Three key players for U.S. vs. Ghana
NATAL, Brazil -- When the United States finally kicks off its World Cup campaign on Monday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), it will rely heavily on Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, three important veterans from the second-round run four years ago in South Africa.
But if the Americans are to beat the Black Stars for the first time in three tries on the global stage -- Ghana famously eliminated the U.S. in both 2006 and 2010 -- they will also need standout performances from another key trio.
Jozy Altidore, 24, F
The striker's six-month goalless drought for club and country ended on June 7 when he scored twice against African champ Nigeria in the Yanks' final pre-Cup tuneup. For Jurgen Klinsmann's team, the timing couldn't have been better.
Altidore insists that his confidence remained on an even keel during the slump, but you can be sure Klinsmann is happy Altidore will enter the event coming off a two-goal game. "It's always a tough period," the coach said, "when you don't score for a striker."
Like many front men, Altidore is streaky; the imposing target player went 18 months without finding the net for the U.S. before exploding for seven goals in five matches last summer. After going scoreless in four games four years ago, he seems poised to become the first American forward to score at a World Cup since 2002. If that goal comes in the all-important opener, so much the better.
DaMarcus Beasley, 32, RB
The last time the U.S. started a career midfielder at left-back at a World Cup, it didn't turn out well. The Eddie Lewis experiment lasted just one game at Germany 2006, the Yanks' opening 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic. Beasley, however, has made the position his own since being deployed there early in qualifying.
The main event is another level, but it's worth nothing that he beat out Bundesliga back Timmy Chandler -- who missed several training days last week with an undisclosed leg injury -- for the job, and his big-game experience (the four-time Cup participant's 116 caps are tops on the U.S. team) could be crucial to an otherwise green Yanks back four.
"Nobody's talking about him," midfielder Jermaine Jones said of Beasley before the Americans flew here on Friday.
If the speedy, tenacious vet helps shut down Ghana's dangerous attack on Monday, that won't be the case afterward.
Fabian Johnson, 26, LB
It's easy to forget about the soft-spoken, always-reliable Johnson, but he's as important to the Yanks' chances of surviving the group of death as anyone on the team. The German-American is a smart, capable defender who can run endlessly and is as comfortable on his left foot as he is his right. In Klinsmann's system, which requires fullbacks to get forward, he's a vital cog in the U.S. attack.
Johnson also enters the tournament atop of his game, according to Jones. "The way Fab is playing right now," he said. "It's unbelievable."