One man's World Cup view after U.S. wins opener

One man's World Cup view after U.S. wins opener

Mahomet-Seymour girls’ soccer coach Joey Gruner checked in after the United States defeated Ghana 2-1 on Monday at the World Cup. Here is his report:

Some key storylines before kickoff:

Will two inexperienced (in World Cup competition) center backs hold up for the U.S. defense?

How effective will coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s new formation (a diamond midfield) be?

Will this team be affected at all by past World Cup losses (2006, 2010) to Ghana?

Can the U.S. overcome a tendency in past World Cup matches of giving up an early goal?

Immediately after the kickoff, the U.S. earns a throw-in. Clint Dempsey drops a ball that then goes to Jermaine Jones, who touches it right back to Dempsey. Quick passing just like the possession drill the team warmed up with. From there, it was Dempsey’s individual skill as he beat his defender and drilled the ball inside the far post. Thirty-four seconds into the match, the game has now changed. There is no way that this team had prepared for the previous six months thinking how to respond after it scored in the first minute. Sure, you want it to happen, but sometimes it can take you out of your game plan. In the next six minutes, the U.S. penetrated Ghana’s penalty area twice, likely due to Ghana being a little stunned. But after that, the U.S. fell into somewhat of an offensive drought.

From the seventh up to the 40th minute, the U.S. penetrated into Ghana’s penalty area essentially only one time. As for Ghana in this same time period, there were more than 20 balls, of various types and treat levels, sent into the U.S. penalty area. The U.S. either chose or was forced to simply defend. In the last few minutes of the half, the U.S. finally did pick things up a little, but neither side was all that dangerous in terms of scoring.

The bigger issues during the first half concerned the health of U.S. players. Twenty minutes in, the main offensive target for the U.S., Jozy Altidore went down with a likely hamstring pull. He was out for the match and possibly longer. Dempsey, who scored the opening goal, was struck in the nose by a knee and struggled to regain his form throughout the match. And toward the end of the half, Matt Besler, one of the U.S. center backs, came up limping. (This bad news would lead to a chain of events that would have major implications in the second half.)

Questions at halftime:

Does Aron Johannsson, who replaced Altidore and was relatively ineffective, stay in the game at forward?

Can Dempsey be effective in the second half?

Does Besler need to be replaced in the defensive line?

Coach Klinsmann makes the decision to replace Besler with 21-year-old John Brooks, who is appearing for only the fifth time for the U.S. National Team. It is his first World Cup appearance.

In the second half, the U.S. continues to defend its one-goal lead. From the 45th through the 75th minute, Ghana maintains possession of the ball for nearly 60 percent of the time and sends nearly 20 balls into the U.S. penalty area, while the U.S. does the same only three or four times. Ghana takes a couple of dangerous shots in the 56th and 58th minutes, but U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard makes the necessary saves. The U.S. defense needs a breather, but the midfielders and forwards are struggling to maintain possession long enough to allow for any rest.

Finally, in the 78th minute, things break open. Ghana connects several passes and then Andre Ayew takes a beautiful drop from Asamoah Gyan and hits a great shot past Howard for the equalizer. At this point, Ghana continues to press, and the U.S. still seems to be playing the same defensive game. The Americans seem locked into a defensive mode but have got to make an adjustment and become dangerous offensively. About five minutes after Ghana’s goal, the U.S. attack begins to develop, and it earns a corner kick. On a set play that is trained over and over, everyone knows his role. But in this case, a couple of newcomers become the heroes. Substitute Graham Zusi strikes the corner kick, and Brooks heads it downward and into the net from 7 yards out for his first World Cup goal. (Actually the first World Cup goal by any U.S. substitute.) (Sidenote: Brooks has a tattoo of the state of Illinois on his arm because his father was born in Illinois.)

Now the U.S. simply needs to possess the ball for extended periods of time to kill the clock, but it struggles to do so, and Ghana invades the U.S. area five or six times. However, the defense holds, and the U.S. earns only its third victory in a World Cup opening match (now 3-5-2 in openers). It also avenges those two tough elimination losses to the Black Stars in the last two World Cup events. While the team will have to deal with some serious and potentially serious injuries and their ramifications, the relief and satisfaction of an opening victory will undoubtedly raise the level of intensity and confidence in both upcoming training sessions and in the next game against a now seemingly vulnerable Portugal.

Questions after the game:

Assuming Altidore is out, does Johannsson remain his replacement or does someone else get a chance?

If Besler recovers and is ready to play against Portugal, do you start him again or leave Brooks in the defensive line? I think most soccer fans will say to stick with Brooks and keep the energy and momentum, so it will be interesting to see what Klinsmann does.