SAO PAULO — After one game and one impressive win, the U.S. defense is holding its own.
Slowing down world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo on Sunday in Manaus figures to be a far stiffer test for this young group.
For all the times the Americans heard how inexperienced their back line would be heading into the World Cup, they’re riding high with confidence after a 2-1 opening win against Ghana on Monday. The victory greatly increased their odds of advancing out of a talented Group G, which earned the nickname “Group of Death” the moment the draw came out.
“These 23 players, I think we all deserve to be here, really,” midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said Tuesday. “We’ve earned that right to play here. All these players have shown throughout training camp in Stanford and all that that they are more than capable of handling different things, and we have size, strength, speed back there as well.”
While starter Matt Besler was removed for the second half Monday in Natal as a precaution because of a tight right hamstring, John Brooks showed he is a reliable fill-in and delivered the game-winner on a header in the 86th minute. Besler’s leg is expected to be fine by Sunday, coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
Left back DaMarcus Beasley became the first U.S. player to appear in four World Cups. In a wide-open game, right back Fabian Johnson didn’t show quite the same ability to get forward as he did in warm-up matches. Center back Geoff Cameron was a steadying force.
“I thought they did extremely well with the unexpected changes. I think all of the guys did very well together,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “I thought Cam was an absolute monster back there for us. He found himself in great spots to clear some really dangerous balls. (Besler), when he was in there, was as solid as ever, and Brooksie came in and obviously did his part as well, and got that eventual game-winner. And the outside guys, Beas and Fabian, were their old selves, getting up and down the line, as dangerous as ever.”
For many of the Americans, being a bunch of World Cup first-timers hardly seems to matter. Only six players on Klinsmann’s 23-man roster were on the 2010 U.S. team in South Africa.
That attitude stems partly from the fact Klinsmann has downplayed the youth issue from Day 1, refusing to let it be an excuse or something to even give a second thought. Klinsmann insisted from the moment his team reported to training camp at Stanford, California, on May 14 that he was unconcerned about the back four’s lack of experience.
“There’s always a first time in life in whatever you do,” said Klinsmann, who gave the Americans a day off from training Wednesday to enjoy time with family and friends in Sao Paulo before returning to the field Thursday. “It’s for some the first World Cup, though it’s the first of hopefully many World Cups to come for them.”
After Clint Dempsey scored 30 seconds in, Ghana was forced into attack mode — making the defense work.
Cameron has shifted to center back from his position on the right for Stoke and seems unfazed by the change in responsibilities. Sporting Kansas City defender Besler had experience playing alongside Cameron previously.
The defensive unit keeps making strides the more it’s on the field together.
“Just with practicing, experience, the different movements, understanding each other’s game,” Besler said. “All three games of the sendoff series were important, but the Nigeria game was most important, with the way that we played, the way that we came out, defended as a team. We gained confidence from that game.”