Late goal lifts US over Ghana in World Cup opener
By Julia Green
There is an unofficial supporters’ group for the United States men’s national soccer team that calls itself the American Outlaws, and it was in this spirit that the American squad came out firing in its first game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. When the 13th-ranked United States squad stepped onto the Estadio das Dunas pitch in Natal, Brazil on Monday evening, it was seeking to avenge prior losses to 37th-ranked Ghana, which eliminated the United States from the previous two World Cup tournaments.
On paper, the match-up would appear to be the easiest the United States would have in the so-called “group of death,” which also includes second-ranked Germany – a perennial favorite – and fourth-ranked Portugal, led by FIFA’s Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
And indeed, when veteran captain Clint Dempsey put the U.S. on the scoreboard a mere 29 seconds into the match – the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history – it seemed as though the Americans were determined to make a statement. With the goal, Dempsey – a rather unsurprising early hero – became the first American to score in three different World Cup tournaments.
The U.S. mounted a few more offensive chances early in the half, most of which featured fellow veteran Jozy Altidore, but it was a mere 20 minutes into the half when Altidore had to leave the game with a strained hamstring. A scant 12 minutes later, Dempsey suffered a broken nose after a shin to the face, and the tide of momentum seemed to shift.
Not much offense
Despite carrying a 1-0 lead into halftime, the Americans struggled to mount much by way of an attack toward the end of the first half, maintaining only 60 percent of the possession and counting largely on its defense to keep Ghana’s offense at bay.
The American side had difficulty finding offensive momentum without Altidore – its one true target player – in the second half, struggling to hold the ball in the attacking third and continually relying on its defense to protect its lead. The defensive efforts of Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones and goalkeeper Tim Howard were invaluable, thwarting a persistent and dynamic Ghanaian offense time and time again.
By the 77th minute, the United States had only 41 percent of the possession to Ghana’s 59 percent, and as time progressed, it seemed that the question of the match became whether or not the United States would be able to hang on to its tenuous lead – a question Ghana answered with a resounding “no” in the 82nd minute, when Andre Ayew equalized for the Ghanaians after connecting a give-and-go with Asamoah Gyan and shaking off the defensive efforts of Fabian Johnson.
Turning it on
But the United States squad seemed to turn it back on in the aftermath of the equalizer, and in the 86th minute, substitute Graham Zusi played a bending corner kick into the mix, where the Americans’ third substitute of the game – John Brooks – headed it home to put the U.S. up, 2-1.
When United States Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann named his roster last month, Brooks’ inclusion was criticized – as was the exclusion of veteran Landon Donovan – but such critics were undoubted silenced Monday night, as Brooks became the Americans’ unlikely hero and the first substitute in U.S. history to score a World Cup goal.
“We fight to the last second,” Klinsmann said after the match, but added that there are “undoubtedly” things the U.S. needs to improve upon.
With the win, the U.S. earns three points and sits with Germany at the top of the Group G table. Following a 4-0 trouncing of Portugal Monday afternoon, Germany leads the group going into the second match of the round-robin group stage, in which they will face Ghana and the United States will take on Portugal – a team sure to be eager to redeem itself following Monday’s loss.
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will be playing without Altidore, a key cog in the American offense due to his ability to maintain possession in the attacking third and his skill at playing with his back to the goal.
On paper, the odds may favor advancement, but a number of factors will be at play when the United States takes on Portugal in the hot Amazonas rainforest capital of Manaus on Sunday, not the least of which being Portugal’s pride.
The United States will need to maintain possession, connect more passes, give its defense a break, and find a way to fill the void left by Altidore in order to emerge victorious and solidify its chances of advancement past the round-robin group stage, from which only two teams from each of the eight groups will move forward.
Group standings are based on points in group matches, goal difference in group matches, goals scored in group matches, points in matches between tied teams, goal difference in matches between tied teams, goals scored in matches between tied teams, and ultimately drawing of lots.
The knockout stage consists of four rounds leading up to the championship match on July 13.
Thursday vs. Germany (12 p.m.)
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Japan
Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, Korea Republic
Players to watch:
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Thomas Muller (Germany)
Robin van Persie (Netherlands)
Clint Dempsey (United States)
Mario Balotelli (Italy)
Andres Iniesta (Spain)
Mesut Ozil (Germany)
Wayne Rooney (England)
Luis Suárez (Uruguay)