SAO PAULO – The U.S. may have defeated Ghana in its World Cup opener, but the 2-1 scoreline was just about the only statistic that flattered the hard-working Americans.
See Portugal or Germany – the upcoming Group G opponents – outshoot you by a 3-1 margin, hold the ball for 60 percent of the game and earn more than double the number of corner kicks, and there’s the very real risk of a much uglier result.
“We’re certainly honest enough with ourselves to know that we can and need to be better, but you want to feel like you’re improving as the tournament goes,” midfielder Michael Bradley said following the win in Natal.
On Sunday in the Amazon, the tournament will continue against Portugal and it is with Bradley, the national team’s soul and spokesman, where the improvement must begin. He certainly wasn’t poor against Ghana. The 26-year-old put in his typically tireless shift and helped the U.S. lock down the center of the field, forcing the Black Stars to rely on longer shots and speculative crosses.
Bradley’s pass completion rate (83 percent) matched his average during the sendoff series victories over Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria and he misfired only once in the U.S. half.
But still, for a player who holds himself to such lofty standards, there seemed to be something missing. He was on the ball far less frequently than usual and attempted only 41 passes (compared to an average of 62.7 in the send-off series). He failed in his only effort to dribble a Ghanaian defender, missed on nearly 30 percent of his passes in the attacking half and never emerged as much of a playmaking threat.
Whether it was fair to expect him to do so under the significant duress the U.S. endured is beside the point, because he has emerged as the American who must. He is the team’s most influential player, its quarterback, the only one consistently capable of setting tempo and pace, making influential decisions and solving problems in real time.
If the U.S. is on its heels and struggling to maintain possession like it was against Ghana, it’s going to be up to Bradley to wrest some control and establish a different rhythm. He knows it, and his responsibility has only increased with coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to deploy both Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones in midfield. Now even more of the playmaking burden rests on Bradley’s shoulders.
“I’m certainly honest enough and hard enough with myself to know that it wasn’t my sharpest night, but unfortunately, they’re not all going to be,” Bradley said Friday before the team departed for Manaus.
“On those days it's still about finding every possible way to help your team, and I think as a team we realized at a certain point that it wasn’t going it be a night for making a million passes or necessarily playing the most beautiful soccer, but it was about run and attack, closing down and making the game hard on Ghana,” he continued. “I think on those ways, every guy on the field came away with really high marks.”
Indeed they did, and that was evident on the scoreboard as the teams left the Arena das Dunas field. The U.S. did enough to earn three points and the defensive effort, not to mention the confidence to vie for a late winner after Ghana's 82nd-minute equalizer, revealed plenty about the Americans’ character, work ethic and confidence.
But they can’t count on Portugal or Germany being so wasteful. Klinsmann's team must manage those matches better. Several players have mentioned the momentum shift following Clint Dempsey’s first-minute goal: the U.S. suddenly found itself protecting an early lead it didn’t anticipate. Rather than going for the kill, the Americans were on the defensive. Bradley recognized the consequences.
“When you score after 30 seconds, it makes what is going to be a crazy game even crazier right from the beginning,” he said. “It’s only natural then at that point that the team that’s winning, even if it’s just a little bit, starts to drop off and protect, and I think we more than anything just struggled to get out of that mode of now defending and protecting. We did such a good job of that. We put so much energy and effort into that, that in the right moments we weren’t sharp enough. We weren’t able to find the right pass. We weren’t able to then give the game a little bit of pause and put the game back on our terms.”
There are no timeouts in soccer, no point at which a coaching staff can artificially alter the momentum, save for halftime. It falls to the players capable of turning the tide. Speaking recently to SI.com, goalkeeper Tim Howard spelled out Bradley’s importance to the cause.
“You need a guy like Michael. You’re very lucky to have a guy like Michael because he sees things on the fly. He’s not afraid to make tough decisions, whether that’s going into a tackle or telling somebody something that might hurt their feelings. Any decision that’s a tough decision to make, he’s not afraid to make it,” Howard said. “When you’re standing in the tunnel and look around, Michael’s one of those guys you feel confident that whatever happens on the day, he’s going to be stand up and be counted.”
That is the role Bradley covets. It’s part of the reason he left AS Roma for Toronto FC, which will rely heavily on his full-field influence to revitalize a floundering franchise. The U.S. clearly counts on him as well, and he’ll be vital as the Group of Death is resolved over the coming week.
Portugal, 4-0 loser to Germany in its first game, is wounded but dangerous. In Joao Mountinho, it has a midfielder with patience and vision who can unlock a defense with a single pass. In Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese boast a scoring machine who will not let the U.S. off so easily should his team carry the play like Ghana.
“I think our best defense is offense, and we have to be extremely clean with the ball,” Beckerman said.
Bradley, as the point of the diamond or the primary conduit between the midfield and forwards, will be the one charged with finding the passes that help the U.S. make the transition from defense to attack. He'll have to play the ball that relieves pressure or the one that puts Portugal on the defensive. He’s not the only U.S. player who can do it, but he’s the one most likely.
“You never want to play your best game first,” Bradley said. “You want to feel like as the tournament is moving on, as the tournament is progressing, the team and every guy is continuing to grow and get better and get stronger. It’s important that we start off with three points because at the end of the day, that was the most important thing from that first game. Now we want to follow that up with another good game and more points.”
He played well enough to win against Ghana. For the rest of the first round, he’ll probably have to be world-class.