RUSTENBURG, South Africa – For other countries, a second-round World Cup match is a big step. For the United States, today’s game against Ghana is so much more.
The television audience back home could top the U.S. national team record of 13.7 million, set during the 1994 World Cup loss to Brazil.
With a victory, the Americans would advance to a quarterfinal matchup versus Uruguay or South Korea on July 2 and match the farthest the U.S. team has advanced since the first World Cup in 1930. Confidence is soaring.
“If we continue to build on the successes so far, we can go to the end,” coach Bob Bradley said Friday.
The U.S. team made the 2-hour trip Friday northwest from Irene and checked into the Bakubung Bush Lodge, where the bus was blocked by an elephant ahead of the opener against England on June 12. Players have been stoked since Landon Donovan’s injury-time goal beat Algeria on Wednesday and lifted them into the knockout phase.
“The way we’ve been playing, feeling like we’ve gone undefeated and we’ve gotten stronger, I think that gives us hope,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
American sports fans have been focusing on soccer at an unprecedented level. Former President Clinton attended Wednesday’s game in Pretoria and chugged a postgame beer with captain Carlos Bocanegra. New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush joined the party. Clinton changed his schedule to stick around for the Ghana game.
“People were coming out of the woodworks to celebrate,” Bocanegra said.
The Seattle Sounders, Columbus Crew, FC Dallas, New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer are among those hosting viewing parties. The Kansas City Royals are setting up televisions around Kauffman Stadium so fans can watch while attending the baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“You want to have a team that the people who care about … and follow that team and root for that team and can feel part of,” coach Bob Bradley said Friday. “A team that people believe in and a team that people are proud of. And so, that’s part of our responsibility, and we’re excited in the moment that there’s that kind of feeling.”
Today’s game, nationally televised by ABC starting at 11:30 a.m. PDT, will be the third for the Americans at Royal Bafokeng Stadium. They had a 3-0 win over Egypt in last year’s Confederations Cup and the 1-1 draw with the English in this tournament.
The U.S. is coming off a 2-2 tie against Slovenia, when the Americans rallied from a two-goal deficit and saw an 85th-minute goal controversially disallowed, and the thrilling 1-0 victory over the Algerians.
It would appear the U.S. has a favorable path to the semifinals, a round it reached for the only time 80 years ago. The Americans are ranked 14th, well ahead of Ghana (32nd) and South Korea (47th) and slightly in front of Uruguay (18th).
While the U.S. finished atop its first-round group for the first time since 1930, it hasn’t won consecutive World Cup games in 80 years. And in Ghana, it plays the only one of six African teams to have survived past the group phase. All African fans figure to be supporting the Black Stars.
“Ghana is the African hope now,” defender Samuel Inkoom said. “We aren’t going to disappoint them.”
Four years ago, the Americans played Ghana in their final first-round game and needed a victory to advance. Ghana went ahead early only for Clint Dempsey to tie it. But the Black Stars won the game on Stephen Appiah’s penalty kick after a foul called by German referee Markus Merk against Oguchi Onyewu.
“An injustice,” Onyewu said. “I still to this day don’t know where the foul came from.”
Ghana had just two goals in the group phase, penalty kicks by Asamoah Gyan against Serbia and Australia. Gyan, a teammate of Bocanegra’s on Rennes, also scored against the Czech Republic in the 2006 World Cup after 68 seconds, the fastest goal of that tournament.
“He’s got a great leap. He’s really good in the air. He’s powerful and fast,” Bocanegra said. “He spearheads their attack.”
Right back John Pantsil is a teammate of Dempsey on Fulham, but Ghana is missing its top player, midfielder Michael Essien, out since January with a knee injury. A four-time African champion, the Black Stars lost 1-0 to Egypt in this year’s African Cup of Nations final.
Coach Milovan Rajevac is familiar with American soccer, having spent several seasons playing with an indoor team in New York.
“America has grown into a football superpower,” he said.
Rajevac said central defenders John Mensah and Jonathan Mensah will play despite getting banged up against Germany on Wednesday, but Isaac Vorsah, another central defender, still is sidelined by a strained knee ligament.
For the U.S., forward Robbie Findley is eligible after serving a one-game suspension for accumulation of yellow cards. Bradley must decide whether to start Onyewu, who sat against Algeria because of the fast-paced play as he regains fitness following knee surgery last October.
Rajevac said it will be difficult for his team to turn around after just two off days between games. The U.S. team, which spent hours last month running wind sprints during training in Princeton, N.J., has no such concerns.
Potentially, the game could go 120 minutes – and to penalty kicks, something the U.S. last experienced in the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal, a victory over Panama. But never have they been in a shootout in the World Cup.
“We’re confident. It’s pressure, but it’s easier to play the Ghana game,” Howard said. “We can take it into extra time. We can go to penalties. There’s so many formulas that can happen.”
The referee is Victor Kassai of Hungary, who worked Brazil’s 2-1 win over North Korea and Uruguay’s 1-0 victory over Mexico. He also refereed the United States’ 2-1 loss to Spain at last year’s under-17 World Cup.