There is something almost noble about Asamoah Gyan. He is a front-runner par excellence, an uncomplaining and magnificently industrious figure, one of the lonest of lone strikers. Throughout this tournament he has chased and harried, taken a buffeting and held the ball up while looking far into the distance for teammates to support him, and against the U.S. he had his reward, walloping a majestic finish to ensure that, even at 24, his legend is secure. The trials of 2008, when the Ghanaian press's criticism became so virulent at the Cup of Nations he had to be persuaded not to walk out on the squad seem long forgotten.
Given the thanklessness of the job he has done over the past two years, it was appropriate his goal should come from just the sort of isolated, seemingly hopeless position in which he has so regularly operated. Jay DeMerit did not have the happiest of nights and, having been exposed for the first goal, he was outmuscled by Gyan who, as the ball bounced up kindly, unleashed a mighty finish. That it had even come to that, though, that Gyan was left isolated and that the game even went to extra time, was the result of Bob Bradley's tactical acuity.
His gift for reading a game and his decisiveness in reacting are laudable, and have had an impact in each of the U.S. team's last three games, but the question has to be raised of why so many games end up having to be wrenched in the U.S.' favor in the first place. Against Ghana, the U.S. began with the usual 4-4-2, with Ricardo Clark alongside Michael Bradley at the back of the midfield. That was the pairing that had faced England, and the logic was presumably similar; to negate the Ghanaian midfield through tenacity. Against Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard it had worked; against Anthony Annan and Kevin Prince-Boateng it did not.
This was a changed Ghana. In this tournament they had operated with five midfielders operating deep, only breaking forward occasionally, which is why Gyan has so often been isolated. Here, though, the introduction of Samuel Inkoom for Prince Tagoe gave them greater balance and flexibility. He is more usually a right back, and he offered such cover on that flank that John Pantsil was often able to slide across and become almost an auxiliary center back. As a result, on the rare occasions the ball was worked to Jozy Altidore, who lost the physical battle against John Mensah, and Robbie Findley, they were quickly outnumbered. Equally, Hans Sarpei, the left back, was liberated enough to push on and support the magnificent Dede Ayew on the left side of midfield.
The overall result was that, with Anthony Annan sitting deep in front of the back four, Ghana had an array of breakers from midfield, pushing on to give Gyan greater support than he has enjoyed at any previous time in the tournament. It was from one such break after five minutes that Kevin Price-Boateng gave Ghana the lead, as he dispossessed Clark, was able to run unchallenged from halfway, sweep by DeMerit and drive low past Tim Howard.
With players breaking from midfield with far greater regularity than they had at any point during the group stage, Ghana were superb for half an hour, passing the ball crisply and making the U.S. look sluggish. This was brilliant, coherent soccer, and it seemed for a while that the U.S. might never get into the game. The only downside from Ghana's point of view was that, not for the first time, possession didn't lead to chances. Aside from the goal, Ghana had only a couple of half chances, and given the way the U.S.' stamina had dragged them through the games against Slovenia and Algeria, a one-goal lead was never likely to be enough.
The change came when Clark, having been booked for a foul on Boateng was withdrawn for Maurice Edu. With Landon Donovan tucking in, the U.S. was suddenly able to restrict Ghana's passing, and a chance for Findley drifting in from the right suggested just how the momentum had shifted. That process continued after halftime as Benny Feilhaber was brought on for Findley, who offers pace but little in the way of guile. With Dempsey operating as a partner for Altidore, and Feilhaber on the left, the U.S. looked far better balanced.
The U.S.' penalty followed an extended spell of pressure, such that an equalizer had begun to seem inevitable. Dempsey, in his central role, beat John Mensah, ran on and was clearly chopped down by Jonathan Mensah, who struggled a little. He will miss the quarterfinal through suspension, but with Isaac Vorsah perhaps able to return after a knee injury and Lee Addy standing by, that may not be a bad thing. Mensah admitted afterwards that when Donovan converted the penalty he felt the game slipping away, but Ghana did not wilt as Slovenia and Algeria had done.
Ghana showed flickers of a rally in the final 20 minutes, but it was after Milovan Rajevac had spoken to his side at the end of the 90 minutes that that rally became something more definitive. Gyan again became an isolated figure as Ghana again packed the midfield, Annan dropping even deeper, presumably to help counter the threat of Dempsey. It is a system designed to stop the opposition, but a goal nonetheless came, Ayew -- who had a magnificent game, his dribbling such a threat that Steve Cherundolo was wholly neutered as an attacking force -- humping a long ball forward for Gyan.
From then on, it was a case of fairly desperate defense. Ghana simply dropped men behind the ball, spoiled, threw bodies in the way and through a mixture of discipline and desire, held the U.S. out. It is easy to criticize and say the only way Ghana could possibly have scored in the final period was the way it did, with a long ball, but it worked. Rajevac played the percentages and they came down in his favor. Besides, Ghana's first half hour was good enough that it deserved its luck. It will be no consolation to the U.S., but this was a great night for African football, and by extension, for the World Cup.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.