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Jun 13, 2014

U.S. firmly focused on Ghana tie

SAO PAULO -- It's all about Ghana now.

That was the message from the American players on Friday morning, shortly before the U.S. team headed to Sao Paulo-Guarulhos international airport for a flight to the northeastern city of Natal, site of Monday's crucial match against the team that eliminated it from the last two World Cups.

"I think we're in good position to face Ghana," Yanks goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "There's no revenge factor. We don't feel that; that's not what's motivating us. We think they're a good team, but we also feel we're slightly better as well."

They'll need to be.

Ghana has also improved since 2010, and the African powerhouse, considered by many to be that continent's top team, is particularly dangerous on the attack. A tie -- much less a win -- is anything but guaranteed.

Nonetheless, from the moment the schedule was revealed at December's draw, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has drilled into his players' heads that with European titans Portugal and Germany next on the slate, getting the full three points from Monday's match is really the only option.

"We want to win very, very badly," said defender Matt Besler. "We want to be able to high-press, keep the ball and drive the game. But we also have to be a little bit careful because Ghana is a very good team.

"We have to respect them, and we have to be smart about how we go about the game plan."

That means knowing when it's best to drop off and get numbers behind the ball, Besler said, noting that in the Black Stars' final tuneup -- a 4-0 walloping of fellow World Cup participant South Korea -- they scored their goals in a variety of ways. "They might have a spell of possession, and we have to be patient," Besler said. "It's all about recognizing the moment."

It's also about relying on meticulous preparation. It's been said that teams plan for their opening match of a World Cup for six months, the result of which leaves just a few days to figure out how best to approach the remaining group games -- such is the importance of getting off to a good start.

Tim Howard agrees with Jurgen Klinsmann that the U.S. has to look at Ghana as a must-win match.

To a man, the Americans agree that that's the way they're looking at things. And they haven't been shy about saying Ghana -- not Portugal or Germany -- has been the team squarely in their crosshairs ever since pre-Cup camp began on May 14. "Obviously the goal is to be as prepared as we can," midfielder Graham Zusi said. "And we are."

Still, one has to wonder if the Americans are investing too much emotional capital in winning the curtain-raiser -- to the point that if they don't, the letdown could lead to a hangover that affects them the rest of the way. But while Zusi insisted that "you have to get your points any way you can, whether it's the first game or the last," Howard believes Klinsmann's all-or-nothing approach is the correct one.

"I think it's a good thing that we put a lot emphasis on it, because if we can get the win, then we can refocus and go for Portugal," the veteran said. "There's no sense in looking [past] the first game. It's important to get three points in the bag. If we don't then we don't, and we've got two more game to navigate through the group."

That's not the plan, though -- not by a long shot. The U.S. team is fully focused on making sure that three times isn't a charm for the Ghanaians -- and to hear midfielder Jermaine Jones tell it, the players are doing it by not thinking too much about the opponent.

"They're a physical team and they have a lot good players, [especially] up front," Jones said. "The important thing is we don't make too much of the focus on Ghana. We have to focus on ourselves. If everybody does what we have to do, I'm 100 percent sure we'll win that game."

NOTES

-Besides Ghana, the other main topic of discussion around the U.S. camp on Friday, not surprisingly, concerned Thursday's tourney opener between Brazil and Croatia. "I was up in my room for the second half and I had my window creaked open a little bit, and when Brazil scored those two goals in the second half -- and again on the final whistle -- you heard the entire city of Sao Paulo roar," Besler said. "It gave me chills."

-And what did the American players think about the controversial penalty call that helped the hosts go up 2-1 in the eventual 3-1 win?

"Sucks for Croatia, that's what I think," Howard said. "But that's part of the game. The referees have to get those things right in big moments. It's not easy being a referee, but it's important that going forward that those are taken care of."

Besler said: "As a defender, that was a tough one to see. But I think it's good because maybe it's a lesson some of us learned just by watching. It's going to be called tight in the penalty box, so we've got to be careful."

-While fans and media reacted to the call with outrage, the players probably shouldn't have been surprised.

Each of the 32 teams in Brazil was briefed by a FIFA official before the tournament began -- and were told that defenders grappling for position in the box run the risk of being punished harshly.

"They already said you have to watch out with the hands in the box," Jones said. "We know the rules and we have to be careful. But we don't have to change anything. If somebody has to take a foul for the team, he has to do it."

Doug McIntyre

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. He has watched or attended almost every U.S. men's national team game since Paul Caligiuri's "shot heard 'round the world" and has covered the Yanks for The Mag since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.