It’s been 192 days since Jerome Valcke smiled into a television camera and was met on the other side by millions of Americans with a look of horror because he had just told us that we were in the Group of Death.
Finally, six and a half months later, we can stop concocting gruesome defeats in our heads and let Jurgen Klinsmann’s team actually play the game.
It’s going to be wet at Arena das Dunas. The match kicks off at 7 p.m., 72 degrees instead of 84, which isn’t as bad as it could have been, but it rained on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Today, it’s humid again on Monday. (A 50 percent chance of showers, according to weather.com.)
A soggy field benefits the U.S. because it will help slow Ghana’s fast, potent attack. Klinsmann’s 23-man roster shows a clearl preference for speed over experience—how else to explain DeAndre Yedlin?—and it’s probably fair to say he won’t exactly be sad (as if the smiliest coach we’ve ever had could be sad) if it’s a bit waterlogged out there.
The better question is how the U.S. attack will fare. For all the rhetoric about the team doing well in difficult conditions and overcoming tough fields, there are examples that point to the opposite. Remember the near disaster in the rain in Jamaica, when the U.S. was saved only by a last-second goal from Eddie Johnson? Or the loss to Costa Rica in San Jose after a downpour and, admittedly, the loss of Michael Bradley? Those were ugly affairs, and not entirely dissimilar from what the Stars and Stripes will see in Natal. While they looked increasingly solid in the three final matches before leaving for Brazil, the final-third passes never quite came together. “Sharper, sharper, sharper,” Klinsmann yells.
And yet, the Americans keep improving. Is there a better anecdote in the recent spate of Klinsmann profiles than the story about Roger Espinoza in the tunnel after the Americans defeated Honduras in Sandy, Utah, in June? “That’s a different team than the one we faced in February,” the midfielder said.
In the end, this match hinges on two things: the first 15 minutes and the three men in the middle.
Three numbers: Four, thirteen, five. Those were the minutes when the U.S. conceded goals in South Africa to England, Slovenia, and Ghana. That can’t happen again. Punch them in the mouth quickly—metaphorically, of course—and the U.S. could take this 2–0. (Dois a zero, if you’re asking.)
And then there’s the midfield. I think Klinsmann will go with the three who started against Nigeria: Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Kyle Beckerman. Call it a hunch, call it a feeling, call it exactly what I would do. A must-win game isn’t the time to attack, attack, attack, especially when counterattacking is one of your team’s strengths. Let Beckerman support the backline, Bradley facilitate the attack, and Jones do what he does best.
This is fun. This is why we play the games. Well, it’s why they play the games and we watch.