Soccer: World Cup-Ghana vs USA

John Anthony Brooks: twenty-one years old, born in Germany as the son of a serviceman, substitute, center-back, the least likely player to make the squad, yet literally dreamed of coming in as a substitute and scoring the game-winning goal off a corner. The team was on its back foot nearly the entire game. Given the run of play, gaining a point seemed farfetched, much less three points. Facing the Ghana Curse. It was all so improbable.

Thirty hours after the John Anthony Brooks miracle, I remain shaken with excitement. I honestly think I have watched the goal more than fifty times now. I can’t get enough of it. The few seconds of utter disbelief shown by Brooks himself gets me every time. No matter what happens going forward, it is and always will be one of my favorite sports moments of my entire life. Jeremy Schaap captured the spirit of the USMNT in this beautiful, must-watch video.

Monday night, I did not even care how the squad attained the result. Since the evening of bedlam I spent down at Grant Park (a phenomenal experience; you missed out if you watched with your cat in your dark basement), I have re-watched the game wearing my analytical hat.

There is no better place to begin than with the clear man of the match: Jermaine Jones. Ironically, I have always been a massive Michael Bradley fan and had my issues with Jones (not that liking both is mutually exclusive). In a US uniform, Jones has often been reckless and apt to giving away the ball, and his ineptitude would hinder Bradley from having the ability to go forward. He was always a yellow card waiting to happen.

On Monday, Jones was something else. Not only did he not get booked (his eleventh straight match without a card), but he was everywhere. Ghana spent all evening attacking left-back DeMarcus Beasley (often seen as the weak link of the back four). Beasley got caught too far forward, botching a tackle, or generally out of position more times than I could count. Jones bailed him out time after time. And how many times did we see Jones’s not-very-attractive dreadlocks flying through the air winning an aerial battle?

While Jones’s performance was inspiring, Bradley’s was surprisingly poor. He gave the ball away like he was Ghana’s General Bradley. Too often, Bradley had acres of space to lead an elusive counter, yet botched an easy pass. He failed to provide too much defensive help either. I would be shocked if he continues like this throughout the group stage, as it was Bradley’s worst performance in recent memory.

The United States definitely got outplayed. No question about that. The Americans’ playing on their back foots the entire game and only giving up one goal to Ghana’s dangerous attack was pretty remarkable. Asamoah Gyan, Kevin Prince Boateng, Christian Atsu, and Sulley Muntari (who could have been sent of for his scuffle with Jermaine Jones) all scared the shit out of every American watching.

That said, the back four—the same guys whom have received much skepticism for years—held up remarkably well. The only goal was on a stunning linking play from the Ghanaian attackers. Some people have criticized Tim Howard for not saving the shot, but Andre Ayew had a remarkable outside-foot finish that was tough to stop. Sometimes we have to give credit where credit is due. Criticizing Howard for that one play would be absurd, particularly because he had a phenomenal game. If an average keeper had been the American #1, the United States would be sitting here without a point.

Briefly, Kyle Beckerman and Alejandro Bedoya—both of whom have ascended out of nowhere since Jurgen Klinsmann arrived—played as well as anyone could have asked given the circumstances. I would not be surprised nor outraged if Graham Zusi gets the start over Bedoya versus Portugal, but Beckerman and Bedoya both put in a proud shift on Monday.

Finally, to the injuries. I am no doctor, but I suspect and assume that Jozy Altidore tore his hamstring and is done in Brazil. After a problematic year at Sunderland—which was mostly not his fault, in my view—and a goalless trip to South Africa, the striker had been looking to prove all the naysayers wrong at this year’s World Cup. Clint Dempsey said he saw tears in Jozy’s eyes as he was stretchered off the pitch on Monday, and I imagine those tears were not from pain.

Altidore’s replacement, the young Icelandic-American Aron Johannsson, had an unremarkable match. After his immense successes in the Dutch Eredivisie, I was excited to see him get a chance, but the truth is that the Ghana match was not the game for him. With the way the match was going, the United States needed more of a target man to get on the end of long balls. Johannsson offers pace and agility that connects with midfield linking play, of which there was little on Monday. (It is worth noting that had the US not been up a goal from 29 seconds in, they likely would not have been willing to defend and counter all game.)

The other forward, Dempsey, received what appears a broken nose during the first half. He continued to play despite having trouble breathing. It looks like he will be in the lineup on Sunday, but will again have a tough time breathing. The match conditions will already be tough, as it will be played in Manaus, a city right on the Amazon River.

Some people have expressed interest in playing Dempsey as the lone striker on Sunday, which I could not disagree with more. The Portugal match will definitely call for a target man, and a lone Dempsey up top—who is really an attacking midfielder—would give the Americans few options on the attack. Basically, the US would either have Dempsey alone on an island or Dempsey reach into the midfield for the ball with no one to pass the ball up to. Both scenarios would lead to attacking issues for the US. The answer will probably be Johannsson getting another shot or giving longtime MLS star Chris Wondolowski—much more of a target man—an opportunity to contribute offensively. Whatever Klinsmann decides, it certainly will be interesting.

It also seemed like the entire team picked up muscle tightness, which is something to watch for going forward. Matt Besler should be good to play on Sunday, but he was far from the only one suffering. The United States’ chances going forward rely on their performance this Sunday, when a hot, humid night in Manaus against an angry Cristiano Ronaldo could be a heftier challenge than the long-looming Ghana Curse.

