Fuzzy numbers, Klinsmann, and Captain Clint: Talking points after the U.S.’s win over Ghana

10 Comments

For the first time in 12 years, the U.S. has won its World Cup opener. In the process, the team vanquished a nemesis, saw its fitness pushed to the limit, and flashed many of the qualities Jurgen Klinsmann’s been trying to instill since he took over three years ago.

Here are six talking points from the team’s 2-1 win over Ghana:

1. Black Stars burn out – Nemesis. Bogey team. Possessors of the United States’s figurative number. Put all that in the past tense, because the U.S. has exorcised that demon, leaving it to wilt in the humidity of Natal.

For much of the second half, the victory looked like it may be an unconvincing one, with the U.S. holding on as its defense failed to adjust to the loss of Matt Besler. Ultimately, winning a game that was only even for five minutes, the Americans can characterize their victory in a different way. When they needed to score goals, they did so quickly, and decisively. Otherwise, despite ceding the Black Stars 62 percent possession, they limited their opponents to three shots on goal (the U.S. had four).

It’s not the most a convincing narrative, but it’s a winning one. Nobody ever expected the U.S. to roll over the Ghanaians.

[ MORE: Brooks wins it late | Man of the Match | Injury update ]

2. Pay attention to the numbers, but then don’t – From a distance, it’s concerning that the possession and shots numbers were so lopsided, but when one team goes up in the first minute, that can happen, especially when the other spends an hour giving them little disincentive to change. Had Ghana been more effective before its second half surge, Klinsmann might have adjusted.

So don’t read too much into the disparities, and don’t listen to too many conclusions drawn from them. Goals change matches, and in this one, Dempsey’s opener meant the United States could leverage the team’s new formation to keep play on the edges. By the time the Ghanaians made them pay, the U.S. could go into late-match mode.

Let’s see some more 0-0 soccer before drawing any conclusions. The U.S. may not have looked great, but there’s a reason why the numbers flattered Ghana. Whenever somebody scored in the first minute, the game could be develop into a weird one.

3. In terms of the group dynamics, this win is huge … – Draw-draw, and the U.S. is going through. A win over Portugal in Manaus, and we’re probably looking at the same outcome, and if you factor in other teams’ potential outcomes, the U.S. may be favorites to get out of their group. They’re not as talented as the Seleccao, but they have more outs.

To the extent the U.S. has that advantage, it’s probably not by much, but it goes to show how things can change over a few World Cup hours. The day started with the States in an uncertain place as it faced down a nemesis. It ends with the team tied atop its group.

source: Getty Images
Jurgen Klinsmann smiles off to victory and embraces his players after the U.S. defeated Ghana in Natal.

4. … but the fitness – wasn’t this supposed to be a strength? – U.S. fans celebrated their fortune when Pepe drew a red card and Fabio Coentrão suffered his own muscle injury against Germany, but after their team’s win, those fans had reason to empathize with their Portuguese counterparts. Jozy Altidore’s hamstring gave way early, Matt Besler had to be taken out at halftime (also, hamstring), while Clint Dempsey appeared to suffer a broken nose. The U.S. had own set of walking wounded.

Perhaps more worrying were the images of players like Alejandro Bedoya and Geoff Cameron stretching during breaks over the last half hour. Much like England appeared to cramp up more readily than Italy on Saturday in Manaus, another team that gave up the ball found itself drained.

Fitness is supposed to be a strength of the U.S. squad, but the team’s preparations proved little match for the conditions in Natal.

[ RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly ]

5. Jurgen pays off – Klinsmann is the most scrutinized head coach in U.S. Men’s National Team history, and with good reason. He’s trying to reinvent a wheel, one that a lot of people helped build. You can’t claim something’s awry without indicting the people who built it.

Tonight in Natal, however, some of the innovations he’s emphasized paid off, big time. The mentality he forced upon the team by seemingly introducing adversity paid off, particularly when Altidore and Besler went down. After Aron Johannsson and John Brooks came on, the expanded player pool he’s built paid dividends, and when Brooks headed home the winner, the team’s resilience was again on display.

