The United States begins its quest for a spot in the second round of the World Cup against Ghana Monday. Thrust into the menacing Group of Death, the U.S. will have its hands full taking on Portugal and Germany after Ghana. Two teams advance to the second round out of each group and the U.S. has a shot if these three things happen …
1. They don’t give up any goals.
Okay, maybe it’s a no-brainer, but let’s look at the history of those who have survived the past three Groups of Death:
Portugal didn’t allow a goal in group play during the 2010 World Cup. It tied 0-0 with both Brazil and the Ivory Coast before blasting North Korea 7-0.
The Netherlands gave up a single goal in 2006, winning 1-0 over Serbia and Montenegro, and 2-1 over the Ivory Coast, before drawing with Argentina 0-0.
England clawed out of the 2002 Group of Death by again conceding just a single goal. The English pulled off a 1-1 draw with Sweden, a huge 1-0 win over bitter rival Argentina, and a 0-0 draw with Nigeria.
There are two common themes at play. The first is very stoic defense, and the second is …
2. Get to five points.
If you get to five points (one win, and two draws), you get out of your group. Anything less than five points is a craps shoot. In 2010, nine teams had four points after group play and five of those teams advanced to the second round. It’s a game of numbers, not of dominance. The U.S. just needs to win a single match, which brings us all to the third step …
3. Beat Ghana.
No easy task by any stretch. Ghana has beaten the U.S. in consecutive World Cups. Ghana is also weaker than Portugal and Germany, and as such presents the greatest opportunity to get three points. Going forward, the Black Stars are led by Asamoah Gyan, and present a dynamic, fast paced attack.
However, the defense is something of a mess. With just six healthy players at the back, three of whom are center backs, there is a level of vulnerability the U.S. could potentially exploit.
A common misconception about the Group of Death is that it features the best games because the quality of the teams involved is so high. That’s almost never the case. It comes down to being the shrewdest and most calculated, which often means the most defensive.
The U.S. has been toying with different defensive combinations, and seemed to find a healthy balance with Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones playing just in front of the backline in a 4-2-3-1. Whether coach Jurgen Klinsmann sticks with that pairing and formation remains to be seen, but fans should take heart if he does.
The beauty of playing Ghana first is the U.S. has a prime opportunity to take control of its destiny from the beginning. Three points out of the gate eases pressure and builds confidence heading into two exceptionally difficult matches.