By Ridge Mahoney
We can put off for a while so the issues and concerns regarding the next U.S. World Cup match against Portugal, to be played Sunday in Manaus. Monday was a great day that can be savored for a bit longer. Deprived of two starters during the game because of injury and shocked by an equalizer late in the game, the Americans snagged an amazing 2-1 win over Ghana when two subs conjured up a classic set-piece goal. Who does that?
A good friend of mine texted me after the game Monday that it’s better to be lucky than good. I don't think this applies. Luck would mean Ghanaian shots rattling off the crossbar and/or wave after wave of goal line blocks and spectacular saves, and perhaps a dodgy penalty kick or unjustified red card to Ghana. None of this occurred. Neither team played well but the Americans were clearly less lousy for most of the match.
(Off performance so far, African soccer can’t complain about its allotment of World Cup slots. If Ghana is the continent’s best team, Concacaf is well ahead. Mexico also Cameroon in the other first-round meeting.)
Ghana's chances of beating the USA in three straight World Cups were never great. In both of the 2-1 results in the past two tournaments, Ghana’s margin of superiority was rather slim. In many ways, the fast, physical Ghanaians beat the Americans at their own game; in critical moments, the more athletic player prevailed. Asamoah Gyanoutpacing Jay DeMeritearly in overtime of the 2010 match to score the winner exemplified the separation between the teams.
Despite playing a poor game in terms of cohesion and possession, the Americans looked much like their 2006 and 2010 counterparts except they were able to neutralize whatever physical advantage Ghana hoped to exploit. They didn’t dive into tackles out wide, and offer fast players like Christian Atsu a clean run at goal. They let him lob crosses into the middle, where the centerbacks or keeper usually took care of business. Yes, he got a lot of space, especially in the first half, but left mid Jermaine Jones and left back DaMarcus Beasleywere more concerned about him getting on the end of one-twos to find a shot or serve a ball across the goalmouth. Heroic work by Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and supersub John Brookskept the airspace around Tim Howard relatively clear.
Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley clogged the central passing lanes to intercept and deflect balls played through, and whatever did get past those two or the centerbacks, Howard smothered by sharp anticipation and quick sprints to the edge of the penalty area. Especially ineffective was the talented and experienced Sully Muntari; he couldn’t power through tackles on the dribble, since seldom did he face just one challenger, and his passing and his shooting were miserable.
Andre Ayew scored a great goal, and blame attached to Howard should be mitigated by the incredible difficultly of striking a ball from that angle with the outside of the foot with that much power and accuracy. It’s the kind of play that has enabled Ghana to qualify for three straight World Cups and advance out of group play the first two times. But very rarely did Ghana conjure up its traditional magic, and when it did, it fell victim to a team that for much of its existence has shown an uncanny ability to rebound in tough circumstances.
Both goals came from set plays: a throw-in that produced a fabulous run and finish by Clint Dempsey, and Graham Zusi’s corner kick that Brooks powered into the net. Maybe that’s why the some have termed the victory "lucky," yet Ghana had plenty of set plays, too, and didn’t score from any of them.
There were plenty of heavy confrontations Monday in Natal, the broken nose suffered by Dempsey from John Boye’s wildly swinging leg probably the most dramatic. A worrisome run of muscle injuries to Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler and Alejandro Bedoya might have been caused by the excessive training regimen imposed by head coach Jurgen Klinsmannand his coaching staff, or simply the result of how a highly pressured situation can affect a player’s balance and running form – as in the case of Altidore – to cause a non-contact injury.
In this tense showdown, the necessity of fielding Jones rose to the forefront. Since he came aboard the national team in 2010, he’s been dogged for his sporadic passing misfires and overly reckless style. But as the technical ability and tactical acumen of the players around him has increased, there’s less need for him to charge about the park putting out fires by cleaning out an opponent or taking a deliberate caution. Several times he could have lashed or kicked out during a duel but instead his zeal to win the ball helped the Americans win the day.
Against Ghana he displayed not only a fierce yet controlled intensity but his commitment to the USA cause, which has been questioned since he first pulled on the jersey. Nobody plays for more than a decade in the Bundesliga without a burning will to win, and his play during the past year should display any issues about his "loyalty." A mainly defensive stance complemented snugly the different roles played by Bradley, Beckerman and Bedoya, who wisely chose the right moments to push the ball forward or take up a holding position.
On Monday, the Americans displayed tons of the cohesion and commitment many observers believe will determine the team’s fate. There can’t be any dropoff in the games to come, and recovery from fatigue and injury will be crucial factors in the days ahead, but in the first game of a seventh straight World Cup, these Americans honored every one of their predecessors and did their country proud.