Add tactical flexibility to the pile, but it’s important to note Klinsmann didn’t invent any of these things. He simply enforced them on a program that may have been limiting itself. Where as the U.S. men’s team may have been type-cast as one thing, Klinsmann has challenged it to be another.

If Sunil Gulati wanted a revolution, he may have just seen his general win his first major battle.

6. Captain. Clint. Dempsey. – First minute goal. Broken nose. An hour of mouth-breathing. Finishing a match where, because of other injuries, he was not going to be subbed off.

U.S. fans: Is there something else you want from your captain? Because Clint Dempsey just may provide. Celebrating a goal in his third straight World Cup, “Deuce” played to his armband tonight.

At 0-2, Americans understand stakes in World Cup qualifying

Getty Images
Leave a comment

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – Michael Bradley sees no reason to keep harping on that 4-0 loss at Costa Rica four months ago.

Yes, it’s still fresh in the Americans’ minds, a night every mistake snowballed into another.

“There is zero point in continuing to look back on that at the moment,” Bradley said. “We are where we are. Now it’s about on Friday night beginning this process of moving ourselves back up the table and stepping on the field from the first minute and playing a really aggressive way that ultimately leaves no doubt as to who’s stepping off the field, win or lose.”

Bruce Arena’s U.S. squad gets a fresh start in World Cup qualifying Friday against Honduras, and the pressure is on following the home country’s first 0-2 start in the North and Central American and Caribbean region’s final round.

“We understand the position we’re in,” Bradley said. “There’s no need for anybody on the outside to put any more pressure on us than we’ve already put on ourselves, because we didn’t start the hex in the right way. We put ourselves behind the eight ball. We’re honest and real enough with ourselves to understand that. Friday night is the beginning of our chance to put things right and get ourselves back in a good position. … We need guys to step on the field and understand the moment, not be fazed by it, go for it in a fearless way and have a big group of guys play really well.”

Forward Jordan Morris’ status for Friday appears in question after he missed a third straight day of practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury sustained Sunday with the Seattle Sounders. Morris rehabbed in the gym, the U.S. Soccer Federation said.

“Have you followed our team at all the last month? You think that’s going to be something that’s going to bother me?” Arena said at the start of the week when asked about health concerns. “We’re fine. We’re going to have 11 good players on the field on Friday.”

For those who do play, Bradley said it is paramount everybody brings his best game. Same goes for the Americans’ next match in Panama on Tuesday.

While the man in charge has changed – Arena replaced the fired Jurgen Klinsmann in November for a second stint as U.S. coach – and more Major League Soccer players were called upon this time than in November, Bradley insists the approach remains simple: Find a way to win.

“We stepped on the field in Costa Rica wanting to win. That desire to win is obviously still there, so in terms of the basic idea of stepping on the field and trying to play well and go for it in the right way and come away with a positive result, that part’s still the same obviously,” the longtime captain said. “There’s no two ways about it, we let ourselves down in Costa Rica. We didn’t play well enough. Mistakes turned into bigger mistakes, which turned into bigger mistakes, and so it all comes together in a way that you can lose a game in a bad way.”

And, there are many faces who have been on the big stage – Bradley, included.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard started the past two World Cups. Howard, four-time World Cup participant defender DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey played for Arena leading into the coach’s last World Cup qualifying, in 2005. Jozy Altidore brings experience up front.

“It’s a huge game for us,” Howard said. “It’s helpful that we have guys who have been through the hex before, who understand what that takes and the pressures that are on us. Yeah, it’s a big game.”

Bradley isn’t getting fancy when it comes to what the U.S. group must do.

“Winning. Three points,” Bradley said. “That’s it.”

“For us the reality is simple: We let ourselves down in the first two games,” he said. “It means that our margin for error is very, very small, but nothing’s changed in that we still feel good about the team that we have, the group that we are. I think that Bruce has come in and done an excellent job in terms of re-establishing certain things, getting at a few things. The mentality, the spirit in training and around the group both in January and now this week has been excellent, so we’re getting a little excited about the chance to step on the field in a big-time qualifier.”

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

AP Photo/Felipe Dana
Leave a comment

A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Leave a comment

This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”