6/16/2014 – USA 2, Ghana 1 – 1-0-0
HOW MANY EAGLES CAN INTIMIDATE ON THE HEAD OF A PIN
Clint Dempsey had just been kicked in the face, hard. He'd jumped to head a ball; the Ghana defender he'd made infamous 30 seconds into the game decided he'd challenge for it by kicking Dempsey really hard in the face.
It was obvious from the first shot that Dempsey's nose was broken, even more obvious in the post-game press conference. Someone asked him about it. He said he couldn't really breathe through the thing anymore.
At the time, though, Jozy Altidore had already done something bad to his hamstring and there was nothing for Dempsey to do but spit blood, shoot murder from his eyes, and carry on.
It turns out yesterday's post was unnecessary. All questions about how American USA soccer is under Klinsmann have been resolved in 90 minutes. The verdict: even when the guys still running when normal folk would be in a heap and pounding in the set piece goal are pretty much German, they are so, so American.
Anyone who's followed the US national team for a while can point to a game like that, a frustrating exercise in soaking pressure and trying to pop up on the counter. The US has a knack for bleeding profusely and winning games they have no business doing so via sheer doggedness. This game shoots to the top of that list, the blood and dogs list.
It'll take some doing to top it. They lost their main relief valve to injury 20 minutes in and were forced into a halftime substitution when Matt Besler tweaked his hamstring; by 70 minutes it seemed like half the roster was grasping a leg muscle when afforded the opportunity. When Ghana finally broke through ten minutes later, it felt like the floodgates were about to open.
Instead the US grinds out a corner by running real hard. I mean… if we are trying to move away from the cliché that national teams are avatars for their countries, trying to move away from the faintly ridiculous notion that a country that grows Michael Phelps in a lab is a plucky underdog… if we are attempting to have a straight-faced tactical conversation amongst serious people… I mean, you just can't. I can't.
I'm dying and Fabian Johnson manages to grit up a corner by being annoyingly effortful like he's the right back version of David Eckstein, and it doesn't matter that Fabian Johnson is pretty much German. I have been here before. I have seen this corner before in this game before; I know we've got some tall guys in there and even the guys who aren't tall, like Carlos Bocanegra, have a tendency to fling their head at the ball even if it's at a level where you could reasonably get kicked in the head.
I have been here before. I muster up every last bit of focus and try not to forget to stand. I have seen this on brutal Central American fields where batteries are flung out of the stands. Zusi stands over the ball. Zusi scored to tie Panama in stoppage time when doing anything but would have put Mexico out of the World Cup. They won that game a minute later, because what the hell, why not.
This is a thing they do. Frankie Hedjuk against El Salvador. Donovan against Algeria. The US played a friendly against Italy they won 1-0 because the ball refused to go in for the Italians and the US parlayed their moment into a goal. I have been here; they do this.
I am hoping against hope and remembering not to fall over; Zusi is kicking the ball, which is low enough and high enough and hard and curving into a dangerous area, and I have seen it before.
Must improve. The game got out of whack early because of the shocking goal and the Altidore injury, plus whatever the US screwed up to have big chunks of the team doing terrible things to their muscles. But they've got to do better in possession if the Ghana game is going to mean anything. Bradley in particular had a game far below his usual standard, tossing balls out of bounds.
When Bradley's off, the verve goes out of the US attack. Verve was almost beside the point here. I would have given a kidney for some extended spells of possession, but balls just kept getting plowed into the sideline. I don't know why. I do know that if they try to soak that much pressure in the next two games they're unlikely to get out of the group.
The goal. The bad one. It was mostly just one of those things that occasionally happen when you're watching the opponent have the ball most of the game; a good pass into the box and an excellent one-time backheel right into the path of a teammate, followed by an equal finish.
I've seen some people criticize Howard for getting beat at the near post. I'm not going to put any of that out Howard. Given the angle—Ayew was close to dead center—and the distance there was little he could do. Ayew's finish was brilliant as well. He hit it with the outside of his left foot, causing the ball to curl away from Howard from an unexpected starting spot.
Zusi should have tracked Ayew. That's the main problem. He's a sub; he should be tracking that run flat-out.
He did make up for it. Zusi's corner that led to the goal was perfect, driven, high enough to get over the guys he needs to get over, low enough for Brooks to get on top of it.
What in the flying hell. Pre-match I was thankful that a Swedish guy was the ref instead of someone from nowheresville who'd never taken on a match of that significance; not so much at halftime. Clint Dempsey's nose was broken by a flying boot applied to his face as he was three feet off the ground, an obvious straight red card for dangerous play. Boye, the same defender Dempsey turned into goo in the first minute, didn't even see yellow.
