World Cup: USMNT defense lacks experience, but makes up for it with athleticism

SAO PAULO – The United States backline may lack World Cup experience. It may lack years of familiarity and the resulting cohesion. It may lack a clear-cut leader.

But for everything the United States backline lacks, it may just make up for with the raw athletic ability that was lacking four years ago when Ghana’s physical gifts propelled the Black Stars to the quarterfinals over the gutted Americans.

On that fateful night in Rustenburg, the US stood toe to toe with the Africans – and arguably had the better of the play over 120 minutes, but lost 2-1 in the knockout stage on two goals based almost exclusively on Ghana’s superior athleticism.

Kevin Prince-Boateng’s opener may have originated from Ricardo Clark’s costly turnover, but it was the US’ inability to curb his run that opened up the space to beat Tim Howard at his near post. Asamoah Gyan’s winner was no different, a clearance turned one-off chance.

This time around, the man best positioned to assess the difference between the two units, Howard, expects those kinds of mismatches in the open field to be a thing of the past.

“I think we’re younger and we’re more athletic,” Howard said. “The way we pressed teams, particularly late on in qualifying, was really really good. I think we can cause them trouble in that regard, but we’ll see.”

“We’ve got more pace and that’s going to be important to deal with Ghana,” he added.

But all the pace in the world can’t save the US if their new-look backline – from right to left, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and DaMarcus Beasley – isn’t on the same page.

The group started together for the first time against Nigeria, with Kyle Beckerman providing a shield in front of them, and put to bed some of the defensive and tactical concerns that emerged after another 2-1 victory against Turkey at Red Bull Arena.

But even if they find communication lacking or positioning feels unnatural, the US know they can rely on Howard, their vocal taskmaster, to keep everyone on the same page when Ghana inevitably find space to operate in Natal.

“He’s talking to us almost too much, it feels like, but it’s great,” Besler said. “I tell him I never want him to stop talking. Even if I know what to do, he’s still telling me what to do.”

Howard should be plenty familiar with the inner workings of the Black Stars, whose own backline may be a weak point but boast an impressive array of attacking talent up top and in the midfield.

Gyan and Prince-Boateng need no introduction to US fans, but Andre and Jordan Ayew and Kwadwo Asamoah are world-class talents that can punish any defender caught unaware. There will almost certainly be times when the Americans are better off staying compact, prevention more pressing than attacking aggression.

Of course, Howard won’t be the only one with working knowledge of the US’ opening Group G opponent. Posters with scouting information have been posted in common areas during the past few weeks, along with stations to review film.

“I think they’re unpredictable. They can beat you and they can score goals in a lot of different ways,” Besler said. “Just in the South Korea match we saw a goal from a cross, we saw a goal from a breakaway, we saw a goal from a shot from distance. As a defender, you’re just going to have to be ready for everything.”

Fortunately, it seems Besler and Cameron will have a security blanket in front of them if Jurgen Klinsmann’s XI against Nigeria was any indication. Beckerman, who started for the first time alongside Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, will be tasked with preventing Ghana from attacking unmolested up the gut.

“With Kyle you always have that rock,” Howard said. “It allowed us to get higher up the field [against Nigeria], not only with the goals but it allowed us to press higher, recover balls quicker. It was good, for me, I like that.”

He’ll like it even better if Monday comes and goes with little to nothing to do between the posts. The likelihood of that is low, of course, but perfection isn’t required against Ghana. Good enough will certainly do.

“These game, we know they’re not going to be perfect,” Besler said. “There are going to be mistakes. We might even give up a goal or find ourselves behind, but winning is the biggest thing.”

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