Just as James Bond always seems to run into his nemesis at a casino, the U.S. men's national team always seems to encounter Ghana at the World Cup.
The Americans and the Black Stars have squared off in each of the past three editions of the tournament and the 2-1 score line in every match has shown that not much has separated the two sides. Ghana prevailed on the last day of the group stage in 2006, with Stephen Appiah's penalty knocking the U.S. out of the tournament. The Black Stars duplicated the feat in South Africa four years later, prevailing in the round of 16 thanks to Asamoah Gyan's extra-time goal. The U.S. finally got a measure of revenge in Brazil in 2014, with John Brooks' 86th minute goal proving to be the difference.
The two sides will meet amid more relaxed surroundings this Saturday, playing in a friendly at Hartford's Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field. But given the big games involving the two teams, is the matchup turning into an underrated rivalry? That sentiment has seeped a bit into the media and respective fan bases given that the time horizon of their memories runs longer than that of most players. It's certainly not thought of that way on the U.S. side.
"It just seemed more coincidental I guess," said former U.S. international Landon Donovan in an exclusive interview. "It just seemed like in the draws or the way the tournaments worked out, you always ended up playing them. 'How did we get Ghana again?'"
U.S. veteran defender DaMarcus Beasley added, "In 2014, it was honestly never talked about that 'Oh, Ghana beat us in '06 and 2010 and now we have to come out and beat them.' There was a little extra motivation, but a lot of guys weren't even in those World Cups, so it was tough to have it feel like a rivalry with Ghana."
That said, the two sides have delivered plenty of drama when they've met. And the Black Stars have proved to be a difficult opponent for the U.S. simply because its strengths have tended to mirror those of the Americans, while also having edges in other critical areas.
"One of the things we would have over tactically better teams or technically better teams was our athleticism," said Donovan. "That would get thrown out when you would played Ghana because they were either as athletic or more athletic than we were, so we couldn't use that as a strength in the way we could against other teams.
"Then, a lot of times with African countries or sometimes Caribbean or Central American countries, they're a little disorganized and so you could take advantage in that way. But Ghana is at the higher end of that spectrum where they were just organized enough to cause us problems. Coupled with their athleticism, they could make enough plays where they would keep us from scoring, and it just ended up being a bad matchup in that way for us."
For Donovan, the two losses to Ghana were painful in different ways. By the time the 2006 match rolled around, his confidence was at a low ebb, and that didn't change that day in Nuremberg. By Donovan's own admission he played "poorly and timidly." The U.S. was also on the business end of a hugely controversial decision: Appiah's penalty came courtesy of a phantom foul by Oguchi Onyewu.
"It's a game that always sticks out in my mind as everything I didn't want to be as a soccer player," said Donovan. "That was a game we all thought we should have won."
But it was the 2010 defeat that cut deepest. After the U.S. won its group, its side of the bracket looked wide open as the winner of its game against Ghana would face off against the winner of Uruguay and South Korea. A trip to the semifinals was a distinct possibility.
"At this point in our history, we're not a team that can look way down the bracket regardless of who we come up against and say, 'We should be in the quarters or the semis,' like a team like Germany or Brazil or Spain. If the bracket lined up like it was Brazil in the round of 16, Germany in the quarterfinal, then you would look at it through a different lens. When it's Ghana and then it would have been Uruguay, you look at it realistically and say, 'these are teams that we can beat.'"
It didn't happen. Instead, a giveaway from Ricardo Clark that turned into an early goal for Kevin-Prince Boateng and a sub-par day from goalkeeper Tim Howard saw the U.S. fall; a golden opportunity was missed. Donovan is of the opinion that the U.S. was emotionally spent from the emotional roller coaster that was its last-gasp win over Algeria in the group stage. One minute the U.S. was looking like it would exit the tournament, the next it was a group winner.
"I think if we had a few more days to prepare, we could have put a better performance together," he said of the Ghana match. "They were [coming off short rest] too, don't get me wrong, but it was a survival of the fittest game and we just didn't have enough."
So what changed in 2014? The U.S. was certainly more clinical in front of goal. In addition to Brooks' goal, Clint Dempsey's slalom through the Ghanaian defense gave the Americans an early lead. But this was a day when the U.S. defended a little bit better than its counterparts despite conceding Andre Ayew's late equalizer. And on this day, the U.S. had to be better on defense, given that it had just 38.9 percent of possession.
"You definitely have to be defensively sound because if you get stretched against a team like Ghana, they're going to kill you," said Beasley, who started at left-back that day. "They're so fast and so quick on the counter that if you have too many guys forward, they're very skillful and quick enough to make two or three passes and then have a one-on-one with the keeper. Making sure that you're defensively smart, and that all your lines are working as a unit, you can be OK. I think we made it hard for them."
Ghana remain near the top of Africa's elite. They fell on penalty kicks to Ivory Coast at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations and fell in the semis of the 2017 edition. However, their World Cup qualifying campaign is in peril thanks to a 0-0 home draw against Uganda that has left them in third place of its four-team group through two matches.
As for the U.S., there is a perception in Africa that the U.S. isn't as invested in soccer as one might expect. Without question, investment has increased, although the competition within the U.S. sporting landscape remains intense.
"I think the issue is that people see the investment that goes into the other sports in America, and they assume American soccer doesn't have real investment," Donovan said. "The reality of America is that you can have four or five or six top-notch sports that all have significant investment. So while it probably doesn't look like it from an outsider perspective, there are still significant resources going into the growth and development of soccer here. This has only been really a 30-year project since Paul Caligiuri's goal [that sent the U.S. to Italia 1990.] We're still pretty far ahead of the curve, and it's only going to get better."
The U.S. will be hoping that will continue on Saturday, although it's likely that Ghana, just like in the World Cup, will be mighty difficult to overcome.
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