Now on to some brief notes on Groups E, F, G, and H.

Group E (France, Honduras, Switzerland, Ecuador)

 France v Honduras: Group E - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

  • France had the most impressive performance of the first round of group matches (until Germany throttled Portugal, which I will get to). Tiny Marseille winger Mathieu Valbuena was the stand-out performer. His work rate was unmatched, and he simply appeared everywhere on the pitch and turned every touch into a scoring chance. Striker Karem Benzema was also extremely impressive. All in all, this French team showed no weakness. Their talent may not be at the level of Spain or Brazil, but this team will be a major threat over the next few weeks
  • As much as we loved Costa Rica’s representation of CONCACAF, Honduras wrote it all off with their embarrassing performance. They showed little desire to even play soccer, and instead make dumb play after dumb play. Luckily Wilson Palacios was sent off early before he could injure the entire French team.
  • The goal-line technology “controversy” on the game’s second goal was ridiculous. The entire purpose of the technology is to provide us an answer when our eyes cannot tell us one. That is exactly what happened. Fans should consider the situation a resounding success for the system. Also, it was a goal:

  • The Switzerland-Ecuador match was pretty ugly, but it sure provided some early Sunday entertainment. It reminded me of a relegation battle match (though these teams are better than the laughable Fulham and embarrassing Norwich City) in that quality of play did not precisely correlate with enjoyment of watching. In the end, Switzerland deserved the win. Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who plays much the same role as Bradley does for the United States, will need to step up if Switzerland seek to have more success in Brazil.

Group F (Argentina, Boznia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria)

 messi

  • I’ll just pretend the Iran-Nigeria match did not happen.
  • The Argentina-Bosnia match was one of my most anticipated of the first sixteen matches, and it provided some interesting talking points. Argentina came out in a weird 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2, depending on how you want to interpret it) and showed a general lack of fluidity both offensively and defensively. Their talent was clear, but the first half played like an all-star match between strangers. Gago and Gonzalo Higuain came on at half, and the team returned to its normal 4-3-3. The change had an immediate impact, as the squad looked much more cohesive in the second half.
  • The Bosnians looked solid in their own right. The third-minute own-goal was the earliest in World Cup history. It was tough to watch, and Sead Kolasinac thought so too because he clearly had no idea what was going on when he deflected the cross into his own net. Afterward, Bosnia had some chances and only lost by a goal. I expected more from Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko, who should get involved more as the opposition gets much easier during the next two matches.
  • Lionel Messi’s goal was awesome. On Twitter, I criticized him in the first half for essentially a weak work rate. I stand by those statements. It is worth mentioning that I am a big Messi fan; I make these criticisms only because I know that given his talent, sometimes he could step up a little more and have an even greater impact on the match. Also, he did up the work rate in the second half, probably because he had read my tweets during half-time. Take a look:

And one final tweet from legendary color commentator Ray Hudson:

Group G (Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States)

 pepe

  • The main question here: Just how fucked is Portugal? The Iberians fell to Germany 4-0, which kills them in the all-important goal differential category, lost center-back star Pepe to a horrible red card (after Germany’s Thomas Muller somehow made me dislike him even more) and his Real Madrid teammate Fabio Coentrao to a thigh injury (eerily similar to Altidore’s), followed by the United States poaching a late three points. Ronaldo may still not be fully healthy. The team likely needs three points over the United States in order to advance out of the group unless they want to try to make up five goals versus Ghana. The Pepe and Coentrao losses are costly, and it is certainly possible that the Portugese will just not give a fuck anymore and turn in a weak performance. However, I still like their chances on Sunday. [Edit: Cristiano Ronaldo reportedly left practice early on Wednesday with a knee injury. Some have reported that he will be out for the remainder of the World Cup, but at this point, those reports are incorrect.]
  • You might as well throw away the tape of the second half of the Germany-Portugal match, as the Portugese were down three goals and one man. I honestly would have subbed off Ronaldo in that position to ensure good health moving forward. Coentrao’s injury happened long after the match had been decided.
  • Despite the lopsided scoreline, Portugal were actually neck-and-neck with Germany for a while. Ronaldo and Nani had multiple quality scoring chances.
  • Germany, however, did look extremely impressive. The main takeaway: if the United States give the ball away like they did against Ghana, that midfield will absolutely destroy the Americans.

Group H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea)

 mertens

  • Everyone’s dark horse—which makes no sense, especially since they are fifth-favorites to win the entire tournament—looked a bit flat on Tuesday afternoon. Jan Vertonghen gave up a foolish penalty after being beat and blatantly pulling down an attacker, which put Algeria up 1-0 in the first half. Belgium responded with two late goals, the second of which was extremely impressive. Algeria were outstandingly organized defensively all game, until they got caught on the counter by the lethal Eden Hazard, which led to Dries Mertens’ winner.
  • Russia-South Korea was ugly. I still like Russia to get out of the group, but this will be a dogfight for second place, while Belgium should be able to get through without much of a sweat.

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Major props if you managed to make it this far. With a fantastic first sixteen matches in the books, I can’t wait to learn more about these teams over the next week.

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