There was a time when the World Cup was a boon for United States soccer. Indeed, the 1994 Cup, which America hosted, gave raise to Major League Soccer, our professional league.
These days, though, U.S. soccer is a boon for the World Cup, as our men’s team continues to provide some of the event’s most dramatic moments.
Yesterday, the U.S. upset Ghana 2-1 on a goal in the 86th minute, just four minutes after Ghana had equalized. That makes three straight U.S. Group Stage matches of high drama. In 2010, we rallied for two late goals to tie Slovenia, and a goal in the last minute to defeat Algeria and win our group.
So much for the talking heads who, after yesterday’s win, claimed that the U.S. team has found resiliency under new coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Resiliency was not a problem under previous coach Bob Bradley.
There were problems under Bradley and, on yesterday’s evidence, there are problems under Klinsmann. To be frank, we didn’t play particularly well. In fact, Ghana dominated the match from the second minute (following our shock opening goal) until the 86th.
The problem wasn’t so much the defensive shell the U.S. went into. Rather, it was our inability to break effectively when we won the ball, or even to maintain possession for more than a pass or two.
Usually, the U.S. is a rather tidy passing team. Why were we unable to string passes together yesterday?
Several factors come to mind. We were playing a physically strong, intimidating team in severe humidity. In addition, we were doing so with a defense-first lineup and, after the first 23 minutes, without the forward we rely on as an outlet and holder of the ball (Jozy Altidore).
Had Klinsmann selected Mix Diskerud and Graham Zusi (who came on late and assisted on the winning goal), we probably would have been better at keeping the ball. But then, we probably would have been less difficult for Ghana to break down when they had it.
Until the end, the U.S.-Ghana match was almost a carbon copy of the Japan-Ivory Coast match, which the African team won 2-1. Like the U.S., Japan is usually a good passing team. Like Ghana, the Ivory Coast is a physically strong and rugged team.
As in our match, the non-African team took an early lead and then went into shell. Like the U.S., Japan defended effectively, but couldn’t keep the ball. (Japan’s passing was worse than ours).
As in our match, the African team amped up the pressure by bringing on a big name substitute. For Ghana, it was Kevin Prince Boateng; for the Ivory Coast it was Didier Drogba.
The Ivory Coast finally produced a goal, just as Ghana did. But the similarity ends there. The Ivorians quickly added another goals, whereas it was the U.S. that scored the winner.
What made the difference? Three main things. First, we were a bit better than the Japanese at coping with the physical play (though we looked like the walking wounded by the end). Second, the goalkeeping of Tim Howard, who enabled the victory with several big saves. Third, John (the future is now, after all) Brooks, the 21 year-old 6-4 center back who came on as a substitute at half time after first-stringer Matt Besler was injured. Brooks powered home the winning header (and also played well defensively).
Brooks is German born and plays in the German League. The same is true of two members of the starting eleven (Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones) and two other reserves. Johnson and Jones both played fairly well yesterday (though Johnson could have been more conscientious defensively), and Brooks starred. Japan could use a few Germans.
Portugal is our next opponent. They suffered a humiliating 4-0 loss to Germany. Their star center back, Pepe, was red-carded so he will miss the U.S. match. And two Portuguese starters, including star left back Coentrao, limped off with serious looking injuries.
Worst of all from a Portugal perspective, by the end of the match rampant finger-pointing and atrocious body language prevailed, with superstar Cristiano Ronaldo the worst culprit.
Portugal may well regroup, so the U.S. should expect the worst. But there’s more than a slight chance that, as in 2002 when the U.S. upset the fancy and fancied Portuguese, this Portugal team won’t get its act together.
Finally, if Germany defeats Ghana in the second round of group play, expect plenty of speculation about the U.S.-Germany match. In this scenario, assuming the U.S. doesn’t beat Portugal, Germany will probably rest its first team for the U.S. match because it will have won the group. Moreover, the German coach was an assistant under Klinsmann, the American coach. By all accounts, the two remain friends.
Playing the German second string would be no picnic. Nearly every member could stroll into the U.S. starting eleven. Moreover, as this would likely be the only appearance for some of the second stringers, they would be out to make it memorable. Finally, we shouldn’t assume that the German coach, despite his relationship with Klinsmann, will want to do the U.S. any favors.
But this won’t prevent speculation that he will find a way to do so. Nor is that scenario beyond the realm of possibility.