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Off-field Cup success doesn't translate for U.S.

WP: Saddled with higher expectations, Team USA's World Cup 'a fiasco'
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Two very different scenes played out at opposite ends of Franken Stadium following Ghana's victory over the United States on Thursday afternoon.

Dozens of Ghanaian fans danced in the stands at one end, a bright mass of yellows and reds and greens, and the face of their team, midfielder Michael Essien, raced over and reached into the crowd to shake hands. Their World Cup is just beginning.

At the other, hundreds of American fans stood and watched. The face of their team, midfielder Landon Donovan, stopped near midfield, bent at the waist, his head down and his hands on his legs. Their World Cup has ended.

"I guess all of us feel a little bit like the 100-yard sprinters do when you work for four years and you have 10 seconds to make it or break it," said Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation, after the 2-1 loss. "It comes down to three games and everything gets evaluated on those three games."

Off the field, the tournament could be considered a success for American soccer. The television ratings for the first U.S. game, against the Czech Republic on June 12, was the most-watched program on ESPN2 this year, and last Saturday's game against Italy was the highest-rated first-round World Cup game on ABC since 1994. In Germany, American fans turned up by the thousands and were a vocal presence at the three games.

But on the field, it was a disappointment. The U.S. team, which was ranked fifth in FIFA's enigmatic world rankings heading into the tournament, finished with two losses and one tie, and just two goals — only one of which was scored by one of its players. The U.S., which advanced to the quarterfinals in 2002 when the tournament was played in Korea and Japan, has yet to win a World Cup game (0-9-1) in Europe.

"Regardless of our ranking, which we all within the team think is a bit too high and not right, we're still a small footballing nation," U.S. team captain Claudio Reyna said. "We're getting better and the expectations are up for us to at least get out of our group. That's why we're disappointed. In a short time we've come a long way, and that's the goal we set coming into World Cups."

The tournament started badly for the Americans, and they never really recovered. Five minutes into the first game, the Czechs scored a goal, and they added two more in a 3-0 win, a game in which the U.S. looked overmatched and lifeless. The Americans put forth a stirring effort in their next game, tying Italy -- one of the tournament favorites — 1-1, despite being reduced to nine men against the Italians' 10.

Against Ghana, a team in its first World Cup, the U.S. fell behind early, but tied the score on a goal from midfielder Clint Dempsey. But a controversially-awarded penalty kick resulted in a Ghana goal just before halftime and that doomed the Americans.

"The first game didn't put us in a good position, so we were definitely chasing going into the second game," U.S. defender Jimmy Conrad said. "The second game we were down a guy, so we were chasing from that point. This game, we go down a goal right before half, and it just kills you."

Soccer, as a spectator sport, has slowly grown in popularity in the U.S., though it still trails the three major professional sports, football, basketball and baseball. Soccer fans often feel like a much-maligned minority, but this is the one place where they feel that they are in the majority.

"When you're a soccer fan in the United States, wherever you are, you put up with a lot of, 'What's wrong with you, you like soccer?' " said Rob Taylor, a high school history teacher from Philadelphia. "There's camaraderie here. I know these fans at some point have had to defend the sport. We're very pleasantly surprised to see the number of fans; it contradicts the statements that nobody in the U.S. cares about soccer."

Every fan here, it seemed, had some sort of story to illustrate his or her dedication to the game. Taylor, 42, traveled to Germany with a former high school soccer teammate, Chris Bergeman, also 42; they paid $330 apiece for their tickets to the Ghana game. Jason Hammontree, a 28-year-old lawyer, spent his lunch hours last week watching games on television in Chicago and flew to Germany on Monday for the Ghana game. Jeremiah and Amy Mahoney, a married couple from Oakton, rented a small RV and spent the past two weeks driving around the country, going to games and even visiting the U.S. team's training base in Hamburg.

U.S. fans walked the streets in Nuremberg's old town on Thursday morning. They weren't as boisterous as the rowdy English, and they weren't as colorfully dressed as the orange-clad Dutch. But they were there, in their face-paint and Uncle Sam hats, wearing their jerseys and waving their flags.

Inside of sold-out Franken Stadium, the crowd appeared to be predominantly American. The chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" began when the game did, and hearty boos rang out at halftime, when the U.S. team walked off facing a 2-1 deficit after a questionable call gave Ghana a penalty kick, which Stephen Appiah converted.

"I thought the supporters for the U.S. team were phenomenal, especially in the second game [against Italy]. I thought they willed us to that" tie, Gulati said. "I said we would have more fans cheering for the U.S. [in Germany] than in the history of the World Cup combined, excluding '94 when we were at home, and I think that's true. People get it. People understand what the World Cup is about."

And the fans also understood that this was a disappointing result for the Americans. An hour after the game, U.S. fans drank beer and ate steak sandwiches in an outdoor beer garden in a wooded area just across from the stadium. American rock music blared from the speakers, a party-like atmosphere for people who didn't really feel like partying.

"I'm disappointed. We didn't play well and we didn't shoot well," Jeremiah Mahoney said. "I was hoping we'd go through. But I'm glad we scored a goal; finally we got one goal out of three games."

Said Taylor, "We severely underachieved. This is close to a fiasco. We have evolved from 1998, the players are better, and the expectations are higher. I'm very angry right now, very frustrated. I thought we would do better than this, make a better showing. And now we have to go home and listen to all the people say, 'I told you we're no good.' "