RUSTENBURG, South Africa—If you drive outside the main cities in South Africa, you will always find a fire burning. Beside a highway. In a field. On a dirt patch, men huddled around its warmth. I saw many such blazes on the road from Pretoria to Rustenburg as I made my way to the round of 16 match between the United States and Ghana. On Saturday night, the smoke from all of these fires seemed to pool in this hardscrabble mining town. It burdened the air, reducing visibility to a few feet, even with a full moon low in the sky. My traveling companions and I felt the hoodoo: Whatever happy energy once fueled the American adventure here had been replaced by apprehension.
Perhaps my mood was colored by the fact that pickpockets had stolen my tickets the day before. With FIFA's help, I found new ones outside of the U.S. supporters' section. It didn't matter. Most American fans had already gone home. Exactly two weeks ago, I'd had to push my way past Donovan and Dempsey jerseys into a nearby bar. Now the place was all but empty. In the smoke outside, I kept bumping into haunted-looking Englishmen who'd banked on their team winning Group C and playing its knockout game here. "Extra England ticket?" they whispered. "Trade? Trade?" We even saw a handwritten sign pleading for tickets, left on the ground, pinned down by rocks. But where were the Yanks?
Maybe American fans felt their team wouldn't make it this far. Maybe fewer of them gave a damn than I thought. The loudest American chants I heard in Rustenburg before the game came from a young South African named Milky, who was shouting, "USA, all the way!" At first, I thought he was being earnest. Then Milky, who had a diamond stud in his ear and a diamond "player" buckle on his belt, rolled up his sleeve to reveal a Ghana black star tattoo on his forearm. He bounced away, laughing. Ghana, the last African side left in the tournament, carried the hopes of an entire continent. Team USA would find no extra support in the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, named after a hereditary monarchy in the area. Thousands of locals disguised as Ghanaians had arrived to drown out the few remaining Americans. Even white South Africans had turned Ghanaian, a curious embrace of their African identity when so many are so willfully ignorant about the plight of blacks in this country and might stare quizzically at you if you suggested they actually live in Africa. Imagine paleface hipsters trying to get down at a Wu-Tang concert and you'll have some sense of how annoying these people are.
Immediately after kickoff, it was clear that the Americans on the field were barely more present than the Americans in the crowd. The team looked tentative, flailing about in the reactionary style we've seen so many times before. In the fifth minute, Kevin-Prince Boateng capitalized on yet another early American mistake and scored. While Ricardo Clark is being blamed for this one—and, granted, the erratic Clark should never have started over the more composed Maurice Edu—it might help to take a look at the lazy off-target pass Michael Bradley sent Clark's way in a dangerous area of the midfield, the one that allowed Ghana's Kwadwo Asamoah to arrive at the same time as the ball. In soccer, that's called a hospital pass because it's likely to land its intended recipient on a stretcher. Now watch Bradley recover on defense. He doesn't. He loafs back as Asamoah sprints by him and into a perfect position to latch on to a potential rebound. This is Johnny Hustle, the coach's son?
And so the wheels come off the merry star-spangled bandwagon. No more people in Captain America suits. No more face paint. No more cheap South African lager. Ghana was the more disciplined and effective side and deserved to win. Now the critics of U.S. soccer are braying. Yes, Robbie Findley lacks touch and should never have been on the team, let alone starting. (And, yes, in hindsight, the United States would have been better playing Herculez Gomez.) Yes, Team USA's midfielders give up too much space, don't pressure opponents, and fail to close down dangerous runs. Yes, the defense is slow and shoddy (and missing arguably its best player in the injured Oguchi Onyewu). And yes, the United States isn't creative enough on attack (and missing arguably its best player in the injured Charlie Davies). It's all true.
There's been so much palaver in recent days about the ascendant American squad, so much of it fueled by the feel-good hype that stems from several miraculous near-losses against sardine-size teams. Some of it is accurate. Much of it is wishful hyperbole. In the past two World Cups, the United States has won a single game. Barely. The victory came against a side that was happy just to make the tournament. This is not the track record of champions. (It's the track record of England!) But that's how crazy the World Cup is. One day Bob Bradley is dubbed the next coming of Brian Clough. One bad game later, he's a chump. The reality is that the U.S. national team wasn't as good as we wanted to believe it was. I am reminded of the simple, irrefutable words of the man sitting next to me at the Spain-Chile game: "The system is not important. The talent of the players is important." My seatmate: Bora Milutinović, the first coach to take the Americans to the knockout round in the modern era.
After the disappointment of last night's loss wears off, we'll be able to appreciate what the 2010 World Cup revealed about American soccer. The team played ferociously. At times, it played beautifully. By giving up so many early goals, it had to. The games were never boring. Often, they were inspirational. If Tim Howard had somehow headed home a tying goal in the waning minutes of the Ghana game—he came tantalizingly close—it would have instantly gone down as one of the best strikes in World Cup history. Failing a last-minute equalizer from a goalkeeper, Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria will stand as one of the landmark strikes in the history of American soccer.
There was a time, not long ago, when none of the great things that came to pass this World Cup could have happened. As we head home from South Africa, there are many reasons to be optimistic about American soccer. We'll have to wait until 2014 to see whether the hope is fulfilled.