2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Featured, June 2017, USMNT

USA and Ghana Renew Rivalry in Gold Cup Tuneup: TYAC Preview

The USA and Ghana have had plenty of memorable moments packed into only 5 games. They’ll try to write another chapter Saturday evening.

Neil W. Blackmon and Theo Sakyi

For the second time in Bruce Arena’s second tenure, the US Men’s National Team emerged from two World Cup qualifiers with four points. This four point haul was even impressive given one of the American opponents was an extremely talented and in-form Mexico side and accounting for the fact the US played El Tri on short rest at 8000 feet of altitude in Estadio Azteca, long an American house of horrors. The results give the US eight points through six qualifiers and sole possession of third place in the CONCACAF Hex standings, an important spot as only the top three finishers avoid a tricky playoff against an Asian federation opponent.

Perhaps the largest takeaway the Americans played very much like a team with a plan and restored confidence, the presence of a tactical ideas and imagination very much a reason for the renewed belief. Bruce Arena may not always play a 5-4-1, but he knew it was the right deployment against Mexico, installed it early, practiced it and simplified it. Put differently, it isn’t just that Bruce Arena got the tactics right, it’s that the US  players gained great confidence by being told what was expected and given ample time to install the plan.

As Michael Bradley put it after the Azteca draw: “We did everything we could, from the way we spent the two weeks of preparation installing two game plans, to the work that went in on the field, to the arrangements that were made off the field in terms of preparing in altitude. We did everything we could to win.”

To the US captain, the fact that the US could feel good about their performance was a testament to the team’s commitment to the plan presented by Bruce Arena when he took over at the beginning of the year.

“He told us what he expected and we had to be committed,” Bradley said. “We were. You saw it tonight in our football, in our mentality, physicality, toughness. It was a great night to play. The mentality of the team to understand what the game was about, in terms of how we wanted to play, I was amazed at the commitment. I’ll take our point. Points are hard to come by here. On a different night, we can come away with three.”

As dynamic and helpful as Christian Pulisic has been to this side, perhaps the most significant change in months 1-6 of Arena’s second tenure is that the Americans are comfortable again with their assignments and roles, the US can play football and trust the man next to them. That’s a culture change and it is one that should give the US confidence headed into the Gold Cup, which begins next weekend.

But first, the US renew their quirky rivalry with Ghana. Only in international football would two sides who have only played five times become “rivals”, but when three of those meetings come at World Cups, it is easy to see how tension and disappointments on both sides can flare and overwhelm the lack of familiarity that typically breeds contempt.

The American camp has downplayed the rivalry element a little bit this week, and US veterans DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan told Jeff Carlisle that while the countries have played some epic games, the consistent meetings at World Cups have created rivalry by coincidence more than anything else.

Marvelous players like Andre Ayew (who will not feature Saturday) have given Ghana the edge in this rivalry, at least until 2014.

But the Ghana camp acknowledges there’s something to the rivalry, with Kwesi Appiah telling TYAC this week that there was “certainly something to feeling a rivalry against someone who you have played in as many big moments.”

Kwadwo Poku, hero of North American Soccer League side Miami FC’s victory over Atlanta United this week in Lamar Hunt US Open Cup play, agreed with his manager.

“It is definitely a rivalry game for Ghana, as we have played so many big games against each other,” Poku told me. “We have seen joy and heartbreak, and even though friendlies are about opportunity for individual players, we want to win. We want to beat them.”

The Black Stars are limping along, by and large, since the messy and all-too public financial dispute with their federation that, along with a brutal group, spoiled their Brazil 2014 World Cup experience. Like Bruce Arena, Ghana manager Kwesi Appiah is back for a second tenure, brought in to put out a qualifying fire. Whether he can do so is a question that won’t be answered until qualifying resumes in August, but for now, Ghana will settle for a good series of games, starting Saturday against the Yanks.

The TYAC Preview then. Usuals, then particulars.

