The World Cup.
In true theatrical fashion, the US embarks on its Brazilian journey this coming Monday in Natal against their long-time nemesis Ghana.
A four year cycle marked by coaching turnover galore, Olympic failure, the fall-rise-and-fall again of Stu Holden. The departure of The American One, Landon Donovan. A win in Azteca. A draw in Azteca. A Brian Straus sea-changing article. Snow jobs, in Colorado and by the coach. The promising, now sloven facade of Tim Chandler. The recruitment of Julian Green.
The culmination is now.
The oft-forgotten third phase of the game.
Transition. What both teams do, how they react the moment a turnover occurs.
Transition. Where a team shows its drilling, its schooling; where individual players show their speed-of-game thought, their decision-making under fire.
Transition. One incorrect move in attack–a poor read, a poor run–kills what could be the most opportune chance. One missed angle in pursuit, one momentary lapse and they’re dancing, disrespectfully, at your corner flag.
Previous matches in this series have seen the aggressor in transition and their mercilessness rewarded.
Above, Haminu Dramani’s smash-and-grab job on Claudio Reyna and Kasey Keller–a video sequence that is numeral dos on the US Facepalm List after Torsten Frings’ Sleight of Hand.
DaMarcus Beasley’s hammering away at an un-corralled ball and then putting in a young Clint Dempsey, who lashed it affirmatively into the back netting. Kevin Prince Boateng’s left channel steam train after Ricardo Clark’s ill-advised forward pass. Asamoah Gyan straight bossing of Carlos Bocanegra and then nipping Jay DeMerit to the spot to fire an apple off Tim Howard’s head.
Even the missed opportunities–Eddie Johnson, Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley–show how the chances spring from the transitional game.
For Ghana, transition is the way of their soccer world.
Former coach Bob Bradley told me a few weeks ago that what Ghana wants you to do is, “beat or attempt to beat that first man off the dribble or with the pass so they can set you up for that second player to clean it up — and then you’re done. They’re off on the break.” He should know. The Pharaohs felt the Black Stars countering wrath just last November in their failed World Cup bid.
It was talked about in our last preview. Bait-and-smack. Ricardo Clark, 2010.
For the States, Jurgen Klinsmann has spent his entire coaching tenure attempting to mitigate transitional opportunities against the Yanks at the risk of cutting out the US’s attacking might.
Klinsmann forced the US for his first six months to play exclusively from the back, only opening up the attack–and summarily his backline as well–in a fun, but reckless Slovenia game that ended 4-3 in the winter of 2011.
Klinsmann was nothing if not pragmatic in his approach, masking defensive integrity somehow as possession soccer — even attacking soccer. This, of course, was a convenient and often uncovered media misdirection. The US was not probing for an opening; they were holding the ball to prevent defensive breakdowns.
Gradually, Klinsmann’s attempts at crafting possession soccer, employing a 4-3-3, pressing the game high gave way to a return to what the US does best: Opening up the tempo and defending just a little deeper.
Games against Mexico and recently against Nigeria showed the US shine in defense–even while the attack floundered–when tasked with keeping their centerbacks hovering around the top of the box, rather than being exposed higher up the pitch. The US looked decidedly Bob Bradley-like in employing a jagged almost 4-2-2-2 (a 4-4-2 diamond with unique defensive rotation if you want to be technical) against Nigeria as Jermaine Jones dropped deep to work with Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley and Alejandro Bedoya provided conduction and Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore pistoned up top looking for the final product.
This game — this first examination of the US in Brazil — will evaluate the Yanks’ resolve and ability to showcase an attacking posture without compromising defensive integrity. If Nigeria is an indicator, this team may be more ready than most think.
But if not, well, Ghana’s gonna let you know about it.
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview.
As usual, it goes:
About the Opponent: Ghana
TSG: What Are We Looking For
11 At The Whistle
States’ Keys To the Game
About The Opponent Ghana.
The Black Stars have thrashed the US the past two Copa do Mundos.
Ghana have a short, but proud tradition at the World Cup finals. They made their first tournament in 2006 and promptly dispatched the Americans in a game that everyone thought was a gimme. They would fall to Brazil next.
In 2010, they met the US in the Round of 16 after squeaking through Group D with the help of a stingy defense–allowing just two goals against Serbia, Australia, and Germany. The US was again sent packing in a game pockmarked by crunching tackles and missed chances on both sides. Ghana then eyed a semifinal birth only to have Luis Suarez play keeper and have Asamoah Gyan miss from the spot. Had Gyan deposited that penalty in extra time, the continent would have erupted.
Ghana arrives in Brazil after getting bounced in the CAF Cup of Nations by Zambia in 2012 and Burkina Faso in 2013, but then mostly cruising through qualifying, spanking their second round competition with a +15 goal differential as they sped through to a meeting with Bob Bradley’s Egypt.
