On the day of the World Cup draw, fans, media and players gathered at Sporting Park in Kansas City to kill two birds with one stone. The media would chat with the two teams taking part in the MLS Cup final, and a vibrant crowd would learn the United States' group stage opponents for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
A host of U.S. internationals were on hand to learn their fate. The atmosphere was one of cautious optimism.
But when the balls came out, an audible groan bubbled up from the crowd. The faces of the players revealed bemused shock. Not only would they have to face Germany and Portugal, but the Americans were again set to face an old nemesis -- the team that had knocked them out of the previous two World Cups.
Ghana. Of course, it had to be Ghana.
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The U.S. history against Ghana in the World Cup began in 2006 in Germany, when the two sides also faced off in the group stage. The tournament started poorly for the U.S., with a 3-0 drubbing by the Czech Republic. A gritty, physical 1-1 draw against Italy in the second game gave them a glimmer of hope: Beat Ghana in the last game in Nuremberg, and they had a chance of getting through to the knockout round.
Just 22 minutes into the game, Haminu Draman stripped the ball from U.S. captain Claudio Reyna in the American defensive third, leaving the Manchester City midfielder crumpled in a heap. Draman charged into the box and fired a shot past Kasey Keller, beating the American keeper to the far post. It left the U.S. captain injured, embarrassed and responsible for a goal.
Reyna never recovered, eventually coming off in the 40th minute, when it was clear he could no longer continue. Still, the Americans fought on, levelling the match just a few minutes later. DaMarcus Beasley, then a winger playing in his second World Cup, played a perfect early cross for a streaking Clint Dempsey, who slammed a one-time shot into the net to bring the match even.
Controversy eventually won the day for Ghana. The referee whistled defender Oguchi Onyewu for a penalty on a rather innocuous challenge in the box at the close of the half, sending Stephen Appiah to the spot. Appiah converted. American efforts to claw back another equalizer came up short. Ghana won 2-1, securing advancement.
2010 didn't see the Americans drawn against Ghana, but when Bob Bradley's team somewhat surprisingly won Group C, the two countries met in the round of 16.
Again, it was a turnover that started the trouble for the U.S. Ricardo Clark, starting over Maurice Edu as part of Bradley's "empty bucket" system, gave up possession at the center stripe. Ghana broke fast with their signature speed as Kevin-Prince Boateng charged all the way to goal and fired a hard, low shot past Tim Howard.
Again, the U.S. fought for the equalizer. They finally got it, through a penalty kick by Landon Donovan in the 62nd minute, after Jonathan Mensah cleared out Dempsey on a darting run into the box. It was a just reward for the way the U.S. played in the second half, even if the goal wasn't directly of their own making.
The two teams traded long balls that somehow became half-chances until the full-time whistle blew, the score tied 1-1.
In extra time, it took just three minutes for the error-prone American defense to give Ghana the lead. A simple ball over the top found a streaking Asamoah Gyan, who managed to fight off two U.S. defenders before lacing a shot over Howard and into the net.
Ghana 2, U.S. 1.
The Americans did everything they could in the time that remained to score. Though they managed a couple of close calls, nothing they could conjure was good enough to get a goal. For a second tournament in a row, the U.S. exited the World Cup at the hands of Ghana.
The Ghanaians have a mental advantage over the U.S. that is built on their World Cup history. Twice in four years, Ghana ended American hopes prematurely. A win in 2006 might have salvaged what history remembers as a disastrous tournament for the Americans. A win in 2010 might have put the U.S. on a path to a semifinal berth and a transcendent moment achievement in American soccer history.
More practically, the U.S. struggles to slow Ghana down. In both losses, simple mistakes and a lack of speed doomed the American defense. That problem remains in 2014, despite a change in the names at the back. If the U.S. is going to break their Ghana hex, the mistakes they've made in the past -- balls over the top and turnovers in midfield -- can't happen again.