By Kevin Baxter
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
NATAL, Brazil – Tim Howard was asked what he remembers most about his last World Cup game in South Africa.
“We lost,” the U.S. goalkeeper said.
He and the five other veterans of that 2010 team have had four years to think about that loss to Ghana, the same country that knocked Howard and the U.S. out of the 2006 World Cup.
How convenient, then, that when the U.S. opens play in this World Cup on Monday, it will again find Ghana standing in its way. But while Howard hasn’t forgotten those results, he seems to have forgiven them.
“I want back a lot of things in life, but I can’t get them,” he said. “There is no revenge factor. We don’t feel that. That’s not what’s motivating us.”
What is motivating the U.S. team, though, is the need to get the tournament off to a quick start. Since the World Cup expanded to 32 countries in 1998, only four of 46 teams have rebounded from a loss in their opener to advance out of group play.
A loss in this opener would be particularly devastating because to reach the knockout round the U.S. likely needs at least a victory and a tie in its three group-play games. And with Portugal, the world’s fourth-ranked team, and No. 2 Germany next on the schedule, Monday’s opener is a game the U.S. can’t afford to give away.
So revenge? No. This is strictly business.
“Everybody starts at zero, so that first game is really important,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “We’ve certainly made no secret of the fact that all the focus at this point is about Ghana knowing that a good result puts us in a really good spot. But just because we talk about it doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed.”
In that case, a little extra motivation can’t hurt.
“I don’t think it’s revenge,” Coach Juergen Klinsmann said with a smile. “Maybe the players that were there four years ago, they want to kind of get some extra kick and energy out of that. That’s all right with me.”
Either way, to get the result it wants, the U.S. will need mistake-free play from central defenders Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler, a productive game from Bradley and lots of energy and creativity up front from captain Clint Dempsey and striker Jozy Altidore.
They got all that and more in their final World Cup warmup when Altidore scored twice in the team’s 2-0 victory over Nigeria, a team that plays a style very similar to Ghana’s.
That was a friendly in Florida, though. Monday, the U.S. will also be starting six players making their World Cup debuts. Howard said it’s hard to predict how they will react to the nerves and emotion when they step on soccer’s biggest stage.
“Once those lights come on, you have to kind of deal with that and figure out your own kind of peace of mind within that chaos,” he said.
And there’s one more potential obstacle facing Klinsmann’s team – the weather.
Before the sun reappeared Sunday morning, torrential rains fell in Natal for three days, flooding streets, blocking roads and triggering a landslide that destroyed at least two homes and led to the evacuation of more than four dozen others.
More could fall Monday with the forecast calling for a 40 percent chance of rain and 82 percent humidity at game time.
Klinsmann says bring it on.
“If it’s raining, if it’s snowing, if it’s thunder and lightning or whatever, this is about football, where you play in any circumstances. Field wet, field dry, heat, humidity, whatever,” said Klinsmann, whose team practiced in heavy rain Saturday before testing the stadium field Sunday. “We’re not worried about that stuff at all. So whatever the circumstances are, we’re going to embrace them and make it work.”