Series: 6th Meeting. Ghana lead, 4-1-0. Surprisingly, this is the first time the sides have met in a friendly. The other meetings took place at either the FIFA World Cup (2006, 2010 and 2014) or other competitions (Presidents Cup, Merdeka Tournament). A goal has decided all three World Cup meetings, which all finished 2-1. The most recent one, of course, was the lone American victory at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, won in the soft Natal rain on a late header by John Brooks.

Weather: Upper 70s and pleasant. Incredibly nice for July – even by New England standards. I’m not the biggest fan of old Pratt and Whitney Stadium, and I’m not convinced why US Soccer continues to play friendlies in Connecticut given an array of other options and hot soccer markets that often go overlooked. But the weather this weekend is as good an argument for a strange tri-state area friendly as you’ll see.

David Accam, fresh off winning MLS Player of the Week, has a chance to help guide Ghana to Russia next summer.

What to Expect from Ghana:

Rivalry games get rivalry treatment from TYAC, so to talk about Ghana, we brought in a ringer, Theo Sakyi. Based in London, Theo has written for various football publications, and of late, has written mostly for the African and Asian football website Sandals For Goalposts. You can and should follow him on Twitter @TKSakyi.

We asked Theo five questions about the current state of Ghana football, and what to expect Saturday.

TYAC: American fans often want to think of Ghana as a “rival”, but then are guilty of not really knowing what is going with the Black Stars since the bitter end of Brazil 2014. Give us an update on what we should expect from Kwesi Appiah’s side?

Theo: For those who don’t know, this is Appiah’s second stint as Ghana manager, after he was sacked in 2014. A semi-final exit to a less than vintage Cameroon side at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, coupled with the Black Stars precarious position in World Cup qualifying meant journeyman Avram Grant had to go. With a shallow pool of possible candidates available and vast amounts of cash wasted on Grant, Appiah was an inevitable replacement.

As for where the Black Stars are football-wise, many key players from the initial squad selected for the Ethiopia AFCON are sitting this game out so there are many fringe players and new faces involved.

The 2017 iteration of Appiah’s side is pretty similar to the last one in a tactical sense.

They’ll most likely set up in a 4-4-2 with two out-and out-forwards who’ll rotate between dropping deep to link play and challenging the last defender. The three wingers in the squad, Chicago’s David Accam, Thomas Agyepong and Frank Acheampong, can be electric on the counter, but the attack’s directness can cause the team to lack guile against deeper defenses. Ghana leave less space between lines than last time around in Brazil, and are more compact, but defending can still be haphazard in nature.

There are only two natural full-backs in the squad currently: Harrison Afful and Lumor Agbenyenu. Rashid Sumaila was subbed on for Afful in the recent friendly vs. Mexico and looked limited going both ways, so a change at right back looks unlikely. Still, Afful has just been called back to the Crew, so Sumaila will get another look on Saturday and the US would do well to test him.

On the other flank Acheampong, who can play on both sides and left-back, may come in for Agbenyenu. It’s a toss-up at centre-back, as there are six in the squad. Home-based Samuel Sarfo and Nicholas Opoku are the only defenders who haven’t seen game time during the international break and are likely to feature, especially with Mensah also returning to Columbus.

Gyan, amidst discussion of a return to England, is still around to haunt American defenders.

The central midfield options are vastly inexperienced and have only eight caps between them. Ebenezer Ofori is easily Ghana’s best player available in the middle of the park (Thomas Partey went back to Atletico Madrid after the AFCON qualifier vs. Mexico) and the play should mostly go through him if he starts.

Asamoah Gyan played a paltry five minutes against Mexico which makes him almost certain to start up top (much to American’s chagrin) and he will be joined by Majeed Waris or Raphael Dwamena.

TYAC: How much are the 6 MLS and NASL faces in this side a genuine factor moving forward for Ghana? A dynamic player like Poku seems to be a useful thing to have internationally off the bench- any chance these guys stay with the team when qualifying resumes?

