Thanks to Wednesday's dramatic stoppage-time victory over Algeria, the United States Men's National Soccer Team face the Black Stars of Ghana in Saturday's Round of 16 matchup.
Saturday's game, scheduled for 2:30 pm ET on ABC, is a rematch from the final group game for both teams in the 2006 World Cup, which saw Ghana win and advance to the knockout rounds, while the U.S. went home empty-handed. Both teams return several players from that game, and you can bet the U.S. have revenge on their mind.
The winner will take on the winner of Uruguay and South Korea, while the loser will go home empty-handed.
Led by the soaring confidence of Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, and Tim Howard, the U.S. will look to avenge that 2006 loss and advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the second time in their last three appearances.
The winners of Group C, the U.S. will like their chances to make a run deep in the knockout rounds, thanks to a favorable draw and a familiarity with high-stakes football in South Africa as finalists in last summer's Confederations Cup.
Ghana finished second in Group D despite a loss in their final game against Germany, and while their defense has been stout throughout the tournament, allowing only two goals in the three group games, their offense has been inversely poor, with just two goals, both from the penalty spot.
However, with the poor run of form for the African nations in the first African World Cup, Ghana will have the support of an entire nation behind them, and Saturday's matchup should play out like a home game for the Black Stars.
The matchup is fascinating not only in terms of importance and recent history between the teams, but also from a tactical standpoint.
Let's take a look at both sides, what they've done well to get here, and what changes we might expect to see Saturday.
Ghana: Can They Find Goals?
Ghana are a different side without midfield dynamo Michael Essien, but his loss hasn't stopped the Black Stars from advancing past a strong Serbian side and displaying one of the best defenses in the tournament so far.
Unlike many African sides that have struggled in this Cup (see Cameroon), Ghana play a very organized brand of football, sticking to a 4-5-1/4-3-3 that allows for defensive solidarity and creativity going forward from their most offensive-minded players.
Their best player, arguably, is Asamoah Gyan, a formidable striker who often has to do much of the creating on his own. Gyan was Ghana's Man of the Match in both the Australia and Serbia games, and both Ghana goals, albeit penalties, have come off his foot. His combination of speed, strength, and creativity has people tipping him to be the next great African star, and he will be a handful.
Just off his shoulder will be another creative force, Kwadwo Asamoah. Asamoah is young, just 21 years old, but he looked very dangerous against Germany and is capable of beating any number of defenders at once with his stunning skill on the ball.
The strength of the side, however, is their defense, led by a strong midfield featuring Kevin-Prince Boateng of Portsmouth, who has proved to be a very strong passer and tackler at the international level. Anthony Annan is the deep-lying midfielder, who acts almost as a third central defender and will be very physical in the back.
The backline features John Paintsil of Fulham, who has been excellent in this Cup. Joining him are John Mensah, Jonathan Mensah, and Hans Sarpei. Isaac Vorsah is a normal starter but is battling health issues, as is John Mensah, so Lee Addy could also see time.
The Ghanaian defense is organized and efficient, having only allowed two goals in the first three games of qualifying.
Richard Kingson is in the net, whom U.S. fans should remember from four years ago. Big names like Sulley Muntari and Stephen Appiah, who definitely will be recalled by U.S. fans, are seeing little time in favor of the young guns of Ghana.
One place the Black Star defense might be exposed is from long range. The defense often play a deep line, and Germany found success by moving their playmaker, Mesut Ozil, centrally, where he found space in front of goal. He used that space admirably with a brilliant goal, and the U.S. could learn from it.
Also, while the entire continent should be behind them, the youth of the side, whose average age is 24, could be a factor against an experienced U.S. side seeking to avenge 2006's elimination.
Assuming Vorsah is out, this should be Ghana's 11 (place him in for Jonathan if healthy):
United States: Stick With What's Working
Bob Bradley has shown a new-found propensity for making necessary tactical adjustments with each game.
I wonder if he's become a follower of my columns, because he seems to be heeding my advice. The old Bob Bradley, circa 2006-2009, seemed rigid in his managerial decisions, favoring familiar players and formations over better ones, and seemingly always sticking with comfort over common sense.
But Bob Bradley of 2010, since his final-23 selection, seems flexible, practical, and downright sensible. His changes in this Cup have been nothing short of vital to the U.S. getting as far as they have.
The latest of these changes was the one that shocked me the most, however, as Bradley benched the struggling Oguchi Onyewu, sliding Carlos Bocanegra to the center and Jonathan Bornstein to the left.
