Our day has finally come! More than four days after the opening match of World Cup 2014, the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) will take the pitch tonight in rainy Natal. Their opponents? Ghana, the old enemy, who effectively knocked the Yanks out of both of the last two World Cups. The Americans will need to banish the specter of those defeats to escape from this so-called “Group of Death,” which also includes the second-ranked (Germany) and fourth-ranked (Portugal) teams in the world.
What’s At Stake
Portugal may have been crushed 4-0 by Germany this afternoon, but they’re still favorites to progress from the group alongside Die Mannschaft. That’s because the Portuguese will be favored against both of the teams featured in this preview, even without the leg-damaged Fabio Coentrao and the apparently brain-damaged Pepe.
That means if either Ghana or the USA hopes to progress, they’ll need to pick up three points today. Portugal’s goal difference took such a beating against Germany that, should the USMNT win today, a draw against the Portuguese next week would almost certainly put us through to the second round. Same goes for Ghana.
In a larger sense, neither side has a great deal to lose. There’s no shame coming last in a group like this. So we’ll see an adventurous style of play today, even if the rainy pitch and opening-match nerves prevent the players’ real quality from shining through.
Ghana tends to play 4-2-3-1, with talented players everywhere. The midfield “2” features AC Milan duo Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. Up ahead, speedy, skillful Schalke forward Kevin-Prince Boateng is flanked by the speedy, skillful Ayew brothers in the center of the “3,” while the unpredictable Asamoah Gyan leads the line as the “1.” Boateng and Essien won’t start today, but the gameplay remains essentially the same. The pace of the Ghanaian attack might cause problems for the American centerback pairing of Besler and Cameron.
The Ghanaians are athletic and powerful. “Very rarely do we get outmatched physically, but this is a team that has the possibility of doing that,” says USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard. The Americans’ technique and tactics have to be on point today.
An important feature of the game will be the impact of Kwadwo Asamoah, who will line up as the Black Stars’ left back. Asamoah, who normally plays as a left winger for Italian giants Juventus, loves to get forward. American right back Fabian Johnson, starting on the same side, also loves to get forward. The positioning of these two players will be key; if either gets caught upfield, the other could wreak havoc on his opponent’s exposed flank. Watch this battle.
Despite Zonal Marking’s insistence that the American formation is a 4-4-2 diamond (like a 4-1-2-1-2, if you’re struggling to picture it), we often look more like 4-2-3-1. That’s because, as our warm-up match with Nigeria two weeks ago showed, Jermaine Jones’ destructive tendencies cause him to drift from the left of the diamond back toward Kyle Beckerman’s position at its base, where he can more effectively break up opposition attacks. The resulting 4-2-3-1, with Michael Bradley ahead of Beckerman and Jones, gives the USMNT more stability than the diamond.
Against Ghana, though I expect that we will indeed play a diamond. Jones will be under instructions to maintain the width of the team by staying left unless Beckerman begins to look overwhelmed in central midfield.
Either way, we can expect a positive mentality from both teams. Ghana probably think they’re better than we are, like the rest of the world, and they’re hungry to earn three points to take advantage of Portugal’s collapse this afternoon. The Americans, meanwhile, are trying to make attacking football an integral part of their style. As defender Matt Besler said recently, “We want to be on the front foot…We want to be a team that possesses the ball.”
Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman. Not coincidentally, this is the second straight Twellman match in which the gulf in quality between the commentators has been large. Darke’s subtle humor, so enjoyable when paired with Steve McManaman’s exuberance, will be beaten into submission by the blunt literalism of Twellman’s approach.
I’m glad Taylor is commentating this match, though. He played for the USMNT and has insider knowledge of the American players that would be missed if Darke were paired with another Brit today. He’s also handsome and dresses well.
Match-specific Drinking Games
Funny man/Straight man: This one went well last time, so let’s reuse it. Take a shot whenever Ian Darke says something ironic and Taylor Twellman cluelessly corrects it. Take another shot if it you can hear Darke’s soul dying when he responds. How drunk? You should be drunk already! America is playing!
Missing Star: Drink whenever a commentator mentions Landon Donovan. Shotgun a beer if a shot of Donovan is shown onscreen. How drunk? Dead. You will die. Like for sure.
Slip ‘N Side: Have a sip whenever a player falls down without being touched by an opponent. How drunk? Strong buzz. Parts of Natal have actually been evacuated in response to this month’s incessant rains. Take a bonus shot if the stadium collapses.
Ghana: Akpeteshie, according to Wikipedia, is usually stored in used, unmarked bottles. Go for it; if you’re rooting for Ghana over my Yanks, you deserve whatever you get drinking this stuff.
USA: Bourbon. We already know what to with with bourbon, don’t we? (By the way, bourbon used to be used as a medicine, like leeches and radon; I’ll revive this tradition if things don’t go well this evening.)
– Read my general World Cup watching guide.
– Check out Zonal Marking, my favorite tactics website.
– See a commentary schedule or a review of each commentator.
– See where I’m getting my national drink recommendations.
– Check out other match previews from this group: Germany vs. Portugal
Picture credit: empireofsoccer.com