MANAUS, Brazil – The United States has been awarded a penalty kick in 3.4 percent of its World Cup games. Its opponent on Monday, Ghana, has earned a penalty more than 55 percent of the time, according to figures compiled by MLSsoccer.com.
If that is a continuing trend, and not just a quirky statistic, the U.S. is in trouble heading into its first game of the tournament when it takes on the powerful African side in Natal.
"It is an advantage for us," Ghana defender John Boye told reporters. "It is one of the things that we do well."
Ghana has become the U.S.'s nemesis, knocking it out of the last two tournaments. The Black Stars are determined to give Jurgen Klinsmann's Americans serious trouble this time around as well.
They also have become the penalty kick masters of the World Cup. While the Americans have won just a single PK in 29 World Cup matches, converted by Landon Donovan against Ghana in a 2-1 second-round defeat four years ago, the Ghanaians have taken a penalty in five of their nine tournament appearances.
It is a small sample size but still a staggering number. Consider that Germany has taken nine penalties in World Cup matches, four more than Ghana. But when the Germans take on Portugalin Salvador on Monday, the match will be their country's 100th World Cup game.
Four of Ghana's penalty kicks were converted. The lone exception was Asamoah Gyan's infamous miss in the 2010 quarterfinal against Uruguay that cost the Black Stars a place in history as Africa's first World Cup semifinalist.
So why does the ref blow the whistle in their favor so much? Tactical expert Trevor James, a longtime coach in Major League Soccer and current head of scouting for the Chicago Fire, believes Ghana, like many teams, actively seek situations where its players are likely to draw fouls in key areas of the field.
"As a style of play, Ghana would be more direct in the final third of the field, with the advantage of power, pace and a change of speed," James said.
"That means the U.S. will need to be patient as they will be baited in to concede free kicks and penalties around the box," he added. "But they must not drop too deep and be forced into making risky last-ditch tackles. Defend smarter and earlier."
That wasn't the case in two of the Americans' warm-up games. Against Turkey at Red Bull Arena on June 1, Timmy Chandler let a Turkish attacker blow by him, and the ensuing cross was handled by Geoff Cameron leading to a successful penalty in a 2-1 U.S. victory.
Six days later in Jacksonville, Matt Besler conceded a late PK after an error from Omar Gonzalez left him exposed and forced him into a hasty challenge. That penalty also was converted in another 2-1 American win.
Ghana thrashed a competent Egypt side in the African qualifying playoffs and its physical style figures to be tougher to cope with than either Turkey or Nigeria, especially with attacking threats like Gyan and Kevin Prince Boateng.
However, despite the numbers, penalties might actually be a thorny issue. Kicks from the spot have an odd place in the psyche of soccer players, and some countries are tortured by them.Italy was, too, before erasing its demons by winning the 2006 final in a shootout.
Gyan was tormented by his last-minute failure against Uruguay in 2010, although it made him a celebrity. As Yahoo Sports reported at the time, Nelson Mandela reached out to him to offer support and the pair met two days later. Gyan briefly quit international soccer and could only be persuaded to return when it was promised that he would never have to take a penalty.
On Monday, there is no doubt that keeping Gyan quiet will be among Klinsmann's primary concerns. The American central defensive duo, most likely Besler and Cameron, are both World Cup rookies. Besler plays for Sporting Kansas City in Major League Soccer and makes $200,000 a year. Gyan plays for Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates league on a contract that pays him $10 million a year, tax free.
"It is not about individuals, and I think our strongest point is the unity in our camp," Gyan told 7mSport. "So we've got confidence. Expectation back home is high. Everybody wants to make sure we prove ourselves once again in a World Cup.
"We have been rated as underdogs in the group, which we are happy about. For the past eight years, we have been rated as underdogs but we always prove people wrong."
The U.S. needs to be at its peak. And when Ghana's mobile attacking unit presses forward, the Americans will need to hold their nerve or face the harshest penalty of all.
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