SAO PAULO – The U.S. national team’s second day in Brazil featured a morning practice session under a light mist at Sao Paulo FC’s training ground and the return of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who flew in overnight after attending Ghana’s friendly win over South Korea in Miami. Not surprisingly, Ghana was on the brain as the U.S. got to work.
The Black Stars have sent the Americans packing from each of the past two World Cups and will be the opponent in the critical Group G opener on June 16. Midfielder Michael Bradley is one of four U.S. players on Klinsmann’s roster who participated in the 2010 round-of-16 defeat. The Americans fell, 2-1, after extra time.
“I remember quite a bit [about that loss],” Bradley said Tuesday. “It was a game where, obviously, we found ourselves down early. But the response was good and for a majority of that game we were the ones in control and pushing things and looking to get back to 1-1, and once we did get back to 1-1 [on a penalty kick by Landon Donovan] we were still pushing for a winner.”
Bradley cautioned against putting too much stock in Ghana’s rout of 4-0 of the Koreans. Teams preparing for a World Cup often test a variety of players and tactics and the stakes are low. But he expressed his respect for the U.S. nemesis, which he called a “team that can cause you trouble.”
Bradley added, “They have, especially in the attacking part of the field, they have guys who have a mix of athleticism, technical ability, the way that they can take certain plays and almost improvise and turn a half-play into a [scoring] chance … I do think they’re a different team than the one we played in 2010 – [there was] a different coach in 2010 [and] they played more of a 4-1-4-1, were pretty organized, and I think all those little details are still to be seen about how now they’re going to approach the first game."
One clue regarding Ghana’s approach that Klinsmann surely noted on Monday: Black Stars coach Kwesi Appiah appears set on playing Juventus star Kwadwo Asamoah at left back. A fearsome flank player whose presence very well could be one of the reasons Klinsmann has been deploying defender Fabian Johnson on the right, Asamoah has played in back and midfield for the Italian champions.
While Appiah’s decision may be influenced by the offensive options available to Portugal and Germany, it may have an impact on the opener as well. If the U.S. is able to play with the possession and tempo Klinsmann prefers, Asamoah’s influence on the attack will be limited.
Proactive or prudent?
Speaking of possession and tempo, defender Matt Besler said Tuesday that U.S. success in the first round may depend on finding the right balance between pragmatism and the aggressive, creative approach that Klinsmann has worked to instill.
While the U.S. doesn’t plan to be entirely reactive, the fact remains that Ghana, Portugal and Germany can put an opponent’s goal under siege. Both Ghana and Germany led their respective continents in goal scoring during World Cup qualifying, while Portugal is led Real Madrid goal machine Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Yes we do want to be on the front foot. We’re not going to sit back for 90 minutes and try and get something off a set piece or maybe off of one counterattack. We want to be a team that possesses the ball and that’s able to create multiple chances throughout the game,” the Sporting Kansas City captain said. “But at this level and against the teams we’re going to face, we have to be extremely smart about how we go about that. And we have to stay compact, we have to keep our shape and we have to make it tough for teams to break us down. If we can get the right balance that’s when we’re going to be most effective and that’s what we’re trying to do as we approach the games.”
A Matter of Record
The U.S.’s position as one of two dominant players in a confederation, CONCACAF, that’s considered one of soccer’s weakest top to bottom adds even more weight to World Cup matches, according to Bradley. Fair or not, results this month will have a massive impact on how American soccer is judged globally.
“In some ways it’s almost magnified for us, because we don’t play in the European Championship. We don’t have a Copa América. Our Gold Cups are important, but we also have to be honest to say they’re not on the same scale as those tournaments,” he said. “So for us, the big chance comes once every four years and all the work, at the end of the day, gets put to the test at the World Cup. On one level, you can say that it’s such a small sample size because there’s so much that goes on in four years in terms of work and training and games and now you hope it pays off. But at the end of the day, you also realize that you get to this moment, and these kind of games, and the margin between winning and losing is so small.”
He pointed out that the 2002 team, now celebrated for advancing to the World Cup quarterfinals, would have been eliminated in the group stage if South Korea’s Park Ji Sung hadn’t scored a late winner against Portugal. And the ’06 team, remembered for exiting the World Cup winless, might have fared differently had Claudio Reyna’s early bid against the Czech Republic not hit the post.
“How different things could have been,” Bradley said. “As players we all understand it. You relish the opportunity to play at the highest level and to have a chance where now, all eyes are on you and the spotlight comes on. It comes with the territory that now regardless of anything else that happens over four years, this is the ultimate test. So we’re excited by that.”