Best Goal—and Celebration—of 2012 Africa Cup of Nations

Hi there. We got pulled out to sea by the day-job undertow on Monday, and yesterday our hosting site was down every time we checked. It remains a bit buggy today (this post, for instance, got prematurely published with a blank space where the text was meant to go; hope you didn’t catch that).

But enough about us. The Africa Cup of Nations semifinals are set for today, with Zambia taking on Ghana at 11:00 ET, and Mali meeting Ivory Coast at 2:00. The winners will meet in the final on Sunday at 2:00.

To whet your appetite, check out this slick goal from Ghana’s Emmanuel AgyemangBadu in his team’s 1-1 draw with Guinea during the group stage:

That celebration was on point. It’s not this, no, but sometimes spontaneity is better than choreography.

There were two players with MLS connections in the Africa Cup of Nations: Botswana’s Dipsy Selolwane played for the Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake from 2002 to 2005, and Senegal’s goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul played for Colorado (2005-08) and New York (2009-11). He is currently unattached but may yet re-sign with the U.S. league.

Despite fielding Newcastle stars Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cisse, Senegal went three-and-out in this tournament.

Botswana also made a hasty exit, but not before Selolwane made history in his team’s 6-1 loss to Guinea in the group stage. He buried a penalty kick to briefly tie the match at 1, and produce Botswana’s first ever goal at a major international tournament.

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Ghana Sends U.S. Out of World Cup—Again

It’s taken us a couple of days to get to this past Saturday’s U.S.-Ghana game because we’ve been in transit, and on deadline at the day job, not—we repeat, not—because we’ve been on a three-day bender drowning our sorrows, or because we’ve been curled up in the fetal position since Saturday afternoon. (Not as far as you know.)

But we did take the U.S.’s 2-1 extra-time loss especially hard, for many reasons.

Here are three of them:

1) The World Cup functions as kind of a quadrennial Referendum on the Sport of Soccer in the United States. When the U.S. plays a World Cup match, it’s not only the team’s chances in the tournament that are on the line, but in many real ways, the future of the sport is at stake as well. The U.S. is pretty much unique in this regard. Sure, Italians and Englishmen are disappointed, devastated even, at their national teams’ performances at South Africa 2010, but soccer will continue to flourish in those countries just as it had before the tournament, and the Premier League and Serie A will resume grabbing all the sporting headlines when they start back up in six or seven weeks’ time. It’s a different story for the sport here, and for Major League Soccer.

But if the U.S. wins this game, and then goes on to … sigh.

That brings us to Reason No. 2…

2) The U.S .got the best Round of 16 draw it could possibly hope for, maybe everLandon Donovan said after the game that the team felt it had let “a little bit of an opportunity” slip away. Right. And the Grand Canyon is a little bit of a depression in the surface of the earth: If the Yanks had gotten by Ghana, next up would’ve been a very winnable game with Uruguay for a spot in the semi-freaking-finals of the World Cup. They may never get another opportunity like that again.

3) They had this game! Because of reason No. 1 above, we are usually somewhere between acute anxiety and deep pessimism while watching this team play in a World Cup, but after Donovan tied it from the spot in the 62nd minute and the U.S. started creating more chances, we genuinely believed they were going to win the game. They had the momentum and Ghana seemed to be tiring. This one was there for them.

So what went wrong?

Before the game, we pointed up five areas that could influence the outcome of this game, and the Yanks flubbed three of the five en route to the defeat that eliminated them.

Early Stages

We need to get the Elias Sports Bureau (and possibly the American Psychological Association) on this: Has a team ever given up early goals in three of its four World Cup games—along with allowing an early shot off the crossbar in the fourth?

This was more than a worrying trend—it was downright weird. And no one had an explanation for it.

Let’s review: they conceded a goal to England in the fourth minute, to Slovenia in the 12th, allowed a blast off the bar to Algeria in the sixth, and then in this knockout game against Ghana, gave up a goal in the fifth minute.

WTF, indeed.

They did rally each time, and this past Saturday it looked like they were bound to score the winning goal … until extra time began … and the Yanks reverted to their beginning-of-the-game form: time to give up a soft goal!

In the third minute of extra time, a punt from Ghana keeper Richard Kingson led directly to a goal by Asamoah Gyan, aka Baby Jet (best nickname in the tournament? Best nickname in the tournament), as U.S. central defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit played a little game of ‘you got him?’ ‘no, you do.’

Ghana’s Athleticism

This had to have been one of the main talking points in the U.S.’s preparation, right? How it’d be important to get the ball off your feet quickly and be precise with your passes because these guys close down spaces faster than your average opponent, etc. etc?

Yet there was Steve Cherundolo on the right flank in the early going, taking his time with the ball and getting stripped. And there was Ricardo Clark giving it away cheaply in the fifth minute—a turnover that led to Ghana’s first goal and cost the Backpost household one apparently antique endtable.

In Clark’s defense, Bradley put him in a tough spot with his pass, and then vacated the space behind him with an overlapping run, leaving him with no cover after the turnover. Click here for some video evidence submitted by Backpost reader Old 27.

Crunch-Time, Extra time, Penalties

Fall asleep at a critical moment down the stretch and it could cost you a game like this. The U.S. did just that on Ghana’s game-winning goal, allowing a punt to fall between its two out-of-position centerbacks and then, well, what did happen after that?

Bocanegra shoulder-bumped Gyan, and when that didn’t knock the player off balance, appeared to give up on the play, stopping his run and—seriously, watch the replay—looking up at the sky while leaving DeMerit to take over and defend the attack on his own. But DeMerit was always behind the play and had no chance of stopping Gyan. Check it out here (third goal, obv):

The U.S. stumbled in three other key departments as well: Lineup selection, goalkeeping, and finishing.

Starting Ricardo Clark was a mistake, and Bob Bradley admitted as much by subbing the player off after half an hour. He said he made the change because Clark picked up a yellow, and that it was “extremely dangerous” for a hustling, tackling central midfielder to be carrying a yellow in a game like this, and that makes sense. But Clark was having a bad game—and he had a bad tournament: two appearances, two errors that contributed to goals against the U.S. (he failed to track Gerrard on the England goal). The U.S. looked much better when Maurice Edu came in.

Tim Howard had an excellent tournament, for the most part, but he was beaten to the near post on Ghana’s first goal, and appeared to be out of position (see above). The second Ghana goal went right over his head—it was a rocket, but it was right at him.

We thought Bradley would start Robbie Findley in this game, and we think it was the right move. He’s the only player on the U.S. roster with the speed to trouble Ghana’s backline, and he did that. But he fell short—well short—in the finishing department, blowing a golden chance in the 35th minute, scuffing his shot into Kingson’s leg from 10 yards.

The U.S. squandered several other excellent opportunities as well, with Jozy Altidore, Benny Feilhaber, and Michael Bradley all failing to finish good to decent chances.

So it was a mixed bag for the U.S. at South Africa 2010: They accomplished their goal of getting out of the group stages, but they missed a golden opportunity to do something unprecedented in U.S. Soccer history.

Next up: What now for Bradley and Co.?

U.S. vs Ghana: Revenge in Rustenburg?

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:

Early Stages

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 Gyanwho 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.

Ghana’s Athleticism

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.

Refereeing

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….

Algeria Hangover

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.