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PRETORIA, South Africa -- For the first time since 2002, and only the third time since 1930, the U.S. finds itself in the later stages of the World Cup. The good news is that by finishing first in Group C, the Americans have managed to avoid heavyweights like Germany and Argentina. The bad news is that they'll next face Ghana -- which barring a miracle from Ivory Coast will be the only remaining African team in the tournament Saturday. Translation: Ghana will have the entire continent behind it.
For the U.S., this match still falls into the "winnable" category, but it'll have to be on top of its game in several key areas. Here's what the Americans need to do to emerge victorious:
The U.S. expended a huge amount of physical and emotional energy in defeating Algeria 1-0, a win that saw the team go from almost exiting the tournament to claiming the top spot in its group. But with just two days of rest between the Algeria game and Saturday's round of 16 match, the Americans will need to regroup quickly. The opportunity in front of them is one that doesn't come around often. With the bracket looking favorable, a trip to the semifinals isn't out of the question. That fact alone should ensure that the U.S. doesn't become satisfied with what it's already accomplished.
The Americans produced their best defensive performance of the tournament against Algeria and they'll need to do the same to reach the quarterfinals. That will require limiting the influence of wide midfielders Andre Ayew and Prince Tagoe, who revel in getting wide and running at defenders. The late runs of midfielders Kevin-Prince Boateng and Kwadwo Asamoah will bear watching as well.
The U.S. benefited from a more aggressive mindset against Algeria. This was accomplished, in part, by continually pushing right back Steve Cherundolo into the attack. Cherundolo's runs and crosses caused havoc in the Algeria defense. If he can reprise that role Saturday, it may be just the thing to pull Ghana's stingy defense out of shape.
Ghana is a notoriously physical side. The Americans would do well to remember the 2006 World Cup encounter between the two teams, when a crunching tackle on Claudio Reyna not only set up the Black Stars' first goal, but also sent Reyna out of the game with a knee injury. The U.S. is at its best when setting a match's physical tone, so it will have to match Ghana tackle for tackle.
Aside from the second half against England, the U.S. has possessed the ball decently in this tournament, and as a consequence it has been able to find primary attackers Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan. For this to continue against Ghana, it will require the Americans to win the battle in the center of the park. The matchup of Boateng and Anthony Annan against the likely U.S. pairing of Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu will be one to watch.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.