After all the tension, feel good features, group previews, arguments about diamonds vs. Christmas trees, the Landon Donovan situation, lineup quibbles, style discussions, managing expectations, outward optimism, inward pessimism, coaching pragmatism and any other -ism that applies, the moment of truth has arrived.
The United States men’s national team will finally take the field this World Cup in Natal against Ghana (5 p.m. Monday on ESPN).
Stuck in a Group of Death, a win for the United States is almost (but not quite) imperative in the opener. (Really, a draw with Ghana is OK if Portugal and Germany draw in the earlier game. That would then make the game against Portugal a must-win.)
How can the United States beat Ghana?
Let’s put out the orange cones, pull on a penny and get a little tactical warm-up in.
Conserve energy and counter quickly
The heat and humidity of Brazil (and possibly buckets and buckets of rain) will be an issue for every team. Already, we’ve seen a few teams — notably the Netherlands — adopt a counter-attacking posture to great effect.
In the warm-up match against Nigeria (in hot and humid Jacksonville — not quite the Amazon, but possibly less attractive as a living destination), we potentially saw a preview of a style the United States might employ: Drop the line of confrontation*, keep a compact defensive shape and spring vertically into attack in transition.
*How far up the field a team presses.
It’s a patient approach that invites the other team to expend energy and then turn that energy against them by attacking into the space behind as quickly as possible. (If you’re a basketball fan, think of it as a fast break.)
Watch how quickly and efficiently the U.S. transitions into attack a full hour into the game against Nigeria.
This won’t be how the U.S. plays for all 90 minutes and it isn’t “parking the bus.” Klinsmann’s style through qualifying and the last series of friendlies has also valued some time in possession too. But, even in possession, conserving energy and picking a spot to pounce should still be part of the plan.
Ghana is a talented, smart and experienced team — in 2010, they were a missed penalty away from being the first African country to qualify for the semifinals. They will likely adopt a counter-attacking posture too. In fact, it’s often their default setting.
Out wide, the Ayew brothers (Jordan and Andre) have world-class speed. Centrally, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Asamoah Gyan are big and mobile. All four are good finishers.
A misplaced back pass, a missed rotation in the midfield, a poorly timed run by a fullback, a lost assignment on a set piece — whatever the mistake, Ghana has the ability to make the U.S. pay.
Start strong and keep Jozy Altidore involved
At the 2010 World Cup, the United States had this pesky problem of putting themselves in a deep a hole early. Steven Gerrard scored in the fourth-minute for England. Slovenia had a 2-0 lead by halftime. Boateng had Ghana on the board five minutes into the Round of 16 game.
That can’t happen in this group. Klinsmann must get his tactics right at the start and the first 20 minutes will be crucial.
Getting striker Jozy Altidore involved and engaged early will help with this. As the lone out-right forward (Clint Dempsey will drop deep and pop up in multiple positions), the offense either needs to run through Altidore (via passes and hold-up play) or he needs to run through the offense (via intelligent off-ball movement). If he drifts (mentally or physically), the team will lose shape trying to overcompensate.
The U.S. doesn’t really need Altidore to score wonder goals to have a chance. They just need him to score when the chances are presented to him. Remember: Tap-ins count the same as every other goal.
I want you to watch how the U.S. builds to that goal again. It was very deliberate. The goal started with Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and Tim Howard building out of the back and creating vertical space to move and pass. Jermaine Jones’ run across the midfield to receive the pass from the Cameron peels open Nigeria’s midfield like a knife through butter. Fabian Johnson’s deep secondary run into the gap (like a free safety on a blitz) causes confusion in the box. Altidore moves through the play to get in position to clean up in the six-yard box.
That’s a goal based on technique, pace and space. It’s also not a goal I’m used to watching the U.S. score with regularity. It’s a goal that Klinsmann has been building us toward expecting.
Mind the Asamoahs
The best striker for Ghana is a player American fans know all too well, Asamoah Gyan. He scored the winner four years ago to knock the U.S. out of South Africa.
Cameron and Besler cannot let him drift into space behind or between them. It will also be important for Michael Bradley — likely at the tip of the American’s midfield diamond — to pressure Ghana’s deeper midfielders and deny them from playing balls directly through the middle to Gyan.
If Gyan is allowed to hold up play and pull either of the Ayew’s into the play, they can maraud with speed right at the defense.
The other Asamoah (first name: Kwadwo) is probably lesser known. Which is a shame, because he’s a brilliant player for Juventus. While he’s usually a defensive midfielder for his club, Ghana has need for him as a left back. This is both a blessing and a curse for the Yanks.
The move takes one of Ghana’s best passers out of the middle of the park. But, if you’ve been paying attention to the World Cup thus far, slick-passing advanced fullbacks have been tearing teams apart. There will be a lot of pressure on the right side of the U.S. defense — Fabian Johnson and, potentially, Graham Zusi, will need to work to make him mindful of his defensive responsibilities.
Trust in Timmy
With Tim Howard, the Americans have a distinct advantage on both Ghana and Portugal — a top-flight goalkeeper. Howard will be responsible for keeping a very inexperienced back line organized and is the last-line of protection should everything break down.
He’s up for the challenge. In hockey, a hot goalkeeper can make a decent team hard to knock out. It can work in soccer too — see Kahn, Oliver in 2002 and Buffon, Gianluigi in 2006. Howard has that potential.
Don’t believe Klinsmann
The pragmatic German coach caused a bit of a stir when he told The New York Times that “the U.S. cannot win the World Cup.” He said that because, well, he’s a pragmatic German.
Getting out of a group with Portugal, Ghana and Germany will be hard enough without everyone expecting the United States to win the whole tournament.
He also said it because, well, it’s the truth. The World Cup is tough — only eight countries have won in 19 tournaments. (England and France won their only Cups at home too.)
While Klinsmann is being realistic about the expectations, this isn’t how most Americans function when it comes to sports. I don’t want to get to cliche here, but Americans have to believe that we will win. So, forget what Klinsmann tells the media about expectations. Just believe.
Soccer is a fluid game and, as we’ve seen already in the Costa Uruguay game, anything can happen in a single 90-minute match
Prediction: The USA wins 2-1