Of the five countries Bob Bradley and Egypt could have drawn in the African World Cup qualifying playoffs, none carried the same sort of context as Ghana could to the most compelling soccer story in the world involving an American. So maybe we shouldn’t have been all that surprised when Ghana emerged from the African World Cup qualifying playoff draw as Egypt’s opponent.
It was Ghana, after all, that handed Bradley and the U.S. national team a bitter defeat in the 2010 World Cup Round of 16, four years after eliminating the Americans from the 2006 World Cup. The same Ghana that most recently humbled the U.S. Under-20 national team at the Under-20 World Cup.
Ghana is every bit the bogey team of the USA, but if there is a team that just might help an American find success against the Black Stars, it could be Bradley’s Egypt team. Egypt has a good track record against Ghana through the years (a 10-6-5 all-time record vs. Ghana), and as much as the reaction in the USA to the draw was one of concern for Egypt’s chances, the sense among Egyptians is that Ghana was actually a good draw.
That sentiment overlooks the fact that Egypt’s last meeting vs. Ghana was a 3-0 loss in January of this year (though Egypt fielded a weakened squad missing its European-based players in that match). It also didn’t take into account the success Ghana has had against Americans, and specifically Bradley.
Realistically, it shouldn’t, because the team Bradley will put on the field in October to face Ghana will not be the USA, but rather an Egyptian team that has yet to lose in World Cup qualifying. A team fighting through the adversity of playing for a country embroiled in political strife. Where instability has led to the cancellation of the pro soccer league’s season and threatens to jeopardize the national team’s chances of having a true home-field advantage when Ghana visits Egypt in November for the second leg.
“We are ready for the matches and I’m personally hoping that we can play the second leg in front of our fans,” Bradley told Egyptian media after Monday’s draw, referring to the national team’s recent trend of playing matches behind closed doors to avoid any politically driven clashes or ugly scenes.
“The attendance of fans would really boost the team in such a crucial clash,” Bradley added.
Though they won’t be in Egypt to cheer Bradley’s team on, Egypt has gained a legion of fans here in the USA, where Bradley’s story, and the way he has led the Pharaohs through so much adversity, has made him a folk hero (and the subject of two movies). As much as he had his share of critics during his time as USA head coach despite a strong record (one that included the 2007 Gold Cup title, 2009 Confederations Cup Final appearance and group victory in the 2010 World Cup), Bradley has earned international respect and admiration for the way he has led Egypt’s national team, and represented it off the field.
Bradley has already accomplished more than most would have expected given the circumstances faced by Egypt, but his ultimate goal still lies ahead. Securing a place in the 2014 World Cup is seen as just what Egypt needs to unite a divided country, and would offer a measure of revenge against Ghana for both Bradley and the USA.
The Egyptian national team will have two countries rooting for it when the playoffs take place in October and November, and as difficult as the task may seem, there is something that just feels perfect about the circumstances. What better way to cap a dream run to Egypt’s first World Cup since 1990 than by vanquishing the very Ghana team that has been such a problem for the USA, and handed Bradley that painful World Cup defeat in 2010.
The scenario has the potential for a storybook ending, but the hard work remains, and chances are Bradley isn’t too worried about settling a score with Ghana. He has a nation’s hopes to worry about, and at least two more games to make Egypt’s World Cup dream a reality.
IS KLINSMANN’S QUALIFYING PROMISE A PRACTICAL ONE?
Soon after the dust had settled following the USA’s World Cup-clinching win vs. Mexico last week, the attention turned to October’s World Cup qualifiers and just what Jurgen Klinsmann would do with them.
Would he go the traditional route, forgoing calling in regulars in favor of staying local with MLS players on the fringes of the national team? Would he tap into the considerable amount of young European-based talent, and take on European clubs that wouldn’t be too keen on having their players traveling long distances to play in games that really didn’t matter?
Klinsmann surprised most on Monday when he proclaimed that he would field the strongest possible team for October’s friendlies. The declaration sounded ambitious, if impractical, and we are left to decipher just how serious Klinsmann is about bringing in an “A” team in October.
Don’t be so sure. In some cases, like with a Tim Howard, it would seem a bit unreasonable not to give a veteran a rest. Why not give the 34-year-old Howard some time off given the rigors of an English Premier League season, especially with Brad Guzan and even Nick Rimando capable of handling the goalkeeping duties?
The same can be said for Jermaine Jones, who turns 32 in November and is playing through the heavy load of Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League matches. Players such as Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson, who are logging heavy minutes in top leagues, could also be left with their clubs to help them deal with the work load of a long season.
This doesn’t mean Klinsmann can’t field a strong team for October’s qualifiers. He could absolutely have a team that would be significantly stronger than the teams we have seen play out the string after already qualifying in the past. Here is what one such team could look like:
GOALKEEPERS- Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando, Sean Johnson
DEFENDERS- Brad Evans, Eric Lichaj, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson, John Brooks, DaMarcus Beasley, Edgar Castillo
MIDFIELDERS- Michael Bradley, Mix Diskerud, Kyle Beckerman, Sacha Kljestan, Graham Zusi, Landon Donovan, Alejandro Bedoya, Joe Corona
FORWARDS- Jozy Altidore, Eddie Johnson, Aron Johannsson, Terrence Boyd
This roster would still leave Klinsmann with the potential for a strong veteran defense and solid midfield, as well as his top attacking options minus Dempsey.
If Klinsmann does bring a squad this strong, or even stronger, the USA could definitely close out the Hexagonal Round of World Cup qualifying with a pair of victories, and some serious momentum heading into 2014.