Yes, exactly. The usual round of soccer meta-backlash posts is underway—I had a contribution to the genre—after the usual round of soccer backlash posts. Will Leitch's is the best because it communicates the thing:
I don't know whether you like soccer, or whether you don't, whether you've been tracking USMNT for two decades or you just popped by the bar after work and oh hey look at the TV that's the country I'm from. I just know that when John Brooks -- who is 21 years old, who was born nine days after Bill Clinton was inaugurated in 1993 -- scored that header for the United States to take a stunning 2-1 lead against Ghana on Monday, it is worryingly possible that I accidentally made it to second base with every person in the bar. No matter where I was looking, no matter what direction I was pointing … whatever was in front of me was my best friend. It was a collective gaggle of fists and elbows and screams.
I had fun! Lots of fun. That's why I like the soccering. I like it and find it fun. I guess it's cool if that makes you want to throw a shoe at my head, but you're missing out, man.
Game takes: Beasley edition. It is an infallible rule of soccer that no matter how unfathomable a post-game opinion is, someone will hold it with the ferocity of a thousand suns. I haven't quite found someone with a thunderous defense of Bradley's uncharacteristically poor play, but I'm sure he's out there, asserting that despite all available evidence he should just be a defensive mid.
The major point of contention seems to be about Beasley's performance. Some are like "let's try Chandler":
D DaMarcus Beasley (3) – To put it bluntly, Beasley was roasted on the left. Ghana identified him as a weakness and attacked him over and over again as a result. It’s worth wondering if an uncomfortable Timmy Chandler might even be better, especially since it will get no easier facing Nani against Portugal.
That guy gave Howard a 9 for fielding a large number of the harmless balls flung in by Atsu, which seems… unbalanced.
SI's Liviu Bird has a take that's kinder to Beasley that seems about right:
Ghana concentrated its attacks on the right side, trying to exploit Christian Atsu’s youth and athleticism against DaMarcus Beasley.
The Black Stars got into dangerous areas multiple times, but their service left a lot to be desired. Multiple crosses were overhit, blocked or poorly placed.
The strategy played to Ghana’s athletic strengths, but it also put the U.S. defenders in a situation they find most comfortable, as Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and Tim Howard play in leagues where defending crosses is a necessity.
To me the key thing in Beasley's favor here is that Atsu plays his club football as a winger… a left winger. Dude is left footed, and the large number of crosses Beasley gave up were ineffectual because
- Most of them were from the winger's weak foot.
- They were shot in at a bracketed Asamoah Gyan and a bunch of 5'8" bros.
Putting Atsu on the right was a tactical move that wanted to get through-balls and other items in the box with an inverted winger. The US responded by packing the middle and leaving Beasley on an island… again, Spain redux. Matt Doyle:
But considering he was going 1-v-2, he did well because – and I'm going all caps here because I don't trust the weight of mere words – NOBODY GOT BEHIND HIM. The US can deal with crosses all day, but you don't want Geoff Cameron, Besler – most likelyJohn Brooks now – or especially Omar Gonzalez having to come out and meet attackers wide.
They hit 30 crosses from open play – seven more than anyone else this tournament! That's [recently fired ManU manager] David Moyes territory.
With Gyan limited by congestion in the middle all he could do was fire in that one brilliant header that was wide and Howard had covered anyway. Gyan's other moment of threat was a cut in from the USA's right that got him a shot from just outside the box that tested Howard. Do we want those, or do we want guys trying to get on the end of crosses? Seems obvious. FWIW, crosses per game are down from 32 to 27 compared to 2010. They're a bit passé.
Theory: Beasley getting his ankles broken early like he'd just experienced a Derryck Thornton crossover made everyone super nervous about what would happen for the rest of the game, and even though not much did that nervousness leaked into some evaluations.
How is this different from the Chandler performance against Turkey I ripped? Chandler ceded one free goal and allowed another shot from inside the six yard box; also his side of the field was exposed not only to crosses but to shots, lots of shots.
