United States vs. Ghana Epic Preview

As promised, I have a preview for you, Readers. Enjoy (note: it’s like several little previews put together, and it has polls at the end):

Background

Let me give you a history lesson: American soccer fans don’t particularly like Ghana. They’ve eliminated us from the last two World Cups.

2006: group stage: the US had 1 point in the first two games after a draw with eventual champions Italy and a loss to the Czech Republic, while Ghana had 3 points, after beating the Czech Republic and losing to the Italians. The US had this to advance: beat Ghana, and hope that Italy beat the Czech Republic. Ghana won.

2010: round of 16: Bob Bradley’s American team won a group that included England, and then played Ghana, runner-ups in a group containing Germany, in the first knockout stage. Ghana won.

All this, plus in World Cup Qualifying last year Ghana crushed Bob Bradley’s Egypt.

They are excellent vs. American coached teams. Good thing we have a German this time around.

Why it’s a “Must-Win”

Both teams see this as a very big game. Let’s look at it from the US perspective:

-Scenario 1: the US wins. Let’s say that Germany beats Portugal. Let’s also say that Germany beats Ghana. So the standings with the US and Portugal about to play would have Germany in the lead with 6 points, the US with 3, and Portugal and Ghana with none. In this scenario the US can qualify just by beating Portugal. However, the US can still draw Portugal, which would mean that both results plus goal difference would need to go in Portugal’s favor for the USMNT to miss advancing.

-Scenario 2: the US loses. Again, Germany win their games. (That’s the control.) Standings would have the US and Portugal at the bottom with 0, Ghana at 3, and Germany at 6. So the team would have to beat Portugal to have any hope (technically they could draw Portugal, beat Germany, and they’d have a chance to go through on goal difference if Portugal beat Ghana, but that’s admittedly very unlikely).

With a US win vs. Portugal in that scenario, the team would then be tied at 3 with Ghana, half of Germany’s points. To advance without goal difference, the US would need to beat Germany, while Ghana doesn’t beat Portugal, OR draw Germany while Portugal beats Ghana. To advance on goal difference, the US would need to match Ghana’s result vs. Portugal: if Ghana wins, the US needs to win; if Ghana draws, the US needs to draw. The most interesting thing would be if Portugal and Germany both win in this scenario, in which case all three non-Germany teams are tied at 3 in an epic-three-way-goal-difference-battle.

Got it?

Also worthy of note: for the US to advance on goal difference, they’d need, you know, to actually have superior goal difference. Just throwing that out there.

Anyways, there are lots of different combinations. Plus, I should tell you that Ghana’s scenario map is very similar to America’s. And if they draw, both teams are in trouble.

This is the group of death, people. But it’s not just that! It’s the Group of Certain Death. When I first noticed that there were three groups of death (B, D, G) I tried to see the differences. From before the tournament began, it looked like there were three really good teams in groups B and D, but group G seemed to be the only one with 4 quality teams. Costa Rica has proven that that’s the case in Group D as well, but I already gave the name (Group of Certain Death) to Group G. Two good teams will certainly die. Well, they’ll be knocked out, but “Group of Certain Knocking Out” has less of a ring to it.

You still don’t think that it’s a “Must-Win?” Let me explain:

The two weak links in Group G are the US and Ghana. There is no sugarcoating it. Yeah, the US and Ghana have some international superstars, but Germany is made entirely of international superstars, while Portugal has THE international superstar.

Because these two teams are the weakest two in the group, they are each the weakest of the other teams in the perspective of each other. The best chance for victory. Either of these teams can get a win and then draw Portugal and Germany and be happy; that’s 5 points, probably good enough to make it out of the group.

The fact that it’s the easiest game to win for both teams coupled with the fact that it’s the first game and the fact that the opponent is taking it so seriously as well means that it’s of utmost importance to win, for both teams.

The Underdog Mentality

The United States of America is underdogs in this group. That’s a fact. Is anyone going to try and say that it’s a bad thing?

Let me teach you about the history of this country:

1775-1783: American Revolutionary War. We weren’t technically a country yet and we beat the British Empire.

1941-1945: World War II. We beat the Imperial Japanese AND the Nazi Germans.

1950: USA 1-0 England. This was back when England were really good and the US were really bad. It would be like if Canada beat Germany today.

1980: Miracle On Ice. Soviet Union hockey team that had won the last four Olympic gold medals? Let’s send some college players to beat them.

2002: World Cup group stage, vs. Portugal and their star #7. Up 3-0 after 36 minutes.

America thrives on being the underdogs. It isn’t an insult. It’s bulletin-board material. Stuff to put on the bulletin-board, look at it, take it off, and shove it down the opponents throats when you beat them. It’s the American way.

Note: yeah, okay, foreigners helped us out in a lot of those. French in the Revolutionary war, Russians, British, and many more countries helped in WWII, while the goalscorer vs. England was Haitian.

In 2014? We’ve got Germericans. And a couple Scandinaviamericans.

Tactical Analysis

Remember the Squishy Diamond?

