It was far from pretty, but that’s the way World Cup games seem to go for the United States. A scrappy 2-1 win over Ghana exorcised some demons, but plenty remain in the way the U.S. goes about its business on the world stage.
The best possible start — or fifth-best, if you count the number of times a team has scored faster in the World Cup — devolved into 89 minutes of wild emotional swings. An athletic Ghanaian attack and injuries to key American players accentuated just how little control Jürgen Klinsmann’s team had over the result.
It was a fairly straightforward game in terms of tactics, both teams seemingly more interested in running over the other than delving too deeply into a chess match. As such, both played straightforward 4-4-2 formations that featured mobile wingers and tireless fullbacks.
Poor touches and decisions permeated the match. In the end, two moments of individual brilliance sealed a win for the U.S., while Ghana failed to execute on its many opportunities, minus possibly the best combination play of the tournament so far.
Cross, clear, repeat
Even before Jozy Altidore’s early injury, the U.S. adopted a defensive posture to protect its slim lead rather than build on it. Whatever plan Klinsmann had in place before the match went out the window as the U.S. reverted to the trusty two-banks-of-four approach to keep the ball out of its goal.
The U.S. played in a practical manner in its last warm-up match against Nigeria, but it also kept the ball and attacked that game. This time, attacking became an afterthought.
In stark contrast to Germany earlier in the day, which went up a goal and kept pushing, the U.S. seemed content — perhaps even comfortable — with fighting to protect the slimmest margin. 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.
Individual vs. collective attack
U.S. fans have known Dempsey’s dribbling prowess, so the nature of his goal came as no surprise. American teams have also relied heavily on set pieces historically, although John Brooks did well to create the necessary separation from John Boye in the penalty area to head home his late effort. (Incidentally, Boye was also victimized on Dempsey’s goal as the captain left him in the dust; it wasn’t the 27-year-old’s finest match.)
Ghana’s most dangerous moves came from its ball circulation, which was direct most of the match. One superb three-man effort came off, though:
Individual play was important here as well, especially with Kwadwo Asamoah’s technically perfect outside-of-the-foot ball to Asamoah Gyan, and Gyan’s backheeled pass to goalscorer André Ayew. On a deeper level, this play displayed a level of chemistry and understanding the U.S. hardly showed.
Ayew pulled wide, making space for Gyan’s run, then ran into the space he vacated to look for the return pass. Gyan hardly had to look to know there would be a runner filling in the central channel, and Fabian Johnson uncharacteristically got caught ball watching, failing to track Ayew’s run.
Brooks, just a couple minutes before his moment of glory, also failed in his defensive responsibilities by leaving the gap for Ayew. By the time he slid over, it was too late.
On the other end, the sporadic attempts to attack were uninspired and looked the opposite of a team that has trained together for a month.
In this situation, Johnson had two clear options: a short pass to Dempsey, who could dribble at the back line and slip Aron Jóhannsson in behind, or play Jóhannsson in himself. Instead, he takes a couple extra touches and ends up losing the ball.
As quickly as opportunities present themselves to attack top teams, the window can slam shut. A common U.S. attack proceeded as one individual dribbling until he ran out of space or ideas, then passing to a teammate to do the same. Without a clear path to goal or a defender diving into a foolish tackle, possession would be tamely conceded.
Three points are three points
A win is always a good thing, especially in the World Cup, but the way the U.S. clung to life on Monday is not sustainable for a long-term run. Over the past three years, Klinsmann has repeatedly spoken of instilling an aggressive, assertive style of attacking football the likes of which his native Germany used to trounce Portugal the same day.
It’s not that the players on this particular roster aren’t good enough to produce something like it. It just constantly looks as if they haven’t been properly coached to implement such a style.
Klinsmann’s exhortations are frequently to allow players to express themselves, and he speaks a lot about possession, but when the product is what it was in Natal, those are just vague buzzwords. Instead of looking for a second goal against an extremely vulnerable Ghana defense, the U.S. packed it in to defend.
As this World Cup has shown, teams that throw themselves into the attack will be rewarded. Against a shorthanded Portuguese side on Sunday, the U.S. has no better opportunity to play with that type of valor — possibly failing, but failing inspirationally, rather than with a whimper.