RUSTENBURG, South Africa - For other countries, a second-round World Cup match is a big step. For the United States, today's game against Ghana is much more.
The television audience back home could top the U.S. national team record of 13.7 million, set during the 1994 World Cup loss to Brazil. And with a victory, the Americans would advance to a quarterfinal match against Uruguay or South Korea.
Confidence is soaring.
"If we continue to build on the successes so far, we can go to the end," coach Bob Bradley said yesterday.
"The way we've been playing, feeling like we've gone undefeated and we've gotten stronger, I think that gives us hope," goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
American sports fans have been focusing on soccer at an unprecedented level. Former President Clinton attended Wednesday's game with Algeria in Pretoria and chugged a postgame beer with team captain Carlos Bocanegra. New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush joined the party. Clinton changed his schedule to stick around for the game with Ghana.
"People were coming out of the woodworks to celebrate," Bocanegra said.
Several MLS teams are hosting viewing parties, and the Kansas City Royals are setting up televisions around Kauffman Stadium so fans can watch while attending the baseball game against the Cardinals.
"You want to have a team that the people who care about . . . and follow that team and root for that team and can feel part of," Bradley said. "A team that people believe in and a team that people are proud of. That's part of our responsibility, and we're excited in the moment that there's that kind of feeling."
While the U.S. finished atop its first-round group for the first time since the first World Cup in 1930, it hasn't won consecutive World Cup games since then, either. And in Ghana, it plays the only one of six African teams to have survived past the group phase. All African fans figure to be supporting the Black Stars.
"Ghana is the African hope now," Ghana defender Samuel Inkoom said. "We aren't going to disappoint them."
Four years ago, the Americans played Ghana in their final first-round game and needed a victory to advance. Ghana went ahead early only for Clint Dempsey to tie it. But the Black Stars won the game on Stephen Appiah's penalty kick after a foul called by German referee Markus Merk against Oguchi Onyewu.
"An injustice," Onyewu said. "I still to this day don't know where the foul came from."
Ghana had just two goals in the group phase, penalty kicks by Asamoah Gyan against Serbia and Australia. Gyan, a teammate of Bocanegra's on Rennes in France, also scored against the Czech Republic in the 2006 World Cup after 68 seconds, the fastest goal of that tournament.
"He's got a great leap. He's really good in the air. He's powerful and fast," Bocanegra said. "He spearheads their attack."
Right back John Pantsil is a teammate of Dempsey's at Fulham in the Premier League, but Ghana is missing its top player, Chelsea star midfielder Michael Essien, out since January with a knee injury. A four-time African champion, the Black Stars lost 1-0 to Egypt in this year's African Cup of Nations final.
Coach Milovan Rajevac is familiar with American soccer, having spent several seasons playing with an indoor team in New York.
"America has grown into a football superpower," he said.
Rajevac said it will be difficult for his team to turn around after just 2 off days between games. The U.S. team, which spent hours last month running wind sprints during training in Princeton, N.J., has no such concerns.
"We're confident. It's pressure, but it's easier to play the Ghana game," Howard said. "We can take it into extra time. We can go to penalties. There's so many formulas that can happen."
The referee will be Victor Kassai, of Hungary, who worked Brazil's 2-1 win over North Korea and Uruguay's 1-0 victory over Mexico. He also refereed the United States' 2-1 loss to Spain at last year's under-17 World Cup.