Game takes: tactics. The US got penned in and ate possession, but how much of that was poor tactics (or injury misfortune) and how much was just bad play? It seems like a big chunk of the problem was just bad play, particularly from Bradley. FourFourTwo:
Ghana dominated the ball from the first whistle, and Klinsmann's team didn't do a great job of protecting their early lead. They completed just 201 passes at a rate of 73%, and gave the ball away cheaply whenever they got sight of the opposition half. Ghana recovered possession a huge 56 times (to USA's 31): loose balls from poor play, effectively.
Opta "recoveries" are balls that get played to you without you having to go get it with a tackle. They're unforced errors, for the most part. In fact:
USA’s pass completion was 73% which is the second lowest seen in the World Cup so far (only Iran with 72% vs Nigeria have shown lower).
That obviously cannot continue if the US is going to do anything against even a depleted Portugal.
Zonal Marking points out that Johannsson's total lack of impact was expected and that a midfielder (Mix Diskerud?) may have been preferred.
In fact, when Altidore departed midway through the first half, the USA were already under heavy pressure. Klinsmann might have considered bringing on an extra midfielder at this stage, because his side simply weren’t covering the midfield ground effectively. Dempsey and Johansson were stuck upfront with little service, covering the responsibilities of one man, and it felt like the USA were playing with ten players at times.
However, Kinsmann was able to depend upon good performances at the back, while Kyle Beckerman was excellent at screening the defence – he protected the ‘red zone’ excellently, meaning Ghana always looked out wide for their route to goal. Tim Howard, meanwhile, claimed crosses well and swept off his line intelligently.
Whoops. In the column yesterday I said Zusi lost the run of Ayew on the goal; that was Johnson.
React video. As per tradition.
Not often that the best and most overwhelmed response is from the dude who actually put it in.
— Goal Posts (@TNRWorldCup) June 17, 2014
By Sunday, Portugal will be down to potted plants. Already down Almeida, Coentrao, and Pepe, Portugal is now saying their starting goalie could be out. Portugal's other options are a guy who seems on the downside who just signed for a Croatian team and Sevilla's starter, who's only got a few caps. That's not as big of a deal as their other losses, but it certainly doesn't help.
UPDATE: Ronaldo limps out of practice with an ice-packed knee. !!!
If Besler's ready, he should go. He's been working on chemistry with Cameron for a month now and played very well during his 45 against Ghana. Brooks can be our target forward.
Working it out of the back: more possible now. While the FIFA rankings think Portugal is a much better team than Ghana, the setup should be more comfortable for the US. Ghana's athleticism and youth (they're the youngest team at the tournament) allowed them to press the US high for big stretches of the game after the early goal and Altidore departure.
The results were pretty ugly. The game featured the second-fewest passes per possession since Klinsmann took over. While the results of these low-possession games haven't been too bad, life is easier when you have the ball.
Portugal isn't nearly as suited to press high. Ronaldo in particular does not work on D, and while I'm not sure about this Eder guy coming in for Almeida it doesn't seem like he did much to harry the Germans. Of course, by the time he got in Portugal was falling apart at the seams. So… yeah.
The weather also means that high pressing is probably not in the cards. The Italy-England game got really sloppy because of the heat; forwards are likely to conserve energy when not in possession.
This means that not having Jozy isn't as bad as it could be, since the US should be able to play it on the ground out of their defense.
|WHAT||USA vs Ghana|
|WHERE||Arena das Dunas
|WHEN||6 PM Eastern
SO. IT IS TIME. I'VE GOT SEVEN LIVES LEFT, BUDDY
THE THEM: Bête noires
Quail and quake at the USA's World Cup nemesis: Ghana. The Black Stars' ongoing revenge for Freddy Adu has been sporadic but ruthless, just like their team. I took in their final warmup friendly against South Korea* and was mostly unimpressed, but Ghana just kept scoring goals despite my opinion of their overall play.
