NUREMBERG, Germany -- As the reality of the United States' 2-1 loss to Ghana began to sink in, there was more than just a temptation to conclude that referee Markus Merk's decision to gift a first-half penalty to Ghana was the singular reason for the Americans' Cup ouster.
After all, had that call not been made, it might have been the U.S. heading into the second round, and not the Black Stars. But while there is no doubting that it was the key play of the game, the cold hard truth is that the match was a microcosm of the Americans' entire tournament. The U.S. is going home because of untimely defensive miscues and an impotent offense. Simply put, the Americans did not play well enough.
Of course, luck -- or in the Americans' case, the lack of it -- also played a part. From the moment the draw was announced back in December, it was clear that the U.S. would need some good fortune in order to progress to the second round. And aside from Italian fullback Cristian Zaccardo slicing the ball into his own net during Game 2, there was little to be found.
Merk's decision to whistle U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu for the aforementioned penalty merely continued that trend. There looked to be minimal contact between Onyewu and Ghanaian forward Razak Pimpong on the play, yet it was enough for Merk to point to the spot. It was obviously a terrible call, and when you combine incidents like this with the fact that the U.S. twice hit the post in the tournament, it's clear that the intangibles that accompanied the team in 2002 abandoned them in 2006.
"We had horrible luck," said Landon Donovan. "I don't know if we pissed someone off somewhere and our karma is coming back or what."
Yet it's been said that you have to make your luck, and the U.S. certainly did themselves no favors with their play during the tournament. In every match, the Americans were guilty of confidence-sapping defensive breakdowns at critical times, making it impossible to impose their will on the game, and Thursday was no exception.
The normally reliable Claudio Reyna was caught in possession by Haminu Draman in the 22nd minute, and when the Ghanaian slotted home the resulting breakaway, it forced the Americans to play catch up. Even worse was the fact that Reyna was injured on the play and he was forced to make way for Ben Olsen in the 40th minute.
To the Americans' credit, they fought back, with DaMarcus Beasley intercepting a wayward Black Stars pass and laying on an inch-perfect ball for Clint Dempsey to hammer home in the 43rd minute.
Merk's penalty decision just before half time put the Americans' behind again, and the effect on the American psyche was devastating.
"We worked really hard to get back into the game," said Reyna. "That decision really deflated us. The guys were really down at half time. At 1-1, I would have really liked our chances."
But let's not forget that Carlos Bocanegra's inability to deal with a relatively innocuous long ball created the situation in the first place. It was a play that typified the defensive effort in the tournament. Long stretches of solid play were undone by momentary lapses in concentration.
With Italy in the process of defeating the Czech Republic, the Ghanaians could now afford to sit back, soak up pressure, and hit the U.S. on the break. Yet, this sequence of events exposed the other American weakness in this tournament, which was an attack that was practically helpless.
The core problem was that too many key attackers were playing well below peak form, and had been for some time. Donovan was practically invisible, especially in the run of play. Beasley, while he did well on Dempsey's goal, was betrayed constantly by a leaden first touch and a tendency to dribble into trouble.
With these two players performing so poorly, it was left to others to pick up the slack, but only Dempsey consistently answered the call in midfield. The result was that forward Brian McBride, despite winning countless aerial duels, was left stranded, as no one was around to claim his knockdowns. The one time Donovan was able to do so, he skied his attempt horribly over the bar.
It leads one to conclude that the attacking pieces head coach Bruce Arena had at his disposal never quite fit together. Donovan seemed out of place in his role as a withdrawn striker. And Arena's insistence that Beasley be on the field prevented others, most notably Dempsey, from getting the minutes that their play deserved.
While many have questioned Arena's decisions throughout this tournament, his loyalty to underperforming players is probably his most egregious mistake. No doubt, Donovan and Beasley will both have other World Cups to make up for this one. It remains to be seen if Arena will get the same chance.
Player Ratings: (from 1-10)
Kasey Keller, 6 - As with the previous games, there wasn't a lot he could do about the goals. He did have one outstanding fingertip save from a Matthew Amoah blast, but wasn't called upon to do much else. It's ironic that a keeper who has been so important to the U.S. over the years has played in two of the more forgettable World Cup performances by the U.S. team.
Steve Cherundolo, 5 - Had some good touches and defended well, but his crossing was inconsistent. He was subbed for tactical reasons after 60 minutes.
Oguchi Onyewu, 6 - Onyewu delivered a solid performance, but was victimized by an incredibly weak penalty call. His impending move to Middlesbrough should see him continue to grow as a player, and he looks set to be a defensive mainstay for years to come.
Jimmy Conrad, 7 - He always seemed a threat to get beaten for pace, but Conrad combined good anticipation and positioning with some rugged tackling to deliver an excellent performance. He had a key block in the 87th minute of a Stephen Appiah shot that kept the U.S. alive.
Carlos Bocanegra, 5 - Bocanegra made some stellar plays, but it was his gaffe late in the first half that lead to the penalty. Overall, a mixed bag for the Fulham defender.
DaMarcus Beasley, 4 - Beasley was having a miserable first half until he supplied the cross for Dempsey's goal. But overall, his play was a continuation of his entire World Cup, in that it was mostly comprised of good defense but woeful offense.
Clint Dempsey, 6 - One of the few players in the tournament to come out with his reputation enhanced rather than damaged. Dempsey is clearly a player for the future, one who isn't intimidated by the big stage, as his well-taken goal illustrated.
Claudio Reyna, 4 - Reyna did so much good work, both in this game and the tournament, yet his poor decision to dribble out of danger rather than pass led directly to Draman's opening goal. Reyna suffered a sprained MCL on the play, and ultimately was subbed out. It was a sad end for one of America's best-ever players.
Eddie Lewis, 5 - Quiet for long periods, but he came alive in the second half, and delivered a pinpoint cross that McBride nodded off the post. His immediate international future would still appear to be in midfield.
Landon Donovan, 3 - On day where his team was in dire need of leadership and influence, Donovan dropped the ball. The Galaxy attacker had little impact on the game, and his set piece delivery was inconsistent. He also skied a glorious chance in the first half after a great knockdown by McBride. Based on his performances in this tournament, Donovan seems incapable of being the kind of player who can take over a game at the highest level.
Brian McBride, 7 - The Fulham forward won countless headers, but most of them went to waste on a team that seemed incapable of winning second balls. He worked his socks off and was unlucky when his angled header in the 66th minute hit the post.
Ben Olsen, 5 - The D.C. United midfielder isn't Claudio Reyna, but he played with a sense of urgency that his teammates at times lacked. He did well to snuff out a 63rd minute counterattack when he cut out Draman's centering feed.
Eddie Johnson, 4 - Given how deep Ghana was dropping in defense, it was a game that did not play to Johnson's strengths. That said, he was essentially ineffective, and constantly was being drawn offside. Not exactly the kind of performance to make European scouts drool.
Bobby Convey, 4 - It seemed like Convey never got in the flow. His crosses blew hot and cold, and he flubbed a chance near the top of the box with just minutes remaining.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org