2010 FIFA World Cup: Ghana Gives U.S. Chance To Refine Approach
A good number of fans, analysts and casual observers expect the United States to win against Ghana on Saturday.
This group also believed that the team would make quick work of Slovenia and Algeria.
Not only can the U.S. avenge their 2-1 group-stage defeat at the 2006 World Cup against the Black Stars, but they have an opportunity to work on areas of their game that has let them down so far, in particular, their possession, their focus, and their finishing.
Ghana is probably the most organized African team in this World Cup. They have a defensive plan and formation (4-5-1), and they'll be looking to push forward when they can keep hold of the ball for an extended period of time in the U.S. half of the field.
However, this is not much different than Slovenia or Algeria.
But, how they go about it will be a little different, of course. Slovenia was an organized team, but the players knew their positions and roles, and they could break out of their shell in numbers on a quick and incisive counter.
Algeria chose to use their midfield speed and individual skill to get glimpses of the goal. Two very different styles, but both relinquish the control, pace, and rhythm of the game to their opponent.
Ghana's strategy could be similar. Their midfield will look for a breakdown in passing as the U.S. enters the attacking third of the pitch. They will have numbers and there will be limited space, so they will look to win the ball and attack with midfield numbers.
The U.S. better get used to this style of play.
Since 2002, American players have proven adept at the counter attack. Their combination of speed, technique, passing, and execution in small bursts (see Donovan's now infamous goal against Algeria for an example) is well documented. The world knows better than to let America sit back and wait for a counter attack.
So both elite and not as accomplished teams will do their best to avoid an American counter.
Like the Italians staring in wonder over Slovakian players rolling on the ground in faux agony, the United States will have to get used to seeing their preferred tactic used against them.
All of this reveals how far the U.S. has come. At the very least, teams will view the United States as a very dangerous side to play.
The U.S. will have to get comfortable with their new found position. If past games are any indication, then it looks like it will take some getting used to.
The Slovenian game revealed just how uncomfortable the players are on the ball. They appeared tight, nervous, and their passes were errant. When they didn't like their options, they tried a more direct approach. Eventually, passing broke down all together.
In the first half, the Slovenians seemed to have as much possession as the U.S.
It changed in the second half, it took some smart substitutions and the realization that they could be eliminated, to get the team moving again.
Against Algeria, the players opted to play long balls into the eighteen even though short, fast passes had caused some trouble for the Algerian defenders. There seemed to be a feeling that players needed to get the ball into the box as soon as possible, rather than being patient and letting chances develop.
Ghana will ask the same of the Americans, only this time there will be nine players in front of them at all times.
The U.S. knows all too well how difficult it is to break down an entire team sitting in front of their goal.
They did as much at last year's Confederations Cup. Spain played a defensive style similar to Ghana's. The United States is going to have to be patient, smart, and avoid getting frustrated or desperate.
They'll have to come out calm, cool, and collected, not tense and nervous. They're going to have to be careful and accurate with the ball, a trait they don't always embody; they can't be careless. They'll need to avoid low percentage passes and long balls.
A quick turnover is the best way to be caught out of position, which was Algeria's entire gameplan.
But it's not as if the American players don't know how to pass or get open.
Donovan, Dempsey, and Bradley all make insightful runs and want the ball. The forwards are willing to sprint after passes into the corner and shield off defenders (at times), and the defenders are skilled enough to receive a back pass from the midfielders.
For whatever reason, whenever the impetus is on the Americans to sustain some possession, they falter. They only seem to do it when they're not expected to do as much.
The argument could be made that the problem is more mental than physical.
When the U.S. is put in a position to control the game, it's almost as if the team is carrying a collective monkey on their backs. They know they have to create offensive opportunities rather than taking advantage of an opponent's miscalculations.
They appear so uncomfortable in such positions; they just aren't relaxed. Players are awkward and stiff, and they start to force the ball into spaces hoping to prove, "We can pass. We can take it to the other team."
To an extent, it is the coaches job to avoid this scenario. But whose to say that Bob Bradley hasn't tried every psychological and coaching trick under the sun? Sometimes players get trapped in their own heads and there's nothing anyone else can do about it.
Bradley tried to avoid this scenario by pushing defenders forward during the Algerian game. Someone has to be open at this point, right?
But his attempt was another form of overkill. The extra attackers weren't necessary. It only opened up space behind the United States' defense and encouraged odd-man attacks from the Algerians. It was overkill, not much different than the players overthinking the need to maintain possession and stay focused.
Once Bornstein was instructed to stay home a little more, the Algerian attack was stifled, and the Americans seemed to control much of the game.
Also, Donovan admitted he felt relieved that there were four minutes of added time. He then felt as if they could still win which, of course, all has to do with what's going on in his head.
Bob Bradley will have to have the team focused on what challenges await against Ghana, and what they'll need to do.
He'll have to find a way to give the attacking players options without sacrificing his defensive structure. Maybe he will instruct his son to push forward and let Bradley's partner control distribution. That could add another attacking option, but Bradley's men are better off the ball than on it.
Getting the more creative players involved early will also help. Dempsey's done well so far, but Landon Donovan needs to get involved for ninety-minutes, not the last two, and Altidore can take defenders on once he has the ball under control.
What's even more important is that the team needs to score.
Easily, the U.S. could have beaten Algeria eight to zero; the chances were there. Once the goals didn't come, the players started trying to overachieve. Donovan and Altidore went for the same ball, and Dempsey wanted to score so badly that he was trying too hard to get the ball to go into the net. Again, it comes down to mental issues.
There will only be so many chances against a team that chooses to "pack it in."
If the U.S. doesn't convert, who knows how the game will go.
Thankfully, the U.S. doesn't have to worry about speed, athleticism, or size. The majority of the offense is fast. The likes of Onyewu, Demerit, Altidore, and Edu match up decently well with the big players. Needless to say, Bob Bradley has options.
While most of the African teams in this World Cup have improved in four years, this batch of African entries hasn't been able to match the speed of play being exhibited by both the North and South American sides.
Movement on and off of the ball should not be an issue.
Ghana gives the U.S. another opportunity to improve its performance on the ball. Few teams get second chances, but it appears as if the U.S. is getting a third, and it can't be wasted.
The team has some experience playing better sides through the Confederations Cup, a number of friendlies, and the opening game against England. There's a good chance that by the semifinals, those will be the only teams left.
Still, the more they can control games against opponents that let them, that's more experience they can use when the U.S. has to maintain possession against a stronger side.
It will also be beneficial for the American players that will be around for the next qualifying cycle. Many of the Concacaf teams will sit back and let the U.S. control the game as well.
These experiences will be invaluable. Against Ghana, the U.S. has a chance to finally get it right.
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