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USA looks to exorcise past failures
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In the tortured world of American soccer, the prospect of facing Ghana in a potential elimination game revives painful memories about previous failures.
Both of the last two World Cup voyages at senior level ended at the hands of the Black Stars. Stephen Appiah's penalty kick in first half stoppage time sent the Americans home from Germany in 2006 after three group matches. Asamoah Gyan struck three minutes into extra time to produce a similarly excruciating result during a round-of-16 meeting four years later in South Africa.
United States men's national team Under-20 coach Tab Ramos and his players will hope to avoid a similar fate when they take the field against Ghana in Kayseri (live, Thursday, 1 p.m. ET). Victory will almost certainly send the United States through to the round of 16, likely as one of the top four third-place finishers. A second draw or a second defeat in group play will end this Turkish adventure and temper the progress made in the 1-1 draw against France on Monday.
The creditable and somewhat unexpected result against the French provided a platform to build upon for this decisive encounter. Daniel Cuevas' equalizer five minutes from time handed the Americans a deserved lifeline and supplied a tangible reward for their commitment and their defensive organization. The display constituted a significant improvement from the 4-1 defeat by Spain on Friday, but Ramos said he still expected more from his team on the day.
"I think the result is great," Ramos told reporters after the match. "That’s what’s important here – we were able to get a draw. I look at the way I think our team can play and my disappointment is because I thought in a game like today we should have gotten all three points. I think we played poorly. But at the end of the day, I think it was great courage by the team and it was great effort. Without having our best we worked hard all the way to the end and we got a tie."
Any further improvements must come a bit further up the field in the wake of a largely impotent display against France. The increased emphasis on defensive shape prompted the United States to eschew most of its designs on retaining possession to focus on preventing the French – and, specifically, Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba – from finding its rhythm on the ball.
Pragmatism often serves the United States well in these competitions, but Ramos will demand better work in the final third in order to pave the way for success against Ghana. He may have to change his personnel a bit to produce it, though. Alonso Hernández's perch up front could come under threat after his limited contributions in the first two matches. Cuevas dropped out of the side before this competition despite some effective displays at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship earlier this year, but he warrants strong consideration on the left flank of the 4-2-3-1 setup in the wake of his influential role off the bench on Monday.
Any personnel changes and any visions of a more expansive approach must not come at the expense of the balance of the side or the newly established defensive solidity, though. The aspirational and ultimately problematic deportment from the Spain defeat will not return, but there is a real danger in pursuing this game too earnestly given the must-win nature of this affair.
Ramos spoke at some length about the problems posed by the athletic advantage France enjoyed in Monday's game. Ghana possesses similar physical qualities – if not the same level of skill – to exploit the Americans if they chase the proceedings too ardently from the outset. And the possibility of securing their own place in the knockout round – even with two losses the Black Stars could still progress as one of the top four third-place finishers with a victory and some help – creates further incentive for this primarily domestic-based squad to secure a result.
It is a scenario these Americans will know all too well from the travails of the senior team over the past seven years. Avoiding a similar fate will require further improvement from Monday's display, but the signs from that match suggest the United States possesses the requisite capabilities to cope with the Ghanaian threat and exorcise some of the lingering demons from previous failures.