's win-or-go-home showdown between the U.S. and Ghana.
One call in particular, a foul on defender Oguchi Onyewu, in the second minute of injury time in the first half, drew Arena's ire. The call resulted in a penalty kick for Ghana, a shot that captain Stephen Appiah converted, giving the Black Stars a 2-1 lead it wouldn't lose.
"That's a big call, by the way, if you haven't figured it out," a sarcastic Arena said afterward. "That was a big part of the game. We had control of the game and then we go into halftime down a goal. To be positioned to have to chase the game on that call is kind of remarkable for a game at this level. It's disappointing."
On the play, Onyewu was alone in the box with Ghanaian forward Razak Pimpong, jostling for position when Pimpong fell to the ground. Replays showed that their arms became briefly tangled, but physical contact appeared minimal.
"There's always contact on the field," Arena said. "There would be 15 penalty kicks called like that if that contact in the box was called a penalty."
The referee who made the call, Markus Merk, is widely considered one of the top officials in Germany. A two-time winner of the "World's Best Referee" award, he officiated the 2003 UEFA Champions League Final and in 2004 was only the second German ever to work a Euro final.
But Merk has been a lightning bolt for controversy in this tournament. He was widely criticized after Sunday's Brazil-Australia match in which the Brazilians received 25 free kicks and Australia only nine. And then came Thursday's events.
After the penalty, as U.S. players filed into the locker room for the half, several voiced their displeasure for Merk's call on Onyewu. Goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who along with Onyewu didn't talk to reporters after the match, had to be restrained by assistant coach Glenn Myernick. And Claudio Reyna, who earlier had strained his medial collateral ligament, limped over to Merk to mockingly clap the referee's first-half efforts.
"I think the ref saw it as a big guy against a little guy and he thought those calls should go for the big guy," Reyna said. "Onyewu made a good play. That's a call that sometimes in the middle of the field isn't even a foul."
The reality is Onyewu never should have been in that position in the first place. After Carlos Bocanegra mishit a ball he was trying to clear, the ball popped up into the air, forcing Bocanegra to try to head the ball to defend the play. But the header ended up in the center of the box.
"Maybe I should have just hit it out of bounds in retrospect," Bocanegra said. "I tried to clear it up the field and I mishit it. Then I don't know if I headed it off his head or if he just won the header."
Whatever the explanation, the end result was crushing for the United States. Three minutes earlier, Clint Dempsey had scored the first goal by an American in the tournament, tying the match up at 1-1.
The goal energized the stadium, with Dempsey lifting his shirt and pointing to his heart. Three hundred and 75 miles to the north in Hamburg, Germany, Italy was beating the Czech Republic 1-0. If the Italians could eliminate the Czechs and the U. S. could beat Ghana, the Americans would advance to the Round of 16. But then disaster struck. And a team that three minutes earlier was heading to the dressing room confident in its chances to advance suddenly felt cheated.
"We were just stunned," Dempsey said. "We worked so hard to get to that point. And in three minutes, it was all gone. It just took the wind right out of our sails. You do what you can to try and pick yourself up, but from that point on, everything changed."
With the Italians leading the Czechs, who were a man down, Ghana knew it needed only a tie to advance. Leading by a goal, the Black Stars were content in the second half to sit back, fill the box with defenders and put the dangerous Appiah up top to try to counter.
"At that point, I should have put on my track shoes," U.S. defender Jimmy Conrad said.
The Americans threatened a couple times in the second half, their closest chance coming on a Brian McBride header that hit Ghana goalie Richard Kingson's right-hand post. But for a team that entered Thursday's match with one shot on goal in the entire tournament, a team that hadn't scored of a goal of its own in over 290 World Cup minutes, dating back to 2002, the prospect of scoring two second-half goals was a daunting one.
"I would have liked to have come out at halftime even and then gone on to win the game," Arena said. "We were in a good position. I feel sorry for our team."
But who knows how a no-call would have changed the final outcome. If there's anything the U.S. team proved in its 0-2-1 World Cup campaign, it's that it inspires little fear in opposing defenses. Even without the call, maybe the match ends in a 1-1 tie. And the Black Stars still advance. It's that reason that not every American wanted to blame Merk's call.
"I hate to complain about calls," midfielder Eddie Lewis said. "We didn't create enough chances. It was as simple as that."
But Arena, Landon Donovan and others disagreed. They thought the team played well enough to win. It's just that the one big call in the match didn't go their way. And unlike the match against Italy, when the Americans overcame the wrath of the ref, tying the Azzurri despite losing Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope to red cards, they couldn't overcome such questionable calls on Thursday. And because of it, they're heading home.
"Calls like that hurt," Bocanegra said. "Especially in injury time. It just didn't seem like anything bounced our way in this tournament. But we can't wait for something to happen. We have to learn to make our own luck. And we didn't do that."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.