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.
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.
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.
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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.