World Cup Preview: USA vs. Ghana, Round of 16

Donovan, resilient US side look to avenge loss to speedy Ghana

What: US vs. Ghana, Round of 16

When: Saturday,
2:30 p.m. ET

Where: Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg

TV:
ABC, Univisión

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.

USA

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.

Ghana

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 are the
lone African team remaining in this World Cup, 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."

Key
Players

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.

Final Analysis

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.”