Charles Boehm is covering the USMNT and the World Cup for Gothamist from Brazil for the duration of the tournament. He has covered MLS and the American soccer scene since 2004, contributing to MLSSoccer.com, The Soccer Wire, and USSoccerPlayers.com.
NATAL, Brazil - They dog-piled their unexpected young goalscorer, killed off the game's last few minutes, then soaked up the noise as their fans went wild. A few slumped to the turf at Arena das Dunas, spent from well over 90 minutes of tension and hard running in Monday's 2-1 win over Ghana.
And within an hour or so, the U.S. Men's National Team were over it.
“It's great that we got the three points, but it means nothing if we can't keep going, get more points and try to get out of the group,” said U.S. captain Clint Dempsey, summing up his squad's largely businesslike attitude after a World Cup curtain-raiser that sent their fans on an emotional roller coaster.
“We'll be happy today with the result, but tomorrow we're looking towards Portugal to try to figure out how we get points in that game. Because every game you have to try to get points if you want to get out of a group like this, and that's what we're looking to do,” he added.
“This win means nothing unless we're able to build upon it the next two games.”
As he and several of his teammates took care to note, the night's utmost priority was garnering the three points that send them forward with a real chance of advancing to the tournament's knockout stages from a bearish Group G.
But there was also a realistic awareness of what a flawed performance they turned in, laboring to build play. Ghana kept nearly 60 percent of possession and uncorked 21 shots, eight of them on goal, and only their own imprecise finishing denied them a comeback victory.
“It's a great way to start. We're certainly honest enough with ourselves to know that we can and need to be better,” said Michael Bradley, the USMNT's influential midfield schemer who turned in an uncharacteristically poor display. “But you want to feel like you're improving as the tournament goes, and you want to feel like you're improving but still picking up points.”
Dempsey's clinical strike just 29 seconds into the game proved a mixed blessing, as it lent the Yanks an air of complacency that the aggressive Ghanaians exploited to good effect.
“Maybe it kind of was not so good overall to us, because we sat back a little bit too much. Instead of taking the game to them, [we said] 'Oh, now we go up, now we can let them come and react to them,” said Klinsmann. “That's why I was screaming on the sidelines like crazy to keep the line high, to take the game, and take control of the game, and keep the ball - which we had problems with. We had problems just to control it and getting passes connected.
“It showed us also a lot of errors that we have to do better for the second game, going into Manaus, playing Portugal. We gave them too much of the game.”
Such passivity and sloppiness will be punished far more ruthlessly by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Thomas Müller in the days ahead.
“I think we have to push more up, we don't have to go so deep and let the other teams make the game,” said Jermaine Jones. “Portugal, we know they have great, great players in the team so if you give them these kind of chances or give them these kind of balls that we give today [to] Ghana, it can be really difficult.”
And perhaps that's where USMNT fans can draw the most encouragement: Their team seems acutely aware that they're just one game into a three-game test, and grit alone won't see them through.
“I'm sure I'll look back and be able to choose a few,” said Graham Zusi, architect of John Brooks' late winner, when asked if any moments from his first World Cup experience stuck in the memory. “But right now I'm remaining as focused as possible for the next one. It's a great win, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
By Charles Boehm