U.S. vs. Ghana: Where the U.S. Goes From Here
The U.S. soccer team has a history of ups and downs in the World Cup. Lately, one country has been responsible for those downs: Ghana. Knocking the U.S. out of the past two World Cups, many U.S. fans dreaded having to play Ghana yet again on Monday. As they now know, there was nothing to fear.
It wasn’t easy. Scoring 34 seconds into a game can feel more like a curse than a blessing. The temptation can be to play defensively, to protect the lead rather than risk attacking and exposing your team to counterattacks. For most of the first half after Demsey’s blink-of-an-eye goal, the U.S. squad did just that, playing on their heels instead of their toes. The second half saw much of the same–hesitant play, and as a result, Ghana dominated time of possession 60-40. Resilient, the U.S. back four denied Ghana over and over - until they couldn’t. Tying the game 1-1 in the 82nd minute, you could feel the air go out of the pro-U.S. stadium.
But then something happened. The U.S. team didn’t give up another goal, nor did they give in to a tie. They fought back. They attacked. They passed, and weaved, and made runs, and earned a corner kick. Graham Zusi – the U.S. substitute no one’s talking about – launched a perfect corner kick seven yards out, just outside the defense, and John Brooks drilled a header into the back of the net. 2-1, America wins, America gets its long-awaited revenge.
There’s something different about this U.S. squad. Why don’t opponents want to play the U.S. most years? Because they’re aggressive bullies on the field, because of their spirit, and because their defense and goalie seal together to form a wall that just won’t puncture. Prior to Ghana’s equalizer, that’s just what the U.S. team did – score, hunker down, and prepare to weather the storm. But after Ghana’s goal, the U.S. took the offensive, and most importantly, looked confident doing it. Sure, they ended up retaking the lead on a set piece – a tried and true American strategy – but for four frenetic minutes before that, they looked like they could’ve scored at any moment.
Led by Clint Demsey’s technical talent, the U.S. will need to imagine, create, and execute against Portugal, Germany, and hopefully teams after that. This is where losing Jozy Altidore hurts (anyone have Landon Donovan’s cell?); apart from Demsey, Altidore’s the next best at generating offense. On Sunday, bet on Portugal defending set pieces better than Ghana did. And Demsey’s chemistry with whomever’s attacking will be key, because Zusi and Brooks can’t be relied on to score again. Zusi looked good in relief, but Brooks essentially admitted that he closed his eyes and stuck out his head – he’s not a consistent threat to score.
How far can this U.S. squad go? It’s tough to say. I think they realize that their normal strength – defense – is a weakness this time, and so are more willing to launch counter attacks than usual. Demsey and Michael Bradley, one of the few no-shows against Ghana, will need to lead a sometimes skittish back four and organize an inexperienced attack. Optimistically, perhaps, I think the U.S. will make it at least as far as the quarterfinals. There’s something different about this year’s team.