The U.S. faces Ghana tomorrow in Rustenburg with a place in the quarterfinals at stake and an opportunity to avenge a 2-1 loss to the Black Stars that knocked them out of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Much like the Yanks’ experience in this tournament, that game was not without controversy.
After Claudio Reyna was stripped of the ball in his own half and Ghana turned the gaffe into its opening goal, DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey did this:
But in first-half stoppage time, German referee Markus Merk handed Ghana a penalty, whistling U.S. centerback Oguchi Onyewu for what looked like a fair challenge for a header against Ghana’s Razak Pimpong.
The call was almost as dubious as Koman Coulibaly’s phantom whistle on Maurice Edu’s goal against Slovenia last Friday, and Ghana converted the penalty for a 2-1 lead that held up.
Now, four years later, the Americans have a chance for payback.
Here are five factors that will influence tomorrow’s outcome:
The U.S. gave up a goal in the fourth minute to England, in the 12th to Slovenia, and nearly conceded one in the sixth minute to Algeria this past Wednesday. Add to those worrisome facts this one: Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan—who has both of the Black Stars’ goals in this tournament (both from the spot)—scored the fastest goal in World Cup history back in 2006, hitting the net just 68 seconds into a 2-0 win over the Czech Republic.
It’s a very safe bet that Ghana will to try to attack the U.S. right from the start. How will the Yanks respond to the pressure? They obviously cannot afford to give up an(other) early goal.
Who will coach Bob Bradley start on the U.S. backline, and elsewhere, to deal with Ghana’s elite team speed and power? Will Onyewu return, hungry to wipe out the bad call against him from four years ago? Or will Jonny Bornstein—who, it must be said, held his own in the Algeria game—get thrown back into the cauldron?
Our bet is the speedy Bornstein.
We also expect Robbie Findley back up top with Jozy Altidore, giving the U.S. two different kinds of physical threats to keep Ghana’s backline on notice—Altidore’s bulk and power, and Findley’s raw speed.
In midfield, we figure Bradley will stick with the Maurice Edu/Michael Bradley combo in the center, with Lando and Clint on the wings.
But whoever is out there needs to be wide awake—from the opening whistle onward.
Mistakes, there’ve been a few: Yes, the U.S. has been on the short end of two egregious refereeing errors so far in this tournament. To their immense credit, they’ve been able to shake them off and get on with it without losing concentration. Will they be able to do the same if it happens in a knockout-round game?
Since the Slovenia and Algeria matches were essentially knockout games, the guess here is yes.
That said, we’d hate to see a bogus penalty or rash red card handed out at any point….
The Americans reached this stage in the most dramatic, draining fashion possible. Will they be able to wring that out and get mentally and physically prepared for the task at hand tomorrow?
(England has an extra day of rest, by the way, facing Germany on Sunday after downing Slovenia the same day the U.S. beat Algeria.)
So far they’re saying all the right things. Right after the Algeria game, Michael Bradley told Soccer America, “We’ll be ready. We could play tomorrow and we’d be ready.”
The following night, Bornstein told ESPN they were done enjoying the Algeria victory and were now “really looking forward to this game against Ghana.”
They’re all well aware of the opportunity in front of them—they’re in the most favorable quadrant of the final 16. If they get past Ghana, they’ll play the winner of South Korea-Uruguay.
Neither of those teams is an easy opponent, but they’re not the world powerhouses lurking in other areas of the bracket, either.
The U.S. should have no trouble getting up for this one.
Crunch-Time, Extra Time, Penalties
If the U.S. can avoid early errors in the back and settle into the game, it’s likely to be a tight one for 90 minutes. Games like that are often decided by little things in the late going—a mistake or a crucial touch or tackle—or they go into in extra-time, or to a penalty shootout.
Will the U.S. have the mental steel for those possibilities? Considering all they’ve battled through to get this far, we say it’s a good bet. And if it comes to penalties, U.S. fans could do worse than having Tim Howard in goal.
What are your thoughts on the game? Think the U.S. is still hungry for more? How will Bradley tweak his lineup?
Let us know in the comments, and enjoy the game.