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What the U.S. needs to do to beat Ghana

by Matt Traub
Jun 15, 2014 5:39 PM EDT



Ghana. The mere mention is a figurative gut punch for any U.S. soccer fan. The team that ended the 2006 and 2010 World Cups for the Americans, plus the most recent U21 World Cup. No matter that this is the first game of the 2014 World Cup for the United States, everybody agrees in this group, Monday night vs. Ghana is a must-win again.
So at the very least, the U.S. should know what this feeling is like going into the game. The question is, will the feeling after the game be any different? Here’s five bullet points to watch on Monday night;
1. Fullback battle. Fabian Johnson’s ability to get forward and add to the attack from right back in the final two pre-World Cup friendlies resulted in a terrific goal against Turkey and the assist that unlocked Jozy Altidore’s missing form in front of goal. But Johnson was not examined enough defensively in those games. Ghana will try to take control of Johnson’s flank by pinning him back with its own attacking fullback, Juventus’ Kwadwo Asamoah. If Ghana starts with both Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien in midfield, that will push inside and leave plenty of space on Asmoah’s flank for him to push up. Big key for the U.S. is to get Johnson up the flank instead and then flood that area of the field, much like Italy did to England so effectively on Saturday. Johnson has proven to be good at crossing, and if the U.S. wants to get a numeric advantage on that flank when going forward, the question will be …
2. Michael Bradley’s positioning. Bradley is, in his own way, presenting the Landon Donovan question for the U.S.; he’s the best distributor from deep-lying midfield, best box-to-box midfielder, and best at making runs into the box and playing off a holdup striker. So while he could float out to Johnson’s flank going forward and be effective, is that where he would be most effective? Not in this writer’s opinion, given that Alejando Bedoya could easily play that role instead with the U.S. midfield diamond. Anticipating that the U.S. would play two defensive midfielders (more on that later) to occupy Kevin Prince-Boatang, then when Ghana has possession, in theory that gives Bradley the freedom to push up higher and keep Essien and Muntari from dictating the tempo. Plus, when Bradley’s in possession, he then can drive at those two. Bradley could be the key above all keys for the U.S. because this game …
3. Will be all about the midfield. Muntari, Essien, Prince-Boating have been mentioned. Slightly lesser known is Andre Ayew, who still has plenty of Champions League experience for Olympique Marseille in France and could be valuable for Ghana pushing against DeMarcus Beasley on the opposite flank of Asamoah, or cutting into central positions and forcing good communication between the U.S. centerbacks. So Ghana has that going up against the U.S. and what here is expected to be the lineup that played against Nigeria, meaning a midfield of Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman and Bedoya (and should Bedoya not play, it would be Graham Zusi expected in his place). Beckerman’s disciplined positional sense is not doubted, but Jones will always be questioned. So far in this World Cup, transition midfield attack has been effective, no matter the team. That plays into a U.S. strength, with Bradley pushing forward, Bedoya providing the width (with Johnson on the right flank) and then Jones making some intelligent runs with Beckerman staying back. But then if the U.S. gets caught and Ghana goes on its own counterattacks – and it will happen – then it will fall upon Beckerman and the …
4. U.S. center defense. It’s all been said before about the pairing of Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron; both new to the World Cup, inexperienced on the overall international stage, and Cameron is playing out of position compared to his spot at right back for Stoke City in England. What to watch on the U.S. defense is how they deal with Asamoah Gyan, best known as the guy who scored in extra time to beat the U.S. in the 2010 second round (If passes fit, Majeed Waris will be the second man up top and Prince-Boatang may sit). Ghana is seen as to want to play through midfield on the floor, but if the U.S. is effective at breaking up the through balls, then it will play over the top and rely on Gyan’s speed to break behind Besler and Cameron. If the U.S. plays with a high defensive line and dares Ghana to play long balls to get over the top, then that will call in for the sweeper keeper role for a …
5. Healthy Tim Howard. Big difference for this Tim Howard compared to the one who played in 2010; he’s healthy this year and coming off the best season of his Everton career. In 2010, he took a huge hit to the ribs and was not at 100 percent by the time the knockout round came. His positional sense has increased as his age has increased; remember the first goal that Ghana scored in 2010 was after Howard was caught cheating far post. He won’t make those types of mistakes in Natal. And if called into sweeper keeper role on occasion, his experience doing so this season for Everton is key.
PREDICTION: The heart says U.S. wins 2-1. The head says it will be a score draw.