17 Jun '14

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Unbelievable!! What happened to Ghana?

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The past two U.S. sides to play in the World Cup ended their tournaments with a defeat to Ghana. This journey to Brazil does not need to start in the same fashion.

Forget about the past. This match will take place in a present where both teams harbor reasonable expectations of winning the match. The gap between the teams remains thin. The outcome hinges on the ability to execute the game plan and mitigate the opposition for 90 minutes.

The blueprint for a U.S. victory starts with those fundamental factors and progresses quickly from there. Expect Jürgen Klinsmann and his players to consider these keys as they try to open their Group G obligations by securing a positive result against this familiar foe in Natal.

Control the tempo by any means necessary

Ghana excels when provided with the opportunity to increase the cadence of the game. This Black Stars side – whether aligned in the 4-4-2 often used in qualifying or the 4-2-3-1 shape perhaps on tap with Abdul Majeed Waris (thigh) somewhat of a doubt – will press high without the ball and transition quickly when it is won. The front four will rely on pace and power to move directly through the middle to exploit the openings created and punish any opponent incapable or unwilling of stopping them.

This U.S. side is more capable of playing at higher tempo than many of its predecessors, but it cannot afford to attempt the feat for 90 minutes against Ghana. The burden falls on the midfield to interrupt those moves from time to time and slow the match down occasionally with professional and tidy work in possession. Those measures will create a more manageable affair against a Ghanaian side lacking creativity during extended spells on the ball. If this game evolves into a scenario where the teams take turns running at each other, then the U.S. is in some trouble.

Ensure fluidity does not impact solidity in midfield

In order to prevent the encounter from lapsing into that sort of open fare, the U.S. must retain its core principles in midfield. Klinsmann introduced a more fluid shape during the final couple of friendlies in a bid to inject more dynamic principles and provide more protection to the back four. He will likely field three players in central midfield – Kyle Beckerman in a deep-lying role, Jermaine Jones in a center-left spot and Michael Bradley in a more advanced position – to establish a resolute base of operations.

The onus falls on those three players to adjust to developing situations smoothly and fill the gaps appropriately. If Beckerman is indeed selected, then he must serve as the reliable touchstone of sorts and stick primarily in the middle to protect himself and his teammates. Bradley and Jones must amend their work accordingly to guarantee proper coverage in the middle. The rotations creaked a bit in the buildup matches, but they must hit directly on point here with the selected player on the right (either Alejandro Bedoya or Graham Zusi) and one of the two forwards (Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey) sliding into the proper spots to cover when necessary.

Force Ghana to play in the wide areas … and preferably down the right

If the U.S. can maintain a solid foundation in the middle and stay connected along the back four, then it can funnel the play into the wide areas. Ghana poses the greatest threat when it can operate between the fullbacks. Asamoah Gyan runs the channels willingly on either side if Ghana plays directly, while most of the work on the break comes right through the middle. The danger diminishes when the Ghanaians are forced to rely on crosses and use the flanks effectively.

The point comes with a caveat, though: Kwadwo Asamoah creates matchup concerns on the left side. He covers acres of space on the left whether deployed as part of the back four or in his natural left-wing role. The presence of Fabian Johnson at right back offers a buffer of sorts given the advanced positions he often takes, but Johnson must retain possession deftly and pick his moments to cut infield carefully to ensure Asamoah does not scamper into the space behind him.

Rely on second- and third-man runs to create opportunities

Johnson plays a critical role in how the U.S. will try to attack Ghana. Organization remains a critical concern for the Black Stars at the back. The defensive structure from the past two World Cups is essentially gone. The revamped group in its place can absorb the initial forays most of the time if provided with time to settle into the right shape, but it is prone to lunging on crosses and tackles when stretched.

The key to catching Ghana out is two-fold: breaking quickly at the right times to pose problems without creating too much exposure and finding the secondary options on any resulting service. Altidore and Dempsey will demand plenty of attention through the middle and leave space for others to exploit. The inconsistent tracking by both fullbacks and the holding players in midfield will create opportunities for late runners.

Look for the U.S. to play toward the channels from time to time and wait for someone, anyone to dash into the space created as both teams adjust. Bradley – a fantastic option to either create the play with a clipped ball over the top or join the move at its conclusion – looms large here.

Stay focused in controllable situations

The potential benefits from those late runs highlight the importance of managing the game properly and tailoring the approach accordingly. This examination requires full concentration for the duration of the affair. There is no latitude for dropped marks on corner kicks, no room for wayward tracking on set pieces. And the U.S. must punish Ghana accordingly if it fails to meet those rigorous standards.

This is a match of fine margins. Ghana may have won the last two World Cup meetings, but the two countries are similar in terms of their collective strength at this point. If the U.S. can adhere to the tenets set forth over the past few months and sidestep any critical letdowns, then it can atone for the defeats of the past and chart a more positive course to start this World Cup.

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  1. Team USA stuns World Cup rival Ghana behind Brooks’ late winner
    Clint Dempsey scored the sixth fastest goal in World Cup history, and John Brooks scored a remarkable late goal to lead the Americans past Ghana 2-1 in their World Cup Group G match opener in Natal on Monday.

    It was an incredible result, made of equal parts attrition and magic, and it took the USA to second-place in the group of death, tied with Germany on points, and behind only on goal difference.

    “We needed to push and push and just grind it out,” Jurgen Klinsmann told ESPN after the match. “We have a great spirit — the USA always has a great sport. It was a little bit of shock that Jozy got injured, we had to to take [Matt] Besler out because we disn’t want to lose him too, so it was a grind but it was a wonderful win at the end of the day.”

