NATAL, Brazil — The U.S. national soccer team is assured of playing three matches in the World Cup. There is Monday’s Group G opener against Ghana in this surf-and-sun destination on the northeast coast, then Portugal in the heart of Amazonia and Germany in the port city of Recife.
It is a journey cast across an enormous expanse over 11 days, marked by charters in and out of Sao Paulo and the rich embrace of a country where futebol is hailed and treasured.
For all practical purposes, however, the American experience — and the hope of extending their stay in Brazil — hinges on the events that transpire over 90 minutes Monday evening at Arena das Dunas, a 39,000-seat stadium designed to reflect the area’s white dunes.
Thousands of U.S. supporters arrived in rainy Natal the past two days — Americans purchased more tickets to the tournament than any other country, aside from Brazil — and will provide a backing more typical of a crucial home qualifier.
Anything short of victory, though, would leave Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad in a precarious situation heading into daunting matchups against the group favorites. A loss would not extinguish hopes of advancing to the knockout stage. Nor would a victory secure passage.
In reality, though, “we need to beat Ghana,” Klinsmann has said repeatedly since FIFA conducted the draw in December, one that placed the Americans in the so-called Group of Death.
The Americans failed to beat Ghana in the previous two World Cups, a pair of 2-1 defeats that sent them home. In 2006, the Black Stars closed the U.S. team’s winless account in the group finale in Germany and, four years later, inflicted an extra-time setback in the round of 16 in South Africa.
With global ambitions, the Americans are facing increasingly higher expectations. And that means beating Ghana, a 2010 quarterfinalist.
“Over time, you want to see progress happening with the team,” Klinsmann said. “With the whole game in the country, we see levels of progress. Now this is just an awesome moment, this is the biggest stage you can have, where you want to show you improve.”
The Ghana match is the culmination of not just four weeks of rigorous preparation, but the apex of Klinsmann’s three-year tenure. He has introduced new players, turned to more German Americans — he is a former German superstar — and ushered out several veterans, most notably Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson and Carlos Bocanegra.
He has challenged the players by emphasizing greater possession, creativity and pressure. The transition hit rough patches, increasing scrutiny of Klinsmann’s ways, but he and the players believe they have rounded into form at the right moment.
“It’s important we have that pressure on us in the first game,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who played in the 2010 encounter. “We want to get three points in the bag.”
With Portugal and Germany looming, the pressure to bag those points is heavy.
“This is step one. And then comes Portugal and then comes Germany and then we’ll see,” Klinsmann said. “Expectations now in the United States are high. Every area of the game is growing, so we want to drive this as the locomotive — the locomotive is the national team. We embrace that. We want to go far.”
With a sly grin, he added that “I booked my flight [home] after the final.”
The Americans will have to cope with Ghana’s speed, power and technical ability — traits that caused trouble in the 2010 match.
“They pose a lot of different threats,” said center back Matt Besler, a regular in the U.S. lineup for only 15 months. “They’re unpredictable. As a defender, you are going to have to be ready for everything.”
Although they will not talk about it openly, the Americans feel they can prevent Ghana’s lethal counterattacking and disrupt possession. They also sense weakness in the Black Stars’ back line.
Still, though, the U.S. team has that inglorious history with Ghana.
From the U.S. perspective, “not a word’s been spoken” about the quadrennial rivalry with the Black Stars, Howard said. “It’s ancient history. This is a different team with a different mind-set.”
The Black Stars look at it differently.
“They are coming for revenge,” said Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan, who scored the winning goal in the 2010 meeting. “Mentally they don’t want us to beat them for the third time.”
These teams are much different than they were four years ago. Ghana retained seven players from the 2010 squad and is the youngest squad among the 32 participants; the United States brought back six players. Both sides are operating under new management, Klinsmann and James Appiah.
“We love the pressure of playing in a World Cup,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “We know it won’t be easy but certainly we feel like if we step on the field and are sharp and are able to play to the best of our ability, we can have a really good World Cup.”
After watching the first four days of the tournament, the Americans are eager to begin a campaign they hope to extend into July.
“It’s been such a long road,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “I’m excited along with 22 other guys to get on the field now.”
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