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Fuzzy numbers, Klinsmann, and Captain Clint: Talking points after the U.S.’s win over Ghana

Jun 16, 2014, 9:51 PM EDT

Ghana's Sulley Muntari, right, is fouled by United States' Jermaine Jones during the group G World Cup soccer match between Ghana and the United States at the Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil, Monday, June 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa) AP

For the first time in 12 years, the U.S. has won its World Cup opener. In the process, the team vanquished a nemesis, saw its fitness pushed to the limit, and flashed many of the qualities Jurgen Klinsmann’s been trying to instill since he took over three years ago.

Here are six talking points from the team’s 2-1 win over Ghana:

1. Black Stars burn out – Nemesis. Bogey team. Possessors of the United States’s figurative number. Put all that in the past tense, because the U.S. has exorcised that demon, leaving it to wilt in the humidity of Natal.

For much of the second half, the victory looked like it may be an unconvincing one, with the U.S. holding on as its defense failed to adjust to the loss of Matt Besler. Ultimately, winning a game that was only even for five minutes, the Americans can characterize their victory in a different way. When they needed to score goals, they did so quickly, and decisively. Otherwise, despite ceding the Black Stars 62 percent possession, they limited their opponents to three shots on goal (the U.S. had four).

It’s not the most a convincing narrative, but it’s a winning one. Nobody ever expected the U.S. to roll over the Ghanaians.

[ MORE: Brooks wins it late | Man of the Match | Injury update ]

2. Pay attention to the numbers, but then don’t – From a distance, it’s concerning that the possession and shots numbers were so lopsided, but when one team goes up in the first minute, that can happen, especially when the other spends an hour giving them little disincentive to change. Had Ghana been more effective before its second half surge, Klinsmann might have adjusted.

So don’t read too much into the disparities, and don’t listen to too many conclusions drawn from them. Goals change matches, and in this one, Dempsey’s opener meant the United States could leverage the team’s new formation to keep play on the edges. By the time the Ghanaians made them pay, the U.S. could go into late-match mode.

Let’s see some more 0-0 soccer before drawing any conclusions. The U.S. may not have looked great, but there’s a reason why the numbers flattered Ghana. Whenever somebody scored in the first minute, the game could be develop into a weird one.

3. In terms of the group dynamics, this win is huge … – Draw-draw, and the U.S. is going through. A win over Portugal in Manaus, and we’re probably looking at the same outcome, and if you factor in other teams’ potential outcomes, the U.S. may be favorites to get out of their group. They’re not as talented as the Seleccao, but they have more outs.

To the extent the U.S. has that advantage, it’s probably not by much, but it goes to show how things can change over a few World Cup hours. The day started with the States in an uncertain place as it faced down a nemesis. It ends with the team tied atop its group.

source: Getty Images

Jurgen Klinsmann smiles off to victory and embraces his players after the U.S. defeated Ghana in Natal.

4. … but the fitness – wasn’t this supposed to be a strength? – U.S. fans celebrated their fortune when Pepe drew a red card and Fabio Coentrão suffered his own muscle injury against Germany, but after their team’s win, those fans had reason to empathize with their Portuguese counterparts. Jozy Altidore‘s hamstring gave way early, Matt Besler had to be taken out at halftime (also, hamstring), while Clint Dempsey appeared to suffer a broken nose. The U.S. had own set of walking wounded.

Perhaps more worrying were the images of players like Alejandro Bedoya and Geoff Cameron stretching during breaks over the last half hour. Much like England appeared to cramp up more readily than Italy on Saturday in Manaus, another team that gave up the ball found itself drained.

Fitness is supposed to be a strength of the U.S. squad, but the team’s preparations proved little match for the conditions in Natal.

[ RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly ]

5. Jurgen pays off – Klinsmann is the most scrutinized head coach in U.S. Men’s National Team history, and with good reason. He’s trying to reinvent a wheel, one that a lot of people helped build. You can’t claim something’s awry without indicting the people who built it.

Tonight in Natal, however, some of the innovations he’s emphasized paid off, big time. The mentality he forced upon the team by seemingly introducing adversity paid off, particularly when Altidore and Besler went down. After Aron Johannsson and John Brooks came on, the expanded player pool he’s built paid dividends, and when Brooks headed home the winner, the team’s resilience was again on display.

Add tactical flexibility to the pile, but it’s important to note Klinsmann didn’t invent any of these things. He simply enforced them on a program that may have been limiting itself. Where as the U.S. men’s team may have been type-cast as one thing, Klinsmann has challenged it to be another.

If Sunil Gulati wanted a revolution, he may have just seen his general win his first major battle.

6. Captain. Clint. Dempsey. – First minute goal. Broken nose. An hour of mouth-breathing. Finishing a match where, because of other injuries, he was not going to be subbed off.

U.S. fans: Is there something else you want from your captain? Because Clint Dempsey just may provide. Celebrating a goal in his third straight World Cup, “Deuce” played to his armband tonight.

