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World Cup: How the USA got it so wrong against Ghana

Tactical decisions cost the USA team dearly in this World Cup, and they could not make up for those to beat a solid Ghana team.

By Staff writer / June 27, 2010

United States coach Bob Bradley instructs Jonathan Bornstein during the 2010 World Cup second round match against Ghana at Royal Bafokeng stadium in Rustenburg on Saturday.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

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Of all America’s exits from the World Cup, this one will go down as the greatest opportunity missed.

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Flawed though the USA was – fatally, as it turned out – there lingers the sense that the team left its own story at this World Cup unfinished. For the first time, perhaps, the USA is going home when it not only expected more, but seemed capable of delivering it.

There is no shame in losing to Ghana, 2-1, in extra time. The 18 places between the No. 14 USA and No. 32 Ghana in the FIFA world rankings suggest a greater gap than there is, perhaps.

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Yet there is no doubting that Ghana is a team that the USA could – and maybe should – beat with some regularity. And in that fact lies the USA’s disappointment.

Never in four World Cup 2010 matches could the USA summon for 90 minutes the defensive team effort that it summoned in last year’s 2-0 win over then-world No. 1 Spain.

Had Algeria’s Rafik Djebbour kept his early shot six inches lower, the USA would have gone behind within the first 15 minutes of that game, too.

But never was this so evidently the coach’s fault as in the loss to Ghana.

The sports maxim says that “players must come ready to play.” Saturday, however, was a lesson that players are often only as good as the system in which they are placed.

This is particularly true of the USA, which has no Lionel Messi or David Villa to overcome the limitations of poor coaching strategy through individual brilliance.

And in the first half against Ghana, it must be said, USA coach Bob Bradley got it totally, catastrophically wrong.

He as good as admitted this in taking off Ricardo Clark after only 30 minutes – an extraordinary decision – and replacing him with the player who had excelled in the two previous matches, Maurice Edu.

Yet it was even more evident at the beginning of the second half, when, for the third consecutive match, midfielder Benny Feilhaber replaced an ineffective forward, in this instance, Robbie Findley.

Feilhaber’s range of passing and ability to retain possession were crucial.

Yet, perhaps more important was how his introduction changed the shape of the USA on the field.

More than anything else, it allowed the USA players to take control of the game.

In short, Feilhaber gave the USA a platform from which it could be more flexible and inventive, making it harder for Slovenia and then Algeria and then Ghana to know where key USA players would be, while at the same time providing more defensive rigidity.

In soccer parlance, the change appears minimal. With the introduction of Feilhaber, the USA switched from a 4-4-2 to a 4-4-1-1. Gone were two central forwards, playing far up the pitch. In their place was the one remaining central forward, Jozy Altidore, paired with Clint Dempsey, who took up a roving role in “the hole” – that undefined area between forward and midfield.

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