Squishy Diamond

That? Yeah, well, I think it’s going to stay. At least for this next game. It can morph into a diamond or 4-2-3-1 in attack, it’s a nice 4-3-2-1 in defense, and the inclusion of Kyle Beckerman means that both Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley can do what they do best. I’ve done this before, but I’ll go through the roles of each player:

-Jozy Altidore: the target forward. His job is to help the attack, by hold-up play and/or scoring goals.

-Clint Dempsey: second striker. His job is to get into the box and score goals.

-Alejandro Bedoya: box-to-box winger. His job is to help out defensively, and act as another one of Bradley’s passing options in attack.

-Michael Bradley: The General. His job is to solidify the team in defense, and to control the team like a quarterback in the attack. I think a reason that Klinsmann is playing him further forward is so that he can shut down Michael Essien.

-Jermaine Jones: destroyer. His job is to smash stuff.

-Kyle Beckerman: calm defensive presence. His job is to sit in front of the defense. This is something that Jones has trouble doing, and if Bradley does it you’re only getting half of The General’s benefits; by having Beckerman do it it’s freeing up both those players to impact the team in the way that they best can.

I’ll expand on Michael Essien: if Klinsmann is going to use the diamond (Squishy Diamond, or whatever you want to call it–everyone has their own name and they call it that with authority) for only one game, it’s the Ghana one. With playing Bradley forward, you lose a little bit defensively. He is both the best attacking midfielder and the best defensive midfielder that the US has. Ghana is probably the team that has the least to give in the attack (they’re dangerous in the attack, just not as dangerous as CR7 or Germany) so Klinsmann will sacrifice defensive solidity to hit the African foes harder.

But, it’s not sacrificing defensive solidity as much, when you consider that Michael Essien plays a huge role in Ghana’s team. He’s kind of like Ghana’s Michael Bradley, except with more hair. Bradley will be closer to Essien in the attacking-midfield role than he would be in the defensive-midfield role, so he could shut down the former Chelsea player when Ghana get the ball, thus disrupting their attack.

How will Ghana play? I’m not quite sure. They’re sure to have the lethal Asamoah Gyan at striker, and we’ll also see the talented young Kwadwo Asamoah somewhere, whether it’s at left-back or in a midfield role. Might we also see utility man Kevin-Prince Boateng? Probably. And don’t forget about Essien, or the Ayew brothers, speedy wingers Andre and Jordan. Do you want a deeper analysis into The Black Stars? Well, that’s more for professionals.

This Is It

On June the 25th, 2011, the USMNT was defeated by Mexico, 4-2, in the Gold Cup final. Shortly thereafter, coach Bob Bradley was fired. He was replaced by former Germany striker Jürgen Klinsmann, who previously coached the German national team and Bayern Munich, to mixed results, and has lived in the US since his retirement.

Klinsmann’s Americans started off with mixed success, having a sputtering start, 1-1-1, in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Round 3 (of the three teams in that group, neither of them got anywhere near a World Cup berth). But 2012 also had positives: friendly wins away to both Mexico and Italy.

In the Hex, the last round of qualification, the US lost the first game away to Honduras. That was the low point of the Klinsmann reign. He was widely criticized, and panic mode ensued, either because of the infamous Brian Straus article or as a catalyst for it. That article was filled with anonymous player quotes criticizing Klinsmann, and detailing the divide between the German-based players and the others, and it made him look like someone who has no business coaching a soccer team.

What did the US do after that? They won 15 games in their next 16, including a comfortable Gold Cup victory and an easy-looking World Cup berth (11 points clear of the playoff place).

But since that incredible year? Uncertainty.

Uncertainty over a vastly inexperienced defense, uncertainty over a forward who struggled in the EPL, uncertainty over another forward who struggled to make an immediate impact in MLS, uncertainty over the group of death, and basically a pessimistic criticism of every decision that Klinsmann has made, including the obviously incorrect decision to select Julian Green over Landon Donovan for the World Cup roster.

But you know what? None of that matters at all. The early struggles and doubts, the Gold Cup win, the qualifying romp, the recent struggles and doubts, the roster decision, the send-off series, etc.. None of it matters at all.

This is the World Cup. Coaching a sports team is a results-driven business. No matter how smart you seem, or what your resume is, it’s based on results. International soccer is all about the World Cup, so naturally an international soccer manager, at least one managing a country at the level of the US, lives and dies based on World Cup performance. Is that fair, considering that the US is in the group of death? Not entirely. But it’s not about being fair. It’s about cold, hard results.

Anyone can lead the US to a Gold Cup win, at least when Mexico is in an epic slump. Anyone can lead the US to the World Cup. They hired Jürgen Klinsmann to bring the US success at the World Cup. What happens if he doesn’t do well at the World Cup? There’s a good chance he gets fired, regardless of the fact that he signed a contract through 2018 (Bob Bradley signed one through 2014).

The past doesn’t matter. The future doesn’t matter. It’s about the World Cup. Right now, it’s about getting out of the group. To do that, the United States will need to beat Ghana. The time is now.

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