If you remember anything about the USA's previous matchups with Ghana, the way those goals went down will be no surprise: transition. Ghana's second was in fact a virtual replay of Ricardo Clark's disaster from four years ago, albeit with a much greater case for a foul. Of the four goals that the Black Stars have scored at the US's expense, two were derf giveaways in the USA's defensive third, one was a long ball over the top on which the USA's slow and aging 2010 central defense corps was exposed, and the fourth was a ridiculous penalty issued against Oguchi Onyewu.
Transition: avoid it at all costs.
With the theme and many of the players the same guys the US took on four years ago, Ghana will feel much like they did in 2010. This was not necessarily the case until an injury.
While Abdul Waris is not officially ruled out it seems unlikely anyone can recover from a torn quad in under a week. This rules out the 4-4-2 they ran a lot of in qualifying; expect the 4-2-3-1 that is world's default at the moment and what Ghana ran in 2010, with Kevin Prince Boateng ranging underneath Gyan. Via The Shin Guardian, a likely lineup:
GOALIE: This should be an area of advantage for the US; Ghana's probable starter plays in the South African league. 2010 starter Richard Kingson wasn't elite but was a much more established player, at least for Ghana.
DEFENSE: Projected left back Kwadwo Asamoah isn't as out of position as you may have heard—he's more of a wing-back for his club despite playing most of his time with the national team at central midfield. He is extremely dangerous.
The center backs are the same guys the US took on four years ago, and they're a bit foul prone and tend to get dragged out of position. South Korea was able to generate a number of dangerous chances that they couldn't quite finish as Ghana got pulled out of shape.
The right back plays in Tunisia, and is a little bugger at 5'7"; he's quick and gets in on opponents but might have difficulty with the USA's burly attackers.
MIDFIELD: You remember Prince-Boateng and Essien; though they're getting a bit up in years and Essien's had some injury problems recently. If you don't, Boeteng is the Ghanaian version of Bradley: a dynamic box-to-box midfielder who could easily be deployed as a holder but has found his niche further up the field. He will be the guy trying to get the ball off Beckerman or one of the central defenders.
Essien is a version of Jones… a much, much better version of Jones. Imagine if when Jones pressed forward he was a consistently excellent passer. Essien missed the previous World Cup and has dealt with injuries and declining form; after being a fixture for Chelsea for forever he moved to AC Milan in January and only had seven appearances.
Rabiu is a basic defensive mid.
Andre Ayew will be one of the wing midfielders; he's a regular for Marseille but a seemingly good matchup for DaMarcus Beasley, who was Ayew in a previous existence. The other will be either Ayew's brother Jordan or Sulley Muntari; Muntari is the better player but more of a central mid. If they go with Muntari it'll be on Asamoah to get upfield for with; unfortunately, he's plenty capable of that.
let's not this
FORWARD: Gyan. Guy is doom on a stick if you let him set up, and he has the kind of ability to take a nothing ball against a defender and turn it into a lethal shot. He's been playing in the Qatari league, too: Brazil is like a meat locker to him.
*[Previous friendlies are not helpful here; while they did get basically run off the field by the Netherlands the South Korea game saw ten changes—ie, everyone who played against the Dutch won't be playing against the USA.]
After a strong performance against Nigeria in a formation that makes sense for the USA to replicate, the expectation here is for the US to run out the same 11, and run the same Christmas-tree-to-asymmetric 4-3-3 formation.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
While the prospect of Portugal flipping Ronaldo to Beasley's side and just having their ubermensch plow Run DMB over is alarming, Ghana's Andre Ayew is a much more comfortable matchup for the USA's still somewhat makeshift left back. Ayew is a quick little bugger who Beasley can go toe-to-toe with, and not get outrun by.
Besler and Cameron draw the Gyan assignment; hopefully they'll be better equipped to cope with his speed and physicality. Last time out it was a 24-year old Gyan against 30 and 31 year old US center backs; this time Gyan is going up against guys almost exactly as old as him, and considerably more mobile. Consider the ill-fated Bocanegra-at-left-back experiment versus Cameron starting 74 of Stoke's last 78 EPL games, mostly at right back.
