NATAL, Brazil -- Matt Besler doesn’t recall too much about the U.S. national team’s loss to Ghana four years ago, beyond the essential details. Now a starter in central defense for club and country, Besler was a Sporting Kansas City reserve back in 2010 and watched the World Cup as a fan.
“I was at a watch party in Kansas City at the Power & Light District. I don’t remember much to be honest,” he said. “I know we gave up an early goal. I know we battled back and I just remember there definitely being chances both ways in extra time.”
In other words, Besler, now 27, remembers a close game – one that could have gone either way. If he watched a replay, he’d see the U.S. punished soundly for two split-second lapses but otherwise play well enough to win. He’d see coach Bob Bradley’s squad create its fair share of quality scoring opportunities. Robbie Findley was in alone and shot straight at the goalkeeper. Both Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber had open looks. Late in the second half, Jozy Altidore saw his eight-yard bid – and then his subsequent penalty appeal – miss the mark.
“I remember it being a tight game. I just remember them taking their chances. That was basically the difference,” Altidore said. “I think otherwise, we were good. I think we were in the game, as I remember it. Obviously they were athletic. They were tough to play against. But we had our chance to win.”
Four years earlier, in the 2006 World Cup’s group-stage finale, the U.S. was eliminated by Ghana under oddly similar circumstances. The Black Stars took the lead off a U.S. turnover (Claudio Reyna’s isolated mishap that day preceded Ricardo Clark’s in South Africa), but the U.S. recovered and equalized. Ghana’s winner in Nuremberg came on a cruel twist, as Oguchi Onyewu was whistled for a dubious foul in the penalty area. In 2010, it was American center backs Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra who were victimized by a high, hopeful clearance and the speed of Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan.
In each game, a couple of plays made the difference. The U.S. held more possession and earned more corner kicks in both, while the Black Stars were forced to commit nearly twice as many fouls. Ghana managed two more shots across 210 minutes. It’s tempting to look at the two U.S. losses and conclude that they represent a definitive gap between the teams. After all, they occurred in the sport’s competition of record. But World Cup margins can be slim, and to the men who will take the Arena das Dunas field on Monday evening, past results don’t reflect the real balance of power. They believe the U.S. is due.
“We felt like it was a game we could win,” Tim Howard said of the match in Rustenburg. “I want back a lot of things in life, but I can’t get them.”
On a different day, Howard may have reached Gyan’s blast – which flew just over his head – or Kevin-Prince Boateng’s near-post opener. That different day may be Monday.
“I think we’re in a good position to face Ghana,” Howard continued. “There’s no revenge factor. We don’t feel that. That’s not what’s motivating us. We think they’re a good team, but we also feel like we’re slightly better as well.”
Indeed, eight years is a long time. Seven of the 14 men who played in the 2-1 loss in ’06 are retired. And only four members of the 2014 World Cup roster (Howard, Bradley, Altidore and Clint Dempsey) took part in the 2-1 setback in Rustenburg. The ageless DaMarcus Beasley started in ’06 and was on the bench four years later. For the rest of coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad, Ghana represents only an opportunity, not an albatross. Besler doesn’t need to remember 2010. Rustenberg is barely relevant.
“I really don’t know if I can answer if we’re rivals with Ghana. I haven’t been around for the first two matches,” the defender said. “I will tell you that we want to win very, very badly. It’s possible that there’s a little bit of a revenge factor but it’s extremely small. For me, there’s none. I feel that’s certainly the case. It’s more the fans.”
Said Howard, “Not a word’s been spoken [about revenge]. We’ve said that all along. That was four years ago. It’s ancient history, really, in the way football is looked at. This is a different team, with a different mindset.”
That new mindset comes from Klinsmann, who’s preached from day one that additional fitness and focus can help a hungry team avoid that critical mistake. The differences in the team start in back, where Howard said the U.S. is faster and more capable of staying close to Ghana’s corps of quick attackers.
“I think we have more athleticism. We have more pace, and that’s going to be important to deal with Ghana,” he said.
Gyan, Jordan and André Ayew and Abdul Majeed Waris (if fit; his status is up in the air after an injury in Ghana's final pre-World Cup friendly) can devastate an opponent that gets caught flat footed or in transition. A faster U.S. back four will close that gap a bit and a compact midfield could do the rest. Klinsmann’s recent experiment with a foursome that featured Kyle Beckerman in a holding role (behind Jermaine Jones and Bradley) suggests the U.S. is aiming to slow the Black Stars’ buildup.
Beckerman’s presence would allow Jones and Bradley to press higher up the field if appropriate or, if they retreat, it would add to the thicket in front of Howard. Every extra pass the Ghanians are forced to play increases the likelihood of a turnover. When the ball is won, Bradley, the fourth midfielder (likely Alejandro Bedoya or Graham Zusi) and Dempsey then can lead the charge the other way. Ghana’s back four, which probably will feature Juventus star Kwadwo Asamoah in an attacking posture on the left, is a question mark, as is goalkeeper.
“We want to be able to high press. We want to be able to keep the ball, possess the ball, drive the game. But we have to be a little bit more careful because Ghana’s a very good team and we have to respect them and we just have to be smart about how we go about the game plan,” Besler said. “There’s going to be times where it’s best to drop off. It’s best to get numbers behind the ball. They might have a spell of possession. We have to be patient. It’s all about just recognizing the moment.”
Gyan told reporters on Monday that the Americans “are coming for revenge.” Perhaps he’s banking on an opponent that’s fixated on the past, consumed with moments gone by. But those are not the moments to which Besler referred. To a man, this U.S. team is about the here and now and not the accidents of history.
“I don’t think it’s revenge. Maybe the players that were players four years ago, they kind of want to get some extra kick and energy out of that and that’s all right with me. But [a World Cup] always starts with a clean sheet and we’re all excited,” Klinsmann said.
“There were more clinical in the end in both of those games but I don’t think there was any big separation or anything like that between the teams,” Altidore said. “If you’re not motivated just to play this game, it doesn’t matter who it’s against, there’s something wrong with you.”