I love the World Cup so much that I can barely even watch U.S. World Cup matches. I’m just too tense. The stakes are so high – for the United State it’s not just about the match, it’s about the growth of our sport in this country. All of that rides on Jermaine Jones keeping his cool, and on the finishing skills of DaMarcus Beasley, and on Matt Besler proving that he’s ready to take on the world after spending the last World Cup taking on Marquette and Virginia Commonwealth. That is – to say the least – a stress-inducing atmosphere. Throw in my traditional first-match deep dish pizza (I have some weird traditions, but trust me: that pizza beat Portugal in 2002) and the whole experience is a tornado of love and guilt and tension and non-sexual arousal and 2,200 calories of cheese and sausage.
This is the MLS World Cup. Our roster hasn’t been this MLS-heavy since 1998. And that World Cup did not make people think: “I need to get myself to a Miami Fusion match!” Bradley and Dempsey have left viable careers in Europe for MLS, and if they stink that might never happen again. On the other hand, if they – and Zusi, Besler, Beckerman, and the other MLS players – succeed, then MLS looks a lot more legit. This is just way too much tension; I need an 800-calorie slice of midwestern gluttony.
Here’s the lineup we’ve all spent 47 months incorrectly predicting: Howard | Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson | Jones, Beckerman, Bradley, Bedoya | Dempsey, Altidore. If you had asked me to predict this lineup in August 2010, I probably would have said: Howard | Castillo, Onyewu, Gonzalez, Cherundolo | Donovan, Bradley, Holden, Roger Federer | Ke$ha, The Creators of Modern Family. A lot changes in four years.
Here’s the opening: the artsy shot of the ball in the foreground as the teams walk out of the tunnel, the HD blimp shots of the perfect green pitch, the US team lining up in their Neapolitan ice cream unis, the anthem. If you’re not at least a little excited in this moment, you’re no kind of soccer fan and a bit of a crappy American.
Here’s kickoff from Future Bird Toilet Stadium in Natal…
1’– GGGGOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!! GGGGGGOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!
I’m typing this 10 minutes later after completing a few laps around my block. GGGOOOOOOAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!! Wow, that was beautiful. Is Clint Dempsey in form? There’s your answer. So, this is the opposite of how the 2010 World Cup started. I like this much better.
4’ - I just learned from Taylor Twellman — who is a better color commentator than he is a player, and he was a very good player — that Jermaine Jones hasn’t had a yellow card in his last 10 international matches. That’s one of those stats that’s almost impossible to believe, like that only four sitting presidents have visited Native American lands (that’s true!). Still, if the U.S. plays four games, I put the odds of Jones playing all four at about 25 percent.
11’ - Jones with a low bridge that could have been a yellow. It begins.
18’ - Altidore with a chance but it’s blocked! The US is starting brightly; Johnson and Bedoya are active, and Dempsey is running the midfield. Of course, Ghana will counter-punch; these are two very evenly-matched teams.
20’ - NNNOOOOOO!!! Jozy’s hamstring has exploded. He’s got Barbaro-leg. This is bad.
22’ - Aron Johannsson – who at once has more and fewer double letters in his name than you would expect – comes in. Johannsson is godd (that’s how he spells “good”), but losing Jozy will hurt.
23’ - For those of you thinking “Eddie Johnson should be on the roster!”, let me tell you: no, he shouldn’t be. I’m a DC United fan. Eddie Johnson is not the solution.
27’ - Joe Biden is at the match! Wow, imaging being a U.S. player, scratching and clawing and fighting for your country’s shirt, drawing on your last reserve of energy, and you look up in the stands and there is the American leader who inspires reverence and respect in so many people: Joe Biden. Inspiring. I hear that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will be at the Portugal match to play the same role.
28’ - Ghana are starting to get their feet under them. This is dangerous – Ghana are a good side, they can play. I’ve already heard a few comments in the “African teams aren’t playing well” vein, which is completely irrelevant. Ghana are not “an African team,” they’re Ghana. Michael Essien and Kevin Prince Boateng are on the bench. Ghana can play.
31’ - Nice save from Howard on Gyan! Gyan is the danger man; I, like many, learned how good Gyan can be during the 2010 Cup and his subsequent stint at Sunderland. I also grew tired of his constant diving and play-acting. He’s a great player and also a great villain in the Luis Suarez/John Terry mold.
32’ - Dempsey has a bloody nose after getting kicked in the face. This is now two World Cups out of three that involve an American with a bloody nose after Brian McBride got the Steve Buschemi-in-Fargo treatment (“you should see the other guy”) against Italy in 2006. But soccer’s not a contact sport, Jim Rome.
33’ - Dempsey is coming back in. Of course he is; Dempsey is a fighter. There’s a little bit of Daniel Plainview in that guy.
40’ - Now Besler is hurt. A few more injuries and the inevitable Jermaine Jones red card and we might end this match with nine.
45 + 1’ - We’ve all known for years that this moment would come: after a hard tackle, the referee is calling Jermaine Jones over. My heart is racing. But this time Jones just gets a talking-to.
Half time: 1-0 USA. One goal, two injuries, zero yellow cards. On the whole, pretty good. The team looks lively, but then again so do Ghana. It’s the World Cup; everyone is bringing their best. That’s why this tournament is so amazing.