By all rights, the Pharaohs should’ve been a challenge for the Black Stars–quick on the break and decidedly organized in the back. However, domestic circumstances convened to undermine Bradley’s squad, with strife at home contributing to challenges of focus and fitness. Bradley’s Egypt marched into Ghana on October 15th last year with promise, but crumbled, getting drubbed 6-1. They then limped home to clean up the scraps in the backend of the series with a 2-1 consolation victory.
Ghana snatched the finals berth and was back to pop-and-lock at the big dance.
Whereas Ghana typically relied on a 4-1-4-1 (or 4-5-1 if you prefer) set-up in 2010, the 2014 side steadfastly employed a 4-4-2 under manager James Appiah, who–controversially–rose to the lead role after becoming an assistant in 2007.
Appiah’s 4-4-2 seemed to coincide with a few events: the desire to provide striker Asamoah Gyan a partner in crime, the coming of age of Majeed Waris–Gyan’s aforementioned partner–and a desire to rely less on the central midfield partnership of two “aging” stars in Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari.
Appiah’s squad immediately started ripping the nets, but also leaked goals. They often went forward with abandon, but lost shape behind them. This, of course, was a common occurrence under predecessor Milovan Rajevac; however, the more compact 4-1-4-1 (specifically the holding “1”) enabled some protection.
Ghana’s defense is like going up against Donkey Kong.
You’re this little Mario guy and they give you a hammer the size of a thumbtack and ask you to swat away or avoid barrels. If you dodge that first barrel, the second one often wipes you out. That said, once you find the patterns–which ladders to scale–it becomes predictable and you can work your way to claim the lovely prize as a peeved overlord looks on, ears steaming. Man, that was a good video game.
In attack, Ghana wants to play through you on the floor (witness above). If they can’t do that, they’ll start going over the top directly to Gyan.
Force Ghana to play it wide up the flanks and you suddenly find a team meandering from a disciplined shape, launching speculative crosses and attacks and offering up backyards full of space, especially in their midfield.
That’s the recipe for Ghana. Now, let’s gather the ingredients.
It all starts with Asamoah Gyan, whose name is appropriately preceded with a curse word in the United States. Gyan, of course, busted up the US in 2010, using his combination of size and speed to decide the knockout game. He is always prolific for the national team despite playing in
the Qatari league UAE (so, quick note, he’s used to the heat. In fact he calls it the cold).
The forward is murderous in two situations: (1) When checking back to the ball and finding the feet of onrushing teammates; or, (2) When striking up the pitch after an opponent’s turnover, usually resulting in a one-vs-one against an unfortunate defender. Those situations recur and play out like “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. It’s not pretty and you’re just waiting for the carnage.
Gyan has been recently joined by Majeed Waris up top.
The on-loan striker from Spartak Moscow is the real deal. He’s the Charlie Davies to Gyan’s Jozy. (<– it was a fun analogy, let it go… let it go.).
However, the big questions here is, “Will Waris be healthy?” The diminutive forward limped off in the final tune-up match against South Korea with what looked like a pretty serious thigh injury.
Jordan Ayew is his back-up — and though he lit the lamp three times against South Korea — he does not possess the same consistency or ability to find space that Waris does. If Waris cannot play, it is a loss that will impact Appiah’s tactical approach.
Assuming Waris is not passed fit, Appiah probably modifies slightly to a 4-2-3-1 with the same principles–the only difference is that Kevin-Prince Boateng slots in beneath Gyan to help keep possession, rather than Jordan Ayew.
In that scenario–and the likely one, given current info–Boateng will be flanked by Andre Ayew playing wide off the right and Sulley Muntari tucking in off the left.
That line of three will be backed by Michael Essien and 6’2” ground traffic controller Mohammad Rabiu behind him.
Many will suggest that it could be Essien as a single holding midfielder or that he will be paired with Muntari in a two-man system. That makes little sense, though, and Appiah knows it. Ghana gets stretched and tasking two of your oldest players to cover the most ground and mind the center of the pitch would be like flunking first grade math. So, Essien will drop deep in build-ups, but it will be Rabiu behind him expected to direct traffic.
The backline–like that of its opponents–is the big question mark on this team.
Ghana possesses individual team skill, but they don’t appear to have an outright leader to marshall the backline. The centerbacks are Jonathan Mensah and John Boye.
Mensah, the defacto leader, has bouts with recklessness. That said, the centerback for the US to key on is Boye, who does his best to give the ref excuses to blow his whistle…loudly …. and repeatedly. Look no further than Boye’s first 45 minuntes against Zambia in qualifying and you’ll see a player who desperately wants to make a play — something that leads to him drifting far away from the middle or getting whistled.
Bookending Mensah and Boye on one end will be Harrison Afful. The Tunisian leaguer is steady and a worthy on-ball defender–he’ll get right up in an attacker’s shorts–but has positional woes. The US may be able to find some joy late in the game behind Afful, who will be playing on Ghana’s right.
