Reporting from Rustenburg, South Africa — The U.S. team's manic run through the World Cup came to an abrupt end Saturday with a 2-1 overtime loss to Ghana that was decided on a splendid goal by Asamoah Gyan as the clock here ticked toward midnight.
The Americans never led in regulation time in the tournament -- and never lost in regulation either. Yet they came within a goal of the quarterfinals only to be sent home on Gyan's shot in the dark.
"The finality of it is brutal," said Landon Donovan, the L.A. Galaxy star who scored three of the five U.S. goals in the tournament. "When you realize how much you put into it, not only for the last four years but for your whole life. There's no guarantee there's another opportunity. It's disappointing."
After fighting back to force the extra period on a Donovan penalty kick in the 62nd minute, the U.S. saw Ghana retake the lead three minutes into the first 15-minute extra period on a play that started innocently enough with the U.S. sending a long ball into the Ghana end. A Ghanaian defender headed it forward to Andre Ayew, who was simply trying to clear it back across the midfield line.
But his clearing shot found Gyan on a dead run, cutting between two U.S. defenders. Gyan grounded the ball with his chest and got off a left-footed shot that went over keeper Tim Howard and into the goal, sending the U.S. home and the Black Stars on to the quarterfinals to play Uruguay, a 2-1 winner over South Korea earlier in the day.
"We had a great opportunity. But you have to prove it over 90 minutes and we didn't do it," Howard said. "We're going home so there's an opportunity missed. We should have won the game."
In was a painful way to lose for a team that hadn't done anything the easy way in this tournament, coming from behind to earn draws with both England and Slovenia before beating Algeria on a Donovan goal in stoppage time to qualify for the second round.
"I think we can hold our heads high at how we did," Donovan said. "Obviously you hate losing. Obviously the feeling is bitter.
"But the effort, the energy, the attitude we had, the belief. I have no qualms with that. Sometimes you lose games. That's part of the soccer.
"At this point we lost the game and we're out of the World Cup."
This is the second time in as many World Cups that Ghana has sent the U.S. packing with a 2-1 win, having knocked the U.S. out in group play in 2006. That came in Ghana's World Cup debut and it carried the Black Stars into the second round. This time they're going to the quarterfinals, where they will meet Uruguay on Friday night at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg.
In the first World Cup on African soil, Ghana, which rode to the game Saturday in a bus painted with the slogan, "The Hope of Africa," will carry the continent's flag forward as the last of six African teams still playing.
"We must fight, not just for us, but for the other teams that are not here," Ayew said
Despite the bitter end, for the U.S. this World Cup has been equal parts good soccer and good fortune, a two-week roller-coaster ride that ended in the same place where it started -- tiny Royal Bafokeng Stadium, squeezed on a South African plain between the old mining town of Rustenburg and the modern resort playground of Sun City.
Along the way the team won the cheers of a Bush -- former USC tailback Reggie, who attended last Wednesday's win over Algeria -- and a Clinton, former President Bill, who extended his stay in South Africa to attend Saturday's game.
Clinton, by the way, was sitting with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones while the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, fresh off a winning run of his own, was also in the house.
They watched Ghana get its first goal in the fifth minute when Kwadwo Asamoah took the ball from American midfielder Ricardo Clark at the midfield stripe and fed Kevin Price Boateng, who raced up the left wing before letting go a left-footed shot from the edge of the penalty area that beat Howard cleanly to the near post.
It was the first time Ghana scored on anything other than a penalty kick in this World Cup and Boateng, Ghana's bad boy striker, celebrated by dancing off the pitch and up the track surrounding the field as his teammates gave chase.
The U.S. came back to tie the score after Clint Dempsey drew a foul on a nice run he started by turning defender John Mensah around before racing into the box. Ghana's Jonathan Mensah gave chase, earning a yellow card with a hard tackle from behind, setting up Donovan's penalty kick.
But that was the Americans' last hurrah.
"This was a game we feel like we should have won," Donovan said