That in and of itself is unacceptable; then Jermaine Jones is hammered from behind mere minutes later and the guy who did it got an accidental boot to the head. That resulted in the same kind of aggressive physical action that saw Pepe sent off just a few hours before. Again, not even yellow.
Both the tackle and the reaction afterward are easily card-worthy. Ghana should have been down to nine men by halftime.
But hey, at least the US got totally boned by the refereeing in a game they won for a change.
Jones: the man. Tireless and active, Jones was the USA's best player on the night. He wasn't particularly helpful going forward, because he's generally not, but he was everywhere. Besler's first half was also excellent; hopefully he can return.
Obvious Ghana plan is obvious. Ghana spent most of the game isolating Christian Atsu on Beasley. For their troubles they got a bunch of crosses that didn't result in much.
There was that one terrifying Gyan header that Howard had to save despite the fact it was going wide, and then some shots that would have had to been as brilliant as the Gyan chance. Key passes were more balanced, with the Ghana breakthrough coming from the USA's right flank, at Zusi's expense:
please ignore the ones coming from the corners
Beasley coped, and only just. Here are defensive events from the outside backs and outside mids:
Tackles are green; Beasley(#7) had none; he had a pile of clearances and "recoveries," which are events when you get the ball after it's popped loose or someone sends it directly to you. He played off, didn't let Atsu by him, and let the crosses in. It was reminiscent of the Spain Confederations Cup game.
What now? Altidore's World Cup is almost certainly over, leaving the US in a difficult situation. With Eddie Johnson and Terrence Boyd left off the roster, there is nothing approximating a like-for-like substitute. Johannsson's the closest thing and the Ghana game was a good indication he's not much of a target guy at a World Cup level.
The USA's options:
- Use Johannsson like Charlie Davies. IE, have him run onto long balls to the side of the field, hopefully outdistancing the centerback he's matched up against. With Pepe out and Germany relying on the enormous but a bit ponderous Per Mertesacker, this is a viable option.
- Use Dempsey as a target guy. In this situation Dempsey leads the line with Johannsson or Wondolowski playing off of him. I am not enthused about this possibility.
- False nine time. The "false nine" you hear so much about is a striker who isn't really much of a striker. He often comes back into the midfield and then plays balls at gentlemen running past him. Dempsey is a potential fit in that role; he can maintain the ball if it's played into his feet; then Johannsson and Bedoya can be runners past him. That's yet another tactical departure, though.
I'm guessing they go with the first option, but I'm afraid we're about to find out that Jozy does a bunch of things you don't appreciate until he's not out there doing them. Keeping possession better than they did against Ghana is even more critical.
Portugal situation. They've been whittled down by injuries, which momentarily made US fans giddy until Altidore and Besler went out. Pepe is out after taking a red card; left back Fabio Coentrao and striker Hugo Almeida left with injuries that will hold them out of the remainder of the group stage.
Almeida's replacement will (probably) be Eder, a strapping gentleman who plays in the Portuguese league. He is in the Jozy Altidore vein: a physical guy with flashes of brilliance who is maybe a little lacking on the technical side. Almeida wasn't exactly lighting the world on fire, and Eder has made some impact when he's gotten in recently. That dropoff won't be severe.
On the other hand, Coentrao's replacement is a major step down. Coentrao is a fixture at Real Madrid and has excellent chemistry with Ronaldo; he was replaced by Andre Almeida (not that Andre Almeida). The other Almeida plays for Benfica, mostly in the midfield, and only moonlights at outside back. He's only got six caps.
Pepe's replacement is likely to be 33-year-old Ricardo Costa of Valencia. Costa drew into the lineup during Portugal's pre-WC friendlies when Pepe was held out as a precaution. Costa played about half of his club's games as Valencia finished 8th in La Liga. He's no pushover, but neither is he first choice at Real Madrid.
Group situation. The US is in good shape as long as they don't lose to Portugal. Win and they are obviously all but in. A draw is still looking pretty good. If the US and Portugal tie, then the situation based on the result of Ghana-Germany:
- Germany win. Ghana is eliminated; US advances if they either get a point from Germany (who knows they are through) or they lose and Portugal does not make up the goal difference against Ghana. That would require making up five goals.
- Tie. US and Germany enter final game knowing a draw gets both through, and Germany knows they are top of group. Desultory 0-0 draw beckons.
- Ghana win. The US would be at the top of the group but this is the most dangerous situation. Ghana would enter the final game with an opportunity to advance with a win over Portugal, and Germany would have to go all out to beat the US. A US loss then puts them in danger.
So root for the Germans against Ghana.
What if the US loses? Not all is lost but then things are much tougher. A win against Germany would put them through; a tie then puts your fate in the hands of the Ghana-Portugal game.