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NEW: One of Ghana's top players, Michael Essien, to start match on bench
Ghana has knocked U.S. out of competition the last two times
None of the U.S. players is hobbled by injury
Landon Donovan was left out of the U.S. team
Your co-workers will bolt from work early today. Bars will make a killing. And even the most indifferent of your friends will feign a slight interest in the World Cup.
For today, the United States begins its Brazil adventure when it goes toe-to-toe with its nemesis, Ghana.
The Black Stars have knocked the U.S. out of competition the last two go-rounds – in 2006 and 2010.
Can the U.S. avoid a three-peat? It’d better, if it wants to see its World Cup ambitions stay alive.
Because after Ghana, the U.S. takes on two giants: Germany and Portugal – ranked by FIFA as the second- and fourth-best teams in the world.
For its part, the U.S. is ranked 13th. Ghana is 37th.
No wonder Group G – the one the U.S. finds itself in – has been nicknamed the “Group of Death.”
Why focus on the negative though?
Sure, America’s odds of lifting the most coveted soccer trophy in the world are 100 to 1. But the 23 players on the squad have dreamed of playing on the grandest stage of soccer since they were kids.
Kyle Beckerman, 32, was one of them.
As a child, he’d leave notes for his mom, signed, “Kyle Beckerman USA #15.”
Now, he signs autographs that way.
This is their moment.
“For one month every four years, the world stops, everybody is watching,” said team captain Michael Bradley. “To have the opportunity to represent our country, to wear our colors, there’s nothing else like it.”
WHY YOU SHOULD WORRY
Ghana hasn’t been kind to America’s World Cup soccer aspirations. It knocked out the U.S. from the group stage in 2006 with a 2-1 win.
In 2010, the Americans gave them a run for the money. But alas, an extra-time goal from Ghana – in the 93rd minute – sent the U.S. packing once again, 2-1.
Seven players from the 2010 Ghanaian team are back Monday, including the lightning-fast Asamoah Gyan, the team captain.
They’re unpredictable. And the U.S. will have to be ready for anything.
WHY YOU SHOULDN’T WORRY
In the warm-up matches ahead of the tournament, the U.S. won all three of its games – against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria. Ghana lost two of its three – to Montenegro and the Netherlands. (It beat fellow World Cup participant South Korea handily.)
Second, none of the U.S. players is hobbled by injury. One of Ghana’s best, Michael Essien, is. He’ll start the match against the U.S. on the bench as will Kevin-Prince Boateng, who scored against the Americans in 2010.
Finally, it’s very, very wet and rainy in Natal, where the game will be played.
“When there’s rain in a soccer game, it means that it’s pretty much an equalizer a lot of the time,” says CNN correspondent Lara Baldesarra. “Anything can happen.”
WHO TO WATCH
Ghana’s Ayew brothers. There are two of them: Andrew and Jordan. They’re fast and they’re a threat – especially Jordan Ayew, who has worked his way into the starting lineup against the United States.
When Ghana beat South Korea in the warm-up, he scored all the goals but one in the 4-0 wipeout. This, after coming in as a substitute!
On the U.S. side, hopes are riding high on 26-year-old Michael Bradley, the best American midfielder of his generation. He’s creative and attack-minded. Look for him to come up with some dazzling plays.
Then there’s goalie Tim Howard. He’s one of the best in the world. Oh, and he scores too – the way he did for Manchester United in a Premier League match against Bolton Wanderers.
WHO WON’T BE THERE
Landon Donovan, the all-time top U.S. goal scorer (57). For fans, coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to leave him out doesn’t add up. Klinsmann said other players were “a tiny little bit ahead of him,” and though he didn’t want to go into details, he alluded to the 32-year-old Donovan not having the speed and ankle-breaking one-on-one skills he once possessed.
WHAT SHOULD YOU IGNORE
Klinsmann, a tough-talking German who won a World Cup himself, took over from Bob Bradley as the U.S. coach in 2011. All his work has been building up to this moment. So fans weren’t too pleased when they heard him say this:
“For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it’s just not realistic. First we’ve got to make it through the group. So let’s keep our feet on the ground and say, let’s get that group first done, and then the sky is the limit.”
There’s another way to look at it. Maybe he’s managing expectations. Or using reverse psychology. Best to ignore it.
After all, Klinsmann himself struck a more optimistic note Sunday.
“We wanna go far, that’s definitely our goal,” he said. “I booked my flight after the final.”
WHO WILL WIN
Depends on the counterattacks. The Ghana players are fast and nimble. The Americans are creative at seizing opportunities. So it’ll come down to whichever team can disrupt possession and run with it.
Our guess? It’ll be a 1-1 draw.
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CNN’s Lara Baldesarra contributed from Natal, Brazil