The United States' 2-1 win over Ghana was simply a grind-it-out, blue-collar performance.
Despite starting the game with a brilliant goal in the opening minute by Clint Dempsey, the U.S. struggled to take control. The injury to Jozy Altidore in the 21st minute contributed to the U.S. team's inability to maintain any sustained possession of the ball, and therefore forced the U.S. to play in a defensive shell for 90 minutes. After conceding a goal in the 82nd minute, the U.S. prevailed with an incredible goal by John Brooks off a corner kick in the 86th minute.
The U.S. team leaves Natal with three huge points, and in position to advance out of the "Group of Death."
In analyzing the U.S. performance, I was impressed with their discipline, fight, concentration and determination. Ghana was a team that presented a number of problems: they attack from every area of the field, and can move and pass the ball with speed. But the collective defense of the U.S. frustrated Ghana throughout the game. Despite having a large majority of ball possession, Ghana was unable to create any real quality chances at goal. Tim Howard provided a great save at the 32nd minute and another in the 57th minute before conceding a goal to Andre Ayew.
Howard, the backline and midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones all deserve high marks for their defensive efforts.
Going ahead, the U.S. must resolve a tactical problem in the attacking half of the field. The injury to Altidore (hamstring) is a major loss for the team. The team's attacking scheme is built around the threesome of Altidore, Dempsey and Michael Bradley. Altidore plays high and Dempsey and Bradley float underneath him in some version of a 4-1-3-2 or 4-1-4-1 formation. Aron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski are not the type of forwards who can occupy two center-backs, hold up the ball and get behind backlines as Altidore can.
When Altidore left the game, the U.S. lost possession of the ball and the threat of getting behind Ghana's backline. Clint Dempsey is a possible replacement in this role, but he is not as comfortable playing with his back to the goal.
Juergen Klinsmann may need to tweak his formation and move Dempsey up high to partner with Johannsson or Wondolowski and position Bradley next to Beckerman or Jones in the center of midfield in a 4-4-2 formation.
Playing with a single striker is not a good option for the U.S. because it will likely result in less possession time, therefore forcing the U.S. team to defend for large segments of games. This is not a recipe for success in their next two games versus Portugal and Germany.
Despite the concerns with possession and attacking options, the U.S. remains in a very good position to advance out of group play. I
In the next game versus Portugal on Sunday, the U.S. will face an opponent who must win after having lost badly to Germany, 4-0. Portugal has arguably the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo. A draw against Portugal would almost guarantee the U.S. advances to the round of 16, because of the goal differential advantage that would belong to the U.S. and the likelihood that Ghana will not defeat Germany.
From experience, I can tell you that organizing a team to play for a draw is extremely difficult. As witnessed in the U.S.-Ghana game, without ball possession and a threat at the attacking end, a team will likely concede goal(s). Therefore, the U.S. needs to find the right balance between attacking and defending versus Portugal.
It is critical that the U.S. does not concede an early goal on Sunday. Portugal will be without its starting center back Pepe (suspension) and left back Fabio Coentrao and striker Hugo Almeida because of injuries. So I suspect Portugal will discard its 4-3-3 formation, and play a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo partnering with Eder or Helder Postiga.
Portugal is a good passing team, but a little suspect defensively and too reliant on Ronaldo. If the U.S. can sort out its options at the attacking end of the field, it can catch Portugal on the break and get a goal. Again, the U.S. needs to be in a low-scoring game and not concede the first goal. If so, the Americans will book their place in the round of 16.