The tactics should be set up to shield the center backs from Prince-Boateng… most of the time. When the US loses its shape and they don't have their square o' protection set up, communication between the two center backs will be key. It seems like Besler is the designated guy to step up while Cameron sweeps behind.
Fabian Johnson draws either Jordan Ayew, he of the recent hat trick but previous indifferent national team career, or Muntari, who is left footed but more of a central midfielder. Either way he will surge forward and the US must be prepared to cover.
THIS IS MY BALL. THERE ARE MANY LIKE IT BUT THIS ONE IS MINE. MY BALL IS MY BEST FRIEND. IT IS MY LI—OH SHIT
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley
Beckerman, Jones, and Bradley are the key to this game. In possession, they have to give each other options and watch for Ghana's sporadic but incredibly effective pressing.
While Beckerman had one bad turnover in the Nigeria game, his entire career is built around being in the place he's supposed to be and playing the simple ball away from pressure to allow his team the opportunity to retain possession and build an attack. It's no exaggeration to say that this is the culmination of his career. The pressure will be intense.
Jones will rove as he is wont to do; his most important role in this one is as the break-in-case-of-fire axe, the USA's OH SHIT button. As such he definitely shouldn't be putting himself in positions like the on that occasioned his impressive 70-yard recovery run against Nigeria; he can range forward when warranted but he should be the one laying it off and waiting instead of trying to burst forward himself. Jones has always been a guy whose offensive ambitions exceed his grasp; that's the last bit of wildness the US would fear from him.
Bedoya's main role is to work for the team and provide width that allows Johnson to shoot upfield inside of him.
And Bradley. Here's Michael Essien. Be him, and outplay him. No problem. Part of the Clark disaster linked above was a four-years-younger Bradley putting Clark in a bad position. He's been a fixture at Roma, he's the guy the USA and his club team are built around, he broke the damn beep test. Now it is time to demonstrate that you are Michael Bradley and that means something.
This was Gyan-like
FORWARD: Altidore, Dempsey
Altidore's flash of brilliance against Nigeria is a hopeful sign; more hopeful yet is the consistently quality hold-up work he's put in against the Turks and the Super Eagles. He's put the ball on Dempsey's boot a number of times, and he has worked hard even when the ball wasn't going in for him. The US figures to boot it upfield more than they have been, so his ability to get down the channels* will figure in against Ghana outside backs who figure to get upfield.
Meanwhile, Dempsey has been off. He's been provided numerous opportunities to create something by Bradley and his first touch let him down consistently in the Send Off Series. He did have a near goal late against Nigeria that he created with fancy footwork; even on that it seemed like a layoff to Altidore for another tap in was the move. Dempsey's footwork earned him a penalty in the 2010 game against these center backs, and he should be a handful for the same gentlemen.
*[IE: run diagonally from the center of the field to one of the corners, hopefully getting and retaining possession and perhaps dragging one the the central defenders with you.]
SUBS: If the US is leading the only subs that make sense will be striker swaps. They're playing all their midfielders who have a defensive edge already. Pulling Dempsey, who doesn't work on defense much, for a fresh guy who can press from the front would make sense—Johannsson or possibly Diskerud.
Tied or behind, Beckerman could be sacrificed for either Diskerud or one of the strikers, with Bradley withdrawing and the US bombing forward with its centerbacks exposed; Zusi would likely come on for Bedoya.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
Don't get caught with the ball on defense. For all the talk about becoming more of a possession team, if there's a doubt against these guys, just punt it upfield. As much as possible, make Ghana try to break you down.
Don't get dragged too far out of shape without a really good reason. Looking mostly at Jones and Bedoya here, as they will be pushing forward and also have extensive defensive responsibilities. The 23 selected makes this even more imperative, since there's a high chance Beckerman takes a tactical yellow card at some point, leaving him exposed for however long he's got after that.