While I would have preferred another Jonathan (Spector of West Ham), instead of Bornstein, the Chivas USA defender performed admirably. Bocanegra was an upgrade in the center as the U.S. held their first clean sheet of the tournament.
Also added into the starting lineup was Maurice Edu, who filled the central role admirably beside Michael Bradley, where Jose Torres and Ricardo Clark struggled to. While Onyewu's omission has received more press, this is the substitution that made the most difference.
Followers of U.S. soccer in the last four years will know exactly what I mean by "Bob Ball." For those of you who don't, "Bob Ball" refers to the U.S.'s inclination to bypass the midfield, playing long balls from the back to the front—or to no one in particular.
With Clark in the midfield, Bob Ball rears its head all too often, due mostly to Clark's lack of skill and passing range on the ball. This was seen too frequently in the England game, when the U.S. struggled to maintain any possession for long spells of the game. Even when Torres played against Slovenia, his normally dependable passing was erratic, and the U.S. reverted back to route one Bob Ball throughout the game—although the second half was much better.
Edu, however, helped the U.S. play one of their most precise tactical games in a very long time—maybe the best under Bob's tenure. His defensive presence—the sole reason for his inclusion in the lineup—was good, and he broke up many Algerian possessions, but his presence on the ball was even more impressive.
He constantly showed up for passes, dropping deep to get the ball from the defense and linking it to Bradley, Dempsey, Donovan, or the forwards. He often took on multiple Algerian defenders before picking out a quick and efficient pass.
Finally, up top, Bradley went with Herculez Gomez beside Jozy Altidore because of the suspension of Robbie Findley. Gomez looked dangerous in the first half, but perhaps because of his scant international experience or lack of starter's minutes for club side Puebla, he was subbed off at half for Benny Feilhaber, who slid to the left in the stead of Dempsey, who replaced Gomez up top.
Gomez threatened several times in his 45 minutes, including assisting another U.S. goal that should have been, but his role seems to be that of a quick-hitter, not a 90-minute monster.
So where does that leave us for next game?
I don't see the need for any major changes, to be honest. Maybe the rest will do Gooch some good and he can slide back in, but as far as coaching cliches go, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
I'd keep the back line the same. Ghana don't seem to be that dangerous in attack and play a steady, defensive game somewhat similar to Algeria, so a back four of Cherundolo (who, let me say, has been superb this Cup and deserves more accolades than he will ever get), Bocanegra, DeMerit, and Bornstein/Spector seems to be the best option.
The midfield depends on how Bob Bradley wants to play the forwards, but Michael Bradley and Edu must be the central pairing. Their play complements each other's so well, and there's no reason to put Ricardo Clark or any other in the midfield beside Michael, who has been one of the top midfielders in all of the World Cup (his Castrol Rating is the best of any American player as of this publishing date).
For now, let's say that Dempsey and Donovan remain on the left and right sides of midfield, respectively. I go this way because when Clint moves up top, his and Donovan's interaction virtually disappears. Before his winning goal Wednesday, Donovan had a very quiet second half.
When they partner on the wings, however, they interchange sides and link up consistently, connecting 22 times in the first three games. The more they link up the better, which is why they should start on the wings.
Up top, Jozy is the obvious choice, and I'll argue it until I'm blue in the face, but Edson Buddle deserves to start beside him. Yes, he's a big forward like Jozy, but he offers versatility as a target or a runner, just like Jozy. If you watched any of Hull City's games this year, Jozy did his best work beside another big forward, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink.
Findley and Gomez both have roles to play, but they both have 75th-minute sub written all over them. Their speed can come on against a fatigued Ghana defense, tired from the bruising and battering styles of Buddle and Altidore, and perhaps pip a goal or create a chance late in the game.
Oh, and of course, big Timmy in the pipes. Let's go ahead and give him props not only for his keeping, but the throw of the century which set up the winner against Algeria.
I know ESPN didn't catch it the first time, but Howard's chunk hit Landon in stride and should be commended as a huge part of that play, as well as the runs of Dempsey and Altidore.
Anyway, back to business. Here's my proposed lineup for the Ghana game:
While the African spirit behind Ghana will be great, never underestimate the American spirit that this U.S. team have. They seem to enjoy having the odds stacked against them, so I look for a strong performance against Ghana that builds off the success of the Algeria game.
Landon Donovan keeps his form up, assisting on the first goal to Dempsey and scoring one of his own, and the U.S. continue forward as 2-0 winners.
Man of the Match: Landon Donovan