But that is exactly what the Americans did for about 80 minutes last night. It felt like the U.S. team of a previous era, packed into its defensive third, trying to hold on. Ghana worked the ball around midfield, carving out neat triangles to penetrate the defense. Jozy Altidore went down with a hamstring injury. His replacement, the very green Aron Jóhannsson, looked terrified to be on the field. Matt Besler came out at halftime with an injury. Michael Bradley, whom Sports Illustrated has so often described with the phrase the "most indispensable player on the U.S. men’s national team" that it's likely trademarked, jerked sloppy passes around the field, got pwned off the dribble, and provided little in the way of creative attack.
One standout on the American side (other than Tim Howard) was Kyle Beckerman, who almost didn't make the team because he moves as quickly as a dead slug. But Beckerman knows his job. He harries attacking midfielders, breaks up passes, and clogs space. Still, the U.S. was giving up too many chances, and you could feel the Ghana goal coming. It happened on a beautiful back heel pass from Asamoah Gyan to André Ayew, the sort you wish an American player would make just once in a game and that Brazilians produce in their sleep.
Klinsmann likes to describe the American team as a human body with a strong spine that starts with Howard, then moves up to Jones and Bradley and Dempsey. But you have to wonder about the reliability of the other body parts, such as the ribs, which is where a lot of the modern game is decided. Fast and skilled wingers who cut inside have become some of the most important chess pieces on the pitch. And what to make of Altidore? He's never been a dependable striker. But he is our only true point man. Jóhannsson isn't comfortable as a lone striker. Chris Wondolowski might be the craftiest player on the team, but he's a poacher. The limitations of Altidore, who depends on reliable service, meant that the team had to be structured a certain way. It’s one reason that Brad Davis, an excellent crosser of the ball, is on the team instead of Landon Donovan.
How Klinsmann shifts the lineup for Portugal, should Altidore be out, will be interesting to see. Two of the changes he made last night paid off. John Brooks, filling in for Besler, played solid on defense. But his star turn came in the waning moments, when he latched onto a pretty corner by Graham Zusi, another substitute, also on the team due to his crossing ability. Brooks hit the ball hard and down, like they tell you to do. It bounced past the Ghanaian keeper. A moment of confusion followed. Brooks collapsed on the ground, as if in disbelief. He just lay there. The spectators couldn't quite believe it either. I kept looking for a flag from the officials. A foul. Something. These were the goals the U.S. scored that always got called back. But, no, the curse was lifted. Hallelujah.
As I walked out of the stadium past a phalanx of black armored SUVs with Maryland plates flown in to ferry Vice President Joe Biden about town, I overheard a Ghana fan talking to a sympathizer about the loss: "We really don't care."
But they did. And it had started to rain again.