  1. mfmaxpower - Jun 16, 2014 at 10:31 PM

    Yes goals change matches, and yes stats don’t give the entire picture, but to ignore the lopsided statistics of this match is to ignore the fact that the US was very poor and sloppy going forward, it’s key link-up man (Bradely) played just about his worst match in the national shirt, the US likely would’ve (should’ve?) been punished for its poor play by a better team.

    This match featured great drama, and most importantly a great result for the US, but the performance does not instill a great deal of confidence. Quite frankly, I’ve seen the US play better in matches they’ve been blown out in.

    • Richard Farley - Jun 16, 2014 at 10:55 PM

      I agree with all this, but all of that would be true without the numbers. And if Bradley had been better (and, Altidore healthy), the numbers probably wouldn’t have look much different.

      You can ignore the numbers and see those faults. In fact, you might be able to see them better if you didn’t worry about the stats at all (in this case).

    • mknow406a - Jun 16, 2014 at 11:30 PM

      In all fairness, nobody ever claimed the US was loaded with depth. This Ghana team was way more athletic than anything most of the US players have seen in at least the last 4 years (in the last Ghana match), if ever. Losing your starting striker, when you don’t have a like-for-like replacement is going to have an impact on the the team’s philosophy. Ideally, you’d make adjustments and a tactical sub or two to account for the new look… but, once you throw in Besler coming out at half-time, Cameron cramping up, Demsey’s nose and Bedoya’s injury, JK couldn’t make any “tactical” changes… hence, you end up in a situation where Aron Johannsson is NOT a target man, trying to match up against some of the most athletic CBs in the tournament. That was never a situation the US was going to excel in… they played hard, finished when they had the chance and other than the one or or two chances, for all their possession, Ghana really didn’t look all that threatening. Possession is only important if 1) you need it and you can’t get it or 2) you make something of it.

      • braxtonrob - Jun 17, 2014 at 3:18 AM

        @mknow, Boy! You sure “know” how to SUCK the fun out of winning!!

      • lyleoross - Jun 17, 2014 at 8:48 AM

        The point missed here is that they were dropping basic balls, receiving so far into space that they were turning the ball over, dribbling like grade schoolers. They were missing basic passes with no coverage. You can say that Ghana was athletic, but when you pass through the middle and your pass looks like it was to your opponent, and not to one of your teammates, you’re failing soccer 101. Take also Mr. Bradley. He’s played at the highest levels, and he couldn’t hold onto the ball. I will credit jitters here, all the while thinking really?

  2. grm35741 - Jun 17, 2014 at 2:21 AM

    Bradley was very very poor. I was shocked. looked like no progress since 94. wack it out of the back, defend, win ball pass to wrong team repeat. Thrilled they won but waited 4 years for this and everybody who watched with me was miserable. I just don’t understand why Bradley folded with all his experience
    Hoping for more skill against Portugal but I’ll take another win.

    • lyleoross - Jun 17, 2014 at 2:50 PM

      I’m wondering whether it was WC jitters? The truth is that MB looked calmer and more composed in the last WC. Something wasn’t right, I don’t know what, but he should have been better. I keep hoping it was something about Ghana that set him off, the we’ve lost twice to them or similar, and he will step up next game. If he doesn’t, it will be worse than Casey at the bat. We’ve come to rely on MB playing solid in there, creating opportunities. Without that, we will fold bad in the next two games.

  3. mcba1n - Jun 17, 2014 at 2:44 AM

    Richard, I understand the gravity of scoring a goal – but what did Dempsey do after that? Did he complete 1 or 2 passes – outside of easy ‘money’ ones? His injury was brutal – but if you’re going to loaf around the pitch and stop making runs, then what good are you?

    Can’t argue with Deuce’s ability to ‘step up’ in big spots to score – but where was his effort? It was pathetic… And by rule, if you play whilst injured, you can’t complain about the injury. The US basically played with 10 men after the first goal.

  4. talgrath - Jun 17, 2014 at 2:46 AM

    On point 4, it’s worth noting that fitness can only prevent injuries to an extent. Ghana played a physical game and it obviously had an impact on the USMNT, they took a lot of knocks and the ref did nothing to help them by being so lenient with cards and fouls. Atlidore’s injury is one of those freak occurrences that are hard to prevent, he had virtually no contact when he went down and his leg didn’t extent unusually or anything of that nature. Bedoya and Cameron also took some knocks en route to the win as well. I would expect that Portugal will be less physical than Ghana was, but at the same time the USMNT needs to get as healthy as possible as soon as possible, I don’t relish the idea of putting in some of our younger defenders in against a team with embarrassing riches at the forward position like Portugal.

  5. quackbury - Jun 17, 2014 at 2:05 PM

    Why no mention of Tim Howard? If he hadn’t played as spectacularly as he did, the USMNT could easily have lost 3-2 or worse.

    And I completely agree about the sloppy passing and distressing play in the midfield. There were occasional glimpses of brilliance (Brooks’ header could never have happened without that superb corner) but on the whole, we did not play like a MLS contender contender, let alone a side in the World Cup.

    It pains me to say it, but I worry this may well be our only victory of the tournament. If that happens, the conventional wisdom will blame it on Altidore’s injury and JK’s roster decisions, not the lackluster play in the middle of the pitch.

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