It’s finally time. All of the hype, speculation, and fury over Landon not getting one of Jürgen Klinsmann’s final roses today at last gives way to the match. Never before in my World Cup viewing life have I seen so many Americans so excited for a soccer game. I had a men’s league game yesterday (SPOILER ALERT: we won), and afterward the conversation was not about France's rout of Honduras or the wild Switzerland-Ecuador finish, or the Game of Thrones finale, or sadly, any of my sweet slide tackles. Instead everyone nervously sipped light beers from a cooler and weighed the big question: “What do you think is going to happen tomorrow?” Well, since this is a US-Ghana preview, I am going to tell you. But before we get to that, the essentials:
Here it is the groove slightly transformed; the U.S. squad; formations; tactics; fun
Much is being made over the different formations that Klinsmann has used throughout qualifying and in the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, and which one of them is most effective. But—as he made clear in an interview after the Azerbaijan warm-up—Klinsmann really wishes we wouldn't talk this way. “There is no such thing as a best system,” he said, “…It doesn’t really matter because it’s the whole team, how it shapes up and how it works as an entire unit, how it attacks collectively and how it defends collectively.”
So…the short answer is that we won't know what formation Klinsmann goes with against Ghana until the game starts at 6:00 p.m. EDT. But the educated guess is that it will either be a “midfield diamond” or a 4-2-3-1.
The diamond sees Dempsey and Altidore up top, with Michael Bradley sitting in behind them at the top of the diamond, and some combination of Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi, Kyle Beckerman, and Alejandro Bedoya filling out the rest. Two wing backs (Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley) bomb up the field, making hero runs, stretching the opposing defenses, and crossing balls in. Then remembering they're defenders and sprinting all the way back to give support to the two center backs, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron.
In the 4-2-3-1, Altidore sits up top as the lone striker, and Dempsey, despite his preference for drifting to the corners, becomes more of a central midfielder, with two other central midfielders—Bradley and Jones, likely—sitting deeper as “pivots” and the wing backs playing more traditional defense modes.
So which is better? Klinsmann is right, in that it depends on a) what you’re trying to do, and b) who you’re trying to do it against.
The upside of the diamond is that it favors dynamic open, free-flowing play from speedy wing-backs, and we certainly have those in Johnson and Beasley. The downside is that it makes you very susceptible to counter-attacks, especially if the other team has equally fast wing players. The 4-2-3-1 is a more balanced attack and can prevent having too many players caught up the field. But at the same time it encourages you to play more deliberately, and possibly too cautiously.
So basically, the U.S. has to decide whether they want to play like the 23-year-old version of themselves (creative, athletic, dazzling, likely to make errors in judgment, irresponsible with resources) or the 35-year-old version (wisened, cautious, responsible, less likely to swear in front of children, slow).
You can play us and repeat us; the Ghanian squad; formations; tactics; fun
Unfortunately for us, Ghana is good. Like, best team from Africa good. Under Akwasi Appiah, the Black Stars play a version of the 4-2-3-1 that’s more like a traditional 4-3-3, with the wings positioned farther up the field, basically as strikers. From an offensive standpoint, Ghana is very dangerous, with up-and-comer Majeed Waris, Marseilles’ Andre Ayew, and deadly sniper Asamoah Gyan up top. Awesome first name winner Kevin-Prince Boateng is basically a Demspey-Bradley hybrid who likes to roam behind the strikers, waiting for his chances. Behind him, the rest of the Ghanian midfield is extremely experienced, with the likes of Juventus’s playmaker Kwadmo Asamoah, Sulley Muntari, and legendary oldish person Michael Essien. This is a team that knows how to score—it put away 25 goals in 8 qualifying games, eviscerating old US coach (and Michael Bradley’s dad) Bob Bradley’s Egypt squad along the way. And Gyan has extra motivation to knock a few home. If he scores twice in this World Cup, he will become the all-time leading African goalscorer in Cup history, breaking Roger Milla’s record.
Defensively, however, this Ghana side is not as strong as the team was in 2010. This time around its outside backs—most likely 21-year-old Rashid Sumaila and noted taller person Jerry Akaminko—are extremely inexperienced in big national matches and can be exploited. If Ghana has a vulnerability, it is here.
Things to look out for:
Whether Majeed Waris will have recovered enough from an injury sustained in a friendly to get on the pitch. If so, the US will have to watch out for his Flash-level speed, especially as he’s being played onto the ball by Boateng or Essien.
Our centerbacks. Unless an Amazonian flood sweeps away Cameron and Besler, they will start in the middle of the American defensive line. As they should: notable giant person Omar Gonzalez has been playing like a stranger suddenly thrown onto the field on a dare, and newcomer John Brooks is basically just here to make a really cool vacation album and talk to Jürgen in German. The key is whether Cameron and Besler can stymie Boateng and Asamoah.
Speaking of Amazonian floods, Natal—the northeast Brazilian city where the game is being played—has had street inundations, home evacuations, and “a small landslide” in the last few days thanks to heavy rains. A slick, wet field means less predictability in ball striking and defending, which might actually work to the US’s advantage on Ghana’s inexperienced back line.
Michael Essien. At 31, he is no longer the superstar he was in the mid-aughts at Lyon and Chelsea. He hardly gets on the field now at A.C. Milan, and if the Bison is less of a factor this year, that's a postive for the U.S. Also, I wish my nickname was the Bison.
Michael Bradley. No longer under-the-radar, Bradley is widely regarded as the U.S.’s best player, the one person on the team who could likely make any other national squad. The more often the announcers say his name tonight, the better. Good things happen when Bradley has the ball.
ESPN analyst Landon Donovan. American fans will be on the edges of their seats waiting to 1) find out whether the US attack lacks firepower without him, 2) hear whether he can make it through the entire match without having to utter Klinsmann's name, and 3) note whether he wears that horrible pinky ring again.
Predicted Score: USA 3 - 2 Ghana
I don’t think the U.S. will be able to keep Asamoah Gyan off the scoreboard. But I see us sneaking three past Ghana’s shaky defense, in one of those fast-break games the US is finally prepared to win. Altidore’s going to get one off a scrum in front of the net on a set piece. Dempsey is going to do a cool scissor kick (that won’t score), but Bradley will put back the rebound. Then Aron Johansson will come on in the 72nd minute, score the game winner, and celebrate by eating the traditional Icelandic dish of Hákarl, aka rotten shark.
Kevin Alexander, the executive editor of Thrillist, writes about soccer for Esquire.com.