As you are surely aware by now, the United States Under-20 national team will take on the Black Stars in a youth World Cup loser-goes-home game in Turkey on Thursday (1 pm ET, ESPNU).
Yep, it’s Ghana again.
And how strange it is to think that in the world of international soccer two nations so far apart in so many ways could become so well acquainted with one another on so many levels.
Think of the past two World Cups, where Ghana sent the US home each time by a score of 2-1, the second more heartbreaking than the first. You knew that already, and probably have visions of the referee pointing to the spot in Germany and Asamoah Gyan ripping the net in South Africa.
But you may not have known those defeats ran the States’ all-time international record vs. Ghana to 0-5, if you count losses in the World Cup at youth levels.
How about 1995? The US Under-17s lost to Ghana 2-0 in the group stage in Ecuador. Tim Howard (right, after the 2010 World Cup elimination) was in net for a US team that lost all three of its games and came home.
Or 1997? The group stage again, this time it was the Under-20s who lost 1-0 to Ghana in Malaysia, despite future World Cup vets like John O’Brien and Josh Wolff.
And in 1999, when the US went all the way to the semifinals of the Under-17 World Cup, only to lose to Australia. They then lost to Ghana 2-0 in the consolation game, despite a roster that included names like Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu and Kyle Beckerman.
While none of those three youth-level losses come close to replicating the pain inflicted on the biggest stage, it is pretty clear that US coach Tab Ramos’ boys have a tough task ahead of them Thursday. As much as Ghana have proven themselves on the senior level – they were a Luis Suárez hand ball and a missed Gyan penalty away from the semifinals in 2010 – it’s on the youth levels that Ghana have long been a world power.
Among the Black Stars’ achievements, they have won two world titles at the U-17 level (1991 and 1995) and one at the U-20 level (2009). They also took a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics (U-23) and have been runners-up twice at both the U-17s and U-20s.
That’s a lot to digest, but suffice it to say, Ghana are a formidable opponent.
In fact, it’s more than fair to say at this point, that the US should be considered the underdogs whenever they step on the field to play Ghana.
At any level.
Sacrilegious, you say? Because maybe you’re one who likes to measure things like the overall population of the US to Ghana (US 314 million, Ghana 25 million), or the disparity in national economies, or maybe you’re just a patriotic fan who believes the US are never underdogs.
But consider Ghana’s biggest stars. Michael Essien has represented Chelsea and Real Madrid. Kevin Prince Boateng, who was born in Germany but represents Ghana, is a star for AC Milan. Sulley Muntari has played for both Inter Milan and AC Milan. There are more names on this list, but you get the point.
In each of the last two World Cups, if you were to do the traditional American-style comparison of team payrolls, the way we like to compare, say, the New York Yankees to the Kansas City Royals, Ghana would win by a pretty wide margin.
And if you were going to wager which U-20 team in Thursday’s match, Ghana or the US, has more players who are being scouted and courted by the big clubs in Europe, the smart money is on the Black Stars.
Yes, it’s a tall order for the US. But certainly not an impossible one.
It’s hard not to think back to the path of the 2006 US World Cup team when you look at what the U-20s have done to this point. As the US lost 3-0 to the Czech Republic in their opening game, the U-20s lost 4-1 to Spain. And as the US scrapped for a life-saving 1-1 draw with Italy in their second match in 2006, the U-20s got a well-deserved point against France earlier this week.
Which brings it back to Ghana, again.
Expect a tight match as both teams seem to have learned from trying to be swashbucklers in their opening games. The US learned against Spain, as Ghana learned against France.
The game is likely to come down to one big play. Again. The US can pull this off and advance to the knockout stage, but it’s going to take their A game and nothing less.
Because like it or not, history has made then underdogs.