Their last meeting with Ghana is not something the US remember fondly. Nearly four years ago to the day, the Black Stars sent the Americans crashing out of the 2006 World Cup with a 2-1 victory in Nuremburg, Germany.
On that day, the US had a golden opportunity to advance to the knockout rounds after recovering from a loss to the Czech Republic with a moving 1-1 draw with eventual champions Italy. All the Americans needed to do was beat Ghana, and they would move on.
But it wasn’t to be. Haminu Dramani put the Ghanaians ahead in the 21st minute by stealing the ball from Claudio Reyna and firing it past Kasey Keller. Clint Dempsey equalized in the 43rd, but Stephen Appiah buried a penalty kick just before halftime after a dubious penalty call on Oguchi Onyewu.
Ghana held down the fort in the second half, and the Americans just couldn’t equalize. Ghana advanced. The US did not.
It was a crushing disappointment for a favored and hyped American squad. One of the lingering images following that game was a distraught, shirtless Donovan, doubled over with his hands on knees, contemplating what had gone wrong.
“That was not a good day for me and for the team,” Landon Donovan recalled on Thursday. “What I remember most about that game is my tentativeness and the immediate feeling afterwards, the finality of it and how disappointing that was.”
Now, the US have a chance at redemption when they face Ghana again, in the Round of 16 of the World Cup, with far more on the line than in ‘06.
“I remember that penalty kick that was called on us,” deadpanned US captain Carlos Bocanegra, who went 90 minutes at left back in that game. “I wasn’t too excited about that. [But] that was in the past.”
Like Bocanegra, the veterans on the squad who were on the team that day in Nuremburg don’t see this match as a chance for revenge; it’s an opportunity to reach the quarterfinals. It just so happens the US have history against Ghana, a team they still know quite well. And that goes beyond the handful of current Black Stars who were on that ’06 roster.
Bocanegra, for instance, plays with striker Asamoah Gyan at Rennes in the French league, and also knows Sunderland defender John Mensah, who used to play for Rennes as well.
Other standouts are well known to the US, from the big names – such as Inter Milan midfielder Sulley Muntari and Bologna’s Appiah – down to the exciting youngsters from Ghana’s 2009 Under-20 World Cup-winning team, such as Quincy Owusu-Abeyie and Dominic Adiyiah.
“They’re an athletic side,” said Bocanegra. “They have some good guys going forward. I know the quality of players they have on their team. It’s going to be a difficult game.”
One beast the US won’t have to worry about is Chelsea star Michael Essien, who destroyed the American midfield four years ago and was the engine that drove the Black Stars to the upset. Fortunately for the Americans, Essien was ruled out of this World Cup with a hamstring injury.
But that hasn’t seemed to hurt Ghana thus far. Their midfield certainly lacks the bone-crushing bite it usually enjoys with Essien in the lineup, but the Black Stars played a fast-paced, exciting game to beat Serbia in their opener and then kept up the intensity enough to finish second in Group D behind Germany.
“I’ve been impressed with them,” said Donovan, who watched all three of Ghana’s group-stage games. “I thought they would struggle a little bit without Essien. But I think they’ve looked very good. They’re going to be a very difficult team to play against. Clearly their athleticism makes them difficult to deal with.”
Working in the US’ favor is the fact that Ghana have yet to score a goal from the run of play. Both of their goals in the group stage came courtesy of penalties converted by Bocanegra’s club teammate, Gyan. The Black Stars have looked dangerous, though, with the forward runs from Ayew and withdrawn attacker Kwadwo Asamoah.
Working against the Americans is that Ghana appear unfazed by the weight of the moment, and that includes being the last remaining African team in the tournament. That suggests that the Black Stars likely will become the de facto team of South Africa.
“My guess it that they’ll have quite a bit of support [on Saturday], offered Donovan. “Like a lot of African teams, they’re fairly unpredictable at times, which can be a plus or a minus.”
But, Donovan added, those things are out of the US’ control. What they can control is how they perform, and they’re fully aware of the opportunity they have ahead of them and they plan to take advantage of it. And this time, Ghana won’t be a surprise.
Bocanegra put it most simply: “We know what to expect.”
MLSsoccer.com managing editor Jonah Freedman is covering the World Cup from South Africa.