SAO PAULO — When the match referee at last allowed the members of the United States national team to leave the field in Natal with a 2-1 victory safely in their possession, coach Jurgen Klinsmann walked into the locker room and offered congratulations to the players. Also, a warning.
It went like this: "Whew!"
This revelation came at a Tuesday afternoon news conference courtesy of midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. Klinsmann said this to underscore that the victory was worth three points in the Group G standings, but the performance that achieved it wouldn't win any Tony Awards. The U.S. players were successful while playing below their standard in a few key areas.
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"I think we learned a lot of things in that game," Bedoya said. "We came out with the victory, and that's the most important thing, to get a result. But at the end of the day I think we're going to go back, study the video, and work on things we need to improve on. There's certain things that we can do a lot better."
And what might those be?
"Just protecting the ball more," right winger Graham Zusi said Tuesday. "I think we gave it away a bit too easily."
"Obviously just keeping the ball," Bedoya said, "and being a little more calm and confident in keeping the ball and possession."
"We've got to do a better job of keeping possession, especially in the final third," captain Clint Dempsey said immediately following the game. "We need to do a better job building out of the back, too."
It's easy to imagine maintaining control of the ball will be a strong point of emphasis for Klinsmann when the full squad trains together Thursday, the first full session after the starters used Tuesday as a maintenance day and Wednesday was given as an off day for the full squad.
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Some of the Americans' struggle to maintain control of the ball actually was the unfortunate byproduct of Dempsey's brilliant early goal, which put them in the position of having to protect a lead for a far longer period than any player or coach imagines during preparation. As sharp as Klinsmann is, he surely didn't stand before his charges prior to the Ghana game and say, "OK, we're going to score 30 seconds after the kickoff, and here's how we're going to handle that." There was a natural tendency to protect that beautiful advantage that developed so quickly.
"For as good as it was to get that early goal," Zusi said, "if a team scores first minute, a lot of times it puts them on the back foot."
Playing more defensively might explain why Ghana would gain a possession advantage — 62 percent to 38 for the U.S. — but it does not excuse the number of times the Americans simply booted the ball to the other team. They completed only 73 percent of their passes, a fairly dismal figure. By comparison, in the final pre-Cup friendly victory over Nigeria, the U.S. completed passes at an 83 percent rate.
At the core of the problems in the Ghana game was star midfielder Michael Bradley, widely acknowledged as the team's best player, with the glaring exception of Monday night.
"First games of a big tournament are never easy," Bradley said following the game. "Getting the goal right away is great, but in some ways it through the game into a crazy state right away … but in the end, it was a really important team win.
"The mentality, the determination to stick together even when things weren't going great was fantastic. Obviously we will look to improve. We know we can and need to be better, but at this point it's about points. It's a big step."