Excruciating loss to Ghana in 2010 World Cup still haunts Team USA
Jun 10, 2014 at 9:15p ET
SAO PAULO --
Michael Bradley remembers the game well. He remembers almost everything about it. How could he not? It was the game that knocked the Americans from the 2010 World Cup, when Ghana's Asamoah Gyan slithered through two defenders in pursuit of a high ball, caught up with it and rocketed the half-volley winner over Tim Howard's outstretched arms and in during extra time.
"I remember quite a bit," said Bradley, the now-26-year-old midfield metronome. "It was a game where we found ourselves down early but the response was good. And for a majority of that game we were the ones in control and pushing things and looking to get back to 1-1. Once we did get back to 1-1, we were still pushing for a winner."
He recalled all this at a press conference here on Tuesday, a few hours after head coach Jurgen Klinsmann became the last team member to arrive in Brazil, having scouted Ghana-Korea Republic in Miami on Monday night. And he did so knowing, of course, that the team that bounced the Americans from the last World Cup will be the first team they face at this World Cup.
Now that all of Team USA has settled into their base camp here, they have started to think seriously about the challenges ahead. All is now geared towards their opener in Natal on June 16. After a light workout on Monday, the Americans would practice twice on Tuesday, making use of Sao Paulo FC's lavish training facilities and its sleeping quarters between the two sessions.
The outcome of the USA's tournament could well pivot on their opener: after they play Ghana, the Americans face Portugal and Germany, and only two of four advance to the knockout stages. "In a big tournament like this, everybody goes into the first game with the idea that you want points," Bradley said. "Everybody starts at zero. The first game is so important. Statistically, the chances of advancing go way up if you're able to get a point or three from the first game. And so we've certainly made no secret that all the focus at this point is about Ghana. A good result puts us in a really good spot."
This isn't the same Ghana that they faced in their last World Cup game, exactly. Some argue that they're past their peak; others that they're deeper now. Either way, they are changed. "We have to understand what they're all about," said Bradley. "I do think it's a different team, with a different coach, than we played in 2010. The details are still to be seen how they approach the game against us."
But then Klinsmann's USA, and Bradley in particular, are different as well. He is now surely the Americans' most indispensable player, with his defensive cover and distribution and attacking contributions. Since the last Ghana game, he has played another half-season in Germany, a few months in England, two seasons in Italy and a few months back in MLS. Through it all, he entered what will probably prove to be his prime.
"As you get older, you mature and start to understand the game at an even higher level," said Bradley. "You have the experience of having been in certain situations, of having played in different types of games. And the hope is always that as you get older, the better you get. I feel like I'm a more complete player; I feel like I'm a better player."
But how these teams stack up right now is hard to say. The USA came into fine form over their three stateside warm-up friendlies, beating Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria. Ghana pummeled Korea Republic 4-0 in front of Klinsmann on Monday, but looked flat against the Netherlands in a 1-0 loss on May 31. Gleaning significant meaning is tricky. âIn general, I think it's hard to take much from any of these warm-up games," said Bradley. "Teams are trying different things, different guys get put on the field in different spots."
"It'd be easy to look at the end and say, '4-0, what a performance,'" Bradley added. "But still, it's a warm-up game. Regardless of how the game went last night, we have a lot of respect for Ghana. They're a good team. We know that they're dangerous, that they can cause trouble."
If they do prove too dangerous, cause too much trouble for the Americans to handle, it could doom their campaign from the outset. That's the hard truth with a draw as tough as the Group G the Americans were dealt. And so the entire narrative on this World Cup cycle could be written off just three games, or even just one.
"That's the reality," said Bradley. "For us, the big chance comes once every four years. The work, at the end of the day, gets put to the test at the World Cup. It's such a small sample size, because there's so much that goes on in four years." Tiny tipping points will make the difference between a dream run and a disastrous campaign.
And at the end, Bradley will hope he's not left with bad memories.