NUREMBERG, Germany - Done in by their own mistakes and a crucial penalty call, the Americans lost to Ghana 2-1 Thursday in a game they had to win to advance past the World Cup tournament's first round.
Cheered on by thousands of boisterous fans bedecked in red, white and blue, the Americans fell flat against an opportunistic team that was stronger and faster. The surprising Black Stars, newcomers to the World Cup, joined Italy from Group E in the knockout round of 16 teams.
This was a bitter end for the United States, which carried high hopes - and a No. 5 world ranking from FIFA - onto soccer's biggest stage. Four years ago, the Americans made the quarterfinals and this time had even bigger plans.
It didn't take long for them to fall behind - an ominous sign since the U.S. has never won a World Cup game in which it trailed.
Haminu Draman put the West Africans ahead in the 22nd minute, breaking in alone on goalkeeper Kasey Keller after stealing the ball from U.S. captain Claudio Reyna.
The United States tied it in the 43rd minute when Clint Dempsey smashed a 10-yard shot off a perfect cross from DaMarcus Beasley.
His dancing celebration was short lived - the game turned just before halftime on a call that stunned U.S. coach Bruce Arena.
Battling for a header, American defender Oguchi Onyewu pushed Razak Pimpong on the edge of the penalty area. Germany's Markus Merk, one of the world's top-rated officials, awarded a penalty shot as Arena buried his face in his hands.
Keller dived to his left, but Ghana captain Stephen Appiah crushed the ball high to the goalkeeper's right.
"I am disappointed in the judgment of the referee," Arena said after the game. "We would have liked to come out at halftime even, with a chance to win the game. That was a big call."
Most calls went for the Americans - the Black Stars outfouled them 32-16 - but they were unable to build many dangerous chances in the second half.
Desperate for offense, Arena sent in Eddie Johnson in the 61st minute as the United States pressed. There were a few moments - Brian McBride sent a diving header clanking off the near post - but Ghana rode out the victory.
When the match ended, Ghana players raced over to supporters who had kept a steady drumbeat and danced and chanted to challenge the deafening chants of U-S-A at the 45,000 seat Nuremberg Stadium.
"The worst part is the finality of it," said midfielder Landon Donovan, the playmaker who failed to score in this World Cup after getting two goals as a 20 year old in 2002. "Even during the game, you don't get the sense this is it. Then the whistle blows and it's over."
All the more frustrating was that Italy had done its part to help the Americans by beating the Czech Republic 2-0 in a game played simultaneously in Hamburg. An Italy win was the second part of the equation that would have sent the Americans' through. Instead, the United States (0-2-1) finished with one point - its first in a World Cup played in Europe, but not enough to escape the basement of the four-team group.
Italy (2-0-1) won the group with seven points and Ghana (2-1) advanced with six points. Ghana's likely opponent in the next round: defending champion and tournament favorite Brazil.
"This is a historic moment for us," Ghana coach Ratomir Dujkovic said. "It was a very nervous match because of the importance to both teams. But we have done it, we are satisfied."
Four years ago, the Americans were the satisfied ones with their best showing since 1930. This time, they reverted to their form of 1998 in France, when they finished last overall.
U.S. fans outnumbered the red, yellow and green clad Ghanaians, both in the cobblestone streets of Nuremberg's old town and in the historic stadium where Hitler Youth marched seven decades ago.
The U.S. fans were quieted when Dempsey played a back pass to Reyna, and the U.S. captain collided with Draman left knee to left knee, crumpling to the ground in pain. As Reyna fell, Draman rushed in against Keller and from 10 yards hooked the ball into the corner of the net beyond the diving goalkeeper.
Reyna was taken off the field on a stretcher - the team later said he strained a ligament - but returned in the 26th minute, just about the time Italy went ahead of the Czechs. Still grimacing, Reyna left what will likely be his last World Cup game just before halftime and was replaced by Ben Olsen.
Soon after, Dempsey tied it - the only goal scored by an American this World Cup. Their goal in a 1-1 tie with Italy was scored by an Italian defender.
After stealing the ball just past midfield, Beasley made a short run and sent a pinpoint cross in front of the goal. Racing ahead of Habib Mohamed, Dempsey one-timed the ball with his right foot from 10 yards. It was 1-1 and victory no longer seemed farfetched.
Then moments later, in injury time, the Americans fell behind for good on the disputed penalty.
"Takes the wind out of your sails," Dempsey said. "We thought going into halftime we were tied up. That wasn't the case."