The consensus on how the United States has done at World Cups, at least in the modern era, more or less follows an every-other-cycle pattern:
• 1990 was an introduction to the world game for our college stars, who understandably lost all three games.
• 1994 was fabulous because Bora Milutinovic guided us into the knockout stage, just like every Cup host before us.
• The last-place performance in 1998 was a low point.
• Our quarterfinal run in 2002, which might have gone further if not for the non-hand ball call against Germany, was utterly fantastic.
• We were abject failures in 2006, finishing last in our group despite a No. 5 ranking from FIFA.
• Landon Donovan made 2010 a success with that goal to beat Algeria and win our group.
That's a fair assessment, for the most part, with one exception: 2006 was not the catastrophe it appeared to be.
No, the Yanks didn't make it out of Group E, but they weren't suppose to, no matter what FIFA's flawed formula suggested. We were the fourth-best team in a very strong and competitive group, and throw out the first game - a truly disastrous 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic - and we did pretty well.
We outplayed Italy, at least until two red cards left us with nine men for virtually all of the second half, in a 1-1 draw - the only blemish on the champions' record in Germany. And we were in position to advance with a victory over Ghana in the group finale, but a harsh penalty-kick all in first-half stoppage stopped us in our tracks and led to a 2-1 defeat.
It was a disappointment, to be sure. But the perception that we were awful, well, it just isn't right.
"Stupid people making stupid comments."
That's what Bruce Arena, the U.S. coach in 2006 (and 2002) and now the LA Galaxy's box, had to say this month about the level of criticism.
"Stupid people making stupid comments," he repeated, "and in a situation where unfairly the players and the coaches were criticized for not doing well, but everyone gave a heck of an effort. ... I think good teams go home early as well [as the weaker squads]. I think it was a little unfair, but that's life, and it's a shame we don't have enough people that are smart enough to figure out what actually went on."
It was a transitional Cup for the U.S., with goalkeeper Kasey Keller, center back Eddie Pope, central midfielder Claudio Reyna and forward Brian McBride bowing out - Pope with a red card against the Italians, Reyna with a knee injury early against Ghana - and midfielder John O'Brien, arguably the most talented player the country has produced, watching his career slip away because of injuries.
Expectations were high if unwarranted. The Americans went into the tournament at No. 5 in FIFA's often untrustworthy rankings - eight spots above Italy and three ahead of France, which would meet in the Berlin final - and the glow of 2002, with most of the key figures returning, propelled confidence they would prosper.
Arena said preparations weren't optimal. "We did a terrible job [getting ready for the Cup]," he said. "When I say we, I'm not just pointing at leadership in U.S. Soccer, but at the whole planning and getting us the right kind of games leading up to the World Cup, it was miserable."
He said the warm-up opponents -- Morocco, Latvia and Venezuela -- weren't of the quality required for preparations, and then a closed-door game with Algeria in Germany before the U.S. opener went to waste when an Algeria player was red-carded in the first half and the German federation refused to allow the Algerians to play with 11, which is what the Americans needed.
It had a quick imprint against the second-ranked Czechs, who had been one of the world's finest sides during the four-year cycle. Towering striker Jan Koller headed them ahead in the fifth minute, and Tomas Rosicky added a brilliant strike, to the upper-right corner, before halftime, then netted another in the second half. He might have had a hat trick; he also hit the crossbar.
"That strike from Rosicky - I had an unbelievable view of that, unfortunately," said Carlos Bocanegra, who was on the bench for the opener and played at left back against Italy and Ghana. "They were a really strong team. We didn't play well the first game - they beat us, they were better than us - then we had an unbelievable performance and result against Italy, and if we get something against Ghana, we're on the next round. We had a bad first game, but other than that, it was just a tough group."
Arena was very critical of his team after the Czech game, lambasting winger DaMarcus Beasley, especially, and saying only Reyna, winger Bobby Convey and center back Oguchi Onyewu showed any quality. But things did get better.
"The Czech Republic had a better team than us," Arena said. "As a starting point, we screwed up in the opener. People don't even know. Keller hits a ball short, it catches our whole team pulling out on a corner kick and turns into [Koller's] goal. So that's difficult. We got a marvelous result against Italy and really got screwed in the Ghana game, where we really had to fight hard to get back into the game [after Haminu Draman gave the Black Stars a 22nd-minute lead], and then [German referee Markus Merk] calls the penalty kick. Carlos Bocanegra didn't make the greatest play, in putting [the ball] back into the box [from the left flank], and Gooch [Onyewu] was nudging the guy, but we thought we were going in 1-1 at half, a lot of momentum. And then Ghana comes out and does a good job in closing out the game. And we lost. But our team played all right."
Landon Donovan feels similarly. "I think like life, World Cups are very much about expectations," he said. "With the sort of bogus FIFA ranking we were given at the time, with the way 2002 had gone, I think the expectation was [heightened], even amongst ourselves. We probably thought we were better than we were. That said, we didn't play well enough to advance [but] it certainly wasn't as bad as people think."
They were the better side against Italy, which went ahead when Alberto Gilardino nodded home an Andrea Pirlo free kick in the 22nd minute. The U.S. pulled even five minutes later on Cristian Zaccardo's own goal from a free kick - Italy conceded just one other in the tournament, Zinedine Zidane's penalty kick in the final - and a minute after that they were up a man when Daniele De Rossi was sent off for an elbow-first challenge that bloodied McBride.
That might have led to something more, but Pablo Mastroeni was sent off at the end of the first half and Pope picked up his second yellow card at the start of the second half. Both calls were perhaps harsh, but both challenges were naïve. There wasn't a simple argument to be made.
The Yanks were in the Ghana game the whole way, which was encouraging. Draman scored after stripping the ball from Reyna, and they slammed knees on the play, forcing the U.S. captain off the field. Clint Dempsey scored a fine equalizer in the 43rd minute, after a Beasley take-away, and then Merk awarded the Black Stars a spot kick after Razek Pimpong hit the turf under minimal contact from Onyewu. "A ridiculous call," Bocanegra said. And that's how it ended. More disappointed than the U.S. were the Czechs, who lost to Ghana and Italy and exited, too. They were one year past their sell-by date. The Yanks, too, perhaps. "I just think there are different cycles for World Cups, and it's a similar cycle to the U.S. team," Arena said. "The U.S. team went into the 2006 World Cup ranked [fifth] in the world. Which we weren't, but if we played in 2005, when we were a year younger, we would have been a much better team. ... The U.S. team in 2006, we had players at the end of their international careers, and it showed on the field."
The reaction at home, in the soccer community, wasn't good. "I think that's all right," Bocanegra said. "They're expecting us to get out of the group stages and advance in the tournament. I think that's good. I think the U.S. as a whole, we didn't do well enough. We have ourselves a chance to get out of the group, and we didn't. If you look at that group, you probably want to play Ghana on your last game with something to get if you have a chance, and we weren't able to do it. Whether bad calls or whatnot, it didn't happen. I think that's good, that ourselves and the public and journalists and everybody thinks that's not good enough."