The USA World Cup post-mortem

The loss to Ghana was dismaying, but the US World Cup run was a hell of a ride

Published June 26, 2010 10:27PM (EDT)

This post originally appeared on Michael Cummings' Open Salon blog.

Hold up, just a second. This isn’t right. No, this isn’t the way it supposed to end at all.

Who is this Asamoah Gyan dude, and what has he done with our Hollywood ending? Even now, Landon Donovan is galloping through the midfield, armor glistening in the stadium lights, riding forward in the saddle to save us all again.


Well, no. He’s not. He’s coming back home a fallen — but still valiant — hero, and thanks to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Ghanaians, we’re out of the World Cup in a fashion that even the English would consider heartbreaking. There are no more comebacks, no more last-gasp heroics. There’s only heartbreak and that most painful of thoughts: What could have been.

Or is there?

Bear with me here, because this might just be the most outrageous thing I’ve ever written. As painful as it might be, this is the Hollywood ending. At least, this is the Hollywood ending for our time. And this is The Great American Team of our day.

Think about it. We’re not so different after all — we, the general public and the United States national soccer team. We’re a group of scrappers, doing what we can during — let’s be honest here — what hasn’t been the most auspicious time in our nation’s history. We’ve stuck it out, hoping a new face at the top can produce the goods even when we know it’s going to be a long, bitter process at best.

And it was a glorious start to the new era. But those heady days — the new President orating in the cold November evening in Chicago, and the new coach leading us so close to glory in the Confederations Cup in South Africa — are more than a year ago now. This summer, the chips were out on the table, and it had to work out, somehow.

But then, after The Most Amazing Comeback of all Time, courtesy of Sir Landon, some guy with a funny name from some country most of us have never heard of comes along and breaks our hearts. And now, it hurts — my goodness, does it hurt. And it’s not the Hollywood ending we wanted, but it might be the ending we needed. After all, films like “The Hurt Locker” are now winning Best Picture on Oscar night, and there’s not a whole lot to be giddy about in that flick, is there?

That’s just it though. You see, disappointment leads to introspection. Adversity reveals character. And upon further inspection, all of us — the players and fans alike — are coming up trumps in the latter.

For the players, it meant redemption in large, cathartic doses. Sir Landon shed the label of underachiever and earned his dual titles of The Face of American Soccer and American Soccer’s Greatest Player of All Time. The others fed off of his leadership and dug deep to find determination, resiliency and stick-to-itiveness — not to mention some pretty damn thrilling goals.

As it turns out, the boys came together to form team of glorious contradictions. Invariably, they would fall behind early, but invariably, they would always pull themselves back from the brink. They never said die, but if they had played better at the start, they wouldn’t have had to worry about such things. And in the end another slow start that wasn’t a slow start at all — a goal in the third minute of extra time, but the 93rd minute overall — turned out to be too much to overcome.

In the land of Hollywood endings, any other team just wouldn’t have matched up. Sure, they could have dominated a match and won 3- or 4-nothing, but where’s the drama in that? No, it had to be the way it was, because you can’t change who you are, can you? The Yanks, they were late bloomers, and the final slow start turned out to be the killer character flaw, the heroic folly of the new Hollywood heroes.

If you’re like me, you didn’t even really celebrate Donovan’s goal — you merely exhaled. No, the celebration had to come later. It just had to.

It never did, but the way we all expected it to come actually tells us a lot about ourselves. Surely you noticed it: For the rest of us back home, all the drama and heroics became a sort of national glue. For two weeks and four matches, it was a moment of national unity unseen perhaps since that night in Chicago some 19 months ago. Average Americans — not just the soccer-crazed fringe of former college players and first-generation immigrants — packed themselves together in large numbers to get a glimpse of the team. Bars were full. Streets were crowded. Televisions were tuned in all over the country.

In other words, even though it didn’t end the way we might have liked, it brought us all together — if even for a few hours over a few short weeks — in the absolute surety that one day it all really could work out. And what an amazing couple of weeks they were: We tied the mighty English; we came back from two goals down and beat the Slovenes before we were robbed by the referee; and we saw off the Algerians with Sir Landon’s shot heard ’round the world.

Admittedly, all of that is what made Asamoah Gyan’s moment of brilliance so hard to take. But what can we say? Like our boys in South Africa, we’re a nation of contradictions. We don’t really have a national identity, but it turns out that lack of identity is exactly what it struggles mightily not to be. We’re diverse: we fight, we wonder whether we should fight, we love, we hate, and most importantly, we do things our own way.

And besides, we’ll bounce back — we always do — and we’ll get on with our lives as usual.

Just remember, adversity always reveals character. And this time, for two weeks and four matches, the character of a new citizen on the world soccer scene shined brightly for all to see.

And besides, it was one hell of a ride, wasn’t it?



By Michael Cummings

Michael Cummings left the U.S. Army in 2011 after deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. His work has been featured by the New York Times, the Washington Post and Foreign With his brother Eric, he runs On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs.

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