In Win over Ghana, USMNT Shows the Value of a Strong Mentality

Janusz Michallik@@JanuszESPNFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2014

United States' Clint Dempsey celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the group G World Cup soccer match between Ghana and the United States at the Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil, Monday, June 16, 2014. The United States won the match 2-1. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press

Before the World Cup began, I gave you my reasons why I thought the United States could navigate through this Group of Death against the odds. After Monday night's game, and John Anthony Brooks' dramatic winner in the 2-1 victory against Ghana, I hope you can see it now.

As we saw against Ghana, this U.S. team is not always going to be able to match up to every opponent man for man. But very few opponents can match up to this team's mentality, its character and the effort the players put in—and we saw that tonight.

I realize that mentality and character will not always be enough, because there comes a time when individual talent or a truly great team takes over. But that's not how it went Monday night against Ghana.

While keeping both feet firmly on the ground—because there is still a huge task in front of us—we're now in a good position. For most teams, it's almost impossible to get out of your group if you lose your first game. After beating Ghana, we can at least say we've given ourselves a chance.

Leo Correa/Associated Press

And so much of it is down to that mentality. See, a strong mentality is sometimes more important than quality on the day. We all know that, to navigate through tournaments, a team has to have the ability to suffer. "This will be a World Cup where teams that do well will suffer," Michael Bradley told ESPN's Roger Bennett before the World Cup. "We want to be the team that can suffer the most."

The U.S. suffered Monday night, but not in a desperate way. In fact, I thought that some of the team's biggest issues before the World Cup turned into sources of strength against Ghana.

I don't want to get too much into tactics tonight, so I'll just mention the people that I, and many others in this country, perhaps owe a mea culpa.

First, there's the manager, Jurgen Klinsmann. His unbridled enthusiasm was clearly on display before, during and after the game. The images of his celebration after Clint Dempsey scored 30 seconds into the match were priceless—and, more importantly, contagious.

Petr David Josek/Associated Press

This American team, with its tough mentality, needs someone who believes in the cause and fuels the fire with a big smile on his face. The Landon Donovan situation may have been on everyone's mind when Jozy Altidore went down with his injury, and it may still be an issue as we go forward, but that is all forgotten, at least for the moment. And for one night, at least, Klinsmann has once again silenced his critics.

If you really think about it, Klinsmann has delivered on every front. After a difficult start to World Cup qualifying and the alleged (or who knows, maybe it was true?) revolt in the dressing room, he steadied the ship and the Americans finished on top of the table in the Hex.

His realistic assessment of the U.S.' chances may not have pleased the patriotic senses of every American, but to me at least, it was very refreshing. I for one would not spend one second in overthinking that issue at all. 

In continuing with our apologies, let's move to the back four. I for one knew four years ago in South Africa that our defense needed a major rebuild. I just didn't think that it was going to take us four years to put it together.

Moving Geoff Cameron centrally was of course the right decision. Matt Besler has improved almost overnight. Fabian Johnson, who has played on the left for most of his time on the national team, looked completely comfortable. And even DaMarcus Beasley, who admittedly had a horrid first 45 minutes, found a way to recover with some help.

And now to a more personal mea culpa, though I'm sure there are plenty of you out there who will raise your hands in unison with me about Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman. I have been a vocal critic of Jones for most of his time with the U.S. Like many of you, I felt that he lacked composure, played recklessly and lacked discipline in his tactical approach.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Even so, somewhere deep inside, I had a feeling that I might regret my opinion of him as a player, because in so many ways, Jones personifies the American spirit with his never-say-die attitude, work rate and physical nature. All those qualities made him a strong candidate for man of the match against Ghana. The shift he put in, not just for himself, but for others, was epic and quite frankly inspiring.

That brings me to Beckerman, another strong candidate for man of the match. Beckerman isn't really fast, he's not incredibly technical and unfortunately some only know him for his hair. He's a player who has had to convince everybody time and time again of the quality he possesses. But this team needs to have him in the starting XI.

Beckerman reads the game well, anticipates the action and knows where and when he's needed most. Somehow you feel comfortable that he will always make his way there. This was perfectly on display today, with Beasley and Michael Bradley struggling, as both Jones and Beckerman were more than willing to help out. 

Just to touch briefly on Bradley—no, he wasn't anywhere near his best. For me, Bradley is the most complete player on the team, but sometimes you just have an off night.

So here we are, having won the first game, having shown character against a Ghana team that more than deserved something out of the match. There's no reason to get overexcited, of course, because we know what's still ahead, and it is formidable.

Portugal's loss to Germany, in such stunning fashion, is not necessarily a great thing, as they will have even more incentive to get a result. As I wrote before, the World Cup is won one game at a time, and it doesn't always play to form. It's often down to a team that wants it a little more than the other. It really is that simple sometimes.

It's just different for the U.S. I'm sure that everybody thinks their teams and players are patriotic. but you can't downplay the significance that this result could have on the game here in America. It's so important to everyone, from the American players to the fans and the media.

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

That feeling that the American game is being disrespected is still out there. I see it, I feel it and I live it. The U.S. has only won one game, but I would suggest that seeing this team do well in a big tournament, and the exposure that comes with it, is good for everyone. After all, if you love the game, you certainly want the best sport in the world to be successful and respected in America.

If you don't believe that this country loves the game, I wish you could see all the people supporting our team before, during and after the match, all around the country—in Chicago, New York and so many other places. The game is here, it's here to stay and it's becoming more mainstream than ever. And that's a good thing.

Again, this is me cheerleading here and being biased for obvious reasons. I'll be back to my normal, level-headed, unbiased self after the World Cup.


Polish-born Janusz Michallik played 44 times for the United States national team, and in MLS for Columbus Crew and New England Revolution. Now a respected commentator and pundit for ESPN, Fox, SiriusXM FC, OneWorldSports and others, Janusz will be covering matters USMNT for B/R during the World Cup.