They were dying out there — all of them, save perhaps the indomitable Michael Bradley. For all the talk of taking the 23 best athletes available, they were all on the verge of death past the hour mark in Natal. Conditions in the high-70s reportedly weren’t even that bad by kickoff, but no matter. This was an effort that required painstaking fortitude from all involved. And that is exactly what they gave.
Perhaps it was the humidity that made Jozy Altidore’s hamstring seize within the opening 21 minutes; which made Matt Besler fall to the same fate in the same opening half. What was clear was that this was a war. John Boye deserved a yellow card, at the least, for the boot that damn near took off Clint Dempsey’s nose. And still they fought.
It was considered a fact, going into this tournament, that the U.S. needed to win this game against Ghana. After a blistering opening few minutes, it seemed that they were destined to do just that. But then reality set in — the difficult conditions, the formidable opponent — and it was only a matter of time before a draw would appear a favorable result. But even after the Black Stars threw on their world beaters — accomplished professionals of the highest caliber like Kevin-Prince Boateng and Michael Essien — the United States persevered. And now on to Portugal — a wounded, shattered Portugal — and from there, who knows?
The 4-4-2 diamond is a formation that has gone out of fashion in recent years, until it experienced a revival during a Ligue 1 season in which seemingly every competitive team was fielding it. Brendan Rodgers’ Tricky Reds used it to great effect this past season, as did Sir Alex Ferguson in his final season at Manchester United and Carlo Ancelotti during his brief spell at Chelsea. When it is implemented nowadays, the trequartista is seldom fielded as a traditional No. 10; rather, he functions as a central midfielder with license to go forth and support the attack.
Whatever the interpretation, Michael Bradley delivered admirably from his position at the tip of the diamond and the center of the park. He gave the ball away cheaply on several occasions — as did the entire U.S. team, and far too often — but as the 90th minute slowly approached, he remained the engine that drove the side on. Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones performed dutifully from their positions as hybrid central/wide midfielders on the edges of the diamond, but it was clear the boost the U.S. received once Graham Zusi relieved Bedoya on the right flank. They say the fullback position is the most thankless in modern football — but in a midfield diamond, so is the role played by those on the edges of the midfield. Zusi provided the thrust and invention that the USMNT need to see out this most unforgiving contest.
Aron Jóhannsson was a disappointment; with hindsight, Chris Wondoloski in his stead would have offered the industry needed in this war of attrition. There is also the fact that John Brooks, for all his improbable heroics, is but a lately-implemented stopgap in the center of a most fragile defense. DaMarcus Beasley looked miserable in possession within his own half, reminding all those who recall the Class of 2002 of his natural position as a left winger. Kyle Beckerman performed to the utmost of his abilities; Geoff Cameron is the best defender the United States has to offer; Fabian Johnson, while often caught out of position, looked the fittest of the bunch. In Tim Howard, the U.S. has one of the dozen best goalkeepers in the entire tournament.
But true inspiration came in the form of the captain. I’ve often found myself critical of Clint Dempsey — whether it’s simply a matter of demeanor, it has always seemed more natural for the likes of Howard or Bradley to take the armband in leading this squad. But this team would not have come close to victory if any less a player took the field. His touch of class in the very first minute will be imitated by schoolchildren for years to come, from the alleyways of Queens to the fields of Nacogdoches. His perseverance in the wake of what very clearly looked to be a shattered nose will dispel to an entire generation whatever stereotypes may linger around this most beautiful, unforgiving sport.
I watched the match in a bar near Times Square; I would have rather watched it at Jack Keane’s Football Factory, or perhaps my favorite Merseyside-themed East Village haunt, but like many Americans I was caught in the final obligations of a Monday workday. The soonest I could, I ducked into the nearest Irish pub and watched the entire thing alongside the Midtown happy hour crew.
It was among the most passionate crowds I’ve ever watched a match alongside; the contest itself was among the longest, most drawn-out and exhausting affairs I can remember. The closest thing, in my own fandom, was Liverpool’s 3-2 victory over Manchester City at Anfield this past April. Like that match, this one felt like it meant everything — while potentially meaning nothing, depending on how things pan out.
What’s to come remains to be seen. What we know is that this was a victory in every sense of the word — and one in the most cathartic and triumphant of fashions. The United States Men’s National Team’s hopes of advancing out of their Group of Death remain very much alive. It is a night that will live long in the memory — much longer, in my estimation, than the last-gasp 1-0 over Algeria four years ago. For all their fight and pedigree, the Black Stars of Kwadwo Asamoah and Sulley Muntari and the Ayew Brothers could not overcome the conviction that rained down from the masses in Natal.
I believe that we will win, they sang. I believe that we will win.