Battered, Bruised, Victorious: Five Takeaways from the USA's Win over Ghana

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It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t convincing and it most definitely wasn’t pretty, but the United States came away from Natal victorious, defeating Ghana, 2-1, in its first game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Here are five lessons we can take away from the contest:

1. Mission Accomplished … ish

It doesn’t matter how you get it done as long as you get it done.

The United States eschewed style points Monday in favor of three where they matter: the table. With Germany defeating Portugal earlier by a score of 4-0, the Yanks assume second position (but remain level with Germany on points) in Group G. They have given themselves some room to breathe headed into a match with Ronaldo and the Portuguese in Manaus this coming Sunday—and breath doesn’t come easily in the 90 percent humidity of the Amazon.

Their objectives at this tournament are far from met, but defeating Ghana puts the US one step closer to escaping the Group of Death—and goes a long way toward laying to rest the tournament-ending losses to the Black Stars in 2006 and 2010.

The US could theoretically lose the next two matches and still escape the group, but these three points are likely to be insufficient on their own. This is a good start for the Yanks, but their work is not yet done.

2. Opening Statement

My preview underlined the need for the US to shed their “slow starters” tag and finally make it through an inaugural half of a World Cup without conceding a goal.

They did one better—a lot better.

Within 32 seconds, forward Clint Dempsey had already put the Americans in front, swiveling past Ghana defender John Boye, picking out the far post, and then cracking a shot off of it and into the back of the net for the 1-0 lead.

It didn’t always look like that advantage would stand heading into the halftime break, but it did—and the US recorded their first scoreless opening half to a World Cup in 64 years (Truman was president then. Yeah. I know).

3. Bend, Don’t Break

The title of this section could aptly describe the American defense against Ghana—or their mantra going into the Portugal match after at least four players took knocks of varying severity.

Let’s briefly tease out the first of these topics and break down the rearguard’s performance. Ghana ceaselessly attacked left back DaMarcus Beasley’s flank, principally through speedy winger Christian Atsu. Despite a few moments of shakiness from Beasley in the first half—particularly where he was caught in the attack without adequate cover behind him—he did well enough to keep a clean sheet, along with the rest of the defense (which included some remarkable back-line organization, athletic aerial dueling, and timely challenges from center backs Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler).

The second half saw the Yanks concede a goal, but much like the brilliant American defensive performances of years past (USA vs. Spain in 2009 springs to mind), the US conceded the touchline in favor of plugging up the middle of the park and keeping bodies in front of goalkeeper Tim Howard in the 18-yard box. It ended up neutralizing a lot of Ghana’s strengths—keeping them away from deadly, straight-on looks at goal—and ultimately locked up the victory.

There was a lot of luck, but also a lot of grit to bounce back from hamstring injuries to Besler, forward Jozy Altidore, and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya—in addition to what looked like a broken nose for Dempsey.

With regards to both injuries and the Ghanaian attack, the US’s reaction remained the same: The Americans bent, but didn’t break. Only time will tell if the Yanks are this ductile going forward.

4. Unusual Suspects

Make no mistake about it: The United States won this match in large part due to three players who have garnered—how shall we say?—less than universal acclaim in the months running up to the World Cup.

Much like the American political landscape, polling the nation on defender John Brooks and midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones will result in a very evident and roughly even split in opinion.

Nevertheless, the three helped carry the Americans to victory under extremely difficult circumstances.

Brooks, who has struggled mightily in the past with his collection in the defensive third and keeping pace with the international game, had a nervy opening few minutes after replacing the injured Besler at halftime. From then on, he settled well—and, in the 86th minute, wrote himself into US Soccer history. From midfielder Graham Zusi’s out-swinging corner kick, the 21-year-old German-born defender leapt into the air, thumped home the Americans’ winning goal, and did one better than silencing his critics: He made them scream with joy.

In the case of Beckerman and Jones, both midfielders have taken their critical lumps, seen as weak links in a partnership with Michael Bradley, who has been in almost-consistently sensational form since the last time the US met Ghana in a World Cup.

Today, though, Bradley was far from sensational—bad, even—and both Beckerman and Jones filled in brilliantly. Beckerman pressured astutely, tackled cleanly, and played remarkable help defense in the second half when Beasley was running out of gas and feeling a great deal of pressure on his flank.

The ever-excitable Jones perhaps let the leash come off a bit too often in the first 45 minutes, marauding forward in tandem with Beasley and thus leaving Atsu free to roam in behind, but nevertheless provided superb bite and pressure relief all game long. His pass in the first minute that sent Dempsey through on goal was one of subtle brilliance and he made some fine adjustments in the second half that showcased the aspects of his game that are often trumpeted by manager Jürgen Klinsmann, but rarely so clearly viewed in game situations—for example, a fearlessness in 50-50 challenges, hard-tackling (and clean) 1-v-1 defending, and a swiftness in cutting down the space offered to opposing attackers in the defensive third.

On a day when some of the more marquee players of the National Team couldn’t be counted upon because of injury (Altidore) or subpar performance (Bradley), the squad’s more unheralded, peripheral figures duly picked up the slack to lead the US to a famous victory.

5. Making Amends

Much has been written—validly so—about right back Fabian Johnson’s role in Ghana’s goal. As MLSSoccer.com columnist Matthew Doyle writes here, Johnson was caught ball-watching when André Ayew waltzed past him and slammed home Ghana’s equalizer. Just four minutes later, however, the German-born defender made amends.

Everyone will remember Brooks’ walloping header—and just as many should, but won’t, recall what made it all possible.

As Ghanaian defender Jonathan Mensah attempted to usher an overhit pass from forward Aron Jóhannsson out of play—shielding the ball to earn a goal kick—Johnson decided to make Mensah’s life difficult. He scurried after the ball, aiming to get around Mensah at the last minute to keep it in play—and failed.

What Johnson did do, however, was force Mensah to shoulder-check him out of play—and in the contact that ensued, the Ghanaian defender inadvertently touched the ball with his right boot.

It was Johnson’s extra effort that turned a sure-fire goal kick into a corner kick—and it was Brooks’ head that turned that corner kick into a goal.

And it was that goal that has sent the US into dreamland, giving players and fans alike a reason to believe that the Americans can escape this Group of Death.

The Americans, like Johnson, didn’t give up today—and it’s the reason they’ve got three points and Ghana have zero.