Defend and counter… mostly. Sit deep against a fast team, keep your shape, funnel them to the outside, and look to shoot upfield when the ball is turned over. The US has center backs who can make a long pass and two box to box midfielders who can carry it upfield. Look for a breakthrough while denying Ghana's break and then see if you need to make changes later.
Press high when afforded the opportunity. The US has a counter-attacking trick or two up its sleeve, as well. Bradley has a terrific knock for perceiving when he can dispossess a guy in a dangerous spot, and the US has generated chances the last two games off of that. Bradley's ability to disrupt the Ghana attack from the front is a major asset.
WIN THE GAME. #winthegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES
6/26/2010 – USA 1, Ghana 2 – End of World Cup
The internet has a very strong opinions about virtually anything more controversial than the capital of Vermont*. I once read a Wikipedia article about the WWII-era Battle of Kursk that had a distinctly pro-Russian slant and ended up clicking over to the talk page, where German and Russian editors were engaged in a brutal proxy reenactment of history's largest tank battle. Wherever there is a point of view on the internet, there is someone who thinks the holder of that opinion has brain damage.
This goes triple for something as subjective and—for most observers in this country especially, including the author—arcane as the performance of a soccer player. Despite this, the internet was unified in the opinion that Ricardo Clark and Robbie Findley should eat bench after a series of mediocre or worse performances. Even shameless homerism and the extraordinary friendliness of Mormons could not see their way towards pulling for Findley: a poll on the Real Salt Lake official site asked if he should start against Ghana. Findley got 27% of the vote.
The debate was about whether Bob Bradley would share this opinion. At the start of Saturday's game, Bradley did not; 45 minutes into what would end up a 120 minute game he was forced to by events on the field. Again.
By that point Clark was largely responsible for a goal scored less than five minutes into the game—the second time he'd managed this trick in two World Cup starts—and picked up a silly yellow. Findley had shot a golden chance directly at the keeper. Looking for offense in the second half, Bradley took off a striker. He got a lot of praise for his ability to make halftime adjustments after the US found themselves behind, but four games into a tournament when your halftime adjustments are the same adjustments that turned your fate around after your starters found themselves struggling, you're less an adjustment genius and more a guy who just doesn't learn.
Bradley is totally stuck on his Confed Cup/Hex model put together as the younger Bradley's box-to-box game developed and Charlie Davies established himself a real striker on a real team in the French League. That model was based on a dedicated destroyer who would allow Bradley to get upfield and a pacey striker who would either get in behind the defense if they pushed up or drive the defense back, giving Donovan and Dempsey time and space on the ball. It worked great when the central midfielders managed to stay on the field, seeing the US into its first FIFA final ever and grabbing a win over world #1 Spain. It was a good idea.
Then Clark moved to Germany and got injured, playing only 3 games for his new club. Davies almost died in a car accident. Instead of attempting to adjust his system to get Stuart Holden—who'd actually been impressive on the field for the national team and had just moved to a Premiership club that extended his contract every Tuesday—or Benny Feilhaber—a key player for his Danish club—on the field Bradley shoehorned a guy coming off the bench for RSL into the starting lineup. Putting Edu, an in-form starter for Scottish champs Rangers since February, in didn't even require a tactical change. Edu had even proven himself a more reliable option in South Africa. And yet… Clark and Findley.
You can't even blame Robbie Findley. Here's Findley on the mid-May game in which he scored his first and to-date only goal of the year:
In the second minute, Findley broke behind the Houston defense and in on keeper Pat Onstad. His final touch was a little hard, setting up a tougher angle for his shot, which Onstad saved as it was hit belt high.
"I probably should have gone low on that one," said Findley.
Findley would certainly like to have his opportunity back from the 66th minute. Once again he got behind the back line and broke in toward Onstad. This time, however, he was in the middle of the field with even more open space. He pushed his shot to the far post, but missed the mark wide.
"I did everything wrong on that one," Findley said. "I should have taken my time, maybe taken one more touch and probably gone near post."
