RUSTENBURG, South Africa – The United States was again part of a thriller match in its second-round clash with Ghana but this time Team U.S.A. failed to secure a happy ending.
The Black Stars defeated the Americans 2-1 on an overtime goal and continue their unlikely run as last remaining hope for Africa in this first World Cup on African soil. They will face Uruguay on Friday in Johannesburg. Earlier Saturday, the South Americans defeated South Korea 2-1 in pouring rain in Port Elizabeth.
Saturday’s encounter represented an enormous opportunity for two teams that are not considered among the powerhouses of the sport. The U.S.’ only semifinal dates back to the inaugural World Cup tournament of 1930, and this year is only Ghana’s second World Cup appearance after a second-round showing four years ago.
Better-ranked and having won its group, U.S. entered Saturday’s match as a slight favorite, but Ghana, which qualified for the last 16 on goal differential, undoubtedly fancied its chances against a team that has alternatively displayed remarkable gumption and near-fatal lapses in concentration.
Both teams started the game with clear attacking intentions, but it’s Ghana that proved the most efficient. After barely four minutes of play, forward Kevin-Prince Boateng took advantage of a loose ball in midfield, surged forward and sent the ball past a diving Tim Howard. For the third time in four World Cup matches, the U.S. was trailing in the opening minutes.
And it could have been worse. During the entire first half, the Black Stars thoroughly outplayed the Americans and created several additional scoring opportunities through swift counterattacking moves.
By the time the second half started, the U.S. appeared ready to stage one of its customary comebacks. The team played with more urgency; passes were more accurate. And as they had done on two previous occasions in this World Cup they did come back, courtesy of a clinical penalty kick by specialist Landon Donovan in the 62nd minute following a foul on Clint Dempsey.
Momentum seemed to have shifted. Ghana looked deflated, and the exit of goal scorer Boateng further decreased Ghana’s chances of victory. The score was still tied at 1-1 after regulation time, but only minutes into the extra time Ghana forward Asamoah Gyan chased a long ball and sent a left-foot missile above Howard’s stretched hands.
That blow proved too much for a U.S. team that has been praised for its resilience, and the score didn’t move until the whistle was blown.
Despite being the last African representative in the tournament, Ghana did not enjoy a clear home advantage Saturday.
Based on the number of U.S. and Ghanaian flags waved at kickoff, loyalties appeared pretty evenly divided among the crowd of 34,976 — which included former President Bill Clinton and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger — that almost filled the 39,000-seat Royal Bafokeng Stadium.
The U.S. team has been able to count on a large contingent of American supporters for each of its games — more tickets were sold in the U.S. than in any other country outside South Africa — but Team U.S.A. has developed a strong following among locals.
In a World Cup that has produced more than its share of uninspiring performances, the U.S.’ spirited display against England, suspenseful comeback against Slovenia and thrilling victory over Algeria captured the attention of discerning soccer fans.
Daryl Stephens of Johannesburg said that he became familiar with the U.S. team during last year’s Confederations Cup, which took place in South Africa and where the Americans reached the final. He added that he has followed American players who ply their trade in the English Premier League, including Everton’s Tim Howard and Fulham’s Dempsey.
Wearing a South African jersey on his shoulders and a U.S. flag on his head, the 32-year-old made clear that he supports his country first, but with Bafana Bafana out of their own World Cup his new favorite is Team U.S.A. The team’s “never-say-die” attitude convinced him and many of his compatriots to root for the U.S., he said.
“In terms of team spirit, they’re right up there,” Stephens said.
Punky Moremi, a smiling 50-year-old Pretoria resident, said she saw the U.S.’ previous matches and believed the team was more than ready for the big stage.
“I think the U.S.A. is the one team that is going to take the Cup,” she said. “They have better strikers.”
The Americans’ success has also been good for business. Nesbert Zhou, a 25-year-old Joburg resident who traveled to Rustenburg with two of his friends to sell flags to fans outside the stadium said he likes Americans because they’re patriotic and “they are nice to everybody.”
Zhou said the Americans are his favorite team along with Brazil, Argentina and Portugal. He said he had been watching the performances of both the U.S. and the Black Stars carefully and decided not to bother bringing Ghanaian flags. He had no doubt he’d sell out before kickoff.
“As you can see I’m selling only the American flag because I have the confidence that the Americans will win the game,” he said. “Today they are going to win it’s obvious.”
Not everyone present at the stadium shared Zhou’s conviction about the outcome.
Sporting the Black Stars’ jersey and a Ghana scarf, Justin Addo made no secret of his allegiance. The 39-year-old said he had been impressed by the Americans’ progress over the past four years but predicted they’d be outplayed by what he deemed a technically superior Ghana.
“They’ve done well to come this far,” Addo said of the U.S. squad, “but it ends here.”