Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Morning After: United States 2, Ghana 1

You know, it is a weird thing following the World Cup.  We spend so much time in sports telling ourselves and each other to simmer down and calm yourself because there is a lot left to accomplish and plenty of work to be done.

That is true in the World Cup and it is true in the American League West.

However, as we continue to progress as a soccer nation, we should not lose sight of where we have been on the way to where we might be going in the next 20 years.  So let's quickly review before ever mentioning the name John Brooks.

Here are eight dates I would like you to consider:

July 13, 1930
July 17, 1930
June 29, 1950
June 22, 1994
June 5, 2002
June 17, 2002
June 23, 2010
June 16, 2014

The last date on that list was yesterday, made historic by a late and dramatic finish in Natal, Brazil, where the Americans conceded in the final stretch, only to recover and to throw a dagger into their nemesis from Africa before the clock expired.  But, those dates above are the 8 times in the history of our sport and our nation where the United States had won a single match in the World Cup.

To you new to the team (and I certainly am new enough that I only know about and witnessed the last 5 on that list), understand that yes, the World Cup is just starting and that the United States have accomplished almost nothing relative to the tournament itself.  But, that list above should be enough to demonstrate to you and anyone you speak to today that yesterday was a very significant accomplishment.  To win a match in the World Cup is a big deal for about 200 of the 208 countries that play this sport on an international level.  I realize we aspire to be one of the world powers soon that can act unimpressed with the accomplishment, but for now, we must savor and celebrate when it is entirely appropriate.  And to put a match into the win column in Brazil this summer in such stunning fashion, well, let's just say I won't have any problem with you wearing your USA gear again today.

In other words, you can save your discussions of style points for someone else.  When a win is secured in World Cup play in a tournament where only the best are present, you take your win and you embrace it with your whole body.  I received your emails and your concerns about the Ghana match and we will discuss them at length below, but my overall feeling will be that on a day that they win the coveted 3 points and survive a very difficult matchup, I won't be involved in losing sight of what exactly that means both in the short term (advancing from the group that some consider to be the most difficult in the World Cup) and the long term (we are averaging about 1 win a decade in this tournament).

The match was odd, but in the way you dream of.  When Clint Dempsey crashed in from the left with 3 magical touches that resulted in the fastest goal in US history in the World Cup, it set the game on its ear before it even started.  Jermaine Jones had a perfect touch on the pass that sprung Dempsey, and then the cut back against the grain was the skill we are told our nation doesn't have for this stage, followed by Dempsey doing what he has done everywhere he has ever gone in this sport - find the back of the net.  Or in this case, the inside of the far post, and in doing so put the United States in the most uncomfortable of positions in this tournament, and frankly one that most of us don't really know how to deal with; ahead.

The United States almost never is ahead in the World Cup, and honestly when you install tactics to attack for 6 months, you almost don't bother figuring out how to deal with your attack being successful - because it is the World Cup, silly.  If you have watched this sport for any length of time, you know that in a matchup of rather equal abilities, sometimes a first minute goal can cause the team with the lead to change on the fly and attempt to improvise into protecting for the next 90 minutes.  It is easy for us to encourage them to go find their 2nd and 3rd goals, too, but when the margins are so small, teams are not going to risk their good fortunes lightly.

So, the U.S. clearly backed off the gas and allowed the amazing talents and speed of Ghana to control the ball for most of the next 80 minutes.  At times, it was rather harmless possession, but after the intermission, Ghana's intentions were far more focused on affecting the scoreboard with their attacks.

Meanwhile, the health concerns for the Americans were stacking up, with the very key blow being in the 21st minute when Jozy Altidore had a step on a long ball, only to pull up in agony as his hamstring gave out.  If his reactions are the slightest indication, he is surely lost for the tournament, leaving a fantastic void up front for Jurgen Klinsmann of a striker who can hold up the ball and allow team-mates to join him in pressure-relieveing possession.

Without him, the U.S. even packed it in more behind the ball and Ghana was allowed to dictate terms for more than an hour straight, without repercussions.  Jozy has had his issues and faults, but he remains vital to this roster because there is nobody else who does what he does.  Aron Johannsson came on, but they are players with very different skill sets and the Icelandic goal-scorer really did not assist too much in his debut.