46’ - Brooks comes in for Besler, who has a hamstring pull, just like Jozy. Are hamstring pulls contagious? Have Chris Pontius or Ken Griffey Jr. been in close contact with this team in the recent past?
50’ - Brooks gives the ball away but recovers well to put himself in position to get punched in the face. Um…good play?
54’ - Sulley Muntari sends a blistering shot just wide! Geez … they’ve replayed the shot three times and each time I think the ball’s going in.
55’ - Now Gyan gets between defenders and sends a header just high. If this was an EPL match, the commentator would definitely say “they’re knocking on the door now!” I think that statement is actually contractually required after two or more chances in two minutes.
59’ - Ghana are trying to become the first country to beat the same country in three straight World Cups. But that’s a meaningless stat; how many times has one country even PLAYED the same country in three straight World Cups? It probably happened between, say, Italy and Uruguay in the ‘30s, back when only a few countries could afford to travel between continents and much of the world as we now know it was just “Britain.”
64’ - Asamoah (who is not Asamoah Gyan…they’re the Michael Bradley/Brad Davis of Ghana) with a swerving, dipping shot that Howard controls. If we were still using the 2010 ball, that shot is either in the back of the net, 20 rows into the stands, or caroming off the corner flag.
67’ - Now Cameron is a little gimpy. That’s just how hard these guys are playing; the heat and humidity are tough, but they’re just powering through until their bodies can’t really take it anymore.
75’ - The tension is thicker than the air in Brazil. As Ian Darke might say: “The game is balanced on a knife’s edge.” Actually, why hasn’t Ian Darke said that? It’s kind of his signature phrase, and this is the perfect moment for it. It’s like if Steve Urkel knocked over a priceless ming vase, everyone turned and looked at him, and he said: “I may have knocked over that vase.” Disappointing, Urkel!
76’ - Here comes Klinsmann’s only substitution-that-he-CHOSE-to-make: Graham Zusi for Bedoya. Zusi has a little bit of Steven Seagal hair, which is all the excuse I need to link to this clip of Seagal wrestling a bear in On Deadly Ground.
82’ - Goal Ghana! 1-1! “They’ve been knocking on the door!” (that’s why you say that – you get to sound smart when they score). Gyan with the assist, Ayew with the finish. Now we all have to convince ourselves that a point is a good result.
85’ - OR MAYBE WE DON’T: GOAL USA! 2-1! Maryland’s Graham Zusi with the assist, and John Anthony Brooks smashes a header into the net! AMAZING! This tension has cost me four years off the end of my life but it’s worth it!
86’ - Brooks’s dad is from Chicago. THE PIZZA WORKS!
87’ - You can see how tired the players are by how they could barely even celebrate Brooks’ goal. That goal deserved a dogpile, a parade, and maybe one of those party busses filled with strippers and overpriced alcohol. But that goal was celebrated with the intensity of the celebration following a solo homer in the third inning of a Mariners-Astros game.
90’ - Five minutes of stoppage time. FIVE MINUTES! I can’t take the tension. I think I’ll need to wait this match out laying on the ground breathing pizza-breath into a paper bag.
FULL TIME: USA 2, Ghana 1! YEEEEEEEESSSSSS! We are IN the World Cup! A loss might have just about ended it, but we are IN! And really, this is good for Ghana; if they had beaten us again, we would have had to invade.
Howard: 6.5. Great organization, controlled everything in the air. Although his weird habit of being beaten near-post against Ghana continues.
Beasley: 3.5. Well, none of us have been totally convinced by Beasley, and this match didn’t do much to change that. I think you can honestly say that the U.S. has never played in a modern World Cup with the left back spot completely settled.
Besler: 6. You always wonder if a guy playing in his first World Cup will be overmatched. He definitely did not look overmatched.
Cameron: 7. Physical, smart, and had several important interventions. He also didn’t get a yellow card, which is huge for a center back in a World Cup.
Johnson: 4.5. He’s been unbelievable in the warm-up matches, but he was a little off tonight. I’m not concerned; I’m sure he’ll start against Portugal.
Jones: 7. Well, he once again beat the odds and avoided a card. As much of a thug as Jones is – he is definitely the soccer equivalent of a hockey enforcer – he’s very much in control of himself. He’s good about toeing the line but not quite crossing it.
Beckerman: 6. Played a smart game and was very safe with his passing. With a team as good in attack as Ghana, you can’t give the ball away cheaply in midfield, and he didn’t.
Bradley: 4.5. I’m a huge MIchael Bradley fan, but he was just a bit off today. In a way, that’s good; we won without one of our best players playing at his best.
Bedoya: 6. Active but not extremely sharp … that’s pretty much his game. I’m not sure whether I prefer him or Zusi; they’re pretty evenly-matched players.
Dempsey: 7.5. With Donovan not on the roster, there is no doubt whatsoever that this is his team. And he definitely stepped up.
Altidore: 5. Maybe we’ll get him back, but that hamstring injury looked about as bad as a hamstring injury can look.
Johannsson: 3. He didn’t adjust his game; he needed to post up and try to play for possession. This is the World Cup, not the Eredivisie; not every match is going to end 4-3.
Brooks: 6. I could talk about positioning and marking and communication, but forget that; that header was huge. Just unbelievably huge. What a great moment for him.
Zusi: 6.5. That corner kick was perfectly placed. If he really impressed Klinsmann, then he might get the honor of marking Cristiano Ronaldo next match. Fun!