The 2014 FIFA World Cup is just five days old, but already we’ve heard from Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi and Pirlo. We’ve seen domination by the Dutch, greatness from the Germans and upsets of the Uruguayans. And we’ve marveled at the tremendous advances in aerosol technology.
Now, it’s the United States’ turn to take the stage in Brazil, as they open World Cup play against Ghana, looking to avenge their last two exits in this tournament – both of which came courtesy of the Black Stars – and prove the naysayers wrong. After all, most don’t seem to think the U.S. can get out of the Group Stage, and a win (and the accompanying three points) in Monday evening’s match will go a long way toward silencing those critics.
And that’s certainly a goal of this Cup; this is a U.S. side that has weathered the storm time and time again, whether it was after a qualifying loss to Honduras, the continued questions about their “inexperience,” or the fallout that followed coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to leave the highly decorated Landon Donovan off his final roster. Because of that, the 23 men headed to Brazil have forged a fast bond, and though they may be outgunned at this World Cup, you can bet they won’t let that shake their confidence.
“We believe that we can do something special and go far in this tournament; we know we derserve to be in this World Cup,” U.S. captain Clint Dempsey says. “We don’t listen to any of that stuff, we just keep moving forward, keep working hard. We know we’re in a difficult group, but at the same time, we know we have the quality to get out of the group, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
“There’s nothing you can do to give you experience besides playing, so we’re all embracing that, coming together,” defenseman Matt Besler adds. “If people want to question us, that’s their right, but we’re really not worried about it. We’re confident in each other and we’re confident in our group … we truly feel that if we play our best, that’s going to be good enough to get out of the group and advance.”
Adding their voices to that chorus are newcomers like Chris Wondolowski, the 31-year-old striker who beat out Donovan for a spot on the roster. He’s been around the game long enough to know that this may be his only chance to play in the World Cup, and he says that sense of desperation is shared by his teammates. In the world’s biggest tournament, there are no second chances.
“Ghana is a very good team, and a lot of people are overlooking them because we’ve also got Portugal and Germany [in our group],” he says. “A lot of the media is like ‘Oh, they should get three points.’ No, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a tough game. So we need to do whatever it takes to get those three points … it won’t be easy, but we’ve got a good game plan.”
And despite what you might have read, Wondo says that the U.S. team is also drawing inspiration from the no-nonsense Klinsmann, who raised eyebrows with his proclamation that a World Cup win “is just not realistic.”
“He’s great, he believes in each and every one of us,” Wondolowski explains. “He has his game plan, he knows what he wants and he demands the best from you. He knows what he can get out of each player, and he’s able to get the best from each of us.”
Can the U.S. make a deep run in the tournament? Or is this merely a transitionary team, one built for the future at the expense of the present, as some have suggested? We’ll have a good idea after tonight’s matchup against Ghana, but, really, the full story won’t be revealed until after the squad finishes group play. But leave it to stalwart midfielder Michael Bradley to pose the question in the meantime: Why not us?
“You come into a big tournament like this, and everybody starts with zero points, and everybody goes into their first game with the same idea, and we’re no different,” he says. “We’re trying to make sure that … we’re as sharp and as fit and as mentally ready as we’ve ever been to play a really good game and come away with 1 or 3 points. You’re not qualifying for the Round of 16 after the first game, and you’re not going home after the first game either.”