Saturday afternoon’s Round of 16 matchup is set: We’re playing against Ghana, the country that knocked us out of World Cup 2006 early, so this is an opportunity for payback. (By the way, that Serbia bandwagon that I jumped on just before the tournament began? It’s dead, dead, dead.)
Having watched all of Ghana’s games so far at this World Cup, I can tell you that this won’t be easy. They’re missing one of the sport’s best defensive midfielders, Michael Essien due to injury, but the rest of the team has held up well without him, giving up only two goals in their first three games. They are fast, strong, and technically gifted, and they’ll have the home crowd behind them, because they’ll be the only African team in the Round of 16 unless the Ivorians can pull off a miracle on Friday. This adds up to a team that’s eminently capable of knocking us out again.
At the same time, as good as the Ghanaians are at owning the ball and passing it around the perimeter, they struggle to turn that into clear-cut scoring chances. It won’t escape Team USA’s notice that the two goals Ghana has scored so far both came from the penalty spot. Without a world-class finisher, they lack a cutting edge, as the British like to say. USA seems most comfortable playing against a team like this, soaking up pressure and looking to score on quick counterattacks after they get the ball back. The Ghanaians would probably rather face us than England, but this could well be a nightmare matchup for them.
Also, USA also has a big edge in goal. You know how there are wide receivers in football who can do everything a receiver’s supposed to do except catch the ball? Well, Ghana’s Richard Kingston can do everything a goalkeeper’s supposed to do except handle the ball. One of the goals scored against Ghana — the rebound off the free kick that the Australians got — was directly down to Kingston’s error. He could be a fatal weak spot, and if the game comes down to penalty kicks, I’d much rather have Tim Howard than Kingston.
Half the Round of 16 bracket is now filled out, and look at the four teams in our quarter of it: Uruguay, South Korea, and Ghana to go with USA. One of those teams is going to the World Cup semifinals. That’s mind-blowing. Reaching the semis would be the greatest achievement in USA’s soccer history, the greatest achievement in Ghana’s (and, indeed, Africa’s) soccer history, or the greatest achievement in Uruguay’s modern history (they won World Cups in 1930 and 1950, but haven’t enjoyed near that level of success since then). As for the South Koreans, they reached the semis eight years ago as the host country. Repeating the feat now would prove that their 2002 run was no fluke. Meanwhile, some of soccer’s superpowers are cursing their luck, because the other quadrant of the bracket is England, Argentina, Germany, and Mexico. Whoever comes out of that can claim that they reached the semis the hard way.
Some interesting side notes: After North Korea’s battling 2-1 loss to Brazil in the first set of matches, the North Korean government relaxed their censorship rules and agreed to let the country’s game against Portugal be broadcast live to the North Korean people. Um, oops. No word on whether there’s been any fallout yet from the heavy loss, but we can probably assume that they won’t be picking up the game against Côte d’Ivoire live.
Just in case you were feeling bad for Algeria after they lost today’s game, their striker Rafik Saifi responded to the loss by slapping a female reporter in the face. Props to the reporter for slapping him right back.
Do you hate the vuvuzela? I don’t, but I might feel differently if I were there, because those suckers are loud. The trouble is, there’s no way to say that you hate the vuvuzela without sounding like some arrogant, overprivileged Western cultural imperialist. So what’s the best way to respond to the vuvuzela? Humor! So far I’ve seen a fake album, a fake video game, and (best of all) a Lord of the Rings parody. Keep it coming, internet!