Gotta beat Ghana. So it was in 2006 for the US soccer team when the Black Stars put them out of the World Cup in their group finale in Germany. So it was in 2010 when Africa’s Team booted the Americans in overtime in the second round in South Africa. And so it will be on Monday night in Natal, Brazil, where the long-shot Yanks stick their toes into the Group of Death.
Jurgen Klinsmann, their German expatriate coach who has been catching hell from patriots for saying no more than what global oddsmakers have — that his squad has no chance to win the tournament — told fans in Times Square last month that the opener essentially would be a knockout match. History says that’s so. Since their modern era began two dozen years ago, whenever the Yanks have lost their first outing they’ve gone three-and-out.
In 1990, their amateurs absorbed a harsh 5-1 tutorial from the Czechs in Florence. In 1998, with Klinsmann doing the honors, the Germans blanked the US, 2-0, in Paris. In 2006, the Czechs belted them, 3-0, in Gelsenkirchen.
“We don’t want to play catchup in the group stage,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who has been on the previous two teams. “We don’t want to be biting our fingernails in that third game and hoping some other team can do us a favor.”
Depending on the kindness of strangers is a precarious strategy, yet even when they’ve collected points in their opener the Americans usually have relied on handouts to advance. In 1994, after they’d tied the Swiss and beaten the Colombians, the hosts had to sit and sweat after losing to Romania. In 2002, when they stunned Portugal and drew with the South Koreans, a loss to Poland would have put them out had the Koreans not beaten the Portuguese.
With the Portuguese and Germans next on the dance card, coming up empty in the opener likely would mean an early ticket home. “We want to get 3 points in the bag,” said Howard. “Heaven knows what is going to happen in the other game, Portugal and Germany. So if they draw we top the group and everyone is happy, but we’ll see.”
The Ghanaians just might be the toughest opponent of the three, given how they’ve mastered the Americans in their two elimination matches. The Black Stars are fast, strong, and skilled and they keep coming. “It’s a team full of individual talent with players, certain players, that can hurt you in a split second if you’re not alert, if you’re not awake,” said Klinsmann.
Ghana may be the youngest team in the tournament but it returns a half-dozen starters from 2010, including the two — captain Asamoah Gyan and Kevin-Prince Boateng — who scored on the US four years ago. That team just missed making the semifinals, losing to Uruguay in a shootout after failing on an overtime penalty kick when Luis Suarez was red-carded for a hand ball in the box.
The Black Stars may not be African champions (the Nigerians are), but they’ll present a stern test for an American squad with a back line (including Attleboro native Geoff Cameron) that has been mixed-and-matched during the run-up and can’t afford crossed wires. “They need to understand their roles and it’s never going to be my fault that they don’t know,” said Howard, who’ll need to orchestrate proceedings from his line. “I’m going to talk all the time.”
Scoring first is going to be mandatory. In its last six Cup openers the US has fallen behind in five, three times in the first eight minutes. Last time against England, Steven Gerrard put one into the back of the net in the fourth minute. Fortunately, the Queen has only a handful of subjects who can catch a beach ball without two extra hands so Clint Dempsey got a gimme equalizer and the Yanks drew and eventually went through.
What the US needs is the kind of quick strike that John O’Brien gave them against the Portuguese in 2002, when he pounced on a rebound off a corner kick and put his mates up in the fourth minute en route to a 3-0 lead after 36 and a 3-2 triumph. And the Americans can get it against Ghana, which isn’t renowned for its defensive diligence and which has a new keeper (Fatau Dauda) in the wake of Richard Kingson, who thwarted the US in the last two Cups.
The variable will be striker Jozy Altidore, who ended his lengthy dry spell with both goals in the triumph over Nigeria in the final tuneup in Jacksonville. Klinsmann chose that opponent and that setting because it was as close to a dress rehearsal for Ghana as he could devise. With Altidore, Dempsey (who scored the sole goal against the Black Stars in 2006), and Michael Bradley, the Yanks have a trio that can do significant damage.
At a minimum, the US needs a draw on opening night. But 3 points would be priceless going into next Sunday’s rumble in the jungle with the Portuguese, who’d be facing elimination if they lose to the Germans, whom they face Monday noon in Salvador. “Football is not predictable,” said Klinsmann. “If we get through this group, the sky is the limit.”
That’s how it was a dozen years ago in Korea when the Yanks survived, upset the Mexicans in the second round, and gave the Germans all they could handle in the quarterfinals. Like that tournament, which was held on the far side of the international date line, this one, below the equator, also figures to produce unforeseen outcomes (e.g. Costa Rica 3, Uruguay 1) amid the wet heat and jet lag.
If the Americans make it out of the Group of Death alive, they’d probably face Belgium in the second round and could make the final eight again. Klinsmann, ever the Teutonic realist, would settle for one victory to start. Gotta beat Ghana.