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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.

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Why would such a small change have such a profound effect?

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World Cup defenses are generally very comfortable playing against two center forwards. Center forwards are always playing near the opposing goal, so they are always near the defense – in other words, defenders can stay in their hip pocket with a minimum of effort.

When the USA switched to a free-roaming Dempsey, however, he caused problems. Should the defense pick him up far from goal and make itself vulnerable to other USA players running behind it? Or does the midfield add him to their already significant list of duties?

Most World Cup coaches have already abandoned the two-striker system, realizing that it makes their teams more static and actually less dangerous going forward. Bradley appeared only to realize this in the second half of every game.

What appeared to be a first-half commitment to attacking soccer – playing with two forwards – was, in fact precisely the opposite, robbing the USA of the ability to keep control of the ball and confuse opposing defenses.

Much has been made of the USA’s startling tendency to allow early goals. It was, in the end, their undoing. Why couldn’t USA players come “ready to play”?

It is easy to say that the USA had to be “punched in the mouth” in order to be roused to a response. But it is noteworthy that the USA was comprehensively outplayed not merely in the first few minutes of the Slovenia and Ghana matches, but for the entire first half.

It was not until Bradley sacrificed his second forward that USA players came to grips with the games and indeed dominated the second halves of each.

In many ways, Ghana’s second, decisive goal can be forgiven. It was a classic Ghanaian goal: A ball hoofed from midfield. Ghana’s rugged lone forward, Asamoah Gyan, absorbing the sort of foul from USA defender Carlos Bocanegra that would have sent almost any other player sprawling to the turf. Then Gyan dispatching a brilliant shot over Howard’s hands.

Well done, Ghana.

No, it was the first – the so aptly described “comedy of errors” – that shattered American hopes. And it was the sight of Clark – who probably shouldn’t have been on the field in the first place – trying vainly to dribble singlehandedly through the Ghana midfield that is most instructive.

In the second half, the USA was a pinwheel of passes, spinning the Ghana midfield and defense dizzy. USA players were coming from every direction and Dempsey and Landon Donovan were pulling the strings with deft deflections and one-touch passes that left Ghana creaking like a ship in a storm.

Where was that movement, that dynamism, that one-touch passing when Clark tried to dribble upfield alone?

It was with Feilhaber on the bench.

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