Theo: Ghana have a tendency to call up players in the immediate geographic area for friendlies, which makes it hard to gauge if they’re part of a long-term vision. For example, Emmanuel Banahene, a player in the Turkish second division, was one called up for a friendly in Turkey…

Having said that, Jonathan Mensah, Afful and Accam will make most Ghana squads in the future. Given the players Gershon Koffi, Mohammed Abu and Kwadwo Poku have replaced from the initial squad for the Ethiopia fixture, their continued presence in the team is doubtful. But to be fair, there are very few players in the national pool with Poku’s skillset, which makes him a wildcard. This is a big camp for him.

TYAC: There are still dynamic players in attack- whether it is the Ayew brothers or Asamoah or Majeed Waris. But is it fair to say the questions about Ghana this World Cup cycle center on defense?

Theo: Apart from goalkeeper- yes, defense is by far the shallowest part of the player pool. Afful is a good technical player at right back but there is a total lack of competition in his position. His napping on defence has no consequence on his place in the team. Lumor has looked a competent replacement for Abdul Baba Rahman which is a positive.

At center back it’s hard to tell who is worse out of John Boye and Jonathan Mensah, Sarfo and Opoku are untested at any decent level and Sumaila has no discernible defensive qualities. Jerry Akaminko looked promising before his long-term injury and is the only player who is decent with the ball at his feet. Hammarby youngster Joseph Aidoo is a solid player who has the right to feel aggrieved if he isn’t given an opportunity soon. Like Americans, people in Ghana are astonished at how poorly the Mensah MLS move has worked out.

TYAC: What’s a fair expectation for Ghana over the next 12 months? Do you believe they’ll qualify for Russia?

Theo: Appiah has been told his job doesn’t rest on him qualifying which gives you a glimpse of what the GFA think the chances are. Only the group winner goes through and Hector Cuper’s Egypt are so well drilled it’s hard to see where they will drop points.

Appiah has been tasked with two priorities: bringing new names into the fold and qualifying for the next AFCON.

TYAC: Any new additions or players you are paying special attention to?

Theo: Ebenezer Ofori has been a bright spark in the middle during his three caps and solves an ongoing creative problem. Poku offers a different skillset but the same creative solution.

Raphael Dwamena is a raw but exciting forward who probably won’t stay at FC Zurich much longer. He’ll command a nice fee.

Again – if you enjoyed that- follow Theo on Twitter @TKSakyi.

Fresh off another successful set of World Cup qualifiers, the US are playing with renewed confidence.

What to Watch for from the United States:

A talented roster that has what it takes to win the Gold Cup figuring some things out against a team that will mirror Caribbean athleticism but offer vastly more technical quality.

As my TYAC co-founder Jon Levy put things this week, it’s fairly easy to get excited about this US Gold Cup roster, with quality everywhere, and thoughtful MLS selections coloring the side’s gray areas.

In goal, expect Bill Hamid to get a cap Saturday. The selection of Johnson was one of the roster’s only surprises, but in DC United’s shot stopper, the US manager has at least nodded in the direction of the increasing consensus that the US need to think about goalkeeping solutions long-term.

Guzan’s surprise Azteca start was met with a stout performance, even if he may have been caught dancing just a bit on the brilliant Carlos Vela goal. Guzan is only 32, hardly a dinosaur in that position, and it is possible he’ll regain his form in Atlanta. And Guzan had his moments at Boro, especially in his early starts. Still, when Guzan was bad at Boro, he was…well, bad.

The fact he’s needed to start ahead of Howard on short rest indicates that the US are looking to save as much of Howard as they can ahead of Russia, but games like this, against high level opposition, are a great chance to bypass the obvious solution and evaluate a long-term one, like Bill Hamid.

