It took about three years for the United States men's national soccer team to learn to play the way coach Jürgen Klinsmann wants them to play – and exactly 29 seconds for all that to go flying out the window.
The World Cup is sport's ultimate results-oriented business, so Team USA's 2-1 win over Ghana Monday will be lauded – and for many good reasons. Stuck in one of the tournament's toughest qualifying groups, the US just took a crucial step toward qualifying for the second round. That, most any soccer pundit would agree, would be an enormous accomplishment.
But in many ways Monday's win was a classic American performance – and not always in the best sense.
It was plucky, yes. Determined, certainly. But it also involved no small amount of hanging on by the fingernails before defender John Brooks scored with a dramatic header in the 86th minute.
When German coach Klinsmann accepted the US head coaching job in 2011, he was emphatic: It was not in the American mind-set to be dictated to by other teams. Americans, he said, would do more the dictating, whether the opponent was tiny Barbados or mighty Brazil.
For the first 30 seconds of Klinsmann's first World Cup game in charge of the US, everything went spectacularly according to plan. American forward Clint Dempsey was like a boulder rolling downhill once he got the ball just outside Ghana's penalty box. His momentum was kinetic, his touch on the ball, imperious – once through the legs, once leaving a defender rocking like a hobby horse, and once into the back of the net, rattling off the far post.
Instantly, sensationally, 1-0 USA.
During the following 81 minutes, however, the ghosts of American teams past seemed to fill the Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil.
There was nothing whatsoever wrong with what the US players did. Arranging themselves in a great human wedge between the US goal and the Ghanaian team was precisely the correct tactical play. And, defensively at least, all went according to plan. For much of the night, Ghana looked hopelessly short of ideas on how to break through America's organized defensive ranks.
The problems came when Team USA had the ball.
What it wanted to do was play offense defensively – that nuanced art that defines soccer's most successful teams. Break forward when prudent. Make simple passes and move. Maintain possession of the ball.
What it did was gift the ball back to Ghana, over and over and over again, with very little fuss. Ghana was rarely made to work to get the ball from the US team, while the US had to work tirelessly to keep Ghana in check.
Against a team like Brazil, one might expect this to be the way of things. Against Ghana, it's a cause for concern.
At No. 37, Ghana is ranked 24 spots lower on the FIFA world rankings than the US. Perhaps that only shows the flaws of those rankings, but Ghana is hardly a world soccer power. Down a goal and desperate to score in the 78th minute, Ghana used one of its substitutions to put in a midfielder who plays for Middlesbrough, a middling team in what is essentially the British minor leagues.
The underwhelming US offensive display was particularly jarring in that, just a few hours earlier, Klinsmann's former team, Germany, had put on a master class in how to play with a lead, shredding Portugal (No. 4 in the world), 4-0. When Germany got the ball, it sprang forward with clinical intent, repeatedly unhinging Portugal with a tick-tick-tick of passing and gloriously rhythmic interplay.
They were at once doing the defending and the dictating.
Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that Klinsmann could turn the US into his purring German prototype in three years. And a 23rd minute injury to forward Jozy Altidore threw the team off balance.
But time and again, as the US broke forward, passes went needlessly astray. If soccer kept a statistic for "unforced errors," the US would have kept the official scorekeeper busy. Attempts to break forward intelligently and with intent broke down before the team had even shifted out of its defensive gears. Instead of applying pressure on Ghana's fragile defense, the American offense repeatedly threw it right back on their own. In a team constructed precisely to give midfielder Michael Bradley more freedom and responsibility, he was uncharacteristically the worst offender.
Ironically, in the five minutes of the game when the US was not ahead, it did the dictating. Thirty seconds at the beginning, and the four minutes after Ghana's Andre Ayew scored in the 82nd minute. When the US was unshackled to play the way it wants to play – like Americans, Klinsmann might say – it looked devastatingly effective. (Though, admittedly, five minutes isn't much of a sample size.)
In those fleeting moments, there were glimpses of the Klinsmann revolution. During the rest of the game, there were reminders of the work to be done.