It's not the World Cup, but USA vs. Ghana still has plenty riding on it in 2017

After three consecutive meetings in the World Cup, the USA and Ghana meet again in a friendly as each team prepares for important fixtures to come
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The national teams representing Ghana and the USA now have one more connection, in addition to the trio of dramatic World Cup meetings, the host of Black Star players who’ve made their way to North America and the friendly between the sides scheduled Saturday afternoon in Connecticut.

Each squad, both World Cup regulars, found themselves in a deep hole as the final round of qualifying got underway.

The Americans’ 0–2–0 start cost former coach Jurgen Klinsmann his job. His replacement, Bruce Arena, has helped stabilize the campaign and after two wins and two draws, the USA is in third place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal. It now has the luxury of entering the upcoming Gold Cup, the continental championship tournament, with a younger, more experimental squad. Arena likely has a World Cup to plan for, and this Gold Cup should give him a much clearer picture of the entire player pool as the summer of 2018 approaches.

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Ghana would relish that scenario. African qualifying isn’t as forgiving as CONCACAF’s, and the region isn’t so top heavy. After a home draw against Uganda and a loss at Egypt last fall, the Black Stars are 0–1–1 and already five points behind the Pharaohs in their four-team group. Only the first-place finisher moves on to Russia next summer.

Following Avram Grant's resignation, Ghana turned back to 2014 World Cup coach James Kwesi Appiah. The Stars are 1–1–1 since he took over, including this week’s 1–0 loss to Mexico’s Gold Cup squad in Houston. Qualifying starts back up again in August, and there’s not much runway left. There will be players on Appiah’s team eager to make a good impression Saturday, just like their American counterparts. It should be enough to add a bit more spice to a friendly that already comes with several subplots.

Alejandro Bedoya, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi are the only members of Arena’s Gold Cup team who were on the field three years ago in Natal, Brazil, where the Americans finally got the best of Ghana. That was the trio’s only experience playing the Black Stars, and Saturday’s friendly is the first between the countries. The importance of prior USA-Ghana games might suggest the countries are fierce rivals, but the infrequency makes it difficult to stoke much antagonism. Teams change over a four-year cycle, and Clint Dempsey is the only American player to appear in each of the three World Cup matches between the sides.

“Not really, nah,” Besler told reporters this week when asked about Ghana’s status as a rival. “This is another game for us. It’s going to be a big challenge. Ghana is a very talented team and they’re going to present a lot of challenges for us. It’s a great team to face as we prepare for the Gold Cup.”

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Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, each of whom faced Ghana at two World Cups, echoed that sentiment in interviews with ESPN. They believe it's less about rivalry and more about the strange coincidence that these two very different countries continue coming together. Each of their three matches has been tight and tense. Each ended 2-1, and each helped seal the loser’s World Cup fate. But on a personal level, there were fewer common threads.

“In 2014, it was honestly never talked about that 'Oh, Ghana beat us in '06 and 2010 and now we have to come out and beat them.' There was a little extra motivation, but a lot of guys weren't even in those World Cups, so it was tough to have it feel like a rivalry with Ghana,” Beasley told ESPN.

“It just seemed more coincidental I guess," Donovan added. "It just seemed like in the draws or the way the tournaments worked out, you always ended up playing them. 'How did we get Ghana again?’"

The games were oh so memorable, however. There was the Dempsey goal and the controversial penalty called on Oguchi Onyewu in 2006. Four years later in the round-of-16, Donovan drew the USA level but the exhausted Americans ran out of steam and fell in overtime. Then in Natal, Klinsmann’s squad started strong, defended like mad and finally got the upper hand thanks to John Brooks’ late, stunning header off a Zusi corner kick.

For Besler and his current teammates, Saturday’s match isn’t connected to that history. It’s about establishing chemistry, giving Arena some tough choices to make and getting ready for the July 8 Gold Cup opener against Panama--and a run they hope will end in Santa Clara, California at the July 26 final.

But it’s hard not to imagine that Besler, Bedoya and Zusi won’t have flashbacks to 2014 when they see the likes of Asamoah Gyan and John Boye line up for the Black Stars at Rentschler Field. Fans will remember, and it’ll surely be mentioned during the ESPN broadcast. And it’s not lost on the Ghanaians, who never recovered from the loss in Natal and finished the 2014 World Cup winless. Some of them do feel something brewing with the USA. If that adds an edge to Saturday’s game, the Americans will be better for it.

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“There is clearly a rivalry developing between us and them] because of the games that have been played at World Cup level. They have always been tough games with so much at stake, which has naturally always increased the intensity,” Kewsi Appiah told ESPN.

Ghana assistant Stephen Appiah, who scored the disputed penalty that knocked the USA out of the ’06 World Cup, told ESPN, "It will be easy to say this is just a friendly game but there is recent history between us so it won't simply be just a friendly game. There is also a big Ghanaian community there, so it adds an extra edge to the game. But as a coach I am clear in my mind about what I want from the game. It is an opportunity to continue to build a strong team, the chance to see a few new players and build momentum.”

The community Appiah referenced represents another interesting tie between the countries. American pro soccer has been impacted by significant Ghanaian seasoning. There will be six Black Stars on Saturday who currently play in the USA. Three are with the Columbus Crew—Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah and Mohammed Abu. The Chicago Fire’s David Accam is coming off a hat trick against Orlando City. New England Revolution midfielder Gershon Koffie will hope to make his international debut. And Miami FC forward Kwado Poku, formerly of New York City FC, will be on a high following this week’s US Open Cup heroics against Atlanta United.

They’re the latest in a relatively long line of Ghanaians who’ve played in MLS—far more than any other African country. Dominic Oduro, Emmanuel Boateng, Kalif Alhassan, Adam Kwarasey, Kofi Opare, Patrick Nyarko and Lloyd Sam are among those who’ve made recent impressions. Abu Danladi, the first pick in this year’s MLS draft by Minnesota United, and Philadelphia Union and USA U-20 midfielder Derrick Jones, are from Ghana. So is the most famous teenager in American soccer history, Freddy Adu.

Danladi and the 2016 No. 2 pick, Joshua Yaro, are among the players who came to the USA through the Right to Dream Academy, a school and training center in eastern Ghana that offers scholarships, education and competitive opportunities to youth players. From there, select graduates have matriculated at US boarding/prep schools and then gone on to college. That pipeline should continue to strengthen the soccer bond between the countries.

And so will Saturday’s game, even if only slightly. Players and coaches on both sides have far more pressing matters to deal with. Few have experienced the rivalry, or whatever it is, first hand. But just hearing the words “USA-Ghana”, seeing the flags and hearing the anthems will conjure feelings in some, whether they’re on the field or in the stands, few other friendlies can.