There cannot be a more random set of kindred spirits in the world soccer realm than U.S. Soccer and the Ghana Football Association. Follow AVI CREDITOR on Twitter
Never mind that prior to 2006, the two nations had never met on a soccer field. In the last seven years, though, Ghana has become the USA's cosmic arch-nemesis, put in its path on the world's grandest stage with the Americans facing a do-or-die scenario.
Following senior World Cup meetings in 2006 and 2010, the baton has been passed down to both federations' Under-20 national teams, who are set to carry on what has become an unusual tradition in Thursday's Group A finale in the U-20 World Cup.
The U.S. U-20s put themselves in position to qualify out of the competition's Group of Death by virtue of Monday's 1-1 draw with France. With a U.S. win over Ghana and a Spain win over France, combined with the Americans making up a goal differential deficit of five, Tab Ramos' charges would finish second in Group A.
The more likely path to the knockout round, however, involves a win over Ghana and then having the right set of circumstances play out for the USA to qualify as one of the top four third-place finishers from the six groups.
Either way, like the two senior teams before it, advancement depends on getting a result against the African nation, whose population of roughly 25 million is less than that of Texas. In 2006, the U.S. men had an opportunity to meet lofty expectations and get out of their group in Germany, only to have a controversial penalty whistled on Oguchi Onyewu make the difference in a 2-1 defeat to the upstart Ghanaians, and a stunningly early trip home.
In 2010, Landon Donovan's magical goal against Algeria only got the USA as far as a round of 16 encounter with the more established Black Stars, who persevered by a hauntingly familiar 2-1 scoreline in extra time when Asamoah Gyan delivered a dagger to prematurely end the Americans' run in South Africa.
Now, the U-20s get a taste of the international rivalry, perhaps laying the groundwork for the future based on the relatively recent luck of the USA's draws. Victory won't be easy, though, not after an unwilting Ghana side gave Spain all it could handle in Monday's 1-0 loss.
For some, winning in this competition is secondary, and plenty will debate the value of a U-20 World Cup -- if it is truly about winning, or if it is more about preparing a crop of prospects for big games on the major stage while instilling in them the federation's overall style of play.
Player development, especially for those at such a young age, is obviously important, but much of that responsibility falls on the club system. At a World Cup, no matter the level, teams and players should be showing up to earn international acclaim while trying to develop one thing that matters above all: A culture of winning.
That culture has been barren from the U.S. system in recent years, with Ghana playing its part in stifling the USA's possibilities on the senior level. The youth level, meanwhile, has been chock full of underachievement, going back to the U-20s failing to qualify for the 2011 World Cup, the U-23s failing to qualify for the Olympics and the current U-17s failing to secure a place in this fall's U-17 World Cup.
In the aftermath of the U-23s not qualifying for last summer's Olympics, U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann spoke repeatedly about the opportunities that class of players missed out on by not getting a chance to compete at the Olympics, and how that set those players back in terms of their career progression.
On Thursday in Kayseri, Turkey, winning most definitely matters. The current U-20 generation will have a chance to progress out of the toughest group in the competition and jump-start a legacy of youth level success while ending a bizarre hoodoo that has plagued U.S. Soccer.
But to do so, that means securing a win over Ghana. Of course it does.
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