By Ridge Mahoney
A few more rough pieces of luck befell the U.S. in its Group E match against Ghana, and again the Americans didn't get the job done.
A penalty kick whistled for what seemed to be innocuous contact when Oguchi Onyewu headed a ball clear was slammed into the net by Stephen Appiah. The goal broke a 1-1 tie and sent Ghana into the dressing room at halftime with a one-goal advantage it held through a second half during which the Americans tried mightily but only rarely threatened the opposition's goal.
On a few occasions the long balls aimed toward Brian McBride conjured up chances, but faced with an eight-man Ghanaian phalanx in the second half, the USA varied the attack with more balls played wide to Eddie Lewis and Clint Dempsey. Coach Bruce Arena brought on Eddie Johnson to play as McBride's midfield partner, but unlike his substitute appearance against the Czech Republic that produced a few threats, Johnson faltered badly against Ghana and wandered offside a few times in a pitiful display.
During the first half, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, playing as twin supporting mids for McBride with Claudio Reyna behind them to hold the center, tried to feed on the knockdowns and second balls aimed to McBride. But the powerful Ghanaian defenders and quick midfielders vacuumed up the vast majority of those.
Beasley's persistence created the U.S. goal, after a terrible mistake by Reyna in the 22nd minute allowed Haminu Dramani to pluck the ball off him, glide into the penalty area alone and curl a shot around Kasey Keller. Reyna got the ball caught in his feet and as Dramani scraped it away, their knees collided. Reyna suffered a minor MCL sprain and played on in pain, then hobbled off five minutes before halftime and was replaced by Ben Olsen. By then, the Americans had tied it.
Derek Boateng, after halting a Beasley dribble, foolishly tried to play a short ball to John Pantsil, but Beasley knifed in to steal, pushed the ball into the penalty area, looked up and bent a ball around the retreating Ghanaian back line that Dempsey smashed into the net with his right foot first-time.
Until that point, the Americans' attack had sputtered. Donovan and Beasley were out of sync and only Dempsey's daring dribbles and a good cross by Lewis caused any danger. Donovan passed up opportunities to take on defenders and his safe, square balls allowed the Ghanaians to set a high backline with midfielders Michael Essien and Boateng very tough in the middle. Five minutes into the second half, Donovan poked a ball behind the Ghanaian defenders into acres of space, but Beasley hadn't read the pass and never went for it.
Through the game, there were chances the U.S. failed to exploit. Onyewu headed a corner kick over the bar while under no pressure, and Dempsey, presented with a free header from about 10 yards out, nodded it meekly right at the keeper. A reverse move by Lewis in the second half produced a hard cross that McBride headed powerfully against the near post from a tight angle. McBride took a left-foot shot from a fair distance that rolled to the goalie.
McBride's header would have been a remarkable goal as he had little space in which to squeeze his shot, but the Onyewu and Dempsey opportunities were flubbed in stark displays of the ragged finishing that plagued the team at this World Cup.
Defensively, the Americans held up well to the aggressive, physical Ghanaian onslaughts. Central defenders Jimmy Conrad and Onyew were stretched at times but permitted few breakthroughs and right back Steve Cherundolo battled resiliently against taller and heavier men. Carlos Bocanegra also played well at left back, although his failure to clear a ball resulted in the ball that Onyewu headed while bumping into Razak Pimpong, who went down from the contact. Referee Markus Merk, one of the best in the business, believed Onyewu had committed a foul, although the American didn't grab, push, shove, trip, kick or charge Pimpong.
That bad break deflated the Americans, who would have liked their chances starting a second half tied at 1-1, knowing Italy was doing its part by beating the Czech Republic (1-0 at halftime). Olsen's busyness helped, but Reyna's poise and passing were sorely missed. Bobby Convey briefly livened up the left flank, but there were just too many bodies lined up to repel his dribbles or block his crosses.
The blossoming of Dempsey, the development of Convey, the emergence of Onyewu, and several other solid contributions were hallmarks of this World Cup. Reyna had been the team's best field player until his international career ended with a horrible mistake and a dispiriting defeat.
Donovan had been expected to lead the line at this World Cup and seldom did. He rarely shot, and his passing was inconsistent. There just wasn't enough menace emanating from him, especially in the first and third games. Beasley, too, underachieved. There were reasons to be cited and bad breaks, to be sure, but at this World Cup a team that failed to make plays had to make excuses.