    Klinsmann added: “Well undoubtedly there are things we need to do better. We had problems keeping the ball, we need to get into more into the game, but a lot of that is the merits of Ghana, they are are a good team who grind you. At the end of the day we got the three points we so badly wanted and we can move on.”

    Brook’s header in the 86th minute was astonishing, and not because it was his first for the national team, nor because it was the first scored by an American on his debut in the World Cup for 12 long years. It was, in fact, a straightforward header off a fine corner kick sent in by Graham Zusi that caught Ghana flat.

    No, what was remarkable about it is that Ghana had pinned the Americans on the ropes for a solid hour after a series of injuries depleted the USA, and Andre Ayew had looked as if he was about to lead the Black Stars all the way back, having scored just minutes earlier.

    Instead, out of nothing but heart, the Americans went all the way down the field, willing themselves forward in the steam of Natal, won a corner — and finally exorcised the memory of two bitter defeats suffered at the Africans’ hands.

    Ghana had eliminated the Americans in each of the past two World Cups, and when this draw was made, groans could be heard across the USA. Not only had the Americans been drawn into the group of death alongside powerhouses Portugal and Germany, but the USA had to get a result here in Natal to have any realistic hope of progressing.

    So, when Dempsey raced onto a simple ball in from the left side from Jermaine Jones to slam home past Adam Kwarasey in the nets with just 34 seconds gone off the clock, the 20,000 or so fans who had filled fully half this stadium erupted. It was a dizzying start for the Americans — and the earliest they had ever scored in this competition by far — and it had manager Klinsmann screaming on the sidelines. It felt at that moment as if the Americans could finally get what has been a crushing weight off their backs.

    Their joy was tempered just 19 minutes later when Jozy Altidore pulled up short, clutching his left hamstring. Altidore was taken off on a stretcher and Aron Joahannsson had to be slotted in immediately. Altidore’s condition was diagnosed as a strained left hamstring which is potentially a massive blow to the Americans’ hopes. If Altidore’s injury is mild, he is likely to miss at least one game — but if it is severe, his World Cup is over. The USA do not have a direct replacement for the Sunderland man — Chris Wondolowski is a good pro but simply too slow — and losing a target man of Altidore’s stature changes the equation for the USA against Portugal and Germany.

    “To have that happen to him, your heart just goes out to him and we hope he can come back,” Dempsey said after the match. “But, Aron [Joahannsson] came in and did a good job.”

    And he wasn’t alone on that sentiment.

    “It was disappointing, we’ve ridden him for four years,” Tim Howard admitted following the win.”But that’s why you build a squad. Aron came in right away and did well and of course Brooksy was fantastic. And, yeah, it affects you but you have to overcome that and we did that. You don’t want to see that but Aron came in and filled that role.”

    And that changed the equation considerably. While the Americans smartly funneled Ghana’s pressure out wide right, they lost the ability to break the pressure and their rotation in the middle of the park to cover runners was poor. Michael Bradley — usually so strong for the USA — showed little of the movement and ability he has rightly been feted for. But Kyle Beckerman, regarded by some as a question mark, was outstanding, showing both poise and positioning.

    The hits kept on coming. Dempsey took a shot to the face in the 33rd minute when John Boye caught him with a very high cleat, smashing the captain’s nose and forcing him to come off for treatment. Dempsey was left with a cut and a scowl, and he looked dazed from the contact. Matters worsened five minutes later when Matt Besler made a fine tackle and then came up clutching his hamstring as well. He would limp through the remainder of the half as well. When Jermaine Jones and Sulley Muntari tangled, and Jonas Eriksson walked over to reprimand both, American fans could have been forgiven if they feared the worst.

    Besler would come off at the half, suffering what was reported as “tightness” in his hamstring, and Brooks was thrown on in his place. Meanwhile, Ghana continued to flow at Howard’s net. Muntari started to pull the strings, and when Asamoah Gyan headed over the bar after being found alone in space, there were many hearts in mouths in the stands. Gyan would force a fine save just minutes after that, and it looked as if the Americans might break right then and there.

    They did not, and as Ghana continued to lump it forward — and miss their chances — manager James Appiah threw on Kevin-Prince Boateng and Michael Essien in a attempt to create some sort of spark. Finally, with just seven minutes left, the dam broke.

    Gyan slipped Andre Ayew with a superb backheel, and the Marseille man made the most of his chance, ripping his shot past Howard. It was a fine goal and it was fully deserved. The Americans had spent nearly an hour doing nothing but defending. It was also the one time that the Americans had failed to force Ghana out wide right — and that was meat and drink to a scorer of Ayew’s caliber. It looked as if the floodgates were going to open.

    And then came Brooks.

    “Since the first time Brooks has come in, he’s shown a commitment and a pride to be here within this group,” added Bradley. “He’s not a big talker, but everyone can see what a great guy he is. He came on in a difficult situation and got a great winner.”

    The USA now have five days to get healthy. They next face a wounded Portuguese side, spanked by Germany earlier on Monday, in Manaus. An open question is how much gas there is left in the Americans’ tank — regardless of what happened here, they were always going to need at least one other result.

    “We’ve got to do a better job of keeping the possession, a better job of building out of the back.” added Dempsey. “I think we’re still dangerous on set pieces, and I think this will give us confidence and a boost going forward.

    “The conditions were tough, it was humid and you had to run more – I think my nose was broken so it was hard for me to breather – but the guys showed a lot of heart. We worked hard to be here, and we wanted to make sure we were ready for games like these and I think our fitness showed.”

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