PRETORIA, South Africa -- Fortunes really do change in an instant, don't they? Especially in such a dramatic, theatrical one.
One minute things looked so bleak for the United States soccer team. Now, just like that, the path into the semifinals looks brightly lit and not even so scary.
For winning Group C on Wednesday, the United States avoids Germany in the second round. (That's England's problem, now). Instead, a confident American camp will prep for an elimination match against Ghana on Saturday in Rustenburg, inside the same stadium where the South African adventure began two weeks ago.
If Bob Bradley's team can navigate the short turn and maneuver past the second-round date with the Africans, the Uruguay-South Korea winner awaits.
Bradley, looking and sounding slightly more relaxed Thursday, although still perennially businesslike, emphasized that moving beyond the first round was always the team's first goal, but not the only one.
"It's important to understand that," he said during Thursday's press conference at the Irene Farm, across from the well-secured team lodge in suburban Pretoria. "The way we always discussed it was with the understanding that first you have to get out of your group; that's three games and I think we've seen in this World Cup that results don't always go as expected.
"We feel good about the way we handled the first round, the different challenges and the way we responded along the way," Bradley said. "But now we get to the knockout phase, it's an opportunity to see how far you can take it. You can feel good about getting there, but you have to put that behind you and focus on your next opponent and that's where we are."
Ghana may be the only African side that gets into elimination play, even in a tournament that held so much hope for six nations appearing from the host continent. The Black Stars were also the only African side to emerge from group play in 2006, achieving at the expense of the Americans; Ghana's 2-1 win over Bruce Arena's team as first-round play concluded also served to eliminate the United States.
Now Bradley's team, which had been just 270 seconds from elimination and an unfortunate branding as a winless squad at South Africa 2010, is a win away from matching the country's finest World Cup yet, the quarterfinal appearance in 2002.
The Americans will face a talented, mobile Ghanaian team, one built largely on the young squad that won the FIFA Under-20 World Championships a year ago in Egypt.
The short turn will affect both teams. Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, captain Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have played every minute here so far. Jozy Altidore has played all but four. So team fitness coach Peirre Barrieu and the U.S. trainers are on the spot. Bocanegra mentioned Thursday how many of the American players are fairly accustomed to Wednesday-Saturday sets in Europe and elsewhere. Donovan mentioned how many times European-based players have met their club obligations on Saturday or Sunday, and then traveled across seven or eight times zones to pull World Cup qualifier duty in the Americas. So he didn't think the limited rest period would be an issue either.
Ghana faces the same quick turn. So, how did the Black Stars, coached by Serbian Milovan Rajevac, arrive here?
Standing up well against the burden of expectation and dealing admirably with the injury loss of inspirational midfielder Michael Essien, Ghana started with a 1-0 win over Serbia. That was in the same stadium, Loftus Versfeld in the nation's administrative capital, where the Americans staged their heroics against Algeria.
Despite an entertaining night full of pacey attacking by the Ghanaians, they still needed a late penalty by Asamoah Gyan to overcome the well-organized Serbians.
Beachhead established, the effort moved on, if a little sluggishly in a 1-1 draw with Australia, which was reduced to 10 men after Harry Kewell was sent off for handball along the goal line. Gyan converted the penalty kick again, but the Black Stars could not turn up the game winner.
Rajevac hinted his team might be happy with a goalless draw to wrap up group stage Wednesday against Germany, but the Africans menaced their European foe just the same, especially down the left. Gyan's header needed to be cleared off the line by German vet Philip Lahm, and Kwadwo Asamoah went through only to be thwarted by Germany's onrushing goalkeeper. The Germans found their goal in the 1-0 win, but Ghana pressed to the end and was able to sneak through on a better goal difference than Australia.
If the Ghanaians probe the left side again, they'll run smack into right back Steve Cherundolo, who may be having the best tournament of any American, all things considered. Donovan mentioned again Thursday, just as he did in the wild, emotional aftermath of Wednesday night's high drama, how well the defense did. He singled out Cherundolo, remarking on doing less defending than he can remember for some time, as the U.S. right back was able to contain Nadir Belhadj on his own.
Bradley spoke Thursday about the big change in defense, subtracting the struggling Oguchi Onyewu. The U.S. coach said a lot of things went into the decision, including the desire to get a more attack-minded, fresh presence along the left. So Jonathan Bornstein played there, while Bocanegra ably policed the central area alongside Jay DeMerit.
Ghana may have good team accord, but it really can't be any better than what the United States has cultivated here. Time and again, the tightly stitched bonds and the effective camaraderie, the desire to fight for one another, comes up with this U.S group. This is Donovan's third World Cup, and he said the locker room has never been so harmonious. The 2002 quarterfinalist had a good locker room, Donovan said, but it wasn't nearly as experienced as this version.
"I think we now have a really good group of guys that believe they can pull off anything, and these three games have boosted that feeling even more," Donovan said.