By Adam Vaccaro
What happened Saturday: In its thrilling run to the Round of 16, the United States went down a goal in the early minutes in two out of three group matches before being able to pull even for draws.
Against Ghana, they again found themselves down 1-0 on a Kevin-Prince Boateng strike. After a sluggish first half, the Yanks did as they'd grown accustomed and came out with urgency and enthusiasm in the second. And, again, Landon Donovan produced the big goal when his penalty kick in the 62nd minute tied things up. With new life, the US held on to force overtime.
But the extra two sessions opened as if a microcosm of the game itself. Within three minutes, Asamoah Gyan scored his third goal of the tournament to put the Black Stars ahead. The U.S. couldn't gain much control of the game after the score and despite a spirited effort, they just ran out of comeback strikes. Ghana won 2-1 in 120 minutes, eliminating the United States for the second straight World Cup.
Also Saturday: Soaking in South African winter rain with his team having already conceded a lead built on his early goal, Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez evaded his mark, cut to his right, and curled an 80th minute mid-range bid off the South Korean far post and into the back of the net. Suarez's second strike was the game-winner in a 2-1 final. South Korea was shut down early by Los Charruas' defense, which was not scored upon in group play, but gradually developed attacking momentum, bettering its opportunities throughout the match. The efforts culminated in a Lee Chung-Yong headed strike in the 68th minute. But Suarez's incredible goal dashed South Korea's hopes and ended the Taeguk Warrior's tournament. A once great soccer power, Uruguay's futbol revival continues as the team advances to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1970.
On American soccer: Whenever the World Cup comes about, the talk in America is of whether or not a strong showing will spell take-off for the sport in the US. In 2010 the Yanks fulfilled expectations by escaping their group, and they probably brought on a few more fans by advancing with such dramatic flair. But let's be honest. In order to really get the country soccer mad right now, they'd need to go deep into the tournament, at least making it to the quarterfinals.
That's fine. I largely agree. The Revs aren't going to suddenly start chasing the Red Sox' sellout record and most sports fans are going to shift their attention from the World Cup to baseball and NFL training camps across the country. Again, I agree. That's probably what's going to happen in the short term.
But something to take note of: In 2006, most of America's support in Germany was of the corporate variety, having secured tickets and flights through work, there primarily for the spectacle. In a substantially more difficult spot to travel to, the United States' supporters this time around were real. They were costumed, they were loud, they were enthusiastic, they were knowledgeable, and they were proud. They were soccer fans. And perhaps most important, they were young.
I contend that while a deep run may have boosted soccer in the country in the short term, the sport looks like it really is upcoming stateside and yes, I know this has been said for years and years. It's not going to be overnight. But the Yanks have young, enthusiastic support that more than ever in American soccer history really cares, not just about the team but about the game. Maybe it's a generation coming of age having only known a global village and the Internet, wanting to be a part of it by participating in international soccer. Maybe the reason is much simpler, like that the team has become a regular Cup qualifier. But for whatever reason, the support is there. The team itself was good enough only to escape its group and capture the country's attention on a Saturday afternoon. But these fans are many, and they're for real. And as an American soccer fan, that's solid enough consolation for me.
What it all means: Ghana moves forth to face Paraguay in the quarterfinals. A continent that saw all of its other teams eliminated before the second round, Africa will continue to rally around the Black Stars. The match should be a very strong defensive stand-off, with the winner moving onto what will be a surprising semifinal appearance for either side.
South Korea entered the tournament aiming to legitimize itself on the world soccer stage. In escaping its group, it took a step in so doing as the Taeguk Warriors reached their first knockout stage off Asian ground. Though this tournament's result obviously lacks the excitement of the trip to the semifinals on home ground in 2002, South Korea took a big step forward in 2010.
What to watch on Sunday: An old soccer rivalry will be reborn when Germany and England kick off in Bloemfontein. Historically a standby for a quality and passionate match, this will be the fifth meeting in World Cup finals history between the two sides and the 28th at large. For all the criticism the Three Lions took in drawing the US and Algeria, a trip to the quarterfinals at the expense of Germany would silence all howls of the team's early demise. That won't be easy, however. Die Mannschaft isn't as strong as it's been in the past, but it's superb organization and discipline could give England fits especially in midfield play. It was thought that Germany would be without star midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, suffering from a thigh injury, but he did train in full on Saturday. Schweinsteiger is still listed as doubtful, but if featured he'll provide a big boost for his team.
Also Sunday: Argentina will ride momentum into a 2006 Round of 16 rematch with Mexico as one of just two teams to go undefeated in group play. As coach Diego Maradona is quick to point out, Albiceleste's critics have been quiet since the tournament openers. Rightly so: Argentina has rivaled Brazil for the World Cup's most consistent excellence and has found itself on the shortlist of tournament favorites. Many thought that Maradona's fiery coaching style could negatively effect the team, but it seems that the 1986 Cup winner has been more inspiration than distraction for his players. On the field, Lionel Messi is yet to score for Argentina but has anchored the squad and has arguably been the tournament's best big-name player. Had Mexico won Group A it would have been a favorite to reach the semis, but Argentina is just too tough a challenge. Don't expect El Tri to avenge its 2006 elimination.
Question of the Day: Wither Wayne Rooney? After putting forth his best club season to date for Manchester United, Rooney has been held at bay in tournament play thus far. England coach Fabio Capello praised Rooney's play against Slovenia but the striker isn't providing his best if he's not scoring. If England is to go far in the tournament, they'll need Rooney to start finding the goal.
Full schedule (all times EDT): Germany v England Free State Stadium, MangaungBloemfontein 10:00 a.m.; Argentina v Mexico Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg 2:30 p.m.
Quote of Note: Sports are very, very cruel. One minute on top of the world next minute its over. I guess that's why I love 'em but not right now. Need a beer. - New England Revolution striker and CSNNE World Cup analyst Taylor Twellman following the United States' loss to Ghana, via Twitter.