Matt Besler, watching television in his hotel rool on Thursday, got a not-so-gentle reminder that the World Cup is underway as Brazil scored two goals in the second half of its 3-1 opening day victory over Croatia.
“It really felt like this whole thing kicked off,” Besler said Friday. “I heard the entire city of Sao Paulo roar and it gave me chills. The energy of the country — it’s finally here.”
Midfielder Graham Zusi, Besler’s Sporting Kansas City teammate, summed up his feelings in one word.
“Excitement. The best way I can put it,” he said. “It’s been such a long road to see a kickoff. Last night ... made it real for us.”
Besler, Zusi and the rest of the U.S. Men’s National Team will have to wait until Monday for their World Cup debut against Ghana in Natal.
Even in his “time off,” as a player, the game turned out to be a learning experience for Besler when Brazilian striker Fred went down in the penalty area on minimal contact by Dejan Lovren. That turned into the winning penalty kick by Neymar in the 71st minute.
“As a defender, that was a tough one to see, but it was a good one to see,” Besler said. “It’s a lesson that some of us learned just by watching. It’s going to be called tight in the penalty box, so we’ve got to be careful.”
Ghana has been the United States’ nemesis in the last two World Cups, eliminating them in both competitions. The U.S. needs a win and three points over the African side is needed if it wants to have any chance of surviving Group G, the so-called “Group of Death,” with Germany and Portugal.
“We want to win very badly,” Besler said. “It’s possible there’s a little bit of a revenge factor, but for me there’s none. That’s mostly the fans.”
There hasn’t much said about the last two U.S. vs. Ghana encounters among the U.S. Men’s Team players. The past is not an issue.
“It’s obviously a good story line, but we’re focused on this year, here and now,” Zusi said. “It’s a different year. We’re going to do the best we can to get a good result.”
The U.S. men’s players fine-tuned themselves for Monday’s match with a 2-0 win over Nigeria in a tune-up match June 7 in Jacksonville, Fla. They used a slightly altered defensive look, putting Kyle Beckerman alongside Jermaine Jones as a holding defensive midfielder. That allowed midfielder Michael Bradley to push forward more.
It worked quite well.
“You saw glimpses of it in that game,” Zusi said. “They’re similar teams. We do our good defensive work and contest them on counters. Our fitness level late in the game will prove vital, like it did in Jacksonville.”
Still, Ghana will be a challenge.
“Ghana poses a lot of different threats,” Besler said. “We want to play our game. We want to high press. We want to keep the ball, drive the game, but we have to be more careful. We have to be smart. There will be times when it’s best to drop off, get numbers behind the ball. We have to be patient, recognize the moment.”
The U.S. team must fly to all three of its group matches and will log 8,800 miles, the most in the first round among the 32 teams. Besler, however, said that won’t be a hindrance.
“We have experience doing it,” he said. “It’s nothing new to us. The way our region is set up in CONCACAF, we’re flying around to Central America and Mexico for almost every match. It’s a five-, six-hour flight every single time. We have a number of MLS guys on the squad, too, who do it every week. So it’s not going to be an issue for us. If anything, we’re going to use it to our advantage.”