Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
NATAL, Brazil — The third time’s the charm. At least that is what the U.S. Men’s National Team is hoping.
The U.S. will kick off its 2014 World Cup campaign with a Group G clash at Arena das Dunas on Monday against Ghana, the same nation that eliminated the Americans from the past two tournaments with a pair of 2-1 wins. Revenge could easily and understandably be on the mind of the U.S. given that bleak history, but that is far from the case because there is plenty reason to be motivated for the match that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has labeled as a virtual must-win for his side.
Topping the Black Stars will not be easy, especially since they still boast talented striker Asamoah Gyan and midfield ace Kevin Prince-Boateng. Those two players scored the two goals in the Round of 16 match at the 2010 World Cup that ended with the Americans’ elimination, but they are not the only ones capable of making an impact.
The Americans are well aware of that fact, but they also have the belief that they have players who can make just as much of a difference.
“We’re really excited to start this off tomorrow,” said Klinsmann, who was relaxed and noticeably bubbly during his pre-game press conference on Sunday. “We worked hard for it, over a month in camp, we had the three send-off games, endless scrimmages and we did well. We are full of confidence to approach Ghana. Ghana is a team full of individual talent and it’s going to be a challenge, but we’re very confident.”
How the U.S. defense copes against the speedy players that Ghana has at its disposal will play a big part in determining the outcome of the match. The American back line is lacking a bit of chemistry due to a pair of late alterations by Klinsmann, but it showed glimpses of being a cohesive unit during the three send-off series that ere played before the U.S. traveled to Brazil.
While getting that unit to piece it all together now is what is important, so too is finding a rhythm offensively. Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley will spearhead a U.S. attack that will battle the athletic and physical Ghanaian defenders, a stiff test that will prepare and likely tell plenty about where the Americans stand offensively before games against fellow Group G teams Portugal and Germany.
“Hopefully, we can deliver some goals as well,” said Klinsmann when asked about the high-scoring start to this World Cup. “The key is to score one more than Ghana. I don’t mind if it’s a high-scoring (game) as long as we get the three points that we so badly want. I think it’s just what the fans want to see. They want to see attacking football, they want to see excitement. Hopefully, we can execute that.”
The weather in Natal might make that tougher than normal. There has been a steady downpour and plenty of humidity in the northeastern city in recent days and the forecast calls for more of that around kickoff on Monday evening.
As poor and damp as the conditions might be, Klinsmann and his players are not overly concerned. They just want to get their World Cup games going after having to endure a few anxious days that consisted of little aside from training sessions and watching other nations compete in the tournament.
“If it’s raining, if it’s snowing, if it’s thunder and lightning or whatever, this is about football,” Klinsmann said. “You play under any circumstances. If it’s wet, if it’s dry, heat, humidity, whatever. Both teams are on the field and they will give their best. We’re not worried about that stuff at all.”
Added Bradley: “I think for anybody that’s watched any of the games so far in the tournament — whether it was Mexico (vs. Cameroon) here in Natal, whether it was Ivory Coast and Japan in Recife – the weather is what it is. As players, that’s not something we can control. Certainly, the game played in this stadium, the field held up really well. … But you get to this point, you’re not worried about little details, whether the wind is blowing, whether the sun’s out. We’re just excited to get on the field.”
Ghana and the U.S. are evenly matched sides, as evidenced by their last two encounters. That puts the onus on all the the intriguing individual match-ups that will be on display on Monday, match-ups that the Americans believe they are ready for after spending the past month training and working towards their Group G opener.
“I think our preparation has been very good, we’re excited about the opportunity to play against Ghana, a top team,” Dempsey said. “But at the same time, if we play to the best of our ability, we have the quality that we can go far in this tournament.”
A win against familiar foe Ghana would be a good first step in helping make that a reality, and it would also exorcise a few demons of World Cups past.