Gearing Up for Ghana

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Roman Abramovitch, the George Steinbrenner-like owner of the big London soccer team Chelsea, so prized Ghana's exquisite midfielder Michael Essien that he splashed out 36 million pounds to pry the man loose from the French league champions, Lyon. Essien was worth the money, his presence on the pitch helping Chelsea to the Premiere League championship.

Let's see, converting to dollars at approximately $1.896 to the pound, he'd be worth exactly — well, more than the entire American team. And that's no knock on the U.S. players. Their star power is not the high-wattage variety, but as they proved against Italy last Saturday, when you combine all your team's skills with maximum effort, the result can often defy the betting line. That was the case in their scintillating 1-1 draw with Italy in Kaiserslautern, in which the Americans finished with 9 men on the field (that would be 2 less than they started with, if you're keeping score) after Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope were thrown out of the game for rough tackles. The Americans were thus forced to play a man short — Italy's Daniele DeRossi got the gate earlier for trying to rearrange Brian McBride's face with his elbow. McBride looked like a hockey player who took a stick in the mush, but he soldiered on as the U.S. played desperately to preserve the precious point that kept their hopes alive.

Controlled desperation is what it will take again on Thursday when the Americans play Ghana, the class team among the African entrants. It's very simple for the Yanks — if they don't win, they don't advance. And even if they do win, they'll need help from Italy, who must beat the Czech Republic. "We're alive, we know what we have to do, and there's no hiding the fact that we need to win," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena.

And herein lies another issue for the Americans. They have not yet put the ball in the opposition's net, which is pretty much a requirement to advance in the World Cup. Their lone score came on an OG — an own goal — grazie Italy. Although the U.S. was able to put Italy's vaunted defense under pressure, they were unable to finish. "Once we get into their third of the field, the crosses have to be better," says Reyna, looking ahead to Ghana. In soccer this is known as the final ball, and it hasn't been there. The U.S. will also need to get more players on the end of those crosses — "more numbers in the box," says Reyna. Some better shooting would hurt either.

Arena hasn't said how he'll replace his two injured starters, although Jimmy Conrad, who played tough after subbing in against Italy, seems a likely call-up. Ghana too, will be missing some key players, Asamoah Gyan and Sully Muntari, each of whom have scored goals. Still, Ghana features not only Essien, but in Stephen Appiah and Sammy Kuffour, players with tons of top-class European experience.

"We have to take a careful approach and not try to win the game in the first 10 minutes," said U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, whose midfield play has been absolutely terrific — world-class, fittingly. Nor, he said, can the team leave itself open to counterattacks in the early going. "An early goal is these games is critical," said Arena. The Czechs scored within the first five minutes against the U.S., and never lost control of the game after that. Ghana scored in the second minute against the Czechs, and won the match 2-0.

The American team will also have the benefit of an away-from-home field advantage. Against Italy, an astounding crowd of Americans outshouted the usually fervent Italian tifosi. It was something of a revelation about support for the game in the U.S. A large crowd of Americans are expected in Nuremberg, a city that is rife with U.S. history of a vastly different sort. U.S. Soccer has sold more than 20,000 tickets to this tournament, while U.S. fans bought another 5,000 directly from FIFA, soccer's ruling body. That's more than for all the other non-U.S. World Cups combined. The U.S. fans, organized by a group called Sam's Army, have even been practicing their singing. They do not need any work on their booing, as the ref found out in Kaiserslautern.

If the U.S. wins the game it will end up with four points (3 for a win, 1 for a tie). That was good enough to advance in the last World Cup. But maybe not this one. If that's the case, said Arena, "that's life." It would still be a successful tournament, in his view. Should the U.S. manage to advance, their next opponent would be the defending champion, Brazil. And how does he like that possibility? Said Arena: "I hope we're the team facing them."