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.