NUREMBERG, Germany -- For the last four years, the U.S. national team has been trying to tell anyone who would listen that it has arrived on the international soccer stage. When pressed, the Americans' quarterfinal run in 2002 is held up as proof. But respect in the international scene is doled out with a stinginess that makes Ebenezer Scrooge look like Mother Theresa. And with the U.S hanging on by its fingernails in Group E, Thursday's final group match against Ghana will double as a Day of Reckoning for the U.S. side.
In order to qualify for the second round, the U.S. must defeat Ghana, and hope that the Italians defeat the Czechs. Any other result in the Italy-Czech match will see goal difference come into play, which would require the Yanks to defeat Ghana by a big enough margin to make up for their earlier, heavy loss to the Czechs. With a loss or a tie, the U.S. will head home, confirming the suspicion that their quarterfinal run in 2002 was a one-off that does not signal America's impending ascension.
Of course, such thinking ignores the fact that the Americans are in perhaps the most difficult group in this World Cup. While much attention has been placed on Group C, which contains Argentina, Holland, Serbia and Montenegro, and Ivory Coast, the fact is that the Americans' group has turned out to be much more competitive. Heading into the last round of games, not one team in Group E has clinched a spot in the second round, nor has a team been eliminated. No other group can make such a claim.
But head coach Bruce Arena isn't concerning himself with such trivia. His task is simple: Win the game. And that means having the U.S. come out with the same attitude they displayed against Italy.
"We need to step onto the field with confidence," said Arena at Wednesday's press conference. "We know it's going to be a very difficult game. We need to be able to hang around for 90 minutes, battle, and deal with the qualities of the Ghanaian team."
Prior to the tournament, Ghana was perceived to be the weakest of the Americans' three first-round opponents. But that was before the "Black Stars" took apart the Czech Republic by a 2-0 score line that flattered the Czechs.
The win came at a heavy price, however. Both goal scorers, forward Asamoah Gyan and midfielder Sulley Muntari, received their second yellow cards of the tournament, and both will sit out Thursday's match. Gyan's yellow for taking a penalty kick too early has to count as the most ridiculous call of the tournament so far. The Ghanaian Football Federation appealed to FIFA, but to no avail.
The loss of those two players could prove critical, because the "Black Stars"' primary weakness is a lack of depth up top. Ghana still has the services of Borussia Dortmund striker Matthew Amoah as well as attacking midfielder Stephen Appiah. But the two leading candidates to replace Gyan and Muntari, Razak Pimpong and Derek Boateng, have a whopping nine international appearances between them. That doesn't concern Appiah, however.
"We are going to miss [Gyan and Muntari], but our roster is 23 strong, and all the guys are ready to die for the nation," said Appiah. "In training there is competition, and everyone wants to play."
The Ghanaians are now brimming with confidence, so much so that there already has been some talk in their camp about their possible round-of-16 matchup with Brazil. While that might strike some as presumptuous, the primary source of their belief is the fine play of Michael Essien. The Chelsea midfielder has delivered on the pre-tournament hype surrounding him, providing outstanding work at both ends of the field. Against the Czechs, Essien broke up countless attacks and assisted on Gyan's opening goal just two minutes into the match.
"[Essien] is brilliant," said Arena. "We can't just let him do what he wants to do over 90 minutes or else we'll lose the game."
Just how the U.S. will stop Essien, as well as his midfield running mate Appiah, is among the bigger questions heading into the match. A twosome of Claudio Reyna and Pablo Mastroeni would have been the ideal solution, but Mastroeni's suspension for a red card against Italy has rendered him unavailable.
Ben Olsen is the next best thing the U.S. has in terms of tenacity. But given his lack of World Cup experience, the task would seem to be asking too much of him. John O'Brien would be another candidate, but Arena's comments earlier this week, in which he stated that O'Brien, "hadn't felt comfortable in the last week or two," would seem to call his availability into question. On Wednesday, Arena confirmed that O'Brien had trained this week but added, "The decision with [O'Brien] hasn't been made yet."
Assuming O'Brien can't go, switching to a 3-5-2 formation becomes an interesting alternative. While a central trio of Reyna, Landon Donovan, and either Olsen or Clint Dempsey isn't the strongest defensively, the sheer numbers might enable the Americans to limit the space of both Essien and Appiah. It also would allow the U.S. to field a frontline of Brian McBride and Eddie Johnson. The Yanks' struggles in front of net have been well documented, and Johnson's presence would certainly bring a hungrier presence in front of goal.
But such a formation carries its risks as well in that it could allow Ghana to utilize its speed on the wings, which is a confrontation that Arena is keen to avoid.
"One thing we don't want to do is get in a footrace for 90 minutes with Ghana," said Arena. "If that's the case, we'll lose a lot of those races."
Whether the U.S. plays four or five in the midfield, one certainty is that Donovan will need to play his best game of the tournament. While the U.S. attacker showed marked improvement against Italy, he has yet to put his stamp on a game.
The USA can finish second in its group and advance to the knockout round with a win and an Italy win vs. the Czech Republic on Thursday.
-- If Italy vs. Czech Republic ends in a 0-0 tie, then the USA has to beat Ghana by at least four goals.
-- If Italy vs. Czech Republic ends in a 1-1 tie, then the USA needs to beat Ghana by at least five goals.
By virtue of the USA's 3-0 loss to Czech Republic, if both the USA and Czech Republic finished tied in goal differential, the USA can only advance if they score more total goals in Group play then the Czech Republic. If they are tied in points, goal differential and total goals scored in group play, the Czech Republic advances due to their win vs. the USA.
While Arena acknowledged that Donovan needed to be more aggressive, he also made it clear that the Americans won't throw caution to the wind, a sentiment echoed by Reyna.
"We have to frustrate [Ghana] and create chances," said Reyna. "If we can do it against Italy, then I think the chances will be there. We'll need to be clever in our approach, and make sure we don't leave ourselves open for counters."
That will disappoint those who were hoping to see the U.S. go all out in attack, especially considering that the Americans' inferior goal difference might require them to score a lot of goals in order to progress to the second round.
But as Arena said earlier in the week, "The amount of goals we score is immaterial to winning the game."
If that can be achieved -- and if the other result goes the Americans' way -- then their Day of Reckoning will turn into a Day of Celebration.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org