JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The match between the United States and Ghana was one of the most important matches for both countries. Here's what you need to know:
1) What is at stake for the U.S. team?
The occasion is momentous for Team U.S.A. If the Americans win, they will not only reach the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since 2002 but they will also have a relatively clear path to the semifinals, a stage the team hasn’t reached since the inaugural tournament in 1930.
The winner of Saturday’s faceoff will meet either Uruguay or South Korea in the quarters, and the U.S. is the best-ranked team of the four in contention for that semifinal spot.
The match at Royal Bafokeng Stadium against Ghana also offers U.S. soccer a unique opportunity to burnish its image some more. Soccer is not about to replace football or baseball in the hearts of American sports fans, but this squad is certainly doing its best to increase its share of the spotlight.
Wednesday’s thriller against Algeria was the most-watched soccer game in the history of ESPN networks with 6.2 million viewers, improving on the 5.3 million who tuned in to watch the U.S.’s quarterfinal encounter against Germany eight years ago.
Saturday’s clash against Ghana could attract even more TV viewers as it won’t take place on a weekday. U.S. President Barack Obama called the U.S. squad Thursday to assure them the whole country was supporting them.
2) What is at stake for Ghana?
Unlike its American opponent, Ghana won’t have to try too hard to capture the attention of people at home. It’s a safe bet that come kickoff time, most Ghanaians will be sitting in front of TV screens cheering for the Black Stars.
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And a World Cup second-round tie is even less familiar territory for Ghana than it is for the U.S. Ghana reached that stage four years ago — ironically by beating the United States — in what was the country’s first World Cup appearance. The Ghanaians were thrashed by Brazil then. They’ll surely like their chances to advance a lot better this time. More than Ghanaian pride will also ride on this match as Ghana is the last remaining African team in this first World Cup on African soil.
3) Why is Ghana the only African nation still in contention?
This was heralded as Africa’s World Cup. With a record six teams from the African continent, many – including FIFA President Sepp Blatter — predicted Africa would finally see one of its representatives in the last four. Home-field advantage seems to have counted for little, though.
While teams from South America and Asia have fared particularly well, African nations have floundered. Some like Ivory Coast faced difficult draws. Others like Nigeria were hampered by injuries to major players. Algeria and South Africa never had the quality to advance, and Cameroon didn’t live up to expectations.
That Ghana would be the lone African survivor in the second round could surprise many given the injury sustained by star midfielder Michael Essien and a set of tough opponents in the group stage. But even in Essien’s absence Ghana proved the most consistent and cohesive African outfit in the first round and made the most of a strong defense to narrowly edge out Australia on a more favorable goal differential.
4) What is the key of the game for the U.S.?
The U.S. team has made a nasty habit of conceding goals early in the game and having to work extremely hard to come back. The tendency plagued the U.S. squad in the Americans’ qualification campaign and again resurfaced during the World Cup where they let both England and Slovenia take the early lead. Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Algeria showed the Americans that to have a chance to advance they must maintain their concentration throughout.
5) What is the key of the game for Ghana?
For a team that doesn’t lack attacking firepower, Ghana has had a dismal record up front so far. During their three group matches, the Black Stars managed to score only two goals — both on penalty kicks.
If Saturday’s clash is still undecided after overtime, the composure of Asamoah Gyan, who scored both penalties, will be a valuable asset, but if Ghana has any ambition to win the match during regulation time it must finally score during the run of play.
World Cup Insider's Guide: