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.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
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.

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

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.

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

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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World Cup 101:

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