Team USA frets over Ghana match as rain threatens its World Cup plans

NATAL, Brazil —

It just won’t stop raining here. It is rain and rain and more rain, sometimes steadily, sometimes in sheets.

It began on Friday, four hours before Mexico beat Cameroon 1-0 in a biblical downpour, and it’s kept at it ever since. Forecasters predict that it won’t stop raining until after the United States men’s national team has played its World Cup opener against Ghana here on Monday, with reports surfacing that the heavy rainfall led to flooded streets, a small landslide and forced the evacuation of at least 50 homes and one apartment on Saturday night.

Team USA arrived on Friday night; the United States press corps followed the next morning. Neither has seen anything but water. The humidity washes over the body as soon you step out of the airport terminal. Solid water keeps falling from the sky. There are ever-growing puddles along the brand new stretches of road; dripping from ceilings in hastily refurbished restaurants; and, of course, in the Atlantic Ocean, which Natal faces at the easternmost point of the Western Hemisphere.

This can’t help but be a factor in this oh-so-crucial game. The pitch at the futuristic Arena dos Dunas — Arena of the Dunes — handled the downpour well enough for the Mexico game. But it had, at that point, been raining for hours, not for three consecutive days. And so the question is just how much of an impact all that water will have.

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Let’s reiterate why this game matters — as if we really need to. The USA shares Group G with Ghana, Portugal and Germany, whom they will play in that order; the first knocked the Americans out of the last two World Cups; the second has arguably the world’s finest player in Cristiano Ronaldo, even though he is hobbled by injuries, and is always an outsider at the World Cup; the third has made more World Cup semifinals than any other country — a dozen in 17 appearances.

Since Ghana, the African powerhouse, is the most beatable of the three, it’s the Americans’ best hope for getting the bulk of their points — they likely need four or five to advance. Ghana, like the USA, is a quick and physical team. They press high and gallop at the opposing goals at speed and in numbers. The Americans, ever since Jurgen Klinsmann took over as head coach in 2011, have tried to possess the ball and build attacks — a process that has crawled along in fits and starts.

This game has been a near-obsession for the American camp and its fans ever since the draw came out back in December. Klinsmann has called the game a must-win on several occasions. The players fantasize about what a fine position they would be in if they can leave Natal with three points in their rain-soaked back pockets. The flip-side of that, of course, is the realization that just one game into the World Cup, the American campaign would find itself in a dire predicament if the game is lost.

But all along, the Portugal game has been thought to be a potential tipping point. Assuming that no glory (or indeed a point) will be won against mighty Germany, the USA will surely have to gain something against Portugal as well — whom they upset in their opener of the 2002 World Cup, by the way. That game takes place in Manaus, the improbable Metropolis at the heart of the Amazon — a place that conjures scenes from "Apocalypse Now" in the imagination. It is hot, malarial and inhumanely humid. Anything could happen there — even a win.

But what if the first game were the wild-card game, where bewildering conditions render all game plans comically futile? What if all that thinking about Ghana, all that focus on their strengths, their weaknesses, those losses in 2006 and 2010 and what lessons could be gleaned from them, is reduced to so much waste of mental energy?

Who benefits most from playing in unplayable conditions? If the field is waterlogged, or covered in puddles, in which direction does that tip the scales? Whose odds are bettered, when one athletic team takes on another? Ghana, the team that relies on those quick breaks and will need the field to cooperate with those sudden releases of their forwards? Or the USA, which hopes to ping the ball around in order to play through the lines and will need the field to play steady and true?

Here in Natal, the American camp ponders all this. Outside, it rains.