The US put a player who cheerfully admits he does "everything wrong" even when he actually scores on the field for three World Cup starts, and a fourth was only averted because of suspension. In his time Findley did exactly nothing to help the USA's cause. In 169 minutes with Findley on the field, the US scored one goal, that the Robert Green gaffe. In 221 without him, the US scored six, two of which were inexplicably waved off.
The team met expectations by getting out of the group and immediately going home against a team from the brutal Serbia-Germany-Ghana trio, and they did it despite having two goals inexplicably wiped away. That's their second-best modern World Cup performance. But it's hard not to be disappointed in Bradley's insistence on pretending Charlie Davies was healthy and stubborn adherence to a tactical system the USA no longer had the personnel for. The US missed a golden opportunity (get to the semis without playing a world power) unlikely to come again, and the main reason seems to be the coach putting the team in a position to fail.
Bradley did a good job in his cycle as the US national coach but it's time to get someone who has the tactical creativity to adapt when the only round pegs available are made out of snow.
*(F$&# YOU IT'S MONTPEILIER)
- A first glance at the 2014 roster seems promising. Howard, Demerit, Cherundolo, and Bocanegra will be 34 or 35, Dempsey 31, Donovan and Onyewu 32. Everyone else of import will still be on the right side of 30. Jermaine Jones will be 32 and possibly available; Davies will be 28. Adu might become useful at some point. The main concern is finding some defenders (I think Onyewu will be fine and possibly one of the other three but good lord the outside back positions look horrendous) and hoping Dempsey and Donovan can still be effective.
- Did anyone else feel a slight pang of regret when the US ended up with Ghana? If the team goes out against Germany, okay, that's going out against Germany. Against Ghana and the Donovan goal maybe loses a tiny bit of its electric mayhem.
Of Great Relief To Certain Folk
WC coverage ends here.
Do we have to? Does it really have to be Saturday? Gah. I've felt resentment at the tennis guys or General McChrystal and everything else that keeps happening and the people who keep talking about it when all I want is a day to do nothing but get in the Clockwork Orange machine and hear "OH, IT'S INCREDIBLE" over and over again. (The only exception: Slovakia bombing Italy right out of the World Cup.) From time to time I would take breaks to listen to Andres Cantor lose his mind and his voice. Also if we could get the Japanese announcers' reactions that would be fantastic too.
Yes. We have to. But not before this bit where I link to a lot of stuff.
My favorite is the kid in his basement who treats his stairs like a rollercoaster. Girl, you'll be a blogger soon.
If you want that broken down into individual clips, the New York Times has you covered.
The best things that are writing are Orson's Proustian journey into his Nats fandom and the Run of Play writing on alternate universes and happiness. There is also Dan Levy's clutch interview with Ian Darke.
I’ve been reading match reports—you know, the analytic, intelligent, fullbacks-were-used, the-universe-didn’t-explode-into-radiant-particles variety—and I have a feeling of simultaneously understanding them and not understanding them, like a patient who’s too drugged to follow his own diagnosis. There’s another order of reality, and it’s sheared off the top of the sky. It’s incandescent. I have a broken jaw, and all my perceptions are beautiful.
A silhouette of a fan appears at the top of the hill. He's wearing an Uncle Sam top hat and American flag across his shoulders as a cape. I don't know why he's out there. In retrospect, maybe he just wanted to tell someone, anyone what had just happened. In Little Five Points at five in the morning, this would likely be a homeless man looking for grain alcohol, but he would have told him all the same, and possibly bought him a beer.
Instead he sees me, and screams at me down the hill.
"WE'RE UP ON PORTUGAL TWO-NIL! FREAKING PORTUGAL!!!"
I start sprinting up the hill. Every fan has a focal moment, a point where, like a serial killer, you crossed the line from being a normal person to someone who would discard everything in the name of obsession. With U.S. soccer, being up two goals against Portugal at five in the morning is mine.
