USA mortgages World Cup future after gutsy performance vs. Ghana
JUN 16, 2014 11:00p ET
NATAL, Brazil --
It was both the perfect and the imperfect start to the 2014 World Cup for the United States men's national team. Perfect for right now; imperfect for the continuation of the USA's tournament.
A 2-1 win in the all-important opener against Ghana was eked out, relieving the immense pressure to scrounge up points early, before facing Portugal and Germany, and exorcising the demons from the USA's elimination in 2006 and 2010. But looking forward to those next contests -- at least one of which will probably need to yield a point for the Americans to advance from the group stage -- the cathartic win over Ghana may also prove a pyrrhic one.
Because it came accompanied by serious collateral damage, as striker Jozy Altidore and central defender Matt Besler, both of whom are fairly irreplaceable, left the field injured before the second half had even begun.
Between taking a brazen lead in the 32nd second, courtesy of Clint Dempsey's technical class, and John Brooks' improbable 86th minute headed winner -- coming just four minutes after Andre Ayew's equalizer for Ghana -- the United States mostly absorbed pressure. The game had always promised to be an immensely physical battle between two teams known best for their athleticism. But few could have foreseen just quite how savagely the match came to play out.
Whipped up by the frenzied thrum and blare of the band among Ghana's fans, the Black Stars hurtled, bashed and scythed. This was soccer's equivalent of trench warfare, big and strong men grappling for inches. Altidore and Besler were victimized by all that carnal violence; the former strained his left hamstring chasing down a loose ball in the corner in the 21st minute and came off for Aron Johannsson; the latter grabbed his right hamstring after his splendid tackle defused yet another galloping Ghanaian attack and was removed preemptively at halftime, due to tightness. Altidore will undergo MRI testing following the team's return to its base in Sao Paulo; the need for Besler to be tested isn't yet apparent.
Oh, and Dempsey got clobbered in the face -- breaking his nose, Dempsey believed -- and flipped over mid-air another time. Midfielder Kyle Beckerman and right back Fabian Johnson each were viciously brought down once or twice. They were 100 hard minutes. "We knew it was going to be a grind against a very, very strong Ghana side," head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said following the match.
All this hurt bodes poorly for the upcoming games. This World Cup is only going to get harder. The players looked heavy-legged for the bulk of the game, shattered after the final whistle and haggard passing through the mixed zone a good hour and a half later. These are serious concerns.
"We've got to deal with it," Klinsmann said of the injuries. "Obviously, we're feeling really sorry for Jozy. We're hoping it's not that bad and we hope we're going to get him back as quickly as possible. With Matt it's no problem. And Clint has to kind of shake it off with his nose."
If Altidore's hamstring injury proves serious, it could well rule him out of the rest of the tournament, robbing the team of its lone target man -- something that would have serious ramifications on the preferred tactics. "It wasn't easy to swallow Jozy coming off the field because he's very, very important for us," said Klinsmann. "It will continue to happen to all teams -- injuries, problems, issues."
Before the tournament, Klinsmann had announced that this would be an "extreme type of World Cup." He had emphasized conditioning during preparation. Because they would endure extreme travel, extreme weather conditions, and, as is usually the case when playing conditions are imperfect, a demand for extreme endurance. In these surroundings, players going down is even more likely than at a regular World Cup. "The conditions are hard for everyone," said goalkeeper Tim Howard. "You can't legislate for injuries, it just happens."
But the United States may have been hit particularly hard by the injury bug. There's no telling with any confidence that Besler or Dempsey will be back for the next game against Portugal following five days of rest -- in spite of Klinsmann's optimism. Altidore, given the nature of hamstring injuries, seems like a long shot for that game, even if the severity of his hamstring strain proves mild.
And that next game could prove the tipping point for USA's World Cup campaign. Portugal took a 4-0 beating at the hands of Germany earlier on Monday. The entire team looked out of sorts -- with Pepe being sent off after head-butting Germany's Thomas Muller, followed by injuries to Hugo Almeida and Fabio Coentrao, respectively -- but nobody more so than star forward Cristiano Ronaldo. The USA will likely need at least a point from that game, assuming that Germany is unbeatable, in order to advance from the group stage. And it'll have to happen in the heart of the Amazon, in Manaus. The heat, humidity and the unpredictability of that game will all be dialed up a few notches from Monday.
And so, believes Klinsmann, will Ronaldo, cornered in the jungle. "He's even more dangerous than before because when you get that 4-0 result from Germany, now you're going to come into Manaus pretty angry," said Klinsmann. "I don't know how Cristiano Ronaldo behaves when he's angry."
Portugal is a strong side, sporting the fleetest of wingers served by precise playmakers. "We need to step it up again even more," said Klinsmann. "We have to get a result against Portugal. Otherwise it's going to be wide-open. It's now going to be a grind one game after another."
Unfortunately for the USA, they enter into that grind with the cracks already starting to show in their framework. They got the win they needed against Ghana, but it may have mortgaged the future of their tournament.