On the left, it will be Kwadwo Asamoah. [The young writer exhales. His eyes drop. The news he is about to share is not good. He begins.]
The Juventus wingback is Ghana’s Scottie Pippen. He’s so good just about anywhere he plays.
For the States, it could be a blessing if Asamoah is charged with managing the left fullback spot as it puts him further from goal, where he may just be Ghana’s most dangerous attacker as well.
This was Appiah after the South Korea match:
“Kwadwo’s a fantastic player. Any position he does well. I did put him at the left back with specific instructions, he’s very very tactical.”
Take a look. You won’t like it.
On the aluminum in this one–for some odd reason–is Daniel Opare.
He is, by these eyes, the best true fullback Ghana has–able to be left alone in single coverage and a tricky player going forward. Why he’s on the bench is a good question.
Finally, between the sticks. It’s not Richard Kingson. Ghana have a massive question mark at the position as Fatau Dauda, a veteran of the South African league, probably starts. A decided advantage here for Tim and the Americans.
Late in the game, look for Chelsea prospect Christian Atsu, who is fast and furious, to test the US backline.
Two key positional decisions that will foreshadow Ghana’s posture are Waris’s replacement and Asamoah’s position. If it’s Jordan Ayew and Asamoah deployed in the front six, this means Ghana will likely strike out of the gate.
If it’s KPB and Asamoah at leftback–the call favored here–then Ghana will stick to its more traditional, deep-lying, play-on-the-counter mentality.
The KPB selection is a crucial one. The sprightly number ten always seems to have big games in the big games. He’s a veteran who gets the job done and he’ll face-up against the triumvirate of Kyle Beckerman, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron and their goose egg of World Cup caps.
The easiest way to get a good chance, of course, is to have less people to go through.
TSG What We’re Looking For:
* The Opening Salvo
To this writer, you will learn everything you need to know about how the US will play–and how prepared and confident Jurgen Klinsmann is in his squad–in the first 20 minutes.
For the Black Stars, they must certainly enter with confidence here. Their record over the States–including a “W” at the 2013 U-20 World Cup–speaks volumes. They are undefeated versus the US in critical games.
Former US coach Bob Bradley told me that with Egypt, he wanted his Pharaohs to jump on Ghana early — to not let them settle comfortably and develop a dominant persona.
Here’s RSL rightback and defensive vet Chris Wingert with some different thoughts:
“I would say the US has to stay disciplined. Our chances will come if we stay patient and defend well–similar to the game against Nigeria. If we get involved in a track meet early and don’t defend with numbers, I think we’ll get exposed.”
Wingert’s point is well founded and if the US’s matches under Klinsmann foreshadow anything, they’ll surely be conservative through the first half.
♦ The Line of Confrontation
There is little doubt of the following: Whoever wins the midfield battle is the winner of this game. The question is not what, it’s where.
Does the US sit deep, thus protecting against the direct approach of Ghana through Gyan? Or does the US press high, forcing Ghana to attempt to plinko through their US counterparts and leaving the Gyan longball as the one-trick pony?
The answer–as it often is–lies somewhere in between, with the midfield that is able to swarm the opposition, suffocate a turnover and immediately attack in transition likely winning the day.
♦ Junior Jones
Thank you, Sir Ian Darke.
Whether Darke misplaced his crib sheet or just got fixated, every touch by the US destroyer against Nigeria was met with gleeful exclamation of “Junior Jones!” by the iconic announcer.
So appropriate. Such a loaded term.
When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the US in 2011, he forced Jones’s counterpart, the sterling Michael Bradley, to earn his keep as a regular.
Bradley had to come off the bench. He was stripped of field general status… to start. In one game, a camera once caught befuddled Kyle Beckerman looking quixotically as Bradley entered the pitch and attempted to give him instruction. This wasn’t The General’s team… at least not yet.
Bradley earned his way back in organically.
Jermaine Jones was never put through the trial of Jurgi.
In fact, in March of 2013, after a certain article was published, the undercurrent running through the media (and through some of the players) was that, that captain to be named was Jones, not Dempsey.
For his part, Jermaine has always attempted to carry the US on his back, but often its been in the manner of someone attempting to hoist a love seat on his shoulders and carry it up the fire escape.
It’s audacious. It’s stupid. It’s probably possible, but you shouldn’t get a medal for doing it.
Why not ask that guy next to you–Bradley–to help shoulder the load and carry it up the main staircase?
Jones has been good (Bosnia & Herzegovina in 2013; Mexico in Columbus), but all too often (Costa Rica, 2013) he’s been poor when needed the most.
Often, it’s felt like Klinsmann has merely wound him up and let him go careening around the pitch… which brings us back to Jones’s Nigeria effort.
