Preview: U.S. vs Ghana, Round of 16

Donovan, resilient US side look to avenge 2006 loss to speedy Ghana

If you ask Carlos
Bocanegra, the hard part is over for the US – now, the fun begins. For the
first time since 2002, the USMNT have advanced to the knockout stage of the
World Cup. This squad has a golden opportunity to outdo that ’02 team, which
reached the quarterfinals after a thumping of archrival Mexico.

But there’s the
small matter of a tough, athletic and savvy Ghana team standing in the way. The
Americans get a chance not only to progress against a team they probably
preferred over Group D winners Germany, but they’ll be able to put to bed some
of the failures of 2006, when the Black Stars killed their chances at getting
this far.

Don’t expect the
same unprepared and wilting American team this time around. We already know
this US side has a never-say-die attitude, even if they’re a little shaky in
starting games strong. But as
Landon Donovan said, the team realizes the special situation
it has put itself in, and the belief they can beat any team, anytime, anywhere
is an enormous improvement over some past US squads.

And this time,
they know Ghana are a force to be reckoned with. As always, Bob Bradley and his
staff have scouted the Black Stars like mad, and are fully aware of their
overlapping threats, fitness levels that match their own, their emphasis on
staying compact and similar belief that they are a team of destiny. Now the fun
begins, indeed.

USA

As if this team
hasn’t given its fans enough heart attacks over the past two weeks, this could
be another challenging opponent for the US. All three group-stage games have
exposed the American team as far superior when they’re on the counterattack
than when they hold the ball. And Ghana are pretty similar.

That could set up
a fantastically fast-paced contest on Saturday. Strength and conditioning coach
Pierre Barrieu says the US have clearly relied on their superior fitness late
in games – how else could four players run a game-winning counterattack in the
91st minute against Algeria? They’ll probably need those horses again against
an equally fit opponent.

Robbie Findley is eligible to play again after being
ineligible for the Algeria game, and his turf-burning skills are well-known.
Jonathan Bornstein played well at left
back for the US in that game as well, and his speed may also be needed. And
don’t be surprised if we see DaMarcus Beasley get some more time on the pitch
as a sub at either left back or left midfield.

But does that mean
Oguchi Onyewu sits out again as a result? Gooch is probably dying to get out
there and make amends for a dubious penalty call that virtually gave Ghana the
win in that fateful ’06 contest. The veterans from that squad claim revenge
isn’t on their mind. But they haven’t forgotten what it felt like to lose that
day.

Ghana

Hobbled Michael
Essien may be sitting on the sidelines, but the Black Stars are still a
dangerous team that loves to come forward. Normally, that makes for a great
show of attacking soccer. There’s just one problem: They can’t finish.

Ghana didn’t score
a single goal away from the penalty spot in the group stage. And if they shank
their chances against the US the same way they did against Serbia, Australia
and Germany, it’ll be off to the races for the Americans. But that should be a
fun chess match, too. Ghana’s back line – especially outside backs John
Paintsil and Hans Sarpei – are speedy, smart and effective, and should match up
well.

The Black Stars
will also have something else in their corner: fan support. The Americans may
have become fan favorites here in South Africa during last year’s
Confederations Cup, but Ghana will be the lone African team remaining in this
World Cup (unless Ivory Coast pulls off a miracle on Friday), and continental
pride will be thick in Rustenburg.

"It means a
lot to repeat what we did in 2006, when we were the only African team to
qualify for the last 16,” said Ghana veteran Stephen Appiah, “and I think we
can do better. As we are the only African team left in the competition, we are
going to get all the support in the stadium, as we have done Africa
proud."

Key Players

United States:
Michael Bradley.
The coach’s kid just keeps churning out one
gutty performance after another. Now it’ll be his job to help counter what has
essentially been a three-man Ghana central midfield, which has proven
surprisingly tough. If he and whomever he pairs with in this game (Maurice Edu?
Ricardo Clark?) can neutralize that part of the park, that will open things up
considerably for attacks up the middle.

Ghana: Asamoah
Gyan.
Bocanegra’s club teammate at Stade Rennais in France, Gyan has so
far been the only player to score for the Black Stars in this tournament. And
as the lone striker, it’s his failing if his team can’t put the ball in the
back of the net. He knows that can’t continue against a US defense that has
been solid, but has shown tiny openings in all three group-stage matches.

Final Analysis

It’s a tired
cliché that African teams are fast, but it’s true for Ghana. The difference is
that the Black Stars are also smart with their speed. They don’t over-pursue
and they overlap well, while maintaining a good wall in midfield. This game
won’t necessarily evolve into a track meet, but it will certainly be much more
of a tactical battle than people realize: two athletic, quick sides that love
to counterattack, but have glaring weaknesses for teams to exploit. Both teams
have nothing to lose, and they’ve both got that little thing called destiny in
their respective corners. This may be the most fun US game we’ve seen yet.

“We’ve always said get out of our
group and we’d go from there,” Donovan said on Thursday. “Now we feel like we
can compete and beat any team in the world. Saturday happens to be Ghana. We’re
going to throw everything we can at them.”

 

What: US vs. Ghana, Round of 16

When: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET

Where: Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg

TV: ABC, Univisión