2010 World Cup: U.S. soccer team turns from congratulations to preparations as Ghana awaits
Friday, June 25, 2010
IRENE, SOUTH AFRICA -- The U.S. national soccer team's celebration began Wednesday evening under the floodlights of Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, site of a raucous, group-clinching victory over Algeria that secured passage to the second stage of the World Cup.
The joviality carried into the night with a surprise visit by friends and family at the team's country lodge and lingered through breakfast Thursday morning, when the players shared congratulatory text messages from back home and joked about the pandemonium triggered by Landon Donovan's late goal.
(Did defender Jay DeMerit really execute a somersault while leaping onto the layers of teammates heaped upon Donovan? He did.)
After dinner, they received a phone call from President Obama, who told them that, while meeting with Gen. David H. Petraeus in the Oval Office, cheering was heard elsewhere in the West Wing when the goal was scored.
"We enjoyed it -- it was a great win for us, for our country -- but that is done now and we'll try to do some more special things in this tournament," captain Carlos Bocanegra said.
The Americans have little time to prepare for the next step. After enjoying six- and five-day gaps between first-round matches, they were given just 72 hours to set aside the thriller against Algeria and gear up for Saturday's round-of-16 game against Ghana in Rustenburg.
"We feel good about the way we handled the first round, the different challenges and the way we responded along the way, but now when you get to the knockout phases, it's the opportunity to see how far you can take it," Coach Bob Bradley said.
"You can feel good about getting there, but now you have to quickly put that behind you and focus on your next opponent."
A matter of minutes after the victory over Algeria, assistant coaches Jesse Marsch and Lubos Kubik were being driven 53 miles south on the N1 highway to Soccer City Stadium outside Soweto to scout the Group D finale between Ghana and Germany. The Americans figured to play one of them in the next round, and with Germany's 1-0 triumph, second-place Ghana was matched with the United States, the Group C winner.
The quick turnaround -- and fourth match in 15 days -- will test the Americans' conditioning, but for the players, two games in four days is common in their professional leagues.
"I am not sure I can put other teams through so much work because there would be a rebellion," fitness coach Pierre Barrieu said. "Our guys do it. They do it because it's part of the job and because it pays dividends. The fact that they have done it in the past and seen the results, it's a much easier sell."
Ghana, making its second consecutive World Cup appearance after years of underachievement, is no stranger to the Americans. At the 2006 tournament in Germany, with the United States needing a victory in their group finale to reach the round of 16, Ghana won, 2-1.
This year, without injured captain Michael Essien, the Black Stars earned a 1-0 victory over Serbia, the darling choice to make a deep run in the tournament; and settled for a 1-1 draw with Australia before dropping the last match.
Despite an attack-oriented style and dynamic individuals, Ghana has yet to score in the run of play. Both goals came on penalty kicks by forward Asamoah Gyan, Bocanegra's teammate at French club Rennes.
"I thought they would struggle a little bit without Essien, but they have looked very good," Donovan said. "Their athleticism will be difficult to deal with. Like a lot of African teams, they are fairly unpredictable sometimes, which can be a plus or a minus."
Unpredictability could describe the U.S. team as well. Defensive breakdowns marred the early stages of the first two matches before tidier play in the back facilitated the two-goal comeback against Slovenia. On Wednesday, with extra players thrown into the attack in the final desperate minutes, the back line provided the necessary support.
The attack has been in rhythm since the start of the second half against Slovenia but squandered opportunities left the team's future in the balance until Donovan's dramatic goal.
"We feel like we have got every chance [to advance further], and that excites us," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "We still have to put a heck of 90 minutes together, but the way we have been playing, we have gotten stronger and that gives us hope."