NATAL, Brazil—It had rained for three days and three nights in Natal, the water falling nonstop on this gritty seaside town. On my way from the shockingly remote airport—a public works project thrown up in what appeared to be a farmer's backyard—I'd watched women pushing wheelbarrows through the mud in the downpour. Sections of the city had flooded. Upon arrival, I was surrounded by a group of drenched Mexicans returning from the Cameroon game and was made to jump in their victory circle. All of this struck me as a bad omen for USA vs. Ghana.
Conventional wisdom, often correct, holds that Ghana—no matter the weather—is a superior team to the United States. The Black Stars had knocked the Americans out of the World Cup in 2006 and 2010, a legacy American fans know all too well. But we have short memories. American journalists write about getting off an eight-year schnide. The Ghanaians think in decades. And they never tire of reminding us of our team's incompetence. They talk more smack than any other group of fans.
Here is a snippet of an actual conversation (paraphrased) between an American traveling with my group and a Ghanaian:
American: You beat us the last two times.
Ghanaian: We beat you the last three times. (Prior to 2006, the U.S. last met Ghana in full-blooded international competition in 1983, losing 1–0 in the Merdeka Tournament.) Actually, we beat you four times in a row. (Also accurate: Ghana drubbed the U.S. 5–0 in the Presidents Cup, again in 1983.)
American: Maybe we'll beat you this time.
Ghanaian: No. Not for another 10 times.
American: Only God knows.
Ghanaian: Not tomorrow.
Such were the prevailing attitudes as we made our way to the Arena das Dunas, an onionlike stadium tucked behind Natal’s giant sand dunes. I'd been staying in a little surf town of colorful houses, stone streets and coconut trees about two hours away called Praia de Pipa. To get there, I'd taken a standing-room-only minibus that reeled through the dark and the hot, wet stink over potholed country roads laced with hidden speed bumps seemingly designed to decimate shock absorbers. The northeast of Brazil is a poor part of the country and in the little towns around Natal, stray horses wander the streets rooting through garbage while children play in the red dirt in front of evangelical churches and shacks selling shrimp and fish.
It had rained in Pipa, too, without interruption, like a Brazilian version of Macondo where the banana plantations are about to wash away. It was the kind of damp that made your bathroom mirror fog by itself. Your socks were always wet. But on Sunday, the rain stopped. A riotous party broke out along Pipa's main drag. Couples danced to Forró, a regional Brazilian polka that features an accordion, a metal triangle, and a zabumba bass drum.
In Natal the next day, a different kind of party took place at Dom Gourmet, a pizza/sushi bar near the stadium. The American fans had assembled there for a tailgate. They'd also taken over Habib's, a Middle Eastern food chain with a mascot Dan Snyder could get behind. For a few hours, Natal was theirs. Construction workers stopped what they were doing to watch Americans parade in Elvis costumes. Mothers brought their children outside to see the star-spangled Indian headdresses and Rocky outfits and Captain America suits. Buses passing the tailgate slowed and honked so passengers could gawk. Women leaned out the windows to blow kisses to the Yanks.
The American fan base has deepened and grown in the last four years. The chants continue to evolve. Once the domain of nerdy outliers and sporting snobs, soccer fandom in the United States has become more egalitarian, as the large crowds assembled back home to watch the Ghana game indicate. With so many young Americans now following professional clubs, buying apparel, playing FIFA video games, and gaining a deeper understanding of the sport, this World Cup, many business school brains believe, marks a phase shift for soccer in America, one that pushes the sport to big three status. In other words, we are finally getting over a respectability schnide. But first we had to get clear of Ghana.
Outside the stadium, I found Adolf Mwamub from Kumasi wrapped in a Ghana flag. He told me three planeloads of his countrymen had come to Brazil. To a person, their confidence was unshakable. "At times, it's luck," he told me. "But when the day is over, you will lose."
He would be right about one of those statements. The luck would be with the U.S. team, which managed to break its 31-year losing streak to Ghana, and barely. After Clint Dempsey's remarkable goal in the first minute elated the crowd, the American team disappeared, settling back into a familiar defensive crouch. It was the kind of pessimistic cling-to-a-lead stance—whether owing to strategy or being outclassed—that Jürgen Klinsmann foreswore. Just a few weeks ago, the feel-good coach had been talking about the team playing in a way that represented the national character. Americans control events, he said. They don't sit back and accept them.
But that is exactly what the Americans did for about 80 minutes last night. It felt like the U.S. team of a previous era, packed into its defensive third, trying to hold on. Ghana worked the ball around midfield, carving out neat triangles to penetrate the defense. Jozy Altidore went down with a hamstring injury. His replacement, the very green Aron Jóhannsson, looked terrified to be on the field. Matt Besler came out at halftime with an injury. Michael Bradley, whom Sports Illustrated has so often described with the phrase the "most indispensable player on the U.S. men’s national team" that it's likely trademarked, jerked sloppy passes around the field, got pwned off the dribble, and provided little in the way of creative attack.
One standout on the American side (other than Tim Howard) was Kyle Beckerman, who almost didn't make the team because he moves as quickly as a dead slug. But Beckerman knows his job. He harries attacking midfielders, breaks up passes, and clogs space. Still, the U.S. was giving up too many chances, and you could feel the Ghana goal coming. It happened on a beautiful back heel pass from Asamoah Gyan to André Ayew, the sort you wish an American player would make just once in a game and that Brazilians produce in their sleep.
Klinsmann likes to describe the American team as a human body with a strong spine that starts with Howard, then moves up to Jones and Bradley and Dempsey. But you have to wonder about the reliability of the other body parts, such as the ribs, which is where a lot of the modern game is decided. Fast and skilled wingers who cut inside have become some of the most important chess pieces on the pitch. And what to make of Altidore? He's never been a dependable striker. But he is our only true point man. Jóhannsson isn't comfortable as a lone striker. Chris Wondolowski might be the craftiest player on the team, but he's a poacher. The limitations of Altidore, who depends on reliable service, meant that the team had to be structured a certain way. It’s one reason that Brad Davis, an excellent crosser of the ball, is on the team instead of Landon Donovan.
How Klinsmann shifts the lineup for Portugal, should Altidore be out, will be interesting to see. Two of the changes he made last night paid off. John Brooks, filling in for Besler, played solid on defense. But his star turn came in the waning moments, when he latched onto a pretty corner by Graham Zusi, another substitute, also on the team due to his crossing ability. Brooks hit the ball hard and down, like they tell you to do. It bounced past the Ghanaian keeper. A moment of confusion followed. Brooks collapsed on the ground, as if in disbelief. He just lay there. The spectators couldn't quite believe it either. I kept looking for a flag from the officials. A foul. Something. These were the goals the U.S. scored that always got called back. But, no, the curse was lifted. Hallelujah.
As I walked out of the stadium past a phalanx of black armored SUVs with Maryland plates flown in to ferry Vice President Joe Biden about town, I overheard a Ghana fan talking to a sympathizer about the loss: "We really don't care."
But they did. And it had started to rain again.