U.S.A. vs GHANA: An epic preview for an epic match

Oh, Africa. The hopes were so very high that this would be the World Cup where African teams – who’ve blessed the game with players like Roger Milla, Michael Essien, and Didier Drogba – would finally break through en masse to the knockout rounds.

Instead of a dream, African fans got a nightmare in the round robin Nigeria? Gone. Cameroon? The Indomitable Lions remake got cancelled. Les Elefants of Cote D’Ivoire won’t be dancing, and the vuvuzelas won’t be blowing for South Africa’s Bafana Bafana, the first host team to be denied a golden ticket for the Sweet Sixteen in World Cup history.

The sole survivor? The Black Stars of Ghana. That said, this is a team that’s poised to make a deep run and redeem African hopes. Asamoah Gyan, who’s stepped up in the absence of Michael Essien and made up for a below-strength Sulley Muntari, roams tirelessly in the attack, always ready to pounce on a loose ball and make teams pay. Their defense is relentless, suffocating attack after attack.

They’ll be facing the U.S.A., who are making their customary every-other-Cup appearance in the knockout stages. I’m not kidding about this, either: the U.S. flamed out in 1990, 1998, and 2006, and made it to the knockout stage in 1994, 2002, and this year. What remains to be determined is if they’ll match their run from 8 years ago, when they beat Mexico in the Sweet 16 and dominated their quarterfinal encounter with Germany before losing to them.

There will be no surprises from the Americans, here, down to their orthodox 4-4-2 formation. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the same lineup from their matchup with Algeria take the field, even though I still have grave reservations about Jonathan Bornstein’s presence in the back 4. He’s the weakest link in the U.S. defense, and despite his performance, I’m still torn on whether he’s an improvement over Onyewu. The trump? The U.S. had their first clean sheet this year with him.

Of all the matches in the Sweet 16, this is the most even. In no other match will the first goal tallied matter more than in this one. Bold, I know, but here’s why:

Thanks to a missing Michael Essien and an unfit Sulley Muntari, Ghana haven’t scored more than a goal in six straight matches. Their only two goals in the group round came off penalty kicks for handballs. They struggled to score not just against Germany, but even against an Australia squad that the U.S.A. shelled 3-1 while looking poor themselves right before the Cup began. Ghana’s strategy, thus far, has been to score and then pack nine men behind the ball, while leaving Gyan to roam on rare counterattacks. Frankly, it’s dreadful, negative stuff, yet thanks to injury, necessary.

Should the U.S. give up an early goal against the Black Stars, as they did in playing England and Slovenia, it’ll be phenomenally difficult for them to tally an equalizer. Should the U.S. score once or twice early on, Ghana will be hard-pressed to draw even, thanks to their lack of scoring punch.

And that’s really the key to the game.

I’ll say it again – the U.S. has to do two things here:

  • Capitalize on early goal scoring chances. This is absolutely imperative. We can kvetch and moan about getting robbed of goals by the officials, but the fact remains that we wasted about seven different chances on Wednesday. At the minimum, we should’ve beaten Algeria 3-0 or 4-0, instead of 1-0 on a gasper.
  • Avoid defensive lapses. The U.S. cannot afford a repeat of what happened against England and Slovenia. Depleted as the Ghanian offense is, it’s still blindingly fast, aggressive, and strong. That includes play in the penalty area. I fully expect Ghana to try to draw a penalty kick, so the U.S. will have to be more disciplined than usual in order to avoid this.

As wonderful as it would be to see the lone African team make a deep run, I think Ghana are too offensively deficient. As long as the U.S. scores early, or even first, and as long as they avoid defensive mistakes, they’ll win.

My prediction: U.S. 2, Ghana 0.

Your turn: WHO. YOU. GOT? Predictions, comments in the circus box.

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