Defensively, whether the successful Vitesse loan earns Matt Miazga a long-term look at Chelsea or not, he’s earned an extended number of international minutes at this competition. And while Cameron Carter-Vickers claws it out at Tottenham training camp to try to win consistent playing time, Miazga can parlay a great international tournament into another intriguing loan situation. The US know what they’ll get out of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez. Why not use this game as a proving ground for Miazga and Matt Hedges, who has the quality to play internationally but was consistently forgotten by Jurgen Klinsmann, perhaps the largest piece of tangible evidence the Californian-German had little interest in analyzing the actual form of the American MLS contingent. American fans may also finally see what they’ve clamored for Saturday in the form of Eric Lichaj on a pitch again in a US Shirt, happily playing an anonymous fullback.

Eric Lichaj makes a long-awaited return for the United States at the Gold Cup.

Lichaj was cordial but not reticent when he spoke of the disappointment of continued omissions with US Soccer this week.

“I wouldn’t say I was frustrated,” Lichaj said. “I knew I was always in the picture a little bit. I’ve tried to always keep myself fit and consistent for my club, which I have done. The past two seasons I’ve played over forty games each year and I was voted my club player of the year. For all the hard work the past few years, I’m finally back in camp and hopefully get to prove myself and do well the next couple games.”

That’s as good an attitude as you’ll see, really.

In midfield, there are a host of great options, starting with MLS-fan darling Cristian Roldan, who Arena promised would get an extended run-out in this tournament all the way back in January. Roldan has been marvelous as the Seattle #6, and the US are- especially with new found formation flexibility- auditioning people for that role. I don’t think he’ll get to play as high as Kellyn Acosta can internationally – which seems an argument for playing both, in a double pivot. But he has the bite to be a guy the Americans use in certain situations, and a good tournament here not only cap ties him (a huge deal) but gives him a chance to position himself for a World Cup selection, which I think either he or Dax McCarty will receive.

Potential US Deployment Saturday against Ghana.

Kelyn Rowe is another player who is likely to be a deputy once the tournament starts that Americans may see Saturday. On the wings, Paul Arriola will play most this tournament and joins fellow Liga MX’er to give the US outstanding quality out wide. Finally, most Americans are thrilled to see the inclusion of Kenny Saief, a Champions League player with a natural left foot. But there’s also the reality that he plays for Gent, and that’s not a league that is decidedly if at all better than MLS. There are plenty of unknowns with this player, so while a left-footed winger is good for pool depth, he’s not a slide-in starter like Fabian Johnson was.

Bruce Arena acknowledged as much this week, noting “It will be good to see him in camp and determine how he fits in with our group.”

The US have several good options up top, with Jordan Morris likely the player with the most to gain or lose this summer. He’s not had a great spring in MLS and hasn’t shown, aside from his first pair of friendlies, that he has anything beyond electric pace to offer internationally. He isn’t Robbie Findlay- his right foot finishing is better. But he’s maybe a 2.0 of that internationally, and that’s just viewing him through a technical lens, as results wise, he hasn’t shown much thus far.

All in all, this gives the US a lineup like the one in the inset.

Poku, seen here operating in a win over Orlando City, has become a more consistent player under Miami manager Alessandro Nesta.

Ghana Player to Watch: Kwadwo Poku, Miami FC

The Ghanaian forward has always possessed singular talent, that rare blend of speed, strength and technical quality that defines the new central playmaker. What he’s lacked  is consistency, whether it was playing with the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks for Eric Wynalda or for NYCFC under Jason Kreis and Patrick Vieira.

Wednesday, only three years removed from his Open Cup heroics for Wynalda against Real Salt Lake, Poku did it again, snatching a winner at the death against Tata Martino’s Atlanta United.

But Poku has always possessed the quality to change proceedings instantly- that’s why Man City was lingering when he took MLS by storm only two years ago. What he’s needed is a manager to get him to invest in the process of getting better. Alessandro Nesta, his manager at Miami FC, has done just that.

