The Spanish expression saber competir is difficult to translate—but the Americans are beginning to understand it

The U.S. win over Ghana last Monday will surely go down as one of the most important in the history of the sport in this country. Clint Dempsey scored a wonderful goal in the opening minute, and John Brooks’s header in “Landon Time” will give you goose bumps every time you see the replay, but the most important thing tabout this match, in my view, is that the U.S. finally learned how to compete.

I realize that this sounds a bit strange. I’m trying to translate from the Spanish expression “saber competir.” It’s the notion that you not only have to play well, but you have to be able to read the game, know when to absorb pressure and when to press, how to stay calm after a setback and how to frustrate your opponent. These are all things that were lacking in American teams of years past.

Four years ago, I was at the Round of 16 match in Rustenberg when Ghana knocked the U.S. out of the tournament. The script was eerily similar to last night’s game: The U.S. got an early goal, then Ghana tied it late. Except four years ago the U.S. collapsed after the equalizer, and it was only really a matter of time before Ghana got the game winner. Not so earlier this week.

In many ways, the U.S. played poorly. Ghana applied pressure high up the pitch, knowing that the ball playing skills of Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, and DaMarcus Beasley are deficient. The U.S. struggled to get the ball out of its own half for long stretches of the match. In this regard, Kyle Beckerman floundered miserably. Michael Bradley, too, was uncharacteristically imprecise in his delivery throughout the match and often squandered opportunities to connect with Dempsey to launch effective counters.

This put a ton of pressure on the U.S. defenders, but they were up to the challenge. The U.S. back fourhad the most clearances by a team in any World Cup match since 1966. An amazing statistic. Klinsmann set up a double defensive line of four that was very effective in masking the team’s lack of elite defenders. Jermaine Jones had a heroic performance, blocking the Ghanaian attack down the left flank, where Besler and especially Beasley struggled mightily against Daniel Opareand especially Christian Atsu.

As Ghana piled on the pressure, the U.S. started receding more and more into its own half. For a long stretch, the Americans’ only recourse was to play goal kicks down the left wing to Jones’s head. Whenever Dempsey and Aaron Johansson got the ball at their feet, they were able to give Ghana’s defense trouble with their intelligent movement, but the lack of support from Bradley left them isolated.

But it didn’t matter. Ghana’s equalizer was almost inevitable given the run of play. The U.S. defense finally cracked after a long period of constant siege. The key was that the U.S. was able to switch the script when they needed to. Graham Zusi came on for the combative Alejandro Bedoya and started to link up well with Fabian Johnson on the right. This gave the U.S. defenders some breathing room and they began to push Ghana back. They didn’t panic, nor did they sink into a state of pessimism. They executed a perfectly logical plan: to take advantage of the freshness of Zusi’s and Johnson’s impressive fitness down the right instead of going with the deficient Beasley and the exhausted Jones. By design, Johnson didn’t venture forward once until after Ghana equalized.

Brooks’s winner came after a play down the right-hand side. It wasan unbelievable explosion of ecstasy. More important, it was a progression in American soccer. They got the result by playing with great heart, yes, but they also played with their brains. They learned how to compete.

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