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.
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.
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."
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.
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