Let the games begin

ASSOCIATED PRESS USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann gets a little exercise during yesterday's final practice before tonight's game against Ghana.
ASSOCIATED PRESS USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann gets a little exercise during yesterday's final practice before tonight's game against Ghana.
Posted: June 17, 2014

FINALLY, the talk no longer matters.

There have been a lot of dramatic changes in United States soccer since the national team last played a game in the FIFA World Cup in 2010, sparking many discussions about the ever-evolving state of the game in this country and which decisions have been right and wrong in the movement forward.

But that all falls to the back burner later this afternoon as the USA takes to the pitch to play Ghana in its opening match of the 2014 World Cup.

Actions speak louder than words, and USA manager J├╝rgen Klinsmann and his 22 charges get to make the loudest statement about where they actually are and what they might be capable of accomplishing during this next month in Brazil.

It's not completely accurate to say that the game against Ghana means everything to the United States' chances of advancing out of Group G to the Round of 16.

Group-play matches still will remain with Portugal (June 22) and Germany (June 26), and because anything can theoretically happen there is a small, slight, miniscule chance the United States could earn enough points in those two games alone to qualify for the elimination round.

Still, the path will look more clear if the USA can get points against Ghana - ideally the full three for a win, but definitely one point for a draw.

There is a reason so much emphasis has been placed on Ghana, and it's not simply because it is the tournament opener.

No matter where this match would have fallen in the three-game round robin, it would be the most vital to the USA chances because it is the only one in which the Americans would not be a decisive underdog.

Despite the fact that Ghana has eliminated the United States in the previous two World Cups, the match with the African nation is viewed as being much more even than the ones against Germany, which came to Brazil in second place in the FIFA world rankings, and Portugal (fourth).

Not that the rankings matter on match day, but the USA is 13th while Ghana is 37th.

"I think we're in good position to face Ghana," USA goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "There's no revenge factor. That's not what's motivating us.

"We think Ghana is a good team, but we also feel we're slightly better as well."

Unless something dramatic happens in the Portugal-Germany match, like a red card or an injury to a critical player, this is the only Group G game a USA player can credibly say that about.

Ghana will be confident. Midfielder Andre Ayew all but guaranteed a victory for the Black Stars.

"We are winners," Ayew said. "If we are fit and we are all 100 percent; there is no way we are not going to win the U.S. game."

Ghana is in the same situation as the United States. Winning this opener is viewed almost as a must to move out of the group stage.

It all comes down to the math.

Given the quality of the competition and making the assumption that Germany or Portugal will win Group G, the most likely scenario is that it will take at least four points to capture the second qualifying spot.

For both the United States and Ghana, today's game is the most realistic scenario for gaining a three-point victory.

Whichever team wins this game will need just a tie against either Germany or Portugal to get to four points.

Whichever team loses will face the daunting scenario of getting a win and a tie out of the games with Germany and Portugal to get to four points.

Even with four points, it probably will come down to goal differential being the decisive factor in capturing second place in Group G.

The ideal situation for today would be for the United States to comfortably beat Ghana and have Germany thump Portugal.

This current edition of the Portuguese has not shown the strongest character when facing adversity, and being in a must-win scenario against the USA would play into the Americans' favor.

Still, the best thing about it is that after tonight, the discussion about USA soccer will be about what the team does on the pitch.

No more talk about who did or did not make the team or about whether Klinsmann should have been so honest about the fact that the United States is not yet ready to win the World Cup.

Now it will be about whether the 22 players representing the United States can beat the odds, turn dreams into reality, snatch success or produce failure.

The play of the United States is all that matters now.

Later tonight, once the Ghana match is completed, we finally will have tangible results from the 2014 USA World Cup squad to discuss, examine and analyze.

Up until kickoff, everything else has just been speculation.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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