Question: did the ridiculous American flag soccer hat spontaneously materialize on Maurice Edu's head when Landon Donovan scored?
Later they put it on Torres's head, which successfully made him look 12:
Also Ricardo Clark looks like the Baba Yaga.
DAMARCUS BEASLEY'S EYES POP OUT OF HIS DAMN HEAD
This is forever going to the image that pops into my mind whenever a terrible refereeing decision happens.
CLINT DEMPSEY AND LANDON DONOVAN
In one way—the dumb way—they're the least "diverse" members of the USA team, but Landon is admittedly a fancy lad even if "Landycakes" is so dead it's giving Beano Cook a run for his money and Dempsey, well, Dempsey:
The kid [Altidore] is part bull, though, and this time he muscled into the box and cut it to Clint Dempsey, a Texan who claims his parents sold some of their guns to finance his youth soccer career. UNITED STATES! UNITED STATES!
When I was in Chicago, Orson Swindle and I got up at the obscenely early (for me, anyway) time of 7 AM on a Saturday to catch the Australia friendly before the World Cup, and during that 90 minutes we decided that Dempsey has never ended any sentence spoken on a soccer field with a word other than "…bitch." Check the OMG Yanks photo archive for proof.
An ton of post-match commentary has focused on the Donovan goal as yet another galvanizing moment that will thrust soccer into the national consciousness. I find this depressing. Who cares? I mean, it's great that a lot of people will no longer look at you funny, but if your primary reaction to that goal is to think about what people who don't care about the national team think now that's a wasted opportunity to write something about what will probably stand as the the greatest moment in USMNT history on the day you die instead of what Jim Rome thinks about it.
The worst (the worst), though, are the That's On Point commenters who are worried that this might make soccer more popular and decrease their indie cred. Triple guh.
And, Finally, Moving On: Ghana
The situation is "win or go home." FWIW, The US is actually a slight favorite according to the bookies at +165 to Ghana's +195. Better to be us than Mexico, which is –200 against Argentina.
African sides are stereotypically athletic, skilled, disorganized, and prone to horrible mistakes. Ghana defies the latter two, and possibly latter three. They are a compact, organized defense that puts a lot of guys behind the ball and tries to counterattack with a limited number of attacking players. The result is not thrilling scoreboards:
Not since November last year, when it drew 2-2 with Mali in a World Cup qualifier in Kumasi, has Ghana scored twice in a game, and yet in that time it has reached the final of the African Cup of Nations and, after two games of Group D, looks the likeliest of the African teams to reach the knockout phase. Of its past seven competitive games, four have been won 1-0, and only Ivory Coast, which inflicted a 3-1 defeat in the Cup of Nations, has managed to score more than one against Ghana's defense.
Those streaks were extended a game each in Germany's 1-0 defeat of Ghana in the final group match. Jon Wilson, the author of the above, does point out that when Ghana was pressing for a goal against 10-man Australia they "lost shape" and unleashed a torrent of harmless long-range shots. They're not very good at breaking down a set defense, and managed to get through their group without scoring a goal from the run of play—both Ghanian goals were penalties. Their tournament has been the USA's Algeria game writ large:
Despite Germany having the better of the game, Ghana were breaking and creating chances of their own. Yet again, they lacked clinical finishing, and for all the pace and direct running they offered, you were never completely sure they were going to actually put the ball in the net. They’ve been extremely impressive at this tournament and yet have relied on two penalties for the goals.
Their setup is basically a 4-3-2-1:
Asamoah Gyan is the yellow circle, Prince Tagoe the blue circle most advanced, and then you've got a blender of midfield folk plus the standard split between very defensive center backs and somewhat attacking fullbacks. This is a slightly more attacking setup for the World Cup than they did in their surprise Essien-less run in the African Cup of Nations, replacing Inter central midfielder Sully Muntari with Prince Tagoe, who plays as an extremely advanced winger.