Jones had been tasked with the left flank previously–the 2-1 loss to Honduras in February 2013–and failed. However, the system against Nigeria was primed for his skill-set–reminiscent of a role he played at Schalke some 18 months ago.
Make runs–with the cover of Kyle Beckerman behind. Make runs–after Bradley et al. has cleared out space in advance.
Jermaine played the Junior role to a tee on Saturday.
And how prophetic, how appropriate was it that it was Jones–bringing down a difficult ball from Geoff Cameron and not rocketing it far post, but dinking it off to Ale Bedoya–who would be the key player in the US sequence.
A junior pass. This. … THIS is what Junior Jones does well.
The US needs Junior Jones to be simple, efficient, hard, but most importantly error-free and engaged against the Black Stars.
♦ Clean Your House
What’s 5’6”, flies from outside and makes Outlaws cry?
Andre Ayew who Bob Bradley calls one of Ghana’s best in the air. And he’s only Ghana’s fourth best attacker in the box by his eyes as well. Boye, Mensah, Gyan, Muntari, Essien, Asamoah when he’s not serving it, Boateng, Rabiu. The Black Stars roll deep with eight who aren’t flying the friendly skies.
Here’s Wingert again with what to watch in defending.
“In the game against Nigeria the US looked to have a few guys playing zone defense on Nigeria’s corner kicks. Personally, I’m not a big fan of playing zone when defending set pieces. It allows the attackers to get a free run at the ball since nobody is responsible for impeding these runs. If you have a great ball-winner in the air (maybe like an Omar Gonzalez) then it might be smart to leave him free and let him hunt the ball. All the other attackers should be accounted for with individual defenders in my opinion.”
Conversely, Ghana can fall asleep on set pieces as well–often keeping their head down or attempting to body an attacker while the play is in progress. This is an opportunity for the States.
11 At The Whistle:
GK: Tim Howard
The skinny: Sorry Tim, let me be the hundredth or so person to whisper to you, “NEAR POST!” The ribs are fine now, Tim. You may posture that this is just another game, but you should’ve saved that first one. And the only reason you did that is because you knew landing on your rib cage would create more pain than that Torsten Frings handball. But…like we said. This is your shot.
DEF: Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley
The skinny: Will Matt Besler get bossed in the air by Gyan? Will Fabian Johnson get forward against Asamoah? Can Beasley defend the back post against Ayew on an inswinger from the left side? Natal will ask….
CDM: Kyle Beckerman
The skinny: It’s one thing to have, say, Dillon Powers bearing down on you defensively. It’s a whole other universe when Kevin-Prince Boateng has you in his sights. Game on!
LM, RM: Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya.
The skinny: Bedoya may play a very critical role here in Natal. Occupying Asamoah on the US’s right flank, Ghana’s left flank. Bedoya is hardly schooled in the diamond, but he’s play centrally before at Orebro and also played in a 4-3-3. His positioning and work rate will likely be critical to calming that flank defensively.
FDM (Forward destroying mid): Michael Bradley
The skinny: Michael vs. Goliath. I’m sorry, Bradley isn’t an attacking mid. He’s a forward destroyer.
Even more has been heaped on North America’s best midfielder. Early in the Klinsmann tenure, Bradley was used deep, shielding the backline and kept relatively free with Jermaine Jones doing the dirty work ahead of him. This kept Bradley fresh for late-game pushes.
Now, much more is being heaped on the former coach’s son. Bradley is being asked to conduct the attack, defend the deep ball distributor and play help defense when necessary. Late in the game with the lead, he’s then been shifted backward to further secure the defense. There are all these data points swirling around this preview–none more important than finding a way to let Bradley dictate the tempo.
FWD: Clint Dempsey
The skinny: If you’re Ghana, you have to feel that Clint is the danger man. Right? Scored in 2006. Had the best game of any American in 2010. The thing about Dempsey is he is just the type of guy to draw the fouls that Mensah and Boye are likely to give up.
STR: Jozy Altidore
The skinny: You get the sense that this is an inflection point for Jozy. Or maybe not.
States Keys To The Match:
⇒ Show calculated aggression early. Don’t let Ghana get comfortable & begin intimidating.
⇒ Nothing on the floor centrally in transition. Period. (Calculated fouling before the defensive third is allowed, but no rabbit punches.)
⇒ Let Michael Bradley run the show.
⇒ Challenge Ghana’s centerbacks through 3v2 battles where Michael Bradley can get Clint Dempsey on the ball. Dempsey on the ball in the attacking third is the objective.
⇒ Arrive late off the central midfield action. Ghana’s wide players can get sucked in or stay zonal. A late arriving fullback or even Kyle Beckerman may make a play.
⇒ Your late substitution: Send Aron Johannsson down Ghana’s right channel. Afful can be beat behind and Mensah tends to arrive late and foul.