Hurting the cause more, though, was uncharacteristically bad play by the key member of the USMNT, Michael Bradley.  He is the engine that drives the entire vehicle, and on a day where he looked all out of sorts, the result is even more important.  His passing, normally one of his best traits, was wildly off mark and he just wasn't near his normal quality.  In fact, Dempsey had a tough game making his mark after the goal - the broken nose certainly seemed to cause issues - and DeMarcus Beasley did not have a day to write home about.  And that is why so many players making their World Cup debuts had to play well.

And you know, for all of the gnashing of teeth about the inclusions of Kyle Beckerman in the 11, or putting John Brooks in the 23, or any and all Landon Donovan-related roster issues that have been put on Klinsmann, we should acknowledge that he has decided to do things his way and not to reward past performances with spots.  He has started from scratch in many regards.  And while he does so in a rather abrasive way, we should look at all of the rookies on this stage last night in Natal and notice that most of those who played the best had nothing to do with the 2010 World Cup side.

Jermaine Jones was great, Beckerman was strong in defending, and even Alejandro Bedoya had his moments.  The back was anchored by Geoff Cameron who looked natural playing center back, and Matt Besler who now has the States holding its breath about his fitness level moving forward, as his hamstring put John Brooks onto center stage in the final few moments.

In the 2nd half, aided by the attacks featuring the dangerous Asamoah Gyan, Atsu, Sulley Muntari, and Kevin-Prince Boetang, Ghana tightened the screws.  They tested the defense and Tim Howard again and again.  Howard's superb rebound control held off the Black Stars until the 81st minute, when finally some beautiful touch passing including a precise back heel from Gyan freed up Andre Ayew for near post, outside-of-the-foot finish that Howard never had a chance at.  The idea to try to defend for 89 minutes proved to be the wrong choice as they conceded in the late stages.  Heads hung and shoulders slumped.  Now, could they just hold on for the draw?

After the game was tied, it was clear that the Americans were able to hold the ball more.  As if their attitude changed, suddenly they were no longer pinned in their own half of the field, and Fabian Johnson won a very rare corner kick by battling for the ball over the end line.  This led to the moment to scream at.

John Brooks is without a doubt the player on the USMNT that I know least about.  We have hardly ever seen him play and certainly he did not impress when we did.  So, when he was brought on for Besler, each unsteady touch was noticed.  So, for him to get on the end of that Graham Zusi corner kick just demonstrated again what we don't know.  We don't know how someone will react at that moment of truth, and whether they will take that chance and make it there own historical landmark.  Brooks had to get around Ghana's center back John Boye to get there, and he did, heading the ball to the ground and into the net.  It was magical.  For proof, check out this camera phone version of the moment.


From there, the Americans had to dig in and kill off nearly another 10 minutes, but this time their composure was on point and aside from another bruise to Dempsey, all was decided.  For the 8th time in history, the United States had won a match at the World Cup.

Then, thanks to Portugal doing things they often do on this stage, the door is now open for the USA to advance out of group play - something that most thought they were unlikely to do.

Klinsmann has made his mark and John Brooks is now famous.  It was not easy and it certainly would not gain style points for the 80 minutes of rope-a-dope bus parking in between the ambitious attacks, but 3 points is secured.

And for that, while we await injury reports, rest happily on doing what had to be done to a foe that was owed a thing or two from the United States.

Plenty of work to be done, but the work accomplished can be savored this week.


Tyler Kern said...

Great post, Bob. I absolutely agree on the topic of "style points". I've seen too many articles complain about the way we went about winning that game. If I'm not mistaken, the Dutch played an unattractive style all the way to the final in 2010.

With Altidore appearing like he will be out for at least the game against Portugal, what do you do up top to replace him?

Scott Blog said...

Sterminator... I am looking to start getting into and watching the British Premiere League. I need to pick a team to adopt. I am thinking about the Burnley Clarets since they just moved up. I am not a front runner, I want a young up and coming team to follow. Also what tv package do you use to watch the BPL games?