Gyan, a teammate of Carlos Bocanegra at Rennes, is the lone striker. He looks like Manny Harris's older brother, and his role is a cross between Brian Ching and Jozy Altidore: he is left alone up top and is asked to run on to a lot of long balls, hold them up, and wait for the midfield cavalry to arrive. He hasn't gotten a lot of his own opportunities as a result, and hasn't finished anything except the two PKs. That doesn't mean he's bad…
Ghana’s use of one man upfront meant they struggled to make too many clear-cut chances, but Gyan’s intelligent running into the channels did cause a constant threat to the Serbia defence. Ghana only had three shots on target, and they all came from the Rennes striker. He also hit the post twice – once from a near post header on the right, once from a low shot from the left. Lone strikers need to be able to cause a nuisance to both centre-backs, and Gyan does that excellently.
…it's just the tactical setup.
Leaving Gyan up top alone gives Ghana an extra guy in midfield, and as you can see by the big glob in the middle of the field above, that means a lot of tough-tackling, athletic guys right in the middle of the park breaking up attacks and holding possession. The presence of Ballack-slayer and newly minted Ghanaian international Kevin Prince Boateng has provided the team with an increased ability to build from the middle of the park, and it will be important for the strikers to come back to harry Anthony Annan, their version of Pablo Mastroeni.
Bob Bradley has some interesting tactical decisions going into the game:
Onyewu? With the quick turnaround Onyewu will likely be at least as fit as either Bocanegra or Demerit, who are coming off 270 minutes. Meanwhile, Ghana attacks the right flank with a lot more determination and skill than Algeria—which is almost entirely left-sided—did. This would expose Bornstein to an active, physical Prince Tagoe. On the other hand, Onyewu was rusty in the first two games and at least partially responsible for the three goals the US gave up.
This is a tough choice I don't envy Bradley for having to make. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think the tie-breaker is Bocanegra's extensive familiarity with Gyan. I'd put him in the middle and start Spector. Bradley will start Bornstein.
Who's the second striker? I'm with Stars and Gripes in advocating the addition of Dempsey to the front line; surely at this point Robbie Findley has played himself out of the starting lineup. Both Gomez and Buddle have been more dangerous in brief cameo appearances than Findley has been in two starts, and the most attractive attacking soccer came with Findley out of the lineup. S&G has a similar opinion:
Through two weeks, however, it’s become far too obvious that he doesn’t have the technical skill or vision to compete on this level—yet. Speed only gets you so far against world-class defenders, and Findley prematurely ended a number of promising attacks by running into a crowd and losing the ball. I was rather shocked he made the starting XI twice, and I believe that feeling has been vindicated.
Buddle and Gomez were about on par, more likely than Findley to find some space and launch a shot at goal but not exactly thrilling. The Shin Guardian expects Findley to get the nod, but… seriously… no. He will be consumed whole by Ghana's experienced back line.
Wings? Maybe one wing? Ghana's defenders are stout but short. With Isaac Vorsah out of the lineup with an injury, the back line for Ghana maxes out at 5'10". I know I suggested this for the Algeria game, but this could be a game in which Stuart Holden's crossing ability finds a use.
Who partners Bradley? If Edu is fit, you'd think it would be him, since he's the guy who's looked the best in recent games. Torres is right out since the overload in midfield will require the USA's central midfield to cover a lot of ground crossly. The quick turnaround might argue in favor of the rested Clark, but Edu came off at halftime for Feilhaber and should be fine.
D: Spector, Demerit, Bocanegra, Cherundolo
(Spector is a better matchup for the physical Tagoe and I have lingering Bornstein terror. I think you have to sit Onyewu.)
M: Donovan, Edu, Bradley, Holden
(Holden's fresh and if Dempsey has to play, and he does, I'm a little worried he'll fade if he's supposed to track counter-attacks.)
F: Altidore, Dempsey
(Dempsey can drop back into an attacking mid spot if necessary, and can pace himself if necessary.)
I'm betting Bradley goes with Bornstein and either Buddle or Gomez with Holden on the bench, though.