[USA-GHANA] A spot in the quarterfinals is at stake on Saturday. The Americans reached that stage in 2002, but to get there they must reverse a defeat they suffered four years ago. There's no shortage of alliterative billings for the U.S. match Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC, Univision) against Ghana in the World Cup round of 16, and though it's a rematch of their 2006 meeting in the group phase and thus a chance for revenge, it's going to be a battle of mind and spirit, ergo ...
The Rumble in Rustenburg takes place just two days after the Americans stunned Algeria, 1-0, in stoppage time to win Group C, and Ghana closed out Group D in second place by losing to Germany by the same score.
Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac’s tactics have caused some consternation among those expecting a more brazen approach; after beating Serbia, 1-0, in its opener, Ghana declined to press a 10-man Australia and settled for a 1-1 tie that proved to be sufficient when Australia’s 2-1 defeat of Serbia knocked out both of those teams.
Had Serbia equalized, Ghana would have needed to do so as well to stay ahead on goal difference.
To date in this tournament Ghana hasn’t opened up the throttle very far. Despite talented attackers in several positions, this is a team drilled on organization by Rajevac, a former defender born in Serbia who played his club ball in Yugoslavia. Both of its goals in this tournament were converted from the penalty spot, which will trigger nightmares in the memories of American fans.
In a 2-1 loss to Ghana four years ago, the two goals conceded by the Americans that day typified their proclivity to commit egregious errors in bad positions. Ghana scored its first goal when Claudio Reyna, of all people, stepped on the ball in his half of the field and lost it to Haminu Draman, who punched it past Kasey Keller. After Clint Dempsey equalized came an alleged foul in first-half stoppage time, and the decisive penalty kick.
Complaints about the hotly disputed call shrouded the fact Ghana overpowered the Americans for much of the game. Thus it was ironic that the biggest American – Oguchi Onyewu is 6-foot-4, 200 pounds -- happened to topple Razak Pimpong (5-foot-11) while jousting for the ball, and referee Markus Merk pointed to the penalty spot.
Onyewu has lost his spot in the lineup, yet still the Americans struggled through some shaky moments in beating Algeria. They probably should have fallen behind early when centerback Jay DeMerit whiffed on balls dropping near the edge of the penalty area. Both chances were squandered, and although the U.S. posted its first World Cup shutout in 60 years it is facing a careful yet potentially explosive team.
A four-man back line is fronted by a line of three players. Two are deployed further up the field in support of Asamoah Gyan, who scored the fastest goal of the 2006 tournament when he netted 68 seconds after kickoff of a 2-1 defeat of Czech Republic, which had squashed the U.S., 3-0, to open the competition. That fact, too, is a jarring note to a team that fell behind to England (fourth minute) and Slovenia (12th minute) before rallying to tie its first two matches, and stumbled out of the gate defensively against Algeria.
Dede Ayew, the son of former Ghanaian international Abedi Pele, is a tricky, skillful threat in either flank midfield spot, and will require monitoring by Dempsey or Landon Donovan to limit his thrusts at the back line.
Prince Tagoe has blown hot and cold in Ghana’s three games, but if he keeps his spot can be a handful on and off the ball. Defensive mid Anthony Annan anchors the middle, and though he’s not nearly the equal of injured captain Michael Essien, he’s a very strong tackler fond of contact.
Four years ago, after beating the USA in group play, Ghana faced Brazil in the round of 16 without the suspended Essien. Despite holding firm for lengthy intervals, it succumbed to attacks when its feeble attempts to spring an offside trap failed. This time around, Ghana has had many months to compensate for the loss of Essien, whose great strength and range are matched by a fierce personality.
Essien's absence would appear to give the U.S. an edge in midfield except for the fact Ghana will have greater numbers, if Gyan does play more or less alone up front. DeMerit’s ability to push into midfield can offset that advantage but could also leave Gyan one-v-one against centerback Carlos Bocanegra, presuming Coach Bob Bradley sticks with the same back four he sent out against Algeria. Gyan is strong and quick in the box but can also bomb away from distance.
The ruggedness and workrate of Maurice Edu is probably the best central midfield complement for Michael Bradley, whose opportunities to get forward could be limited by Ghana’s numerical superiority. If Bradley is pinned in his own half, the Americans will rely more on right back Steve Cherundolo’s overlapping runs and crosses as well as forward Jozy Altidore’s power and mobility.
Centerback John Mensah is an imposing presence but he prefers to stay in the middle, so Altidore’s adeptness on the flanks can cause confusion as defenders track him and his forward partner as well as Dempsey and Donovan. Ghana seldom commits major numbers into the attack so unless it falls behind, situations for the Americans to counter will be rare.
The Americans simply can’t be knocked off the ball as often as they were four years ago, and there probably won’t be a lot of second touches close to goal. The Ghanaians close down quickly and are also tough to conquer in the air on set plays.
Thousands of American fans are in South Africa and at least some of the local populace and neutral supporters will jump on the post-Algeria bandwagon. Everyone else is backing the only African team left in the competition. For the Americans, who sometimes play as an away team in the U.S., it’s no big deal.