For Jurgen Klinsmann, three years of work may well be judged on 90 minutes in Natal on Monday. In the north-eastern Brazilian city, Klinsmann’s United States team will take on Ghana in their opening match of the 2014 World Cup realistically knowing that a positive result is required to give them a shot of emerging from an unenviable group. Matches will follow against European heavyweights Portugal and Germany, where points will be anything but straightforward to come by.
It is the moment Klinsmann has been working toward since he was appointed to take over from Bob Bradley as coach in the summer of 2011. Impressively serene qualification for the World Cup as well as winning the CONCACAF region’s premier prize, the Gold Cup, followed. But it is on the global stage rather than the local one where the U.S. seeks to make a real impression. Bettering the second round exit achieved under Bradley in 2010 was surely the first target, but, given the group into which they have been plunged, simply escaping into the Round of 16 will be an achievement that would garner international acclaim.
The stakes, though, are high for Klinsmann. With a tournament that comes about only once every four years, the margins between success and failure are incredibly thin. It is more than possible that the U.S. could show the progress he has been working toward and yet still crash out at the first hurdle. A defeat to Ghana could effectively consign the U.S. to exiting a third straight tournament at the hands of the African side.
The U.S.’ final warm up game provided a blueprint for the way to go about to ensure that doesn’t become a reality. Klinsmann has repeatedly expressed his desire to get the U.S. team to be one that looks to impose their game on the opponents rather than being content to frustrate them and take what they can with limited forays forward. Against most Concacaf opponents that can certainly be successful, but lacking the true world-class players it will still be a difficult strategy to combine with positive results against the top nations.
In its penultimate friendly against Turkey, the U.S. won but the diamond midfield shape, designed to get the best out of key player Michael Bradley, left the team far too open. A Ghana side that oozes pace on the break will surely punish the U.S. if they line up in the same way. Crucially, against Nigeria just over a week ago, Klinsmann got the balance right. The disciplined Kyle Beckerman came into anchor the midfield, with previous holder Jermaine Jones just to his left in a far more compact shape. While Ghana will pose a tougher test, the fact that Nigeria created precious little was hugely encouraging.
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Key against Ghana will be ensuring that the team led by James Kwesi Appiah cannot expose the U.S.’ narrow diamond and forward-thinking full-backs. Marseille’s Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan, have the pace to hurt the U.S. down the flanks, as Jordan did when firing a hat-trick in a 4-0 demolition of South Korea in Ghana’s final warm up game. Asamoah Gyan got the other goal in the game and the movement of the striker who scored a dramatic injury-time winner to knock out the U.S. in South Africa four years ago will also have to be closely watched.
After coming to within a missed penalty of reaching the semifinals in 2010, Ghana secured its place in Brazil courtesy of a 6-1 hammering of an Egypt side then managed by Klinsmann’s predecessor, Bradley, in the first leg of the decisive round of qualifying. It was another powerful illustration of the devastating way in which Ghana can tear through undisciplined teams. In this World Cup the Black Stars will also be boosted by the presence of influential midfielder Michael Essien, who missed out in 2010 through injury. That was one of several major injuries that have left the 31-year-old substantially diminished physically from his peak, when he was arguably the world’s best box-to-box midfielder.
Still, his experience coupled with the solid Sulley Muntari alongside him, mean Ghana will not be an easy team to break down. Ultimately, it will be a case of two teams better and more comfortable playing on the counter-attack looking to expose over ambition and ill-discipline in the opposition. There could be the odd sign of it from both sides, but Ghana and the U.S. may end up settling for a point that brings some frustration but that keeps their hopes of qualification just about alive.
Prediction: United States 1-1 Ghana
When and where: The Group G match will kick off from the Estadio das Dunas in Natal at 6 p.m. ET.