Boehlke: Imperfectly Beautiful – USMNT Played Game Presented to Them, Not Game Most Pundits Wished To See
In the United State’s Men’s National Team’s victory against Ghana Monday night the U.S. held possession of the ball for just 38% of the match. They played an astounding portion of game backed up against their own net, and seemed to to be under siege for just about the entire 90 minutes. They eventually went on to win one of the wackier matches in World Cup history in which the U.S. scored in the 1st minute, held firm for 81, conceded in the 82nd, and then went back ahead four minutes later.
Most pundits are making this statement about the game, “The U.S. got the three points they needed, but they spent far too much time on the defensive and had they played a better team it would not have been an American victory.” They’ll tell you the U.S. played poorly outside of the first 31 seconds. They’ll say the United States were confused when they got the ball. They will profess that the U.S. couldn’t put together any long spells of possession and they essentially were lucky to have held on to the lead as long as they did.
It’s all nonsense.
The United States did not plan on facing pressure from the Ghanian attack for a majority of the game, but they also didn’t expect to score in the first minute. They didn’t plan on having to play without the ball for more than 60% of the game, but they also didn’t plan on losing Jozy Altidore, their best holding player, 20 minutes into the match. And finally, they didn’t plan on having to protect a lead for 89 minutes, but they had to, and they did.
From the opening kick the U.S. looked as if they wanted to punch Ghana square in the teeth. Despite not taking the opening kick, the U.S. took control of the ball from Ghana in less than 10 seconds. They then went directly into attack mode with a nice touch by Jermaine Jones on to Clint Dempsey. Seconds later, the ball was in the back of the net and the United States were up 1-nil. The next 20 minutes, the USA held possession of the ball, looked dangerous, and Ghana did not even come close to a legitimate scoring chance.
Then Jozy Altidore came up lame, and the plan shifted. No longer could the U.S. rely on their powerful striker to hold possession in the midfield and allow others to join in on the attack. No longer could the U.S. play combination play between Dempsey and Altidore that would break down the United States. And no longer could the U.S. expect to put together promising attacks without becoming extra vulnerable at the back.
So what did the United States do? The played the game that was in front of them, with an understanding that a bunker mentality gave them the best chance to win. For 81 minutes, Jürgen and the Yanks were right. Then, it took an incredible diagonal ball, followed by a sublime back heel, and an outside foot shot that fooled Tim Howard to equalize the match. Devastating.
Most teams fold up in that situation. Attempt to get out of the game with the draw and live to fight another day. Not Klinsmann’s men. Almost instantly the U.S. went back on the offensive. They started putting passes together and went back on the front foot. It took just 4 minutes for the United States to win a corner, and they converted it.
The United States went right back ahead, and Ghana were sunk. Once again, the U.S. dropped back into its defensive shell, and they secured the victory and the much needed three points.
The match was tied for a total of four minutes and 34 seconds. In those 274 seconds the United States looked excellent. They scored two goals and had the ball for a majority of the time. Of course, it’s an incredibly short amount of time, but that’s the way the game played out. Had the first goal never came, there’s no way the U.S. would have allowed Ghana to control the ball for 62% of the game. And on the same token, had the Ghana goal not happened, the shell would have remained until full time.
The match was a funky one, and the U.S. adapted to it perfectly. They played the game that was presented to them and they beat the best team in Africa. A team that had knocked them out of consecutive World Cups, and a team that has advanced to the knockout rounds in every World Cup they’ve participated in. Ghana are a good team, and they are a team the United States could never seem to crack. Monday they did, and they did it the way the game intended.
Was it exactly how Jürgen planned it? No. Was it the most beautiful display of soccer? No. But was it a poor performance? Absolutely not.
What was it? Calculated. Adaptive. Effective.