The United States begins the World Cup with a must-win against Ghana. There is no warmup game, no cupcake and no “if we get a point here, we’re happy” underdog opportunity. With matches against Portugal and Germany to follow, the United States team has very little chance of qualifying out of Group G if it does not win the first match. I rate the Americans’ odds of qualifying around one in four, but a victory takes those odds to nearly 50/50. With a draw the United States fall to one-in-five and a loss takes the Americans to less than ten percent. Winning will not guarantee entrance into the knockout stages, but it will stave off elimination and give the United States a good chance if either of Germany or Portugal stumbles.

I have already discussed why my numbers rate Portugal so highly. If Cristiano Ronaldo is fit, expect an excellent match this afternoon between the two reapers of the group of death.

Group G

























The Americans cannot be looking ahead to the two tougher matches to follow. The side must find a way to win today’s contest first. Now, with only three matches to determine a side’s fate, early must-wins are common at the World Cup. We’ve seen several sides come up with that necessary victory already, including the United States`’ confederation mates Mexico and Costa Rica. I will take a look at a few of these wins and see if there are any lessons for the US in advance of the big match.

One might think that the Mexican victory over Cameroon would be the most similar. Two sides considered roughly evenly matched, one from North America and one from Africa, playing a high-leverage group stage opener. But Cameroon could not be more different from Ghana. The team, and indeed the entire Cameroonian FA have  been in turmoil for several years, with the most recent flare-up being reportedly a short-lived strike by the players just before the Cup. They played like a team that had done little effective drilling and were repeatedly broken open by Mexican attacks.

At the same time, Cameroon has brilliant attackers in Samuel Eto’o and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, both of whom were solidly in the top 20 of the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga in expected goals per 90 minutes. Cameroon’s front line gave Mexico’s back three fits, and the shot chart showed two sides both capable of getting their shots but struggling to bottle up the opposition attack.


Ghana is a traditionally organized defensive side, but one that lacks star forward players like Eto’o and Choupo-Moting. Schalke’s Kevin-Prince Boateng is the most distinguished of Ghana’s attacking four, but his numbers in the Bundesliga fall well short of Choupo-Moting’s. Boateng managed about 0.2 goals and expected goals per 90 minutes, compared to Choupo-Moting’s 0.3 and 0.4 per 90 numbers. Boateng is a dangerous player, and whichever of Jermaine Jones or Kyle Beckerman plays at the base of the U.S. midfield diamond will have a tough task keeping him quiet. But overall, this Ghana side attacks as a team rather than depending on individuals to provide what the system cannot.

The big victory from early in the Cup that seems to provide the best guidance for the United States is Switzerland’s win over Ecuador. Like Ecuador, Ghana are a counterattacking side, as Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox shows. In the three Ghanaian matches for which I have detailed data, Ghana also resembled Ecuador in their reliance on crosses to get chances near the goal. Of 13 danger zone shots for Ghana against Montenegro, the Netherlands and Serbia, eight were assisted by crosses. Ecuador, likewise, are the most cross-happy counterattacking side in the tournament.

To beat Ecuador, the Swiss played a cagey, some might say boring style. Switzerland lacked for directness, playing only 39 long passes, one of the lowest numbers in the tournament so far. The Swiss played 192 passes in their own defensive half, compared to 112 for Ecuador. Not a single through-pass was even attempted, let alone completed. The side was set up by Manager Ottmar Hitzfeld to first prevent Ecuadorian counter-attacking opportunities, and only secondarily to find a way through to goal. The shot map tells the story, with the large majority of Swiss attempts on goal either low-value long shots or headers off crosses from the danger zone. The map is weighted by the quality of the chance, and you can tell most of Switzerland’s danger zone chances are assisted by crosses by the small size of the dot despite its proximity to goal. Only chances off crosses have such low value in good areas.


Switzerland of course was far from guaranteed a win under this tactical set-up. It needed a last-minute breakdown by Ecuador and a great run by Haris Seferovic to secure three points. Still, with one or two reasonable penalty shouts, a good Josip Drmic goal waived off for offside and the advantage in the shot chart, Switzerland was overall the better side. “Be like the Swiss” is not a recipe for attractive soccer, but it might be the way to win today’s match.

All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.

Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_AMy full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.