History has a way of repeating itself.
For the second time in as many World Cups, the U.S. were sent home on the wrong end of a 2-1 result against the Black Stars of Ghana. This time, in the Round of 16.
The U.S. fought back from yet another early deficit to even the score at one in the second half. Them, Asamoah Gyan single-handedly put Ghana through to the quarterfinals with a 93rd minute winner.
While the U.S. looked tired toward the end and were wasteful on chances in front of net throughout the game, the battle was lost for the Americans before the anthems were played due to poor tactical decisions on Bob Bradley’s part.
Let’s take a look at where the game was won and lost.
First Half—Clark and Findley Not Up For Challenge
When Bradley released his lineup for the game, the US fanbase and media collectively scratched their heads.
After solid play from Benny Feilhaber and Maurice Edu in both the Slovenia and Algeria games, Bradley reverted back to Robbie Findley and Ricardo Clark, despite the forgettable shifts of both in their previous Cup games.
It proved to be the wrong call, as the U.S. conceded yet another early goal. Clark was again the scapegoat.
Clark was caught in possession by Ghana’s Kwadwo Asamoah, who stripped the ball from the Frankfurt midfielder and knocked it into the path of Kevin Prince Boateng. The Ghanaian midfielder did the rest of the work with great ease, taking six steady touches toward a tentative U.S. back line and driving a low shot past the diving Tim Howard for the opening score.
Clark followed that up with a yellow card for a sloppy challenge and was subbed off for Edu at the 30-minute mark—a necessary substitution, but one that would cost a tired U.S. team later on.
Bradley can’t be blamed for Clark’s mistake. I won’t put that on him. He can, and should, however, be blamed for setting out a defensive side against a defensive team.
This kind of lineup works against a side like Spain or England who would look to attack the U.S., but Ghana came out defensive, literally, starting five defenders. A game like this called for a more offensive approach. While Bradley was trying to get fresh legs on the field in Clark and Findley, he needed to stick with the experience and creativity of others.
Back to the game—Edu’s substitution brought some positivity to the side, and immediately the Americans responded. In the 35th minute, young Ghanaian defender Jonathan Mensah gave the ball away to Clint Dempsey, who placed a perfect pass to the feet of Findley. As he has done so often in the national side, however, Findley failed to compose himself and drove an off-balance shot right into the hands of Ghanaian keeper Richard Kingson.
From these highlights in just this section, we see a two-goal difference in the game. Findley should have scored from his spot. A more composed striker likely would have. Clark’s giveaway put the U.S. in a one-goal hole against a team that enjoys absorbing pressure.
Were Bradley to have started another lineup—say, the one that started the second half—the U.S. would have fared much better. I feel badly for both Clark and Findley, who are classy individuals and good players in their own right. I blame Bradley for putting them in a position where success was difficult to find.
Clark is a disruptor made for passing sides. Findley is a runner made for strong, slower defenses. Ghana is neither a passing side nor a strong, slow defense. Fresh legs or not, neither guy was the right call.
There were positives in the half, however, most notably from a player who has received a lot of criticism from fans and media—Jonathan Bornstein played surprisingly well.
This was due partially to the lack of a physical right-winger from Ghana. They started Samuel Inkoom, a fullback, on the wing, instead of Prince Tagoe, a more physical player who would have troubled Bornstein. Still, Bornstein was never threatened and looked good going forward, but more on that in the second half.
Clint Dempsey was also very good throughout the game. His energy and effort were incredible. He took knock after knock. He kept fighting for every ball and was the only real offensive spark for the U.S. in the first half.
Second Half Adjustments Nearly Enough
With personal criticism of Bradley (nearly) out of the way, his second-half adjustments must be commended.
The struggling Findley came off for the more composed Feilhaber. U.S. shifted from Bradley’s favored empty bucket for a more flexible, free-flowing 4-4-1-1 that shifted shapes—the US found itself in 4-3-3, 4-4-2, and 4-3-2-1 shapes thanks to the intelligent movement of the players, who were finally playing to the best of their strengths.
Feilhaber allowed the U.S. to match Ghana’s midfield, drifting more and more centrally. As Michael Bradley pushed forward and the Dempsey/Donovan duo played just off Jozy, the U.S. began to dictate possession and create chances.
There were several reasons this formation worked so well. First, it put all of the players in positions where they generally excel. Michael Bradley is best in a box-to-box role. His deep penetrating runs into Ghana's box threatened the Black Star defense constantly.
Donovan and Dempsey both played withdrawn roles, essentially playing off of each other—when one went forward, the other dropped deep into the midfield to get the ball. When one crossed field, so did the other. Tey were able to link up frequently and get in central space. Both were difficult for Ghana to deal with. It was no coincidence that a Dempsey run earned the goal-scoring penalty, which Donovan took masterfully.
The danger with employing a 4-3-3 is a lack of width. However, Steve Cherundolo and Jonathan Bornstein occupied wide areas very well, particularly Bornstein. Even when he wasn’t on the ball, he made wide runs that kept the backside of the defense honest and freed up space for the midfield and attack. Cherundolo was more exposed defensively, where Andre Ayew turned him in circles throughout the match.
It was truly amazing to see how skilled the U.S. could play when given the chance. I know that Bradley’s empty bucket has a purpose. We finally showed the ability to play a patient passing game with three central midfielders. I only wish we had seen it earlier. Maybe it's something we can build on in the next four years.
All wasn’t perfect in the half. Jozy Altidore, made a few runs worth noting and almost scored, but ultimately failed to tally in the entire Cup. While his play was good at times, it wasn’t enough. The fact that none of the U.S. goals came from forwards shows how far Jozy has to go and how much Charlie Davies was missed.
Still, the second half was a vast improvement on the first. If Jozy takes a better first touch here or there, or Michael Bradley shows more composure in the box, the U.S. walk away victorious thanks to the adjustments made at halftime.
Extra Time—No gas in the tank
While Bob Bradley may have redeemed himself in the second half, his first half mistakes caught up to him in extra time.
A clearly gassed U.S. team ran out of steam. The only substitution left for Bob was handed to Herculez Gomez, who proved to be ineffective as a lone forward.
Part of the second half/extra-time strategy was to close down multiple midfielders on Kwadwo Asamoah, the best playmaker in the Ghana side. In doing so, the U.S. took him out of the game but exposed themselves to long balls and width.
It was the former that bit them, as the quicker, more athletic Ghana side capitalized with a quick-hitting score. Asamoah Gyan got on the end of a long ball, outran the central pairing of Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra, split them in half, and volleyed the winner home beautifully over Howard’s hands.
Any wind that the U.S. had left in the sails blew away with the goal. The game was virtually over.
Had Bradley started with the second half lineup from the get-go, the U.S. could have been the ones out to an early lead. He could have substituted fresh legs to keep up with Ghana’s pace. They might have even avoided extra time altogether if Bradley got the tactics right.
But he didn’t. It was clear he made a mistake from the first five minutes.
Ultimately, the nasty U.S. habit of conceding early caught up to them. Whether it was a lack of focus, preparation, tactical acumen, or just simply bad luck, the fact of the matter is Ghana is moving on to the quarterfinals and the U.S. will watch the rest of the show from home.