“I’ve worked with Poku and he’s a phenomenal person,” Jason Kreis told me after Miami FC had eliminated his Orlando City SC side from the Open Cup two weeks ago. “But he’s never been as invested defensively and motor-wise as he is now. Credit Nesta.”

Nesta, who won a World Cup with Italy, agrees his number ten has changed.

“He’s a special football player, great touch and strength. But we needed him to do more than dream about being great. He had to learn to suffer winning, to suffer the process and commitment it takes to get better. He is doing that and now he earns the chance to play for his country.”

Indeed he does. And with Ghana in need of a creative force in the middle of the park to get the ball to a talented set of attackers, they’ll need the Miami FC man to deliver.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for me,” Poku said. “An honor and a chance to play a rivalry game that’s no joke. But above all, a chance to show I belong with the best players in my country.”

Matt Miazga’s loan to Vitesse was a roaring success. Now he gets a Gold Cup to earn another good loan.

Jon Levy on the American Player to Watch: Matt Miazga (Chelsea… coming off a loan to Vitesse)

Yes, Dom Dwyer and Kenny Saief are the exciting new players before the Gold Cup gets underway, but I promise I’m not going with Miazga just to be alternative. Besides, Miazga’s not exactly the USMNT’s The Jesus and Mary Chain anyway; that title should go to Eric Lichaj for this tournament. Nope, Miazga’s just been outshined a bit by his contemporaries Christian Pulisic and Kellyn Acosta. And while the former is making most every other American look like a muggle these days, perhaps we should be mentioning Miazga in the same breath as Acosta, who’s taken a star turn himself.

I’d argue that Miazga not garnering that level of excitement is down to his league and his position. It seems ludicrous to posit that Miazga was “hidden” in the Dutch Eredivisie; I mean, it’s 2017 and Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) exists. But unlike most Americans who’ve excelled in that league, Matt Miazga doesn’t score or create goals. He’s a no nonsense central defender, and no one’s tweeting videos of him casually winning headers or NOT getting turned in the box. For most American fans, Miazga’s Vitesse revolution was not televised. It was a blurb, or at most an actual story you read on the can at work before actually watching guys like Acosta and Paul Arriola play soccer at night and on weekends.

Okay, but why watch Miazga specifically in this match? Great question Jon, thought you’d never ask.

Miazga should be one of Bruce Arena’s projected starters in this tournament, and that means he’ll likely have to deal with the teeth of a Ghanaian attack that includes Asamoah Gyan and red-hot US-based forwards David Accam and Kwadwo Poku. That trio may not take the field together to start the match, but together they probably represent at least as significant an offensive threat as any team the US could face in the Gold Cup itself. Gyan is still only 31, and he’s every bit the post-up donk of a target striker you remember from South Africa and his English Premier League days. Oh, and he’s far and away the guy Miazga would choose to deal with out of the aforementioned bunch. Miazga likes a wresting match. That we know and respect. But his response to Accam and Poku could be more telling. They’ll run at the American defense, and either is a threat at any given time to run right by his marker (gangly markers like Miazga are especially likely targets). My initial thought is that Miazga will deal well with those threats as long as their direct, but I live in fear of his response to the odd effectively creative play from guys that carry the speed threat of Accam and Poku. I guess I should just be glad Andre Ayew didn’t make the trip. Then again, if this team meets up with Mexico or full strength Costa Rica (Bryan Ruiz & Joel Campbell) in the upcoming tournament, I may end up wishing Ghana brought the Super Ayew Bros. to put Miazga to the real stress test.

 Prediction: USA 2-2 Ghana

 Another tightly contested match in this Word Cup created rivalry. Dom Dwyer gets his first in his new colors, and Asamoah Gyan (Gyan Asamoah?) scores on the US again. On to the Gold Cup!

Theo Sakyi is a journalist in London. His work has appeared at various outlets, including the African and Asian website Sandals and Goalposts. Follow him on Twitter @TKSakyi. 

Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon. 

Jon Levy co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @TYAC_Jon.

Neil W. Blackmon