The Full 90

U.S. national team off to a dream start, but still has work to do

United States' Graham Zusi, center left, controls the ball during a training session in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, June 17, 2014. The United States will play against Portugal in group G of the 2014 soccer World Cup on June 22.
United States' Graham Zusi, center left, controls the ball during a training session in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, June 17, 2014. The United States will play against Portugal in group G of the 2014 soccer World Cup on June 22. AP

It wasn’t quite the soccer revolution that Jurgen Klinsmann promised and many expected from the United States.

The Black Stars outshot (21-8), out-crossed (38-8), out-dueled (65-59) and out-possessed (62%-38%) the United States. The single most telling stat: The U.S. defense was forced into a remarkable 44 clearances.

But, the only stat line that matters much today: United States 2, Ghana 1.

After a shocking early goal from Clint Dempsey and a nearly-as-shocking injury to the indomitable Jozy Altidore, Ghana launched an all-out siege on the U.S. penalty box.

It was sloppy, it was ugly and it was incredibly tense. Faced with seemingly unwinnable situation after seemingly unwinnable situation, the Americans turned in a performance worthy of great American hero Jack Bauer. Brave. Resolute. Determined. Stubborn.

Now that the dust has settled, let’s recap of some of the bigger talking points.

Give ‘em the flanks

A back line consisting of four World Cup debutants (Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and, later, John Brooks), a makeshift left back (DaMarcus Beasley) and a world-class goalkeeper (Tim Howard) nearly perfected a bend-but-don’t-break strategy that forced Ghana to create every offensive move from the flanks. (Mostly, the right flank.)

That wasn’t a common prediction for this game, but it worked.

The whole defense played together and supported each other. After all, you don’t survive an all-out siege without exceptional teamwork and patience.

As for the strategy, by clogging up the middle of the field with midfielders, the United States prevented the Ghanians from creating dangerous 1-v-1 and 2-v-1 situations with the central defenders. The defenders were allowed to see the field and clear danger. Beasley and Cameron deserve some extra kudos for doing their job under severe distress for a very long time.

When Ghana were able to create a combination in or around the box — and get Kwadwo Asamoah involved in the build up — they were lethal.

The U.S. had luck on their side too, as the Ghanians seemed out of attacking ideas for most of the game despite having the lion’s share of the ball. Attacking primarily down the right side, Ghana launched cross after cross after cross. If the central defenders aren’t being tested by direct runs, they can reasonably be expected to clear crosses with ease. That’s sort of a center back’s job description.

They likely won’t be so lucky the next two games. Portugal and Germany aren’t cross-heavy teams. Neither really uses a central target forward as the focus of the attack. (In fact, Germany doesn’t even use a recognized striker.)

Those two teams live in the flanks, but focus their attacking moves inward. Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Gotze, in particular, prefer to start with the ball wide and dribble into the middle — specifically to create 1-v-1 and 2-v-1 situations. Ronaldo is one of the best 1-v-1 dribblers ever.

A “give ‘em the flanks” strategy could be suicide in the next two games.

How did the Sporting KC players perform?

Besler had an outstanding game that, unfortunately, was over too soon as he was pulled from the game at halftime as a “precautionary measure” after tweaking his hamstring. Early reports suggest he is not a concern for the next game.

While Brooks performed well in his place — and got the game-winning goal — the U.S. needs Besler back for the challenges ahead. He has the experience advantage and is a much better distributor.

Graham Zusi, who came on in the 77th minute, was an immediate boost to the U.S. midfield. After struggling for possession, Zusi has the ability to hold onto the ball, settle the game, create a little space for himself and bring others into an attacking move. He should be starting for the U.S. from here on out.

His set-piece delivery ain’t too bad either.

Check out Sam McDowell’s story for more on the local boys.

Up next

The Ghana win should bolster the United States’ confidence. It certainly puts them in a great position right now just behind Germany in Group G. Up next will be a wounded and dangerous Portugal side. The U.S. will have to like their chances based on how inept Portugal looked against Germany.

But, in the immortal words of Han Solo:

The Portugese might be without Pepe (suspension) and left back Fabio Coentrao (injury), but the team still has Cristiano Ronaldo, a player more than capable of turning a game all by himself.

Trouble with the forwards

While it was a dream start, there is still work to be done.

The loss of Jozy Altidore hurts a lot the attack a lot. When Altidore went out — and it looks like he might be out for a while — the U.S. lost the only player it could rely on as an outlet up the field.

While Dempsey is a great player, he’s not going to stretch the field in quite the same way. Also, playing with a broken nose and the inability to breathe probably hampered his mobility.

Aron Johannsson, who came on for Altidore, is far from a like-for-like substitution. He’s a poacher more comfortable getting the ball to his feet from an attacking movement than trying to pull down long passes and hold up the ball for attackers to join.

Will Klinsmann throw Chris Wondolowski out there and let him do the dirty work against Portugal? Does Johannsson get a chance to start and prove he can handle it?

Klinsmann is a little short on options. I wonder what Landon Donovan is doing right now?*

*Though, to be fair, Donovan isn’t a hold-up forward either.

Our man in Brazil

Sporting KC fan and friend of the blog Mark Kapfer is in Brazil with some fellow American Outlaws from KC. I asked him to give me a sense of the scenes in Natal last night. He was kind enough to send respond.

After Dempsey so scored quickly, people went crazy with a mix of OMG that just happened, which was only a minute after having goosebumps with the national anthem/walk out of “I can’t believe we are watching this live, this is amazing” feeling.

As time went on, the nerves started to grow, as we were getting outplayed and didn’t look sharp. The neutral fans started shifting their support to Ghana, and you could tell the equalizer was coming. It almost seemed like an eventuality when they scored. I then began to worry that we would drop the point even.

Fan confidence picked up a bit as we started to actually complete some passes. I was in the process of getting my mini video camera recording for the corner kick, and got it recording just as we scored. Even with huge goals scored for SKC, and being in the Cauldron, I’m not sure I’ve heard a louder eruption and seen people jump as high or go crazy as when we scored that goal. Our chances of advancing were saved, in most of our minds I think, at that very moment. Looking back at the video, I can only describe the moment as absolute pandemonium.

Post game, it was perpetual high fives, the stadium started playing Michael Jackson (I think it was Billy Jean but not positive/can’t remember) and we basically danced our way out of the stadium.

Thanks to Mark. Hopefully he will be able to share more as the tournament goes on. Make sure you check out the photo he shared on Twitter of the U.S. fans coming into the stadium.