U.S. soccer battles Ghana in city where World Cup journey began
Saturday, June 26, 2010
RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- The scenic route here from the South African population centers in Johannesburg and Pretoria passes through terrain resembling the southwestern United States, dissecting farmland, brush and valleys before dipping into the resort village of Hartbeespoort, where pleasure boats bob on a placid body of water wedged between cliffs and supplied by the Crocodile River.
The road winds through a one-lane tunnel, over a dam and past a waterfall before weaving along the base of the Magaliesberg range. The course then straightens and is lined with elephant and monkey sanctuaries, produce stands, orange groves, the world's largest platinum mines and markers for Sun City, a nearby playground for the wealthy.
This backwater city 2 1/2 hours from the border with Botswana is an unlikely destination for international soccer, yet on Saturday night, the United States will arrive at Royal Bafokeng Stadium for one of the most important matches in its middling history: a World Cup round-of-16 game against Ghana.
"We are lucky to be back here in Rustenburg," American Coach Bob Bradley said Friday as a full moon shone over rural North West province. "We are comfortable here."
It was here two weeks ago that the United States played a 1-1 draw with England, beginning a wild ride through the first round that left the Americans atop Group C. They also visited Rustenburg last summer for a 3-0 victory over Egypt, triggering their run to the Confederations Cup final.
"Now the tournament really starts for us," forward Jozy Altidore said. "We wanted to get out of the group and then make a statement. We have the opportunity to do that, but at the same time, we have to respect and understand that it's going to take a lot, and that has to come from us."
The U.S. team is in the elimination stage for the third time in five World Cups, but this year's campaign has a different feel to it. The Americans don't seem like outsiders or upstarts who upset their way out of group play. By winning once and tying twice, they showed that they belong among the contenders.
Despite uneven performances in the first two matches and an infuriating inability to capitalize on scoring opportunities in the group finale against Algeria until Landon Donovan's dramatic goal, the Americans are bubbling with confidence in an unheralded round-of-16 quartet that will send a team to the semifinals.
The U.S.-Ghana survivor will face Uruguay or South Korea in a quarterfinal next Friday at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg.
At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Ghana's Black Stars prevented the United States from advancing to the round of 16 with a 2-1 victory in the group finale.
"You certainly have moments when you think we are capable, if we continue to build on the successes so far, we can go to the end," Bradley said.
The Americans' best finish in the modern era was eight years ago, when they reached the quarterfinals before losing to Germany, 1-0. Entering this year's tournament, they were considered the second-best team in the group